Dr. Muzammil H. Siddiqi, former President of the Islamic Society of North America, states: “There is no doubt that Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is the best among all the creation of Allah. He has superiority over all human beings including all the Messengers and the Prophets of Allah. Allah Himself says in the Qur’an, “Those Messengers, We gave superiority (faddalna) to some over the others…” (Al-Baqarah: 253). Prophet Muhammad is also reported to have said in a number of authentic hadiths, “I am the leader of all the children of Adam, but I do not boast about it.” Allah gave Prophet Muhammad this honor. All prophets were sent to their own people for their own time (Ibrahim: 4), but Prophet Muhammad was sent to all people for all time to come (Saba’: 28). Allah sent Prophet Muhammad as a mercy to all the worlds (Al-Anbiya’: 107), no other Prophet or Messenger of Allah was given this honor. During the Isra’ and Mi`raj, Allah gave Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) the honor to be the imam of His Prophets and Messengers.
The verse (An-Nisa’: 152) is not talking about the superiority (tafdil) among Allah’s prophets and messengers. It uses the word “yufarriq” which means “making distinction or making discrimination, i.e., believing in some and not believing in others”. This is explained before in An-Nisa’: 150-151 where Allah says what means, “Those who deny Allah and His Messengers, and those who wish to make distinction between Allah and His Messengers and say ‘we believe in some but reject others’ and those who wish to take a way in between, they are in truth unbelievers and We have prepared for unbelievers a humiliating punishment.” Islam teaches us that we must believe in all the Prophets and Messengers of Allah. We should not discriminate between them by accepting some and rejecting others, but this does not mean that all prophets were of the same status. To say this will be against the verse Al-Baqarah: 253 in which Allah has mentioned that He Himself has given superiority to some Messengers over the others.
The hadith that you have mentioned is very beautiful. It is not contradicting the Qur’an, but it is giving us another important lesson of manners (adab) that we Muslims must have when we speak about the Prophets and the Messengers of Allah. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us that we should not speak about him in such a manner that we show any disrespect to other Prophets and Messengers. He gave the example of Prophet Yunus (Jonah) (peace and blessings be upon him). His story is mentioned in the Qur’an and it is mentioned that he left his people and ran away from his duty. He was swallowed by a whale and lived in the whale’s belly for several days. Then he repented and Allah accepted his repentance. Even this Prophet should not be spoken of in a derogatory manner. He also deserves our full respect and honour as a Prophet of Allah.
Especially in our inter-religious dialogue when we talk to the people of other faiths we should use our language very carefully. Imam Ibn Hajar has explained this hadith very beautifully and said, “The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) forbade from talking about the superiority of one Prophet over another according to one’s personal opinion, but it must be based on a proof (dalil) and it should not be done to put down the other prophets or to create animosity, dissent and divisions.” (see Fath Al-Bari, vol. 6, p. 446).”