Bilal is sometimes referred to as Bilal Al-Habashi paying tribute to his Ethiopian (Abyssinian) heritage. The Sahabi (companion) Bilal ibn Rabah was one of the men closest to Prophet Muhammad.
He began life as a slave, survived many tortuous years, was the first person to be selected for the call to prayer (Azan) because of his melodious voice, stood fast in the service of Islam and died at the age of sixty four.
Time and time again the story of Bilal is used to demonstrate how the concepts of pluralism and racial equality are imbedded in Islam.
Bilal was born into slavery; his mother was a slave in the household of Umayyah ibn Khalaf. Bilal had a reputation for being a faithful hardworking slave and we can surmise that he had no illusions about life. He probably thought that he would live a life of drudgery and die never having tasted freedom.
He did however walk the earth at a very significant time in world history. It was the dawning of Islam and an unlettered man was calling the people to worship One God; in Arabic, Ahad, the One. Bilal’s master was one of the leaders of Quraish, thus Bilal was able to hear their opinions about life in Mecca and their discussions about Prophet Muhammad.
The economic life of Mecca was dependent on idol worship and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings threatened to destroy that livelihood. Prophet Muhammad was also from the tribe of Quraish and the people could not help but recognize his integrity.
Bilal heard the discussions going back and forth and no doubt decided that a message of mercy, forgiveness and justice was a light and a hope worth clinging to. Bilal declared his acceptance of the message of Islam and his life or drudgery and abuse turned into a nightmare of pain.
Bilal was attracted to the concept of One God, Ahad and it was that word that essentially saved his life.
Biographer Ibn Ishaq informs us that Bilal suffered terribly for his immediate acceptance of Muhammad’s message of Islam. He was beaten mercilessly, dragged by his neck around the hills of Mecca and made to suffer long periods of starvation and thirst under the scorching Meccan sun.
Ibn Ishaq wrote that Bilal’s master Umayyah ibn Khalaf, “…would bring him out at the hottest part of the day and throw him on his back in the open valley and have a great rock put on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘You will stay here until you die or deny Muhammad and worship Al-Lat and Al-Uzza”. Bilal would not renounce Islam and uttered only one word – Ahad.
The news of this slave came to companions of the Prophet who informed the Messenger of Allah. The Prophet sent Abu Bakr to negotiate the emancipation of Bilal.
Abu Bakr Siddiq visited Umayyah and his people while they were torturing Bilal. Abu Bakr shouted to them:
“Are you killing a man because he says, ‘Allah is my Lord?’ ”
Then Abu Bakr shouted at Umayah ibn Khalaf, master of Bilal,
” Take more than his price and free him. “
Umayyah liked the offer of Abu Bakr because he thought that the sale of Bilal to Abu Bakr brought him more than the death of his servant.
Umayyah sold Bilal to Abu Bakr . Abu Bakr immediately emancipated Bilal and Bilal took his place among the free men. When Abu Bakr Siddiq passed his arm around Bilal, rushing with him to freedom, Umayah said to him:
“If you had refused to buy it with the exception of an ounce of gold, I would have sold it to you.”
Abu Bakr realized that it was appropriate not to answer, but because they violated the dignity of this man who had become his brother and his equal, he replied to Umayah saying:
“By Allah, if you had refused to sell him, within a hundred ounces, I would have paid it.”
Then Abu Bakr left with his Bilal to the Messenger of Allah, giving him news of his release and a big feast was held. Bilal (R.A.) became one of the most faithful and loyal companion of the Prophet (SAW).
– a brief and fascinating life-story of Bilal ibn Rabah (RA), an Afro-Arab companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
Photo: Map of Africa ornate with ethnic fabrics