Their sequence of excellence is that Sayyiduna Abu Bakr as-Siddique is the most excellent, then Sayyiduna Umar, thereafter followed by the excellence of Sayyiduna Uthman and Sayyiduna Ali (Ridwanullahi Ta'ala Alaihim Ajma'een). Here I present few proclamations of the Classical Scholars and Jurists in this regard.
1. Imam al-Aazam Abu Hanifa gave one of the pithiest definitions of Sunnism in Islam:
"The doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a consists in preferring the Two Shaykhs (tafdil al-shaykhayn) [i.e. Abu Bakr and 'Umar over the rest], loving the Two Sons-in-law (hubb al-khatanayn) [i.e. 'Ali and 'Uthman], and wiping on leather socks (al-mas-h 'alal-khuffayn) [i.e. all three contrary to Shi'is]." [Khulasat al-Fatawa, Vol. 2, Page 381]
Narrated by Ibn 'Abd al-Barr in al-Intiqa' bi-Manaqib al-A'immat al-Thalathati al-Fuqaha' through several different chains. The same is also related from Sufyan al-Thawri by al-La'laka'i in his I'tiqad Ahl al-Sunna, Vol. 1, Page 152.
2. Imam al-Aazam Abu Hanifah in Fiqh Al-Akbar:
"The most superior and the best of all men after prophets – blessings and peace upon them – is Abu Bakr as-Siddiq. And then, Umar ibn al-Khattab al-Faruq. And then Uthman ibn Affan Dhu’n Nurayn. And then ali ibn Abu talib al-Murtada. May Allah be well pleased with them all; they were worshippers and steadfast on Truth and sided with Truth. We love all of them." [Fiqh Al-Akbar]
3. Imam al-Nawawi said in his Fatawa:
"Know that each of Abu Bakr and 'Umar is better than 'Ali according to the Consensus (ijma') of Ahl al-Sunna. The proofs for this in well-known sound hadiths are too famous and countless to be listed." [Fatawa Imam Nawawi, Page 264]
4. Imam al-Haytami said in his Fatawa Hadithiyya:
"The preferability of Abu Bakr over the other three and that of 'Umar over the ther two is agreed upon by Consensus (mujma' 'alayh) of Ahl al-Sunna and there is no disagreement among them concerning this." [Fatawa Hadithiyya, Page 155]
5. Ali al-Qari in MinaH ar-Rawd al-Az’har, SharH Fiqh al-Akbar:
"The best of humans after prophets is Abu Bakr Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu"... "The superiority of Abu Bakr and Umar is an unanimous agreement in the Ahl as-Sunnah." [Sharh Fiqh al-Akbar]
"It is patent that to prefer 'Ali to the Two Shaykhs contravenes the doctrine of Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a according to what the totality of the Salaf follow." [Sharh al-Fiqh al-Akbar, Page 140]
7. Imam al-Daraqutni was once asked to arbitrate between two groups in Baghdad who differed whether 'Uthman was preferable to 'Ali or vice-versa. He relates:
"At first I withheld from taking any position and considered reserve best. But then I reached the conclusion that Religion dictated other than silence. So I said: 'Uthman is better than 'Ali with the agreement of the assembly of the Companions. This is the position of Ahl al-Sunnah, and it is the first knot of the Rafida one cuts loose." [Siyar A'lam al-Nubala', Dar al-Fikr Edition. Vol. 12, Page 483]
8. Al-Dhahabi quotes the above in his chapter on al-Daraqutni in Siyar A'lam al-Nubala' then comments:
"...Both 'Uthman and 'Ali possess great merits and precedence and are among the foremost shuhada'. However, the vast majority of the Community agree to give precedence to 'Uthman, and this is our position also; and better than both of them without doubt are Abu Bakr and 'Umar. Whoever differs with this is a hardened Shi'i." [Siyar A'lam al-Nubala', Dar al-Fikr Edition. Vol. 12, Page 483-492]
9. Imam Abu Jaafar Al-taHawi in Al-aqidah at-taHawiyyah:
"We affirm the succession after RasulAllah SallAllahu Alaihi wa Sallam first for Abu Bakr Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu – on account of his superiority upon the entire ummah and being paramount among them. Then, Umar ibn al-Khattab Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu. Then, Uthman ibn affan Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu. Then, ali ibn Abu talib Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu. For they are the Rightly Guided Successors [khulafa ar-rashidun] and The Guiding Leaders [ayimmah al-muhtadun - in another version ayimmah al-mahdiyyun]." [al-Aqida at-Tahawiyyah]
10. Saad ad-Din Taftazani in his SharH al-MaqaSid, In the Fifth Discussion:
"The Imam (leader of Muslims) after RasulAllah SallAllahu Alaihi wa Sallam is Abu Bakr Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu. The Shiah say: ali. And we say: There is a unanimous agreement (ijmaa) of every person of importance (the ahl al-Hill wa’l aqd – from the council, prominent ones, nobles etc.) on this matter." [SharH al-MaqaSid]
"Superiority, according to us [ahl as-sunnah] is according to the order of succession (of Khalifahs)." [SharH al-MaqaSid]
12. Ali al-ushi in Bad-yi’l Amali and ali al-Qari in its commentary: daw al-Maali
وللصديق رجحان جلي ... على الصحاب من غير احتمال
And Siddiq has a prominence and superiority
Upon all companions without any doubt
وللفاروق رجحان وفضل ... على عثمان ذي النورين عالي
And Faruq has prominence and superiority
Upon Uthman – he of the two lights, the lofty
وذو النورين حقا كان خيرا .... من الكرار في صف القتال
And Dhu’n Nurayn has the right, that he is superior to
al-Karrar, the brave and unflinching in the face of battle
وللكرار فضل بعد هذا .... على الأغيار طرا لا تبال
And superiority is due to ali the brave, after this
Upon everybody else without any hesitation
13. Jawharah at-TawHid, Ibrahim al-Laqqani and its commentary TuHfatu’l Murid, Ibrahim al-Bajuri.
وخيرهم من ولي الخلافة .... وأمرهم في الفضلك الخلافة
And the best of them are the successors to khilafah
And the order of their superiority is like the khilafah.
14. Ibn al-Jawzi in Manaqib Ahmad relatedly said:
"Whoever prefers 'Ali to Abu Bakr maligns the Prophet; whoever gives 'Ali preference over 'Umar maligns the Prophet and Abu Bakr; and whoever gives 'Ali preference over 'Uthman maligns the Prophet, Abu Bakr, 'Umar, and the Emigrants. Nor do I believe that the deeds of such a person are accepted." [Manaqib Ahmad, Page. 162]
15. In the very beginning of his Kashf Mushkil Hadith al-Sahihayn in four volumes, in print, Ibn al-Jawzi mentions the anecdote of a Rafidi asking a Sunni:
"Who is nobler than five under a cloak, the sixth of whom is Gibril?" (in reference to the established hadith wherein the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, gathered Sayyida Fatima, her two sons and her husband under his cloak) whereupon the Sunni replied: "Two in the cave, the third of whom is Allah" (in reference to the verse of Qur'an and hadith of the Prophet and Abu Bakr in the cave on the way to Madina).
"The Ahadith on the Afdhaliyya of Abu Bakr over the Sahaba are mutawatir by meaning." [Nazm al-Mutanathir min al-Hadith al-Mutawatir Page 202]
He quotes Qastallani's Irshad al-Saari Baab Tafadhul Ahl al-Iman fi al-A'man from the Book of Imaan who quotes Ijma' of Ahl al-Sunnah on this. He also quotes Ibn Hajar from al-Sawa'i al-Muhriqa and Ibn Taymiyya from al-Wassiyyat al-Kubra who mention that it the reports are mutawatir.
17. al-Sayyid Yusuf al-Nabhani quotes Fatawa Ibn Hajar, in his al-Sharaf al-Mu'abbad, who says in its khatima:
"It has been soundly narrated from Ali himself: the best of people after the Prophet is Abu Bakr then Umar and then someone else... it is from this that the Ahl al-Sunnah from the Sahabah and Tabiun and those after them agree (ijma) that Abu Bakr is absolutely excellent among all Sahabah and then Umar (may Allah be pleased with them both)." [al-Sharaf al-Mu'abbad, Page 207]
18. Imam Yusuf bin Ismail an-Nabhani mentions that Ibn Hajar was questioned on another occasion whether the excellence of one over the other among the four was qat'iyya or Ijtihadiyya to which he replied that
"The excellence of Abu Bakr over all is Mujma' alayh among Ahl al-Sunnah and there is no dispute in this, and consensus implies qata'." [al-Sharaf al-Mu'abbad, Page 208]
19. Imam Sha'rani quotes Abu Bakr al-Ayyash in his Minan who said:
"If Abu Bakr, Umar and Ali ever came to me for something, I would attend Ali first for his close relation with the Messenger of Allah, and I would prefer falling from the sky to the earth over giving Ali preference (in fadhila) over the two". [al-Sharaf al-Mu'abbad, Page 209]
20. Shaykh Nabhani quotes a hadith from Musnad al-Bazzar from Usayd bin Safwan in which the demise of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr may Allah be pleased with him and Ali's words in his manaqib are narrated. Sayyiduna Ali directly speaking to the former on his deathbed after his demise calls him
"most excellent of the Sahabah in his Manaqib",
"greatest of them in his rank",
"most noble of them in his station", and
"most honoured among them in the Messenger's court"!! [al-Sharaf al-Mu'abbad, Page 193]
“Anyone, who claims that Hadrat Mawla Ali (Karam Allahu wajh al-Karim) is superior to all companions, is a heretic, and a wrongdoer.”
a. Fatawa Khulasa, in ‘Kitab al-Salat’ (chapter of Salah) Section: 15
b. Khazanat al-Musannifeen, in the chapter of ‘Kitab al-Salat’ (Book of Salah) in the section ‘To follow a Rafidhi in Salat, is it right or wrong’?
22. It is stated in Fateh al-Qadeer, Sharah “Hidaya” and Hashiyyah on “Tabi’een al-Salamah” that:
“Anyone, who prefers Mawla Ali above the other three rightly guided Caliphs, is a misled.”
a. Fateh al-Qadeer, Sharah (a commentary) on the most renowned and reliable Fiqh book “Hidaya”, Printed in Egypt, Vol 1, Page 248
b. Hashiyyah (a commentary) on the Fiqh book “Tabi’een al-Salamah”, by Allama Ahmad as-Salabi, Printed in Egypt, Vol 1, Page 135
23. It is also written in the following Fiqh books “Bada’eh”, “Bazaziyyah”, “Asabah”, “Fan al-Sa’ani”, “al-Haf al-Abrar wal-Basair”, “Fatawa Qurwiyyah” and “Waqiat al-Muftiyyin”, and all these books have quoted references from another most authentic and renowned Fiqh book “Fatawa Khulasa”, that:
“Anyone, who prefers Hadrat Mawla Ali (Karam Allahu wajh al-Karim) over them (Shaykhain) is a misled and heretic.”
a. Bada’eh, Vol 3, Page 264
b. Bazaziyyah, Vol 3, Page 319
c. Asabah - Printed in Egypt, Page 187
d. Fatawa Qurwiyyah - Printed in Egypt, Vol 1, Page 25
e. Waqiat al-Muftiyyin - Printed in Egypt, Page 13
24. It is mentioned in another authentic and most renowned Fiqh book “Majma al-Anhar”, Sharah (a commentary) on the book “Multaqi al-Abhar”, that:
“Tafdhili, those who prefer Hadrat Mawla Ali Radi Allahu Anhu above the other three Caliphs are misled. [Majma' al Anhar - Printed in Istanbul, Vol 1, Page 105]
25. Sayyiduna Meer Abdul Wahid Hussayni Zaidi Wasti Bilgraami has written in his ‘Sabaa Sanabil Sharif’:
After Hadrat Abu Bakr comes the excellence of Hadrat Umar, then Hadrat Uthman and then Hadrat Ali. He who does not accept Hadrat Ali as the Khalifa is from the Kharijees and he who regards him (Hadrat Ali) to be more excellent than Hadrat Abu Bakr and Umar is from the Raafdhis. [Sab'a Sanabil, Page 10]
There is an Ijma' of the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah on the fact that Sayyiduna Abu Bak Al-Siddiq is the most superior amongst the companions of our beloved Prophet (Peace be upon Him and Allah is pleased with them all). After him comes the excellence of Hadrat Umar, then Hadrat Uthman and then Hadrat Ali Ridwanullahi Ta'ala Alaihim Ajma'een. They all were pious worshippers and steadfast on Truth and sided with Truth and we love all of them.
He, who believes that Sayyiduna Ali or any other companion is more superior above Sayyiduna Abu Bakr, is misguided from the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama'ah. The true Love for Sayyiduna Ali Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu will only and only be valid and beneficial when his teachings, Aqida and Iman is also followed. The Ahl al-Bayt should themselves talk more often about the tafhdil of Sayyiduna Abu Bakr as-Siddiq Radi Allahu Ta'ala Anhu as this is mass-narrated from Sayyiduna Ali Karram Allahu Wajh al-Kareem himslef, and a sunnah of his.
And Allah Most high alone gives guidance!!