In the history of Islam, there are heroes of faith, men and women whose lives inspire us to be better people, better Muslims. Many of them were Companions of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and they experienced the growth of Islam right from the beginning. Many of them suffered hardships and great persecution for the sake of Islam, the Message of Allah.
Their impeccable characters and their closeness to Allah and His Prophet drew many people to Islam. One of the greatest of these, one of the most humble, and one who endured horrific torture in order to become Muslim was Bilal ibn Rabah. Born in Makkah, the freed Ethiopian slave after accepting Islam was inseparable from the Messenger himself. He became the Prophet’s first muezzin (caller to the five daily Prayers).
The persecution he suffered is enough to make us ashamed at our own feeble efforts at being Muslim. We talk about calling people to Islam, don’t we? We preach others, when sometimes we cannot even get up to pray in the morning!
The story of Bilal’s life and journey to Islam teaches us to hold fast to the message of the Oneness of Allah and to defend the reputation of His Prophet with every breath we take and every action we perform.
The precise details of Bilal’s life are not what we are concerned with here, although a few highlights will help us. What is important, is to ask ourselves what Bilal’s life has to teach us today. How can his call to Islam and subsequent life as a Muslim help us all to be better Muslims?
Bilal ibn Rabah was born the son of an Ethiopian slave called Rabah. Because of his black skin, he was sometimes known as Bilal Al-Habashi (the Ethiopian). As a boy, he was sold as a slave to Umayyah ibn Khalaf ibn Safwan, leading member of the Quraish, head of the Bani Jumah, and a fierce believer in idol worship.
Not only did he believe in the worship of idols, but also believed that people worshipped idols according to the worshippers’ dignity and social status. So he would worship an idol of gold, while his slave would worship an idol of wood or stone. Although Bilal was owned as a slave, it was his “master” who was the real slave. He was a slave of polytheism, that pernicious belief in many gods that held sway in the whole of the Arabian Peninsula at that time.
When the Prophet began to preach the message of the Oneness of Allah (tawheed), many people in Makkah suffered when they chose to embrace Islam at the hands of the idol worshippers. Why is it that, even today, people feel threatened by goodness? Why was it that those idol worshippers did everything in their power to stop the spread of Islam, even though it was quite clear that these Muslims were good people who intended no harm to anyone?
Bilal saw more and more people embrace Islam in Makkah and, as they did, more and more people suffered and were tortured at the hands of idol worshippers. Abu Jahl was an important man in Makkah, noted for his cruelty and his hatred of Islam. Bilal had heard that the parents of `Ammar ibn Yasir had been tortured on the rack and had died on the orders of Abu Jahl.
Even though their son endured this torment and suffered persecution of his own, he refused to return to idol worship. Touched by such heroism, Bilal decided to visit the place where Muhammad was staying. Muhammad’s words penetrated Bilal’s heart and he became Muslim there and then.
There was one further distinction for Bilal. Not only was he never away from the side of Muhammad(peace be upon him), but he was also chosen by the Prophet to be the first human being to make the Adhan after it had been revealed in a dream to `Abdullah ibn Zayd, confirmed by `Umar, and then approved by the Prophet as being from Allah.
There was no musing over when the right time might be; no weighing up the pros and cons of what the consequences of declaring Shahadah (the only prerequisite for becoming a Muslim) would entail. Bilal saw that in this message he would find peace, the answer to his heart’s desire.
Almost immediately, his master, Umayyah learned that Bilal had been heard talking about the Oneness of Allah and the futility of worshipping idols. He was made to pay a heavy price. Umayyah had him, at first, dragged through the blistering hot sand in the hottest part of the day and pulled around the city by his neck by young children.
Bilal’s only response was to cry out “Ahad” (Allah is One).
He was beaten, but to no avail. The worst was yet to come. With Bilal spread out on the burning sand, huge rocks were placed on his chest and stomach, almost squeezing life out of him, crushing his body and making it impossible to believe. None of it worked. Every time he was asked to renounce Islam and declare his belief once more in idols, he cried out, “Ahad. Ahad.” Umayyah gave up the torture, leaving his slave almost dead.
Who knows how many of the people of Makkah were drawn to Islam because of the suffering of this simple and gentle man? How many renounced idol worship because of his example? Bilal did not give any speeches, did not lead any da`wah-to-Islam workshops, and did not write books and pamphlets calling people to Islam. The witness of his life was enough.
Bilal was bought from Umayyah by Abu Bakr who then Bilal set free. Islam had made him a free man. For the rest of his life, he devoted every breath in his body to serving the message of Islam and to being by the side of its Messenger. In fact, he became the Prophet’s spear bearer and was at his side in war and peace. It was this spear that was used to point out the direction of prayer from 624 CE onwards.
There was one further distinction for Bilal. Not only was he never away from the side of the Prophet (peace be upon him), but he was also chosen by Muhammad to be the first human being to make the Adhan (call to five daily Prayers) after it had been revealed in a dream to `Abdullah ibn Zayd, confirmed by `Umar, and then approved by Muhammad as being from Allah.
Bilal was chosen as the prayer-caller because his voice was strong and also very sweet. He would go to the rooftop of the mosque in Madinah and call out the Adhan.
Bilal’s story is proof of what the Prophet (peace be upon him) always taught: It is not social status or rank or education that makes one person better than another; it is piety. Those close to Allah are truly the best of people
Isn’t the story of Bilal the story of every one who would be Muslim? His voice was strong and sweet, just as the message of Islam is strong and sweet. Islam needs no one’s approval, and Muslims do not need to seek it from anyone. Islam is strong and has nothing to be ashamed of. It is also very sweet, not the caricature that is so often portrayed on television and in newspapers. The message of Islam is both beautiful and sweet.
Bilal’s story is proof of what the Prophet always taught: It is not social status or rank or education that makes one person better than another; it is piety. Those close to Allah are truly the best of people.
Bilal had suffered for Islam in his body. He was humble and gentle, faithful and loyal. He was strong and yet when he called the Muslims to Prayer, they could weep out of joy, so sweet was the sound.