Sahaba is the plural form of "Sahabi," which translates to "Companions." A sahabi, as the word is commonly used today, is someone who saw Islam's Prophet Muhammad
and believed in him as well as died as a Muslim
. The Munafiq
s and other disbelievers who were contemporaries of the Prophet in Medina
are not considered Companions. Other prophets, like Jesus
, peace be upon them both, also had companions.
According to Islam, the best human beings are prophets. After that, the best human beings are companions, disciples, and followers of those prophets. They are important figures in Islamic history.
According to a hadith in Sahih Muslim (Book 30, Number 6159):
Narrated Aisha: A person asked Allah's Apostle (peace be upon him) as to who amongst the people were the best. He said: Of the generation to which I belong, then of the second generation (generation adjacent to my generation), then of the third generation (generation adjacent to the second generation).
According to Sunnis, ten of the Sahaba were promised Paradise by Muhammad, peace be upon him:
That's not including those who fought at the battle of Badr
(all those who fought at Badr having been promised Paradise).
In matters of Islamic jurisprudence, if a matter is not settled by the Qur'an nor by the Sunnah, scholars turn to the actions recorded of the Sahaba to see if there is an Islamic precedent. Sunni Muslims believe that the four caliphs to follow Muhammad were "rightly guided" and that any actions they were noted to have done were said to be permissible to follow. Shiite Muslims believe that they should follow the actions of the 12 Imams who descended from the Prophet's(SAW) family.
The Sahabi are generally considered to be the first generation of Muslims, while the generations succeeding them are considered to have worsened with each new generation. The Sahabas were our role models, but we have done much to grow further from their ways with each generation, according to many Muslims. A reliable hadith quotes Muhammad, "The best of people is my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them." [ Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim].
The Sahaba's immediate followers are known as Tabiun, and the followers of the Tabi'in made the generation after them. Muslims attempt to follow their examples and methods, as they were considered pious generations, and Muhammad(pbuh) taught many of them the proper way to behave. A small group of Muslims known as Salfis claim to focus on the methods and ways of the three generations following Muhammad, yet have differing opinions on different points and practices.
Some biographies of the Sahaba, which i will node some day, are availible here: http://www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/history/biographies/sahaabah/biographies.html