Fatma Gdoura and Ikraan Abdurahman
Besides the allegiance of those who were related to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, among the very earliest Muslims to accept Islam was a man named Bilal ibn Rabah. His name has echoed throughout history as one of the most prominent companions of the Messenger ﷺ. Today, his life provides a shining example of absolute submission to Allah ﷻ and lessons of resistance against religious, economic, and social oppression, even from within the Muslim community. In honour of this icon of Islamic history, here we retell his story, highlighting the essential principles for modern-day Muslims to internalise.
Love of Allah and his Messenger
Bilal (radiyallahu anhu – may God be pleased with him) was the son of a Black Arab and an Abyssinian princess, who had been enslaved after being captured as a prisoner of war. He was also a man of great stature, intelligence and skill, and because of all of these qualities, he was not given menial work and instead elevated as a favored slave of his master, Ummayah ibn Khalaf. Yet, despite being of a relatively high rank and entrusted with the keys to the idols of Arabia, Bilal (ra) chose the inevitable torture that would come from believing in Islam. For his defiance against his slave master and the acceptance of submitting to one God, he was tied to a post in the intense desert heat without a sip of water, lashed, and dragged through the streets of Makkah, a trail of blood left in his wake.
Still, Bilal (ra) relentlessly repeated the phrase that he would later be remembered for. This simple phrase rejected polytheism and instead proclaimed, “ahadun ahad” – “one God, one God,” as he proudly affirmed monotheism.
After exhausting torture techniques and realising that the more torment Bilal (ra) endured, the more adamant and stubborn it made him in his belief, a frustrated Ummayah decided to end his life to make an example out of him. A large sun-scorched boulder that took nearly ten men to carry was placed atop the chest of Bilal (ra) in the public square. His master demanded for him to mention the name of one of their idols and denounce Islam to be relieved of the pain inflicted on him.
It was then that Abu Bakr (ra), another early Muslim, told Ummayah he would purchase Bilal’s (ra) freedom from him. The slave master initially refused wanting to see Bilal (ra) put to death, but later decided that a large sum of money would be more profitable than a rebellious slave that chose death over disbelief. He put the price at ten ruqiahs (equivalent to several hundred coins) and Abu Bakr (ra) handed over the payment without hesitating. A smug Ummayah released Bilal (ra) and told Abu Bakr (ra) he would’ve accepted him for a single dinar – yet Abu Bakr retorted that he would’ve paid even a hundred dinars to Ummayah for Bilal’s release, such was this man’s worth to him.
Yet, as the socio-political climate of Arabia at the time viewed slaves as replaceable and worthless, rumours quickly began to spread about the large sum of money Abu Bakr (ra) had presented for Bilal (ra). Perhaps Abu Bakr (ra) owed him money and this was his way of compensating, they said. It was then that Allah ﷻ revealed verses to absolve Abu Bakr (ra) and to elevate the status of those who give for His sake alone:
[He] who gives [from] his wealth to purify himself. And not [giving] for anyone who has [done him] a favor to be rewarded. But only seeking the countenance of his Lord, Most High. And he is going to be satisfied. [92:18-21]
This iconic episode in Bilal’s (ra) life was well remembered. Some time later, ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra) asked him about his torture and questioned why, in his pain, he hadn’t called upon Allah ﷻ to help him or say anything other than proclaiming His Oneness. Bilal (ra) said that that was all he knew at the time and that had he known anything else he surely would’ve said it; despite his lack of knowledge at the time, his faith was unbreakable.
Afterwards, whenever ‘Umar saw Bilal and Abu Bakr together, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with them, he would look at them with admiration and say, “This is our master (referring to Abu Bakr) who freed our master (referring to Bilal),” reflecting the enviable status of people who have submitted themselves fully to the will of Allah ﷻ.
Bilal’s (ra) sincerity towards his Creator allowed him to be one of the closest companions to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. He went from being entrusted with the keys of the idols of Arabia to later being entrusted as the one in charge of the treasury of the Muslims, as well as the personal belongings of the Prophet ﷺ himself.
He was favored as the one to have access to Rasulullah ﷺ, even in his moments of solitude when the Prophet ﷺ requested seclusion. In fact, during these times, even ‘Umar would come to Bilal (ra) to seek permission to see the Prophet ﷺ. Even on the battlefield, Bilal (ra) was one of the first companions to guard the Prophet ﷺ when he was being attacked, consistently ready to die for the sake of Islam.
Addressing Racial Discrimination
Although Islam leveled the playing field in regards to social constructs like race and class, the responsibility of adhering to principles fell on the shoulders of individuals. Bilal (ra), even after his emancipation, did indeed encounter racial discrimination and prejudices even within the Muslim community.
For instance, once Abu Dharr (ra), another companion, had called out to Bilal saying, “O son of a black woman!” using the phrase he was referred to as whilst still a slave. Abu Dharr (ra), also a black Arab, did not live near the Prophet ﷺ and the other companions. Because of this, he was not well versed in the repugnant mannerisms that Islam expelled and the sensitivities it brought into account via revelation and the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ. Bilal (ra) was deeply upset by what Abu Dharr (ra) had said and the Prophet ﷺ admonished him for ridiculing Bilal (ra) on account of his mother. He ﷺ told Abu Dharr (ra) that he still retained some of the callous mannerisms of the pre-Islamic era. After being reprimanded and made aware of his fault, Abu Dharr ran to Bilal, may Allah ﷻ be pleased with them both, and put his head on the sand, telling him to step on it in retaliation and compensation for his foul behavior. Bilal (ra) raised his head and kissed him on the cheek, showing mercy to Abu Dharr (ra) and forgiving him all the same.
Legacy of the Adhan
Bilal (ra) was gifted with a beautiful voice and was instructed by the Prophet ﷺ to make the call to prayer every day. Once, as he stood melodiously calling the believers to prayer, the Prophet ﷺ gazed at him and told the companions, “Whoever says what this man said with yaqeen (the certainty of belief that Bilal (ra) possessed) will enter Jannah.”
After many years of service in calling believers to worship came the passing of our Beloved Messenger ﷺ. Bilal (ra) found himself struck by the memory of the Prophet ﷺ every time he delivered the call to prayer and was gutted by the devastating loss. Out of grief, he felt that he could no longer call the adhan and left Madinah for Al-Sham (The Levant). After his departure, he only called the adhan twice more: first, upon his reunion with the sahabah at the gates of Jerusalem during the conquest of Al-Quds. Having not seen them for years, he could not deny them the deliverance of the adhan when they pleaded; his voice was inextricably connected to memories of Rasulullah ﷺ, and his heartfelt call to prayer brought them all to tears. The next and last time he called to prayer was during his final trip to Madinah. Whilst there, Hassan and Hussein (ra), the grandchildren of the Prophet ﷺ, asked him to deliver the adhan like he used to during their grandfather’s time – a request he could not refuse.
His final call to prayer was a momentous event that brought out all of the city’s inhabitants to witness the soothing call that the Prophet ﷺ had cherished so much. Though we’ve never had the blessing to hear his adhan called out loud, every mua’dhin (caller to prayer) since his time will have the opportunity to be among those honored on the Day of Judgment. Bilal (ra) will be the one to lead them into jannah as he bears a flag, recognized by Allah ﷻ as the first mua’dhin in Islam.
Significance in the 21st century
Bilal (ra) was enslaved early in his life, held under the authority and bondage of his master in a community that was plagued by racism, classism, and overall ignorance. By the end of his life he not only was emancipated, but became a man cemented in the books of history as a noble and trusted companion of the Prophet ﷺ. The beauty of Islam is that Allah ﷻ does not favour anyone because of their social status in this world – rather, they gain proximity and are elevated in status before Him by means of their God-consciousness.
In the context of the capitalist society in which we live, the likes of Abu Jahal and Abu Lahab would be still held in high regard because of their wealth – through time, the possession of material wealth and status has persisted as a primary classifier of the powerful and weak in society. However, these privileges did not save them from the fire, whereas Bilal’s (ra) sincerity in his faith gained him the pleasure of Allah ﷻ and the highest rank in the hereafter.
In an age where we have access to extensive literary scholarship and research based evidence on how racism, classim, and other social ills affect people on a multitude of levels, we must recognise that by perpetuating these divisive attitudes and actions that Allah ﷻ and our Prophet ﷺ forbade, our very aqeedah is balancing on a beam.
The social order that Allah ﷻ created for us was meant for us to celebrate our differences and use that as a means of differentiating lineage, ancestral history, languages, and cultures – not as a means of division and discord. Allah ﷻ says in the Qur’an:
O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honourable of you with Allah is that (believer) who has At-Taqwa [i.e. one of the Muttaqun (pious – see V. 2:2). Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware. [49:13]
Superiority based on color, lineage, wealth and other external factors make oppression possible. Once we abide by socially constructed systems that maintain artificial power structures, we deviate from focusing on improving our internal selves and the prejudices that we may hold, that if manifested taint our hearts with sin. Our souls are the only part of us that ascend to the next world for the judgement of Allah ﷻ, and in its essence it is colorless. It is up to us to truly reflect on whether our conduct with people of different backgrounds is in accordance with prophetic teachings.
If it is not, are we sincere with ourselves in actively addressing the prejudices that we hold? When we err, are we willing to humbly seek forgiveness from those who we’ve harmed like Abu Dharr (ra) sought pardon from Bilal? If Abu Dharr was excused for his mannerisms because of a lack of knowledge, what is our excuse?
Bilal’s journey is one that is rich with lessons that our ummah can learn from. It is a story that deconstructs the notion that Islam is an idealistic religion that has very little application in our modern day lives. It is the story of a young man with unyielding perseverance in the face of tyranny and oppression – a story of certainty in faith and of brotherhood that transcends color and material wealth.
For those who are inspired by the story of Bilal (ra) and want to donate to a scholarship that aids the education of minority students in honor of his legacy, look into supporting the Bilal ibn Rabah Scholarship.