A whole life of service, austerity and devotion of a non-Ṣaḥābī will not compare with a small action of a Ṣaḥābī, Companion of the Prophet, which he did, when Islam was weak and Muslims were few, in order to promote the cause of Islam and help the Prophet [صلى الله عليه وسلم]. Addressing the people who embraced Islam later, the Prophet once said: ‘If you spend in God’s way a heap of gold equal to the mountain Uḥud, it will not be equal to a mudd (roughly a kilo) of wheat which my comrades have spent, nor even half a mudd.’ [Saḥīḥ Muslim, Sunan al-Tirmidhī and Musnad Aḥmad] This explains the greatness of Abū Bakr as against every other Ṣaḥābī. He is the first of the first Muslims who responded to the Prophet’s call and believed in him, devoted their lives, spent their wealth and rendered great services to Islam. This is the reason why the Qur’an says: ‘You are not equal to those who spent money before the Conquest (of Makkah) and fought. However, God promised good reward to both.’ [57:10]
Some people seeing the merits and honours of others have hesitated to recognise the superiority of Abū Bakr over all the Companions of the Prophet. They do not know that if merits and devotions were the criterion of superiority, some individual followers of a prophet who had more merits and devotions would have been superior to their prophets, who did not have much of these things. It is obvious, therefore, that the criterion of superiority is something other than meritorious acts and devotions. In my humble opinion, the criterion lies in the fact as to who is the first in defending religion, in spending money and energy in its cause, and working for its triumph. Since the prophet excels his whole community in these matters, he is the best of them all. For similar reasons any one of the community who excels in these matters is better than the others. Those who are forerunners in religion are the teachers and guides to their followers; the latter profit from their services and their merits. In our community the greatest man after the Prophet is Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq [رضي الله عنه], for he was first in spending money and property, the first in preaching and struggle, the first in staking his life and honour for religion, the first in fighting untruth and evil, the first in assisting the Prophet, and the first in making Islam victorious. His superiority over all others is well established.
[Maktubāt, Vol. II:99. English translation by Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari in Sufism and Shari‘ah, Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1986, pp. 243-244]
The acts which bring us close to God are obligatory (farḍ) as well as supererogatory (nafl). But (in the order of merit) the latter stand no comparison to the former. To perform a farḍ at one time is better than performing a nafl act for a thousand years, even if it is done with an absolutely pure motive, no matter whether it is prayer, charity, fasting, dhikr, meditation (fikr) and the like. To engage in a non-obligatory act hallowed by the practice (sunnat) of the Prophet [صلى الله عليه وسلم], or to observe a rule of decency or morality (adab) at the time of a duty (farḍ) is in the same category.
It has been reported that one day Amir al-Mu’minīn ‘Umar offered the morning prayer in assembly, turned to the people, and did not find a certain person. He enquired as to what would have possibly detained him from praying in assembly. They said that he was in the habit of waking up at night to offer prayers; perhaps he might have slept on after night prayers and could not wake up in time. Thereupon, ‘Umar said: ‘If he had slept the whole night and joined the morning prayer in assembly that would have been far better for him.’
Hence to obey an adab and avoid that which is undesirable (makrūh) in some degree, let alone that which is prohibited, is better than remembrance, contemplation and meditation. If one can do these things along with observing rules and avoiding the undesirables, that would certainly be a great achievement, otherwise it would be a great loss. To spend, for instance, a penny of zakāt is many times better than giving mountains of gold in supererogatory charity; similary, to mind an adab of the Shar‘ in spending that penny, such as to give to it to a poor relative, is better than spending it without minding that adab.
[Maktubāt, Vol. I:29. English translation by Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari in Sufism and Shari‘ah, Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1986 p. 234]
Engage yourself all the time in the dhikr of God. Remember that everything you do according to the Shar‘ is dhikr even if it is so ordinary an act as buying and selling. Observe, therefore, the rules of the Shar‘ in all activities so that the whole of life becomes dhikr. In fact dhikr means to avoid forgetting; so when you obey the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of the Shar‘ in all your behaviour, you do not forget the Giver of the Shar‘ and remember Him perpetually.
This perpetual remembrance (dhikr dā’im) is different from the perpetual awareness (yād dāsht) of our (Naqshbandī) masters (may God bless their souls). The latter is only a matter of the heart (bāṭin), whereas the former embraces the inner heart as well as the outer behaviour; hence it is difficult. May God help us to follow the way of the Prophet, and shower His blessings upon him!
[Maktubāt, Vol. II:25. English translation by Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari in Sufism and Shari‘ah, Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1986 p. 233]
On the Day of Judgement we shall be questioned about the Sharī‘ah, not taṣawwuf. Entrance into Paradise and deliverance from Hell depends upon obedience to the Sharī‘ah. Prophets who are the best of creation, preach the Sharī‘ah, and make salvation conditional upon its observance.
The purpose of sending the prophets is to preach the Sharī‘ah. Hence the greatest virtue lies in preaching the Sharī‘ah and in reviving its provisions that have been neglected, particularly at a time when its rites and symbols (sha‘ā’ir) are in ruin. At such a time to spend millions in the way of God is not equal to reviving a single rule of the Sharī‘ah. For in doing it one does the work of the prophets, and participates in their mission. They are the best of creation, and the greatest honour is reserved for them; even though others can spend hundreds of millions (in God’s way).
Moreover, when you practise the Sharī‘ah you conquer the self, for the Sharī‘ah is designed to subdue the self. In spending money, on the other hand, the self at times feels gratified. To be sure, the money which is spent on strengthening the rule of the Sharī‘ah or preaching religion is a high-order virtue; to spend a penny in this cause is equal to spending millions in other ways.
[Maktubāt, Vol. I:48. English translation by Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari in Sufism and Shari‘ah, Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1986 pp. 228-229]