BILAL THE OUTRUNNER
"And the Outrunners?! (Ah) the Outrunners!
They (are the ones) brought nigh
In Gardens of Delight
- A throng from the ancients,
and a few from the later ones."
(The Qur'an, ch. 56, verses10-14)
"And the unbelievers say about the believers: 'Had it (Islam) any good in it, (the early converts of low social status) would not have outrun us.'" (The Qur'an, ch. 46, v. 11)
The History of Islam
A Personality is Born
You and Him
The Main Stream
A Lion Among Jackasses
The Free and the Slave
And They Were not Proud
The First Muedhdhin
A Fit Recompense
No Mean Contributors
How High Can You Rise
Not As Humorless As That
A Friend is Gone
A Quiet Life
The Fairwell Visit
Once ... long back ... at a point in our history...
Our history?! What's our history? When does it begin? Isn't our history the history of the human race?
The answer is, yes, ours is the history of the human race. But, even though part and parcel of the great sea of humanity, we stand out very clearly as a distinct people. We, the Muslims, have our own history, our own past and present, our own rise and fall, and our own starting and ending points.
Even if we are very much a part of the humanity in general, our mental, moral, and spiritual make up and hence the paths dictated by them, the way of life suggested by them, are different. Hence we, the torch bearers of morality, of order, of justice for all, of responsibility towards Man and nature, and, above all, of acknowledgement of the Oneness of God, have a history of our own that has followed a different path altogether.
Of the humanity in general, only those belong to us that will meet with these conditions, and bear the burden of a responsible life on earth with us. Those that do not, are not our people: the Pharaohs, the Hitlers, the idolaters of all times, and those that worship others of their kind the priests, the statesmen, the scientists and the ideologist, or those that worship wealth, power, or whatever else of false gods they erect for themselves. Those that worship anything besides Allah, do not belong to us. We do not belong to them. We give them their rights and dues the neighbor's rights, the human rights, the rights of the citizens, the right to govern themselves, and whatever of the rights that are justly demanded of us: we give them those rights but we do not belong to them! They do not belong to us.
We are not with them in anything, unless it be the good and the virtuous, a moral point, the curbing of an evil, a service to humanity, or a cause of general happiness. We hold hands there, and hold them firm, faithfully, wavering not, falling to the ground first, if sacrifice be the watchword. But in the rest of the things and the rest is evil, if they knew we are not with them. We part ways.
To some that may sound cynical. But does it?
Let us look at some of the facts.
Who in the world fights today for the right to be modest, to wear scarves, to use veils, to guard chastity?
Who in the world protests against night clubs, wine, gambling and prostitution?
Who in the world executes the rapists, homosexuals, child molesters?
Further, who in the world is struggling today for the establishment of states and governments on principles dictated by God, with readiness to lay down the life for such a cause?
Yes, today we are the only ones on earth who are the upholders of God's religion as brought by the Prophets, the only ones to demand that it be established on earth, the only ones to judge on the criteria set by the revelation of God, the only ones to hate and love, live and struggle by these standards. No one shares this burden with us. People live and die for earthly causes. We live and die for heavenly causes. Surely one needs to stretch one's imagination to its full to believe that we and the rest of the mankind shall share the same future.
No indeed. We are different.
Our women are different.
Our children are different.
Our paths are different.
Our dreams different.
Our hopes and fears different.
And our destinies different.
Our history then is the history of Islam.
The History of Islam
When did our history begin? Did it begin with the appearance of Muhammad in Arabia some 1400 years ago? Most people think so. But that's not correct. Our history begins with the appearance of the first Muslim on earth. Muhammad was the Final Prophet and not the first Muslim. The first Muslim was Adam, on whom be peace: our great great ancestor who was the first man on earth and also the first Prophet for his fast multiplying progeny. We are his inheritors, in blood, in spirit, and, in religion.
We belong to that current, that streak, that fringe, or that lining in humanity, call it what you will, that has always followed the Prophets, the Revelations, the Truth.
Tell them, `We believe in Allah, in that which has been revealed unto us, that which was revealed unto Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes (that originated from the sons of Jacob), that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and which the (other) Prophets were given by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them. And we have surrendered ourselves unto Him.' (The Qur'an: 136)
Ours is a history in continuum. But if someone wants to divide it for ease of understanding, he can divide it into the ancient era, the middle ages, and a modern era. The ancient era starts with Adam and ends with Abraham. From Abraham until Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, are our middle ages. The modern era starts with the last Prophet, Muhammad, and shall continue through the time when Jesus Christ will reappear, then, through the rest of the great Signs of the Doomsday, down to the Day of Great Catastrophe itself: the Day of Resurrection, Reckoning and Judgment.
And soon the unbelievers shall know what turns their affairs will take. (The Qur'an: 26: 227)
So we were saying ... at a point in our history, that is, history of the modern era, beginning somewhere 609 years after the appearance of Jesus Christ, the time when our Prophet arose, like a bright sun, that dispelled all darkness, chasing them off to the far off lands, to the `unbelieving' dark corners of the globe, to the lands of the proud. At that time there lived in Makkah, an amiable and soft spoken young man. He was thick lipped, of heavy set jaws, unkempt hair, thin and tall. Tabaqat Ibn Sa`d And although frail looking, he was supple but of steel nerves, as we shall presently see. And he was black, jet black. In his later days his hair turned gray, but he did not dye it. Safwatu al Safwah Nor, shall we add?, did he ever kink it!
He was quiet, unassuming, and, perhaps, like his kind everywhere, graceful too.
His parents were of African origin who had perhaps been brought into Makkah from Yemen, at the ancient harbors of which most Abyssinian Africans found themselves staring at with their wide innocent eyes, landing there by way of trade, migration, refuge, or, worse, slavery. His parents, or their parents we don't know for sure had probably landed there with that most nefarious neck lace humans have ever forced others of their kind put on: that of slavery.
His name was Bilal.
Some names seem to have something to do with the persons that adopt them. For if his mother's name was Hamamah, meaning "a dove," Bilal's own name meant more or less "wetness." He was malleable.
Probably born in Makkah, when he opened his eyes he found himself already a slave. He was owned by one Umayyah b. Khalaf. But that man was only the immediate master. For after him the Banu Jumah, Umayyah's clan, were Bilal's owners in the general and loose sense of the term since the prevalent rules gave every member of the clan some authority however vague and undefined over every slave of the clan.
An added quality of this tribe seems to be that it was not short of men devoted to opposing the only prophet that had appeared among them. One of their men, Abul AshaddaynA powerful man. It is reported that he would stand on a leather piece and invite 10 people to pull him. The leather piece would get torn to pieces but he couldn't be unsettled. (Shaukani: Surah Al Balad) was one such. If it is he that is alluded to by the verse 5 of chapter Al Balad, then this man must have spent a lot of his wealth in the opposition of Islam.
Anyway, we were saying that Bilal opened his eyes as a slave. Now, perhaps it is a bit hard for a person today to imagine what it meant to be a slave those days. And maybe people do not know, to begin with, what it meant to be a slave at all, far from realizing what it meant to be a slave in those days the days that we are talking of.
Well, firstly, until recent times when slavery came to be banned in Asia, Europe and America, a slave was someone who was owned by another person: just as one owns a head of cattle which he can buy and sell, and treat the way he likes. In America they fared the worst. After the day's hard labor under a gun totting, horse riding, cowboy like stunt man called foreman they used to be chained in the evenings and spent their nights in huts that resembled dog kernels more than the shacks they were called.
They didn't fare that bad in the Arab world, but not too well either. In this part of the world, the world of the self assured Arabs, constant humiliation was, at least, not the objective of the masters. That comes from a false sense of pride, in those whose self confidence finds no basis in the chicken like personality they hide within their massive structure. Interestingly, such souls find no re assurance from within when a blunt look stares hard in their faces. Another reason why the slaves received a better deal in the Arab world was that they were on the scene for ages. In contrast they were a somewhat recent phenomenon in America, and it always takes societies a long spell to adjust themselves to new phenomena and remove some of the glaring injustices. That way, their quick emancipation in the West is creditable. For sure that! But the persistent racism is not.
So the Arab did not humiliate him. He didn't give him names and didn't look down upon him as a different species, a different race. Nor were blacks the only slaves. There were plenty of fair skinned foreigners around that had been purchased in the international markets or captured in wars. Nor yet was a slave in that world a slave from the cradle to the grave. He could even if that happened not too often buy his freedom. And the proud Arab owner knew that there was some chance of the man under him winning freedom and the freedom was real and coming back giving him a somewhat hard look, or throw a punch packed in a sweet but meaningful smile, or let slip a blunt word, that would convey his real assessment of him. That, he knew, who knew his worth as a human being, would be an intolerable situation and a time to disappear from the range. Therefore, he tried to behave in an irreproachable manner with everyone he had to deal with, not excluding his slaves. When Abu Sufyan appeared in the Roman court, he didn't lie, although a lie there would have served him well, not because he thought it was a vile thing to do, but because he feared his companions would publicize this aspect of his character. To be known as one "capable of lying" was too much of a humiliation for the proud desert dweller.
In other words, when the Arab demanded that he be respected, he saw to it that the respect was real, and not merely in appearance. That made some demands on him and forced a character and personality upon him. And that "character" and "personality" made for the difference between the slaves of the Arab world and the slaves of the rest of the world.
Yet, nobody is going to defend slavery without betraying some amount of insensitivity, to say the least. The Qur'an has not ordered taking of slaves. It does not sanction it but in indirect terms. In contrast, it speaks of their emancipation, their liberation, their honorable treatment too often to be ignored even by a casual reader. No less than 10 times has it spoken of the emancipation of the slaves. For instance, while speaking of salvation, it said, powerfully:
"But the man (working for his salvation) did not cross the barriers? And what do you know are the barriers? The freeing of a slave..." (90: 13)
Islam therefore, allowed the continuation of the practice, albeit grudgingly, and more or less in retaliation. For problems of war prisoners cannot be solved unilaterally. You may grant freedom to your prisoners, but will the enemy reciprocate in the like manner? Again, it is on the system of slavery that largely depended trade, commerce and agriculture of those times, not only in Arabia but all over the world. Had Islam banned slavery at one go, as for instance it banned adultery, the system of production and distribution would have crashed. The slaves played an important role in it. As a result the whole economy would have collapsed, (if it needed further collapsing!), and a large number of people would have died of starvation. Therefore, Islam observed gradualness in the freeing of slaves. Additionally, it framed such rules of law, that in time not only did the population of slaves dwindle to near zero ... except for those that were freshly taken captives in wars, and except for those sections of the people that were devoid of any human feeling and so kept slaves ... not only did the population of slaves dwindle to near zero, but the freed salves themselves became rulers over their former masters. The Mamluks in Egypt and the Slave Dynasty of India are good examples. Individually too, once freed, the slaves rose to great heights. After the Companions, most of the second generation top scholars of Islam were freed slaves. A cursory glance at the early history reveals the following names: Mujahid, (the famous commentator who read the Qur'an 30 times before Ibn `Abbas), `Ataa' (the Black, one eyed, flat nosed, besides whom no one was authorized to give ruling on hajj affairs), Sa`eed b. Jubayr (another Black, about whom Imam Ahmed said: "Sa`eed has died, and there is none on earth who can say that he doesn't miss him") and `Ikrimah (the principal jurisconsult of Makkah and an authoritative commentator of the Qur'an). Thus we see that three of the most oft quoted, second generation, commentators of the Qur'an were former slaves: Mujahid, `Ataa', Ikrimah! To continue with the list: Ibn Sireen, (the famous Qadi and interpreter of dreams), Mak hul, (the Kabuli, the scholar laureate, so to say, of Syria), Nafi`, (the great legist, Ibn `Umar's former slave, about whom Bukhari said: "`Malik Nafi` Ibn `Umar', this is a golden chain of narrators").
This short list is the result of a cursory glance, and one that did not take note of other freed slaves that were famous for other achievements, such as, for instance, Musa b. Nusayr, (the conqueror of Spain, who belonged to the enfranchised tribe Lakhm), or several freed women slaves who acquired fame for one or the other achievement. Al Bidaya wa an Nihaya and Ibn Khalikan
Therefore, it can be said with fair confidence that the slaves in the Muslim society suffered much less. Except that they were not free and that is to say a lot de facto they enjoyed more or less the same status as a free man. A single historical incident should give us some idea of what it meant to be a slave in early Islam, if this is what it meant twelve hundred years later when the incident being quoted occurred. `Abbas Mahmood `Aqqad writes in his The Heavenly Caller, Bilal: "Once 5500 Greek prisoners of war were brought into Egypt. They were distributed as slaves among the rich of Cairo and Alexandria. Later, after some time, when the negotiations (with the enemy) were completed, it was ordered that all of them be released. But when the choice was given, no more than 400 of them chose to be freed and returned to their lands. The rest opted to stay back as slaves!" Compare this with the American situation today where freed slaves, even after 130 years of freedom, have not yet been able to unbind themselves from the shackles of poverty, ignorance and social backwardness. To this day, they suffer from the hangovers and are not at all accepted as social equals by the whites of their own faith despite the fact that it is a country where democratic norms and behavior are the strongest in the world, and where liberalism and unbiased outlook are part of the school curriculum.
In contrast one cannot find a certain class in the Muslim countries those that were formerly slave always in the ghettos. There are poor no doubt, as there are bound to be everywhere. And some are in ghettoes too. But one cannot see a permanent class bound in those ghettoes generation after generation. They have nothing to match with the Harlem district of New York which once prided in the Dutch, Germans, Irish, and all kinds of white immigrants, but now has made way for the blacks who "have decided to stay on" in its "Pig Alleys," and the "Goat Alleys," stuffed to its last inch of space with the "middle class" negroes, living in "apartments" little better than the shacks of the past, and leading "honorable" lives as janitors, garbage collectors, waiters, garage attendants, gas station attendants, drug peddlers and prostitutes, with a rare bird flying as high as a "lawyer" or a "computer salesman," and never a pilot.Malcolm X, The Autobiography With low schooling, high unemployment, rampant prejudice why should anyone be surprised that although 10% of the population, 60% behind bars are blacks? There was some sound reason why Cassius Clay threw away his Olympic Gold Medal into the river. Muhammad `Ali, The Greatest.
But nobody ever tells them the truth: "Guys! It isn't past slavery, or the American culture. It isn't even your skin color. Blast it. These don't do you such great harm. It is the American dream that your souls haven't been molded for. Give it up man, and come to Islam."
Yet, to be fair and sympathetic with those that have suffered throughout the human history, it was easier for the slaves to win freedom when Islam was in practice. But Muslims are a different thing. What the Muslims think or do is not necessarily what Islam would have them think and do. And hence we find that slavery did continue, not of those alone that were taken captives in wars, but also of the kind that were purchased in the market or, worse, abducted and then sold out as slaves. Also, the role played by the Arabs, although many of them were definitely Christians, as middle men in the slave trade isn't noble. They owe a lot to the Africans. Sure they do.
So nobody is going to defend slavery without his right mindedness being doubted. Yet, that's the difference: when Islam deals with a subject, it gives us a permanent, complete and workable solution: something that's not merely an utopian idea, but which actually works, and produces results, and in one's own life time itself. It puts things into hard copies, that is, practice, and not merely in the constitution of which you can be very proud, but it is understood that you either relegate it to the back of your mind when dealing with actual situations, or with the silent approval of the majority play with the words and do away with the spirit!
No. This world will not be set right by constitutions. It needs a set of "revealed" ideas. If that is not understood and accepted, people will continue to struggle for their rights for another 2000 years, without the slightest hope of life and society ever being set right by a coincidence, even if, as the scientists will have us believe, the world be built on fortuitous coincidences.
However ... and to continue ... Bilal was a slave. And slavery in those pre Islamic days ... in the days of Bilal, however much less inconvenient and bitter ... was still slavery. To be a slave was, in a certain sense, no less than being a dog. It could even be worse. For if a man kills his dog today, or refuses to feed him, the police will arrest him and take away the dog. But in those days if a slave was not fed, nobody could question the master. His master could even beat his slave to death and no law could punish him for that.
Bilal was a slave in that sense. His master was a rich man, and Bilal had to serve him and his family, morning and evening, and attend to every odd piece of work at any odd time, working who knows 18 hours a day, seven days a week, much like his counter part of the modern times, the domestic servant in Asian and Arab homes.
He would, we can imagine, accompany his master on those strenuous trips to the northern regions, taken up by the Arab traders two or three times a year, in which, after a day of hard ride through the craggy landscape, his masters would rest and Bilal would toil with the tents and the beasts.
Of course not. By no means it could have been an easy life for him.
We do not know who were Bilal's friends prior to Islam. Surely he must have had some. The material that has survived suggests that at least he knew one person well enough. That was Abu Bakr, a trader and a genealogists, who became the cause of his conversion to Islam. Again, we do not know in great details how that happened. But we can imagine that one of those days, when Bilal would have gone to see Abu Bakr, for a purchase, or over something else, Abu Bakr might have told him to tarry around a while so that he could tell him about something new and exciting, and surely, of Bilal's interest. Then, privacy assured, he would have confided in him, in a hushed but urgent voice, about the new Messenger and his message. The Messenger was Muhammad. And the message was simple: there isn't any god but One, and He has commissioned Muhammad to promote the idea. Of course he would have told him to keep it to himself whether or not he decided to accept it.
For Bilal this call to one God would have been new. Initially it would have sounded a bit bizarre too. For he was used to so many gods. Maybe you worshipped only one in the end the one in your geographical locale but you acknowledged the others, he would have thought. For all those other deities also had a large following, and so many people why millions of them! could not be wrong or misguided. If they believed in their gods, surely there must be good grounds for them to do so. That's how Bilal might have reasoned.
Yet, at the same time, this call to one God would have also sounded to him plain truth and simple logic. For, with some serious consideration and pondering, for which he would have had ample time as he worked alone tending to the cattle or quietly going about the daily work, his mind would have concluded that God could possibly be only one. More than one defied all logic. As for the large followings of the countless other gods, well, Bilal must have thought, it could be explained something like this. One man starts and gradually followers come by. Then, over a period the deity is established as a fact. Later, it is a question of inheritance. Most people inherit their religion. Hardly any chooses it.
Bilal would have known the stories of how dogs had died, were buried in the desert, had a stone erected on the spot for recognition, and the next thing you knew was that someone mistaking it to be an important man in whose honor the tomb like thing was raised had begun to lay flowers. A little while later you heard that already people were presenting offerings and praying on the spot. You also began to hear of stories of miraculous granting of requests made to the supposed saint resting in the grave: a son, a beloved one, or success in tracing a lost camel, and so forth. The stories brought more people to the site where they found a priest already in place looking after the needs of the visitors, blessing the devotees, and, of course, receiving the temple offerings.
It is no secret how fictitious deities with equally fictitious priests serving them crop up everywhere. Sometimes such deities and their priests pride in world wide following. And surely, Bilal would have also known of such cases in his own time, and must have chuckled at the stories narrated to him of new deities born or saints making their holy appearance. Mass following, therefore, he must have concluded, cannot be a sufficient reason for a thing to be true. After all, how many idols haven't there been that have been discovered in the uncomfortable situation of a dog having raised its hind leg over them, but people yet continued to worship those "powerful" deities?! Surely people are not such great followers of logic. Although, admittedly, they are not entirely that stupid too. Some of them place their idols, Bilal would have recalled, on either raised platforms, or, fresco like, carved in the walls. Surely dogs cannot defeat human will.
"They cried out. Burn this man (Abraham), and defend your deities if you will." (21: 68)
In contrast, with some consideration, oneness of God would have sounded reasonable to him. Anyone who does a little thinking will agree that you let the mind work free of preconceived ideas and it'll end up with the concept of one God at the end of the trail as something agreeable. But when a man's mind is corrupted by wrong beliefs and ideas that were poured into his raw ears in infancy, by a grandmother, with as corrupt a youth behind her as the ideas of her more mature years, then such a mind will fail to grasp simple truths. Therefore, let no one be unduly scandalized that there are still people around, at this late hours of the twentieth century, that wonder if God can possibly be one!
And most of them believe not in God, but they associate partners with Him. (The Qur'an: 12: 106)
But to Bilal, of course with some `lateral' thinking and luckily he wasn't a think thank to be messed up with ideas about the horizontal truths, and vertical truths and how they crossed each other in a shape that has had entirely "positive" effects upon the human soul, and so forth the idea of oneness of God didn't seem that unreasonable at all.
Bilal could have also, perhaps, figured it out this way. He had one master. If he had many, could he have served them all to the satisfaction of all? Surely not. His multiple masters would have disagreed among themselves over the right to Bilal's services. Each would have demanded that Bilal serve him first, and maybe him alone all the time. The situation would have been very confusing for Bilal and perhaps very distressing too. Further, it would have led his many masters to quarrel among themselves.
Now if a man cannot have several masters and satisfy them all, how can he have several gods and please them all? Surely if he pleases one god, the other gods will be unhappy with him over the fact that he didn't do enough for them!
Bilal could have also known of the story of the old woman who was asked if God could be more than one. The woman, busy with her little thread making machine, told the man to drop it all and, instead, spend some time in useful work by helping her with the machine from the other side. But every time the man tried to turn the wheel in one direction, the old woman would, from the other side, turn it in the opposite direction. Frustrated, the man cried out: "Old woman! Why do you turn the wheel in the other direction whenever I turn it in this direction? It can't be run this way." She said, "Look. If we two cannot run this little machine together, without a single will, how do you think this huge universe is run by several gods with several wills?"
These kinds of arguments Bilal would have known and his mind would have played them on and on as he would have gone about attending to his routines. Ultimately he would have told Abu Bakr he was ready to see the Prophet.
A great day for both.
As stated earlier, we do not know the details of Bilal's conversion to the new faith any further than what these two pieces of information convey: one, it was Abu Bakr who had taken him to the Prophet (saws) and two, he was one of the earliest, probably a couple of months after the Prophet (saws) received the first message ... or more. He was so early a convert that once the Prophet (saws) told someone about his being a Prophet and then in reply to the man's query about how many people did he have the credit of following him, he is reported to have said: "Two. A free man and a slave!" The free man was Abu Bakr and the slave was Bilal.
Now, we have earlier said that many of the qualities that Bilal displayed later, were taken straight from the Prophet. Self confidence was surely one. Consider the above story once again. The Prophet had just started his work. He was badly looking for followers. He had to be positive and paint a bright picture of things. He could have also said: "Well, you see, I have just started my work. And you know this kind of thing is slow in catching..." and so on. But he didn't. He simply said: "Two. A free man and a slave!" Those words would have surely struck the man as steeped in self confidence. The whole episode, in Muslim (Salah al Musafirin), is quite interesting to read. We present one half of it here. `Abasa al Sulami (he is the same person as `Anbasa), says: "In pre Islamic times, I strongly believed that my people, worshipping those idols, were entirely on the wrong. Then I heard that a man had appeared in Makkah who was giving news (of the other world). So I jumped on my mule and headed on to him. I discovered that he was the Messenger of Allah, operating in secrecy and his people right upon him proving the better of him. So I entered Makkah carefully, unnoticed and presented myself to him. "Who are you?" I shot the question at him. "I'm a Prophet," he replied. "And what's a Prophet?" I asked. "Allah has sent me," he said. "And what has Allah sent you with?" I enquired. "He has sent me with duty to the kindred, destruction of the idols, and that Allah be accepted as the only Lord," he replied. "And who else is with you in this new faith?" I asked. "Two: a free man and a slave," he replied. (He meant, I guess, Abu Bakr and Bilal as the believers in him until that time: narrator). "Well. I think I'll follow you," I said. "I don't think you have the strength for it," he told me. "Don't you see my situation with my people. Rather, for the moment, return to your own people until when you hear of me as having overcome (the opposition). Then, at that time, you can come back to me."
To continue with Bilal. There are some reports that would suggest that Bilal came into Islam much later than others: when the Prayers had already been prescribed. But it mustn't be forgotten that the Prayers were prescribed right in the beginning. For instance the following incident is reported by Ibn Kathir in his Al Bidaya wa al Nihaya. His source is Ibn Jarir: "Yahya ibn `Afif says, I visited Makkah in pre Islamic times and stayed with `Abbas ibn `Abdul Muttalib. The evening saw me visiting the Ka`ba when a young man appeared. He was staring at the horizon. When the sun went down he turned towards the Ka`bah and began to pray. It wasn't too long when a boy appeared and stood besides him. And it wasn't too long when a woman appeared and stood behind him. Then the young man bowed, and the boy and the woman bowed. The man rose up from the bow and the boy and the woman rose up too. Then the man prostrated himself and the boy and the woman prostrated themselves. I told `Abbas, `This is great.' `Abbas said, `Yes. This is great. And guess who this man is?' I said, `I can't.' He said, `He is Muhammad the son of `Abdullah: my brother's son.' Then he asked, `And do you know who that lad is?' I said, `No.' He said, `That's `Ali the son of Abu Talib. And guess who the woman behind them is.' I said, `I can't again.' He said, `That's Khadeejah the daughter of Khuwaylid and wife of my brother's son. And this man tells us that your Lord, the Lord of the worlds has ordered them to pray in the manner you see them doing now. And by God in my knowledge no one else follows this religion on this earth save for these three.'
What is to be noted in this report is `Abbas' words: "In my knowledge." That is, `Abbas was speaking from his knowledge. But surely in those days not everyone announced of his Islam. So `Abbas' knowledge could have been incomplete since it is widely believed that Abu Bakr was the first to believe and the first to Pray after the Prophet and Khadeejah.
Never the less, what is certain is that Bilal was the first of the slave population of Makkah and the first black to adorn himself with Islam.
The order of acceptance of Islam, however, could have been as follows: The first woman to believe was Khadeejah. (She also holds the unbeatable record of being the first ever to believe). The first child to believe was `Ali: he was either nine or ten years of age at that time. The first free man to believe was Abu Bakr. The first freed slave to believe was Zayd b. Haritha. And the first slave to believe was Bilal. (And he too holds the unbeatable record of being the first African to believe, outrunning the blacks of all times).
The other piece of information that has come down to us in connection with Bilal's conversion is that it was Abu Bakr who had introduced Bilal to the Prophet (saws). Abu Bakr was also responsible for the quick conversion of several others such as: Zubayr ibn al `Awwam, Uthman ibn `Affan, Talha b. `Ubaydullah, Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas, Abdul Rahman ibn `Auf, `Uthman ibn Maz`un, Abu `Ubaydah ibn al Jarrah, Abu Salamah, Al Arqam ibn Abi al Arqam ... all prize catches if you wish to say. In this Abu Bakr holds a record that is unbeatable too. Of the ten given the glad tiding of Paradise during their life time, six were converted by Abu Bakr! Ibn Sayyid Al Nas has given the name of all the early converts. See `Uyun al Athar
Now with regard to Bilal's conversion at the instance of Abu Bakr, this is something that needs to be probed. Abu Bakr was a tradesman and would have travelled a lot as one, both within the adjoining tribes as well as outside of the country. He had other interests, such as genealogy. This branch of knowledge, much respected by the purity conscious Arabs, would have required extensive travelling, and must have earned him much veneration. He knew so many people and with such details about them that perhaps they themselves didn't. For instance he knew about all the important people of the time, dead or alive, with details such as how was one related to various others within the clan and the tribe, and how were the clan and tribe members related to each other when their predecessors were lined up in a chart.
But genealogy was not everything Abu Bakr was known for, although that was enough for a man to be regarded well by his contemporaries. He was also a successful businessman, generous and upright. These qualities put him among the list of the aristocrats. Naturally he knew lots of well placed people one way or the other. Most of those that he was the cause of conversion to Islam would obviously have been friends of the "inner circle."
Where does Bilal fit in this line up? He doesn't. He was neither a tribal chief, a tradesman, an aristocrat, nor a poet. The mere fact that Abu Bakr had taken residence in the quarters of Banu Jumah does not explain everything. The information about Abu Baker taking up residence among the Banu Jumah is from Martin Lings. I could not locate the original source. That does not speak of close company. How did Abu Bakr know him and why did his eyes rest on Bilal as one who could be relied upon at a time when the instructions were to conceal the new faith and not divulge to anyone who, instead of embracing it, could make it the topic of public talk and evoke undue concern?
Obviously Bilal meets with one condition. Abu Bakr knew him as not only a trustworthy person, but also as one of noble nature who would respond positively. Otherwise he wouldn't have opened his heart to him. And to know him that way, he would have known him well, and for long. For trustworthiness is a quality ascribed late to the individuals. Perhaps, again, he knew him through trade. Maybe they had travelled together in the same caravans that went up to Syria and other Middle eastern Arabian regions. In the town too, Bilal might have often gone to Abu Bakr to conduct transactions for his master. Personal contacts would have led them to liking each other: after all they had so many things in common, intrinsically, if not so much extrinsically. When the hearts meet, social criteria melt away.
Yet we have no details of the "pre Islamic" friendship of the fair, rich, aristocratic Arab Abu Bakr and the black, less than commoner, Abyssinian Bilal. But we know that both were of taciturn nature, both self concealing and self effacing, both self confident to the absolute degree, and hence, both indifferent to what the world would think of them. Obviously, with these qualities wrapped well around them as their cloaks, who could possibly disclose the inner details of their friendship?
A Personality Is Born
So it was one God with Bilal now.
But is that all that is to the religion of Islam?
Surely not, even if that is the main point, the whole theme and at the center of all else that concerned Bilal.
Bilal would have learned from the Prophet that the communications he received from God were not for him alone, nor for the priestly class, nor yet for the elite, and surely not of the kind about which Bernard Shaw had said, "This Book should be kept safely locked in a drawer, away from the reach of the children." Shaw is reported to have said that about the Bible. They were as much for Bilal. They were, in fact, Bilal's own: a personal Book, as everyone else's personal Book who acknowledged its truth. The messages had a special meaning for everyone who looked into them, even for those, in fact, that did not believe in it. It was like a lake. All could draw from it: each according to his need, capacity, taste and ambition. Some drew water. Others profited from the marine life. Yet others dived in and brought out pearls. And there were no limits. The ever expanding lake had a spring and a rich bed beneath it. The more you drew, the more it yielded. That, Bilal would have discovered, was the Qur'an.
The Prophet encouraged everyone to draw from it ... directly ... for himself. He even discouraged that they should seek its meaning from him, not unless it was something very unclear, and something on which depended their conduct. Otherwise they were to make the best they could of it through their own reasoning. And for the most part the message was plain and clear. It wasn't ambiguous at all, not, at least, for those clear headed sons of the desert that hadn't been bombarded with philosophies, that give little by way of reason, but take away more by way of common sense. So Bilal didn't have to refer to others for its meaning.
Therefore, Bilal must have also drawn ... and drawn heavily ... if we are to judge by his attitudes and behavioral pattern in the coming years. He would have known that there was more to Islam than Prayers or remembrance of God, important as they were. Islam was addressing life and its situations. It was dealing with the real world. No. It wasn't utopian at all. It was down to earth. And what's more, it did not address a particular class of people. Whatever you were, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, commoner, aristocrat just whatever the Qur'an was there telling you things you hadn't known before: things that made life meaningful, brighter, and, satisfying.
You And Him
First and foremost, of course, he would have learnt that you have to worship God many times over every day. It is to set right your relationship with Him: He, the Master and you, the slave; He, the Provider, you, the needy; He, the Creator, to whom you, the created, shall return. This you had to remind yourself many times over, every day, through the Prayers, because there are so many in the world who aspire to become gods themselves: through tyranny, oppression or, if that doesn't suit the situation, through intelligent guile. You need to dislodge them and re install God through the Prayers.
Some of these small gods work directly, shamelessly, arrogantly. Others are clever. They assert their authority with a smile, with cunning, with diplomacy. Yet others there are that persuade you through smart reasoning. They would almost have you believe that they are better than you, more intelligent and knowledgeable. Hence you must accept and follow them in their suggestions, advice and the authority concealed in "I think this is the best thing for you in this situation," kind of sentences. They will legislate and you will act. They will make the schematic drawings and you will construct ... your life ... build your dreams that will never come true. They will make the rules and you will throw the dice in the "heads you lose, tails they win" setup.
Now, if you don't turn to God often and seek your freedom by declaring that you are no one else's slave but His if you don't do that, you'll end up their slave: no matter what status you occupy in their society. Every person who does not know his God ends up a slave of others. Worse. He ends up a slave of many. Even the ruler is a slave of his subjects, trying to take advantage of them, but also following their wishes, knowing that if he didn't please them enough, they would kill him. When he makes the ceremonial bow before his subjects it is symbolic of his submission to them. It is the acknowledgement of the "give and take" deal struck between them ... behind the scenes. When a man bends forward for a scholar, sheikh or thinker, and thinks it unthinkable to question what he hears from him, then he has sold his freedom, lost his true Lord, and is stuck in the mud for the rest of his life. He will never be a better person, a different person, a free person.
Again, Bilal would have learnt from experience that frequent visits to God's Presence gives life the spiritual dimension that lends meaning to the physical existence: as like the time dimension in space without which matter would drift in space endlessly. Prayers lift you off the dreary, physical, humdrum of material existence and usher you into the realms where your soul dances the ecstatic dance of freedom, with you quite consciously "feeling" its existence besides yourself. You could almost hold it in your hands in those situations. And, at such moments you feel that this is the "real you" and that the body is only a container, a carrier. You are the soul, the soul is you. That feeling of your existence besides your physical self, that "something" that no one else can have access to, and whose privacy no one can disturb, in the moments of intensive concentration in Prayers, gives the terms freedom and liberty a new meaning and your drift, a sure direction.
A fresh experience every time, Bilal would have realized, Prayer is a break from the monotony of life. Each time you apply yourself with renewed vigor, you cross into new frontiers, glide into new spheres of joy, and into new planes of self confidence. Every time you did that, you came out a different man, an experienced man, a serene man, ready once again to go through the tasks of life without the fear of tomorrow, without the regret for yesterday.
With the morning Prayers done just when the night yawns and the stars begin to retire, life must have smiled anew for Bilal each day, as would have smiled the dawn looking down upon earth, ready to spread radiance on the hill tops. The morning breeze floated a new freshness, as if straight from the heaven, the flowers opened up their bosom for the seekers of sweet joy and pumped out waves of fragrance that served as the soul's nourishment. The blades of grass swung deep to the left and right as one drunk in love and the birds uncontrollably broke out into the morning song in a chorus, with such spontaneous gaiety that it sounded spasmodic. Then it is, that, coming back from the mosque, you feel you are more a part of the uplifting, enchanting, exhilarating world than that of the life of hoe and hammer. You feel you are homogenized ... synchronized ... with the nature of things ... with the world at large, and with the human caravan that is now ready to head for the redefinition of words, reshaping of lives, and renovation of the world.
It would have been so refreshing to Bilal.
Prayers also provide the occasion to demonstrate, to yourself, first and foremost, and to the community as well, that you really believe in God and belong to them the community of believers. For, so many people say `We believe,' but they don't! Even if their word is taken at face value, the God they believe in is not their personal God. It is someone up in the heavens, about whom their parents always told them, or they always thought it out, as to how great He is. But they never met Him, never felt Him personally. For them He remained more of an "It" and hence of an abstract existence, and not real. To them He is not someone who can melt the hearts, and bring tears to the eyes: the tears that can wash off worries, and leave behind a soul at peace with the world. Rather, for them He is someone who is in sympathy with the godly and the pious on earth, alright, but is unable to interfere, incapable of aid, and incapacitated to change the course of things. The utmost they imagine He can do, is to reward them when they go back to Him if they'll go back to Him. "But who knows?" at times they wonder.
In contrast, the God of Islam is the personal God. You are closely bound to Him. When you are in trouble, you ask Him. And you get it. Hence the frequent Prayers which is a means of communication with Him and an expression of love and gratitude to Him. And directly ... with no intermediary in between. You and Him. Him and you.
That's what Bilal would have learnt from the revelations about the meaning of the Prayers. Your soul is not alone. There's company when there's no company!
Bilal must have also learnt from the revelations that he didn't exist in a vacuum. He belonged to a monolithic body of humanity via the society of Islam he lived in as the immediate though smaller, unit. He belonged to the society of men and women around him, and they belonged to him. He belonged to it and to them, no matter how the society itself or its members looked at him or treated him. He was one of the society, whether it gave him a high chair or a low stool, whether it accepted him or cast him out he remained its integral part, bound to it and intricately related to each member of it, no matter how distantly. He belonged to it and the others belonged to him. All the believers and the unbelievers, the blacks and the browns, the city dwellers and the bedouin, the proud and the humble were equal creations of God, all of whom received equal attention from Him. They all had to do their short sojourn on this earth and pass through the same tests. Each had his rights and each his duties. And, so long as there was no opposition to working together on certain common grounds, he belonged to the society at large. He did not belong to it in its evil attempts. But as long as there was constructive activity, he belonged to them, was one of them.
In addition, Bilal would have realized that being a Muslim meant a life of responsibility. There were rights and duties upon each believer, not in accordance with where the society placed him, rather in accordance with where Allah placed him. One could take, if he had to. Or maybe he could do without it. But he had to give. And give a lot. For the world will be built by those who will give and not by those who will take.
He must have learnt, also, that even his own Makkan society was not an independent piece unhinged of the past and the future. It was a flowing thing that had its origin, the spring, the main river, branches and canals and even ponds. So wherever you were, as a drop of water, you were part of a big whole. If you were not a part of it, then as a drop of water you evaporated. You are part and parcel of the humanity that did not start off in this generation, and which will not end up with this generation.
He must have also learnt that while you remained an integral part of humanity in general, unless the others broke away from you, you also, as a Muslim, particularly belonged to another prominent body of people that had in every age accepted the Messages of God, sent from time to time. Those who accepted those messages, became an integral part of the society of Muslims. That was the main stream. Those that did not, were cut off from the river and were placed on earth in the form of ponds and lakes. If they swelled in faith, righteousness and piety, they joined up with the main stream. If they refused, they shrank and dried up to non existence ... to oblivion. Hence, Bilal would have known that if the Makkan society accepted the new Message, it would remain in the family of God. But if it refused, it would be cut off from the main stream and will eventually dry up.
The Phoenicians, the Canaanites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Pharaohs, the Aadites, the Midyanites, the Chinese, the Greeks, the Persians and the Romans ... and ... much before them ... the people of Noah ... and countless others ... the map of the world does not show the dried up ponds or lakes ... all destroyed themselves this way. So it has been in the past, to which we belong, and so it will be in future, which belongs to us. If the people of the coming ages accept to be part of us, they will continue to live. If they refuse, they'll perish ... naturally ... no matter how big the rejecting unit, even if like the sea, ... they'll perish all the same ... in time ... as does the single head of cattle separated from its herd perishes in the forest. Many large and small communities have died before, and will die in the future. The main unit, the main stream, is constituted of those individuals and communities that accept the messages of God. They are the ones that will survive, until the end of the world, for they are the fittest. History will revolve around them.
These were some things that Bilal would have learnt from the Qur'an.
So Bilal would have learnt that apart from the general body of humanity, he also belonged to the main stream of believers flowing down since ages. He belonged to them in a special way. And this bi polar belonging imposed some duties, as it granted him some privileges. One such duty, he must have learnt, was to spend. Of whatever little that he had, he had to spend on those who did not have that little: and always there were some near or far, that were worse off. If you had a nickel left stuck in the depth of your pocket, there was someone who couldn't boast of that. So the need to give remained.
There were the neglected widows, the uncared for orphans, the exploited wayfarers, the poor, the downtrodden, those in prison, and, O yes, slaves, like himself. They all needed redemption. And giving created the conditions of redemption as it also redeemed your own soul.
Such would have been the things that Bilal would have learnt.
This Book, the Qur'an, they said was poetic. Well, poetic or not, it certainly would have sounded revolutionary to Bilal. It was altering Bilal's way of thinking in a manner it had never occurred to him it would. At times he must have felt drunk.
Surely people around him would have begun to suspect changes in him: his attitudes, habits and even his contour there was that glow that could not be mistaken for anything else. But one can't be sure what's happening inside a man. Therefore they would have let things pass in the beginning. But somehow his master discovered the cause of the change: it was his acceptance of Islam.
His master must have felt snake bit. He enquired in a stern voice, packed with warnings: "Have you given up the religion of your forefathers Bilal?"
For Bilal this was an ironic question.
A cruel one too.
Religion of the forefathers. Huh!
What was there in the religion of the forefathers? Worshipping idols made of clay? Falling down before what you molded with your own hands? Is that what you call duty to God?
This was the question that `Umayr had asked Safwan ten years later. `Umayr and Safwan were childhood pals. When the call of Islam spread, `Umayr accepted it. Safwan was upset and swore that he would never speak to `Umayr again. That was painful to `Umayr. He pleaded with him: "Safwan! You are a leader of the people. Consider man: We were on the religion of stones, worshipping them and slaughtering animals for them. Is that what you call religion?" Safwan didn't have an answer.
Then, after this duty that supposedly satisfied the supposed gods, you were free to live the way you liked: the rich suppressing the poor, the strong crushing the weak and the wicked trampling the innocent. And rights? Well you don't ever talk of giving rights. It's only your rights that you watch with the eagle's eye. Further, you don't ask your own rights. You just take them ... with brute force. And, when all has been settled with either the sword or subtle cunning, you revert to the standard norms of goodness: "How beautiful and expensive is the beast you ride, how large the pack of your cattle, what wine you can afford to offer your friends, and how much can you spend on the poor in order to earn the title: "generous!" If that is all that the religion of the forefathers demanded and gave in return for submission to it, then, better be done away with it Bilal must have said to himself. But could he say these things to his master. Would the man's course mind appreciate a proper answer?
Therefore, all that Bilal could say in reply was a simple, "Yes, I have."
But this is not a reply an unbeliever will appreciate. Tell him you believe in a thousand gods, and he has no objection to it. Tell him you believe in three and a half gods, and you are still even with him. Tell him you don't believe in "no any god," yet he has no problems with you. "That's your business," he'd say. But tell him you believe in One God, and that of Islam, and suddenly he is alarmed. He hates to hear those words. He begins to have nightmares. Now it is his business as to what you believe in and what you don't believe in. He begins to suspect that somehow you are linked up with a mysterious Power, (acknowledging the God he denies!), will free yourself of all shackles and will somehow end up taking over the government of the world. When Moses presented his message of worship and obedience to One God, the reply of Pharaoh was:
"The two are magicians who aspire to expel you from your land with the help of their magic!" (20: 63)
What does worship and obedience of One God has to do with the expulsion of the rulers of a land might be an enigma to the believers, but it is a foreseeable reality to the unbelievers. From thereon, insomnia is safely perched up on their eyes.
So when his master got to know of it and surely it was big news to him then no wonder he might have shouted out threateningly: "You'll have to come back to your old religion, Bilal."
Little did the man know that Bilal was no more the run of the mill of yesterday. He was a different person now. Belief in one God and the readings in the Qur'an had given him a character....a personality. He had undergone a sea of change. He wasn't a robot anymore, programmed to behave like the rut. He was getting original!
Islam frees a person and allows his personality to grow to its full potential. That makes a new person of every person, whatever his past: one who is as human as others, as much with a nose, lips and eyes as others, as much praying, trading and interacting with others as anyone else. Yet with a difference. He is not that carbon copy that other societies make of their individuals. Muslim society is a colorful society. While Islam binds the soul to the eternal, the heavenly and the natural, it liberates the mind of the individual giving it total freedom. So that the individual borrows for his or her self the variety of the eternal, the heavenly, the natural.
Bilal told the man he was not going to abandon the new religion. "Was there any good reason he should?"
The man could have had no reply. He would have been angry ... very angry. He might have told Bilal, in his words: "You gonna come back to the ol' religion Bilal, or you gonna have plenty of trouble with me. And you better get that straight down your head sooner than I go for some action, man. I ain't sitting here idle watchin' you bump your head against the earth tha' way lad!"
Yes. Problems there were for Bilal.
In the beginning they tried to persuade him with words. They told him he would soon go crazy. Muhammad himself, they were pretty sure, was under the spell of a jinn and the same jinn would drive Bilal mad too. In fact he could already be under a spell. Did he need some treatment? Or, it could be that Muhammad was himself a skilled magician, so he better be careful. Nothing else could explain such a great change of mind. A thousand gods, all performing their separate functions so beautifully, replaced by just one? Com'on man, you must be kidding. Ain't that ridiculous?!
Such could have been the arguments.
If today's professors of religion and philosophy can defend idol worship before twentieth century students in university halls, surely Banu Jumah, the very fountain heads of those ideas which the later generations would refer to as the "wisdom of the east," couldn't have been short of proofs and arguments.
In reply to their arguments, therefore, Bilal could have only smiled ... inwardly ... and ignored them. So they grew persistent, and, with time, and obduracy on the part of Bilal, harsher. Yet Bilal would not budge. Finally, they threatened him with physical violence and put their promises to action when they realized that words had failed to convince Bilal how nasty the civilized ones could turn when offended.
As a preamble they might have begun to deny him food. But there could be a problem in that. They would have had to get work done out of him. If he starved he wouldn't put out sufficient work. So they would have had to go for strategies that would not cause him much physical harm but break his will. They began to misbehave with him in a variety of ways and even beat him up. But Bilal stayed firm. There was no denying Muhammad, no worshipping the historical deities and no accepting the "wisdom of the ancients."
After some initial failures at convincing Bilal how great the religion of the idols was, and how entirely reasonable it was to believe in multiple gods, the matter was taken beyond the residential quarters of the clan. They began to insult him in public. They would take him out, fill his head with dust and pebbles, clad him in a piece of leather, and drag him through the Makkan valleys and ravines. But ahad, ahad (One God, One God) were the only words Bilal would say if he felt he had to say something at all. It was not for the dignity of Bilal to be replying to all that he would hear. But they weren't going to spare him either. After all, Arab chivalry hadn't prevented them from torturing Muslim women. Umm `Abees, Zanneerah, Sumaiyyah, Al Nahdiya and her daughter, were some that did not beg the mercy of their powerful masters when tortured. Khatam an Nabiyy yin
After the failure of the milder methods they caught on intensity. On one occasion they led him, Khabbab, Suhayb, `Ammar and `Ammar's mother Sumaiyyah, to the outskirts of the town. They made them wear steel coats of mail and ordered them sit in the sun. With those steel shirts on, they would have, within a minute, felt being roasted. In Arabia a thermometer placed on a piece of metal exposed directly to the sun can read about 120 degrees centigrade on a hot summer day. Severe thirst, dehydration and loss of salt due to massive sweating would have taught them that misery can have many facets. One shudders to think what they would have felt like after about quarter of an hour.
It was on one such occasion that Abu Jahl another pillar of the pre Islamic Arab society, whose birthday was recently celebrated by the remnant guardians of the "wisdom of the east" in India turned up, began to say foul things to his slave woman Sumaiyyah, and, finally, in a fit of rage, threw his short spear powerfully at her. It hit her in the vagina and she died on the spot. She was the first martyr in Islam. (Ibn Sa`d)
Everyone of them watching the ghastly scene of the lady, clutching the spear, slowly giving up her soul would have felt terribly grieved and miserable. Her youthful son, `Ammar, would have especially gone through some very agonizing moments. How much would he have longed for revenge? The sight of her mother, hit in the vagina, dying before his eyes, while the crowd watched, in a hushed silence, couldn't have been an easy thing for him to scratch from his memory the rest of his life. One wonders how these people kept their tempers in control when they entered Makkah triumphant a decade later. But there wasn't a thing he, `Ammar, could do, they could do, or any Muslim could do.
Nevertheless, after some tine, this method of torture steel shirts and exposure to the sun broke the will of these people. They began to suffer blackouts. They were ready to say what the pagans would order them say. They would ask them if Lat and `Uzza (chief deities of the Arabs) were not their gods, and they would say yes. They would ask them if they denied Muhammad, and they would say yes. It is said that they were in such delirium that when their torturers pointed to a passing mule and asked them if that wasn't their Lord, they said it was! Or, maybe, the Makkans weren't too sure of their own list of gods.
When released they lay there in lumps unable to move. Their masters carried them off on leather sheets much like they would carry a slaughtered lamb. (Ibn Sa`d )
Save for Bilal. He didn't say a word that would please them! And he did not faint.
A Lion Among Jackasses
So Bilal's troubles stayed on. For he stayed firm and his firmness maddened them. They continued to torture him in a variety of ways. They would ask Bilal to utter once at least once for the satisfaction of their ego, and for his own release that Lat and `Uzza were true gods. But, as one report says, `Bilal didn't give them one word.' At one time when they told them, `Say as we say (damn it),' he replied, in such forceful words as: `My tongue is incapable of that.' Ibid
They also tortured Bilal's mother Hamamah. Ibn `Asakir Although it is not known if she withstood the persecution and whether she survived it at all, for history is silent about her. It is also not known if his brother Khalid and sister Ghufra also went through the same ordeal. But so far as Bilal was concerned his inner strength was of a class that even his enemies could not have but secretly admired.
But, expectedly, that would have increased their madness. It would have cast a dark spell on their faces, and with Bilal's firmness their fury would have turned into a frenzy. In response they could only increase the severity of tortures, so that Bilal would not end up the winner. They did that. He would be laid up on burning sands ... at noon when the sun directed its poisonous flares at the Arabian Peninsula ... and rocks were placed on his chest.
His master Umayyah b. Khalaf would say: "You will stay here until you die, or deny Muhammad and resume the worship of Lat and `Uzza." Bilal did not vary his reply. And no words were more hateful to them to hear than ahad, ahad, especially when they came from Bilal.
They tired themselves out but Bilal was firmer under the rocks in the sun than they were in the shade with a glass of cool drink in their hands. Frustrated, and perhaps needing some respite, they handed him over to the town urchins who lassoed a rope around his neck and dragged him around. It is said that they dragged him so hard and for such long spells that the rope left a permanent mark on his neck.
Obviously, the operations would have made Bilal sad. But his faith!? Could he abandon it? There was just no question of that. He suffered it all ... in the name of one God ... for the sake of one God. He didn't ask them for mercy. Ask these dregs of the society for mercy?
No he couldn't.
They didn't measure up well enough for that. He didn't weep. He didn't cry for help. He just suffered it: in the name of one God ... for the sake of one God.
Ultimately it can only be death.
But death is the goal.
O masters of my body.
Not my soul.
His soul was not a partner in this affair. Perhaps it stood apart, hovering above him and them and peering down at them: amused, but not hurt even if Bilal's every bone ached.
If you behave with a decent and gentle man the way they did with Bilal, what can he do? What could Bilal do? Cry out? Curse? Spit?
But Bilal had a character now. Ahad, ahad was all that he would say. If there was a challenge in those words for the Makkans, there was also a lesson for the posterity. For everyone new in Islam, has to, at some time or the other, bear the burden of stones on his breast. Should he when alone against the tide, against the winds, against a whole organized, civilized, and materially well equipped society, show weakness?
No, it is not becoming at all that you bend down with the burden of the rocks. No. You stand firm physically and spiritually. No, it is not the right thing to say that wisdom of the moment requires that you make compromises. No. Compromise is the morning song of the coward. If you begin to make compromises, you'll ultimately end up asking your masters if they'd mind if you set up your own missile plant.
Further, if the faithful will make compromises, who'll demonstrate the truth? How will the people know the alternative ways of life? Therefore, if you crash headlong against them the enemies of God on the strength of al Ahad, then there is nothing wrong in that. It is not being fanatic. Fanaticism is blind adherence to false ideas, and not bold adherence to truth and its requirements. It is those who scream against the veils and scarves and allow nudity to flourish, it is those who will be in tears at the death of a dog and firmly back governments that spray bullets on their citizens, those who will cry shame to polygamy but legalize prostitution ... it is these indeed that are fanatics in the truest sense of the term.
Blind adherence to truth is entirely praise worthy, irrespective of what lengths one has to go for it, and irrespective of what price one has to pay for it. Any price is a small price in its cause. Should the world witness only the weak believers? The compromising believers? The comfort seeking believers? The kind of believers who will say, `God is one,' and upon the unbeliever disliking the idea, quickly add, `Alright. Let's go for a round of billiards!?'
If it was Bilal's unmatchable courage and unfailing strength that stood out, it was the stupidity on the part of his torturers apart from meanness and cowardice that stood out most. They were stupid ... as stupid as the torturers and persecutors of all age have been: whether the Arabs of that time, or the Westerners or Easterners of the modern age that persecute, albeit, in a more civilized manner, but in no less cowardly ways. Serbs, civilized Europeans to the last sinews of their bodies, during their recent crusade against the Bosnians, would ask a Muslim to sit on a 75 mm. diameter bottle. When he couldn't, they would press the man down from the shoulders. Sometimes, they'd ask a man to rape a friend before a crowd. No lesser harrowing stories from no lesser civilized people of the East, that pack in their kits both the Western humanism as well as "the wisdom of the east," keep pouring in at regular pace from lands in which Muslims are in minority. The word civilization needs an Islamic definition before it becomes a password for all that is evil in man.
The stupid torturers do not known the depth of faith in truth. They think that the faith of the Muslims in one God is of the same nature and order as their own convictions about the physical world. They think faith resides in the mind and, therefore, some education can alter its quality, quantity and, in fact, its very substance. If that will not, then some "whipping" will. They believe faith in one God, can, just like an idea, be altered and propagated and influenced with education, money, power, guns, women and missiles. They do not know that if it is true faith, and not mere convictions, it resides deep in one's heart from where it can not be plucked out, just as you cannot pluck out the veins of a person without killing him. It grows there, in the heart, watered by the very blood that is dried up by persecutions launched against it. They do not at all know faith. They have no idea of its cooling effect on the heart, its burning effect upon the soul, its soothing effect upon the responses to difficulties and adversities. They don't know that just as the body has its soul: the spirit, the mind has its own soul, the heart.
And this was the heart of Bilal. A lion's heart.
It was no less tougher than the rocks placed on it.
Stupid torturers. They didn't know who they were up against, and what they were up against. They were up against the heart of a lion ... up against faith in One God.
Stupid persecutors. Stupid they always are. Stupid they will always remain: whether it is the Quraysh of Makkah of the Prophet's time, or their modern day counterparts spread all over the earth: be they those that defend a decaying, dying civilization, or be they devotees of the stone age gods, either suppressing Islam by democratic means, or more bluntly with the use of raw force. Over the centuries they have learnt nothing and will learn nothing. They never learn that ultimately they can only dispatch their victims to Paradise, to the company of Prophets and the chosen men. They cannot defeat Islam. They can only weaken the Muslims physically. But every such weakness adds up to the strength of their spirit. It rises up from the ashes and strikes with the vigor of flames driven by dry winds wiping out all that comes before it. Such is the promise of the God Muslims believe in:
"Allah has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make you successors in the land, even as He made those who were before them, successors, and that He will surely establish for them their religion that He has approved for them, and will give them in exchange, after their fear, security: `They shall serve Me, not associating with Me anything'....". (Al Nur, verse 55)
If that is the promise to the believers, it might profit the unbelievers to note:
"Think not the unbelievers will be able to frustrate God in the earth: their refuge is the Fire an evil homecoming". (Al Nur, 57)
So, all that the persecuted of all times need to do is to persevere.
Bilal defied them with a great defiance, to the great surprise of everyone involved: whether on his side, the other side, or the neutrals that watched with some concern, some amusement, and some anticipation. Of course, he knew that he was skating on thin ice. For, they could have as well murdered him as had Abu Jahl, the accursed, murdered Sumaiyyah. If he was spared, perhaps it was because he was comparatively young and could still fetch a good price, in contrast to the lady who was old and wouldn't have attracted many buyers. But who could predict that the chiefs and the nobles, the outwardly civilized, but inwardly cavemen, would never let their inner wolves out into the open with all the fury of a blood hungry hound? Especially when Bilal was defiant enough to provoke the coolest of them, the nicest of them, the most dignified of them, to maddening fury? For Bilal was demonstrating his own will against the will of the coolest of them, the nicest of them, the most dignified of them. Deities were by now a small issue.
Never the less, and whatever degree of their fury, Bilal stuck to his guns and went through what could break down any man.
But Bilal was not any man!
Bilal went through it all with the grace of an honorable man placed by circumstances among a people mean. He went through it all with faith and trust in one God. It is said that when Umayyah had exhausted himself he sought the help of Abu Jahl, and complained to him of Bilal's stubbornness. Abu Jahl then took charge of Bilal and must have tried out all his sadist ideas on Bilal. But to no avail. Abu Jahl was too insignificant for Bilal. It is said that it was Abu Jahl, who, after having tired himself out, tied a rope around Bilal's neck and handed him over to those rowdy boys. Abu Jahl must have then heaved a great sigh of relief.
Let's stop here for a moment and consider this point. Abu Jahl was no weakling. He was a powerfully built man in the prime of his youth. He was good at martial arts and was considered the equal of ten men in the battle field. He was ruthless. He had cold bloodedly murdered an old woman who had harmed him in no way. He was a tyrant too. He would buy things from people, and tell them to get lost bluntly refusing to pay. He was man of such talents that against the prevalent rules, he had been chosen to join the body of elderly statesmen of Makkah, that sat in the Dar al Nadwah, in his youth itself. (Dr. Hameeduallh: Khutabat e Bhagalpur) That was no small achievement. Finally, he was filled to the last tissue in his body with the hatred of Islam and Muslims. What does it mean when it is said that he tired himself out against Bilal's firmness?
Obviously it means a lot. It speaks volumes of what Bilal would have gone through.
Having failed in his task to extract from Bilal "a word that would please them," Abu Jahl would have felt terribly hurt. He couldn't have forgiven or forgotten him. Bilal had wounded his pride. He would have taken Bilal's memory with him to his pit. In this light Ibn Jarir's following report acquires added significance. In the explanation of the verse (38: 62,63): "How come we do not see people that we counted among the evil ones and made good fun of them; or is it that our sights fail to perceive them (now)?", he reports the well known commentator of the Qur'an Mujahid as saying: "This refers to Abu Jahl in Hell fire. (When ushered in there) He will shout out, `Where is Bilal? Where is so and so? And so and so? Those whom we looked down upon as evil men? Why don't we see them in here today? Or, are they in a place beyond our sight?'"
But, besides Abu Jahl, there were other that tortured Bilal in turns. The name of Ubayy b. Khalaf also surfaces in this connection. He was Umayyah's brother.
Of course, Bilal would have been aware that there were several others that were experiencing the same treatment then and there in Makkah. Further, he would have known through in the earlier times too, the faithful had to go through the same treatment. The Qur'an had recorded that whenever a Messenger had gone to a people his weak followers were persecuted. Perhaps, he would have thought, this was the way of the Lord His sunnah. Or maybe, this was a purification process through which only the pure get through.
Perhaps they had a future. Perhaps not ... not on this earth maybe! Perhaps, triumph would only be of the next world. The Prophet (saws) told them that truth would triumph. But when? Would they survive to witness the triumph? That nobody could say.
When someone complained to the Prophet (saws) about the persecutions he told them to bear them with patience. "By God," he told them, "there were people before you that had steel saws run through their head, slitting them into two from the middle, but they did not flinch the least." Lebanese Christians, inheritors of French culture and nicety, used to tie up the legs of Palestinians to two vehicles and run them in the opposite direction.
And then, as usual, he promised them that ultimately this religion was going to prevail. They shouldn't be hasty.
Although we do not know definitely when the following story of persecution and defiant response of the believers during Christ's era was narrated, it is quite possible that the Prophet spoke of it in Makkah during those very days of persecution. That it is related by Suhayb Rumi, one of the earliest converts, who also experienced persecutions of various sort, makes it plausible that it was related during that period. Suhayb reports the Prophet (saws) narrating the following:
"In the days bygone, there used to be a king who had a magician (in his employment). When the magician got old he told the king, `I've gotten old and nearing my end. Sponsor a boy to whom I can impart my knowledge'. (According to another version, "send me a talented boy"). The king nominated a boy whom the magician began to train and teach in his art. Now, on the path between the king and the sorcerer there lived a hermit. The boy happened to drop in at the hermit and was impressed by him and his words. However, when he sat with the hermit, the magician beat him up for arriving late, and so did the people at home when he reached home late. He complained of this to the hermit who told him to tell the magician when he was late that he was held by his people at home, and tell the folks at home when he went home late that he was delayed by the sorcerer. It went on until one day the boy came across a huge beast that had blocked people's passage. He said to himself, `Today I'll know which of the two ways is dearer to God: that of the sorcerer or of the hermit.' He picked up a stone and said, `O Allah if the ways of the hermit are dearer to you than those of the sorcerer then kill this beast so that the path opens up for the people.' Then he threw it at the beast and it killed it. The path was freed for the people. Later he spoke of the incident to the hermit. He told him, `Yes my son. You have an edge over me now. And you'll be tested. But if you are tested don't reveal my identity.'
"The young man began to treat the blind, the leper and those suffering from other diseases, curing them all. Now, the king had a courtier who became blind. He came to him loaded with gifts and said, `Cure me and these are yours.' The boy said, `It's not me who cures anyone. It is Allah the Mighty, the Exalted, who does it. If you will believe in Him, I will pray that He cure you.' The man accepted the faith. The boy prayed for him and he was cured.
When the courtier went back to the king and occupied his usual place the king asked him who had cured him of his blindness. He said, `My Lord.' The king enquired, `(You mean) I?' The man said, `No. Your and My Lord.' The king asked, `Do you have a Lord besides me?' He said, `Yes. He is the One who is my Lord and He is your Lord too.' The king tortured him until he revealed the name of the boy. So he sent for the boy and said, `Son. You seem to have made great progress in magic that you can now heal the blind, the leper and the other diseased.' The boy replied, `I do not cure anyone. It is Allah the Mighty, the Exalted who cures.' The king asked, `Is it I you mean?' The boy said, `No.' He said, `Do you have a Lord besides me?' The boy said, `My Lord and your Lord is Allah.' So the king tortured him until he led him to the hermit. He got the hermit brought up and ordered him to accept him as his Lord. He refused. So he ordered a saw run through the middle of his head that slit him into two. Then he ordered the once blind courtier to abandon his religion. He refused. So he got him slit into two also.
Next he ordered the boy to abandon his religion. When he refused he ordered his soldiers to take him to such and such a cliff and give the boy a last chance there. `If he persists,' he ordered them, `hurl him down.' When they climbed the mountain the boy prayed: `My Lord. Be Thou sufficient for me against these in the manner You will.' The mountain shook and scattered them dead. The boy came down and found his way back to the king. He enquired about the soldiers. He told him, `Allah was sufficient for me against them.' So the king ordered his soldiers to take him into the sea in a large boat. If the boy would not recant, he was to be tossed into the sea. When they entered the deep waters the boy prayed: `My Lord. Be Thou sufficient for me against these in the manner You will.' So they all sank and the boy came back to the king. He asked him about the soldiers. He said, `Allah was sufficient for me against them.' Then he added, `You'll not be able to kill me until you will act as I say.' The king asked, `And what's to be done?' He said, `You'll gather the people in a plain field. You'll tie me up to a cross, take an arrow from my quill and shoot at me saying: "In the name of Allah, the Lord of the boy." If you do that you might be able to kill me.' The king did so. He placed the arrow in his bow and shot it out saying, "In the name of Allah, the Lord of the boy." The arrow struck the boy at the ear lock. He put his hand to where the arrow had struck and died. At this the people cried out loud: "We believe in the Lord of the boy." The king was told: "Isn't this what you were afraid of? By God, you fell into the trap. The people have all entered into Allah's faith." The king sent word that pits be dug in the town and fires lit. Then he ordered, `Let the people choose. He who abandons his new faith, release him. The rest cast them into the flames.' The believers began to appear in droves offering themselves without any hesitation. Then came a woman with an infant she was breast feeding. She hesitated for a moment. The infant said: `Mother! Be steadfast. For you are on truth.'"
That was one story of past persecution. And, obviously, while the Prophet (saws) exhorted Bilal, Suhayb, Khabbab, `Ammar and others to be patient, he would have told them more about persecutions in earlier times, and, therefore, Ahad, ahad (One God, One God), was all that Bilal would say in response to what he was subjected to by the unbelievers.
When these words inflamed his persecutors they would bawl out at him: "Don't you say those words at least!" But the cool and collected Bilal, would reveal a great store of strength within him, and shout back at them: "By God, if I knew another word that would madden you more, I would say that in your face." (Footnote Siyer A`lam al Nubala')
That was Bilal. A rock against sand storms.
One can imagine their vexation too!
Was Bilal afraid? He didn't seem to be. Indeed his clear, cool gaze could have taunted them and they would have ground their teeth and foamed at their mouths in rage.
That was Bilal. A lion among jackasses.
The Free And the Slave
One day Abu Bakr happened to pass by. He witnessed the scene of torture being enacted on Bilal in the valley of But ha. Some reports suggest that he found him buried in a heap of stones. (Al Isti`ab)
It is also possible that the visit was not a casual one. It had an inostensible purpose behind it.
"Hasn't the time come to release this hapless man?" He asked the master.
By now the master must have felt pretty tired and frustrated. He would have known that there was perhaps nothing he could do that would bring Bilal back to his old faith. Bilal seemed to be tougher than ten of his like.
It is imaginable that while he lashed him, with the fury of a mad man, in response Bilal would have eyed him with calm self confidence, and even in a detached manner. It was as if Bilal wasn't the one who was being whipped. It was as if Bilal was a third person who, watching the struggle between the master and the slave from afar, made his own judgment of the two: the torturer and the tortured.
It would have been as if his master was whipping a stream. Each time he brought down the whip with the last ounce of his strength summoned to the aid of his arm, there was a noise of the splash. Sometimes it was a pretty wide splash emitting a pretty loud noise. There was a jolt. The water parted. Currents hurried out in opposite directions. For a couple of seconds, everything became hazy and unclear. The striker himself needed a few moments to gather himself after that mighty stroke. It shook his body so vehemently that momentarily he lost his moorings. The situation lasted for a few seconds. But, a little later, it was all calm. The water leveled itself up and was clear again: smooth, and serene. And when the master tried to bend down and examine it, it did not reveal much of what was under the surface beyond that he knew it had depth. How much, he couldn't say. But a good amount of depth. When he peered hard, he only saw his own reflection. And he was surprised to see that reflection. It was a panting, twisted, ugly face that he saw down there! The master recoiled almost startled. He wouldn't accept it was himself that he was seeing the stream reflect.
But his inner convulsions told him that perhaps the reflection he saw down there was his own. It startled him ... disappointed him ... angered him. It was pretty ugly to look at. He felt scared. `Could others also see his reflection as it appeared there?' he asked himself. If they did, they'd think poor of him.
That is the example of Bilal and his master.
At times the master would have thought that the slave looked at him with pity. In such situations he would have felt belittled, mean and worthless. When it came to peaceful times, the slave would have been the master of the situation. Bilal's heavy personality, when he was around, would have reduced his master's to insignificance. He would have felt himself a rabbit before a lion that wasn't interested in him. He was too small for that. But what if the lion decided to jump on him? He could surely tear him apart. With such thoughts on the mind, he would have felt extremely uneasy, nervous and insecure. He would have wanted to withdraw, quietly, unnoticed, as a rabbit would from the majestic presence of a lion. It would have hurt him to feel that he wasn't worth anything to the lion. He would have had an inkling that perhaps he'd have to add up to his stature for the lion to take notice of him.
If he had tried to air confidence, he would have appeared absurd or funny. If he had tried to converse with Bilal, it would have ended with Bilal's opinion coming out the more considered, the more realistic and the more weighty. Bilal seemed to have a key to sure knowledge. He would have expressed himself with confidence and with such air of certainty that the master would have forgotten all that he would have learnt in the company of his upper class, aristocratic and normally well informed friends. He would have known that he knew very little when compared to Bilal. And what little he knew seemed to be questionable. It is possible that when he was with his friends the mere fact of Bilal being around would have locked his tongue in his mouth. He would have looked furtively at Bilal serving drinks with his characteristic coolness. `Had Bilal heard his last remark?' he would have asked himself. When he would see nothing on Bilal's face suggesting that he had heard him, and that he wasn't grinning from within at his master's imbecility, he would have sighed with relief and wished Bilal would go away sooner than he would.
Surely, Bilal was becoming too much for him.
And the tension would have been something new and strange for him. He had always felt himself free of all oppressive thought. His courage in dealing with people, skill in trade, his pride, which was like an impenetrable wall that he had built around his personality which made him unreachable to the plebeians, and the superiority of his class that he had inherited by birth ... would have all given him a sense of security, confidence and a feeling of being the master of every situation. But here was Bilal, crushing him with the very rocks that he used to place on his chest in the heat of the deserts. Bilal's rocks were removed by the evening. But the burden on his breast remained, and crushed him in the stillness of the nights. It would have given him a restless time, unpleasant dreams ... insomnia.
Yes sir. Bilal was becoming too much for him ... the miserable depressed soul ... the settler in Hell.
In normal circumstances he would have told Abu Bakr not to interfere. But at this moment, when he asked him if it wasn't time to release the hapless man, all these things would have flashed through his mind. `Yes, it was,' he would have told himself. It was time they parted company. It was time he freed himself: from the slavery of Bilal's overwhelming oppressive personality!
But what about the money he had invested in Bilal? All said, Bilal was hard working, efficient and thorough. He didn't have to complain when Bilal had done something. He was honest too. He would suffer financially without Bilal. At least he would need a replacement.
So he jumped at the idea, but responded, like every civilized man, with an air of disinterestedness.
"Free him yourself", he said tauntingly, "After all you are the one who corrupted him" referring to the fact that Abu Bakr was the one who had introduced Bilal to the Prophet.
To his great relief he heard Abu Bakr say, "I shall do it."
Although it was not an easy thing to bear the cost of freeing a slave, and despite the fact that he had already purchased the freedom of six other Muslim slaves before Bilal, Abu Bakr decided to bear this burden also. A burden here is better than the burden in the hereafter, he might have thought. Some time later he managed to raise enough money to offer the price to Bilal's master: it was seven ounces of sliver. The master hastily accepted the price, released Bilal and heaved a deep sigh of relief.
The deal done, the sum paid, and the sigh out, the former master quipped, "Gosh. I would have sold him for an ounce."
"By God," replied Abu Bakr, perhaps to Umayyah's great regret, "I would have bought him for a hundred!" (Siyer A`lam al Nubala')
Umayyah couldn't have been proud of the deal. He seemed to have been denied the last laugh also. (Some reports suggest [Al Isti`ab] that it was the Prophet (saws) who had first expressed the desire before Abu Bakr that Bilal be freed. But due to difficulties that he would encounter if he attempted to purchase Bilal, Abu Bakr had sought the help of `Abbas ibn `Abdul Muttalib. He in turn expressed his desire before Umaiyyah b. Khalaf. That man immediately began to heap insults on Bilal and, perhaps because he was friendly with `Abbas, even discouraged him from buying a nut as hard to crack. But `Abbas persisted, purchased him and subsequently sold him out to Abu Bakr. But the earlier version is the most often quoted one.)
To many it would appear that Abu Bakr had freed an ordinary person. His father Abu Quhafa, although not necessarily on this occasion, had suggested: "Son. I see you freeing weak slaves. Why shouldn't you free strong men who can defend and protect you (in times of need)?" (Ibn Ishaq)
But, in actual fact, Abu Bakr had freed no ordinary a person. When he informed the Prophet of the deal, he sought a share in the cost. But Abu Bakr wouldn't agree. Siyer A`lam al Nubala' He seemed to have wanted the honor and the reward in the hereafter all for himself!1 (Today people talk of women's emancipation. After the Prophet, Abu Bakr was the greatest of emancipators. In all he freed five women slaves before he bid farewell to the town of his birth, Makkah. Twentieth century oppressed woman has to realize that loquacity isn't going to free an ant of its burden.
Freedom was something that Bilal was experiencing for the first time in his life. It must have taken him a long time to adjust himself to the new feeling. There must have been the nagging question of how to feed himself. Bilal had no means of his own. No doubt, he would have been happier being free, though hungry, than a slave, though fed. Yet the best man cannot take his mind off bread when hungry. We do not know how reliable the report is of the Prophet (saws) instituting, as some reports suggest, brotherhood in Makkah also, just as he later did at Madinah. But we do have reports of Bilal being made a "brother" of `Ubaydah ibn al Harith b. `Abdul Muttalib. And since we also know that Bilal was declared a brother unto Abu Ruwayha in Madinah, it is quite likely that such brotherhood, which had all the advantages of a social security scheme, but without the harm that such bodies perpetuate, when operated by governmental agencies, was instituted at Makkah also. If that is so, then surely it would have rendered life a little bit more tolerable for Bilal. If the report is true, then one might note that the Prophet (saws) had made Bilal a brother unto one of his own family.
Yet, and the brotherhood granted, it wouldn't have been very easy for Bilal to meet with his daily needs, since we know that jobs were hard to land, especially for one who did not specialize in a trade. Further, the Makkans avoided dealing with the Muslims if they gave them any trade rights!
Worse, a little later, the Muslims went through the harrowing experience of being virtually locked up by a total boycott in a valley for three straight years until they were ready to chew grass ... and grass there wasn't to chew.
But more than food, we can imagine it would have been hard for Bilal to psychologically adjust himself to the new situation of being a free person. Perhaps he wouldn't believe it initially. Old habits might have persisted. He might have even seen some bad dreams: himself in chains ... being dragged around ... a crushing rock on his chest. Surely, it would have given him nightmares to think of returning to slavery. How gruesome were the days he had left behind, and how discomforting the very idea of being owned by another person, can be guessed from an incident that took place almost a decade later. But, even after such long interval of time, the incident revived all the old memories and shook Bilal down to the marrow of his bones. The incident is as follows.
`Abdullah al Howzani says he met Bilal in the Syrian town of Halab and asked him about the means of Prophet's sustenance. Bilal said: "From the day I attached myself to him, there was nothing (in his personal affairs) that he had to attend to but which he did not entrust to me; so that when a needy person dropped in asking for help, he would order me to do something for him. I would borrow money and help the man out with food and clothes. Now, a pagan told me, `Bilal. I have enough money. Any time you need some, you can count on me and don't have to go around looking for it.' So I began to borrow from him. One day, as I had made ablution and was about to call out for Prayers, the pagan appeared along with a couple of other traders. When he came near he said: `You nigger.' I said, `Now, what's that!?' Instead of replying he pounded upon me and began to speak vile things. Then he said, `Do you know how many days are left for you to repay all that you have borrowed from me?' I said, `Yes, I do.' He said, `Exactly four days from now. If you don't pay back all that you have borrowed I'm gonna take you a slave. I didn't loan it all for your love nor for the love of your companion (meaning the Prophet). I lent it to enslave you and put you back on to shepherding the cattle as before. Ha. ha.'
Says Bilal, "(The man's threat shook me and) I began to imagine wild things. For the moment I went and called out for Prayers and after the night Prayers when the Prophet (saws) had retired home I knocked at the door and sought permission to see him. He called me in and I laid the whole story before him. Then, (as we had no solution to this problem, the sum being too large to be borrowed from anyone we knew) I suggested that I (abscond and) seek refuge with some unknown and newly converted Muslims. He said I could do that.
"I went home, gathered my things, in preparation of the next day's departure just before day break, when a man could walk about without being spotted, and tried to get some sleep. But there was no sleep. Every time I dozed off I woke up with a start to find that it was still dark.
(You can't get much sleep, one can presume, when you stare hard at the ceiling ... at the plaster tearing off in places ... at the timber beam the object of the mite's savory dinner ... then, the ant hills associated with mites ... which reminds you of the person whose shadow fell on the ant hill while you were staring hard at the ants as a child! Poor chap, he's dead. Died in a battle, ... Then you are back again ... to the timber beam ... and the roof ... and the chips of plaster about to succumb to the earth's pull ... and wonder what would happen if the roof caved in?! `Well, no harm done. After all martyrdom is better than slavery!')
To continue with Bilal, "At last the night ended and the first streak of light pierced the dark horizon. As I was about to sneak out, I heard someone calling me by my name. It was a man sent by the Prophet (saws). He had come to tell me that by the grace of Allah, four camel loads of goods had arrived as a gift from the Governor of Fadak. I heaved a deep sigh, thanked Allah, and returned the man's loans as well as others from whom I had been borrowing."
It should be noticed, how, instead of recounting the hardships that the Prophet (saws), and hence Bilal, went through, Bilal chose to recount an incident which, while interesting and hence easy to remember for the listener, gave an idea about the kind of provision that the Prophet would have enjoyed. At the end of the episode Bilal also indicated that if the circumstance remained penurious most of the time, it was sort of self inflicted. Who cared for money then? The rest of the story is as follows:
"When I returned to the Prophet (saws)" continues Bilal, "he asked me how I had fared. I told him that I had paid back all the dues and everything that I had borrowed from anyone else, and yet there were some of it left. The Prophet told me that he wasn't going to go home until I had disposed that off also, by way of charity. Therefore, he remained in the mosque. Come `isha and he asked me if I had cleared it and I told him no. The Prophet (saws) said he wasn't going to enter his house with that on him. He spent that night in the mosque. It was at the next day's `isha Prayers that I gave him the good news that I had been able to dispose off the rest. The Prophet thanked Allah and entered his house." Abu Da'ud
Once a free man, Bilal attached himself to the Prophet (saws) not parting his company until his death. He acted as his personal secretary, managed his accounts, travelled with him, fought with him and suffered with him. What better testimony than the words of the Prophet (saws) himself? Anas reports the Prophet (saws) as having said: "I have been tormented in the way of Allah as like no one has ever been. And I have been terrorized in the way of Allah as like no one has ever been. (There were times when), thirty days and nights would pass and I and Bilal wouldn't have anything to eat save for what could be concealed under Bilal's armpit." (Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah)
So Bilal and the Prophet (asws) were tied up together ... in hunger.
And They Were Not Proud
Let's get back to where we were. We were saying Bilal was a free man now!
More than that. He was equal to all Muslims even though a slave and a Negro in the earlier society. It should be recalled that he was declared a brother to no less than `Ubaydah ibn al Harith b. `Abdul Muttalib, a Hashemite, and a proud cousin of the Prophet! In fact Bilal was not just any Muslim. He held an honorable place in the sight of Allah, a position he shared with some of the early Muslims. An incident brought this out.
It so happened that two Makkan chiefs: Al Aqra` b. Habis al Tamimi, and `Uyayna b. Hisn al Fazari, came to see the Prophet (asws). They found him surrounded by Bilal, `Ammar, Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas, Suhayb, Khabbab, Ibn Mas`ud, Miqdad, and others.
Now these were men who altered the course of history; those that brought a lasting change to more than half of the world. In contrast, the great men with whose life and works history books have been fattened, are insubstantial. But in the eyes of the unbelievers these early converts were an irrelevant lot, even as they are an irrelevant lot today in the eyes of those who measure men not by what they are but by criterion such as where they come from: United States or Sri Lanka, what is their color: white, yellow or black; what is their qualification: a Phd. or a school dropout; what they posses of material things: mural studded villas, vehicles and hefty bank balances, or live in low class housing; and, professionally what they are: a doctor, or a coiffeur!
The people who surrounded the Prophet (asws) morning and evening, wore rags, and went hungry most of the time. Many of them were former slaves who belonged to no tribe. Therefore they were inconsequential in the eyes of the rich and well connected chiefs of the Arab tribes; inconsequential in the eyes of these two proud Arab chiefs: `Aqra` and `Uyayna.
They suggested to the Prophet, saying in effect, "Look. We would really like to meet and discuss things with you. But all the time you are surrounded by these chaps. You know that at times important people come down to the town. We do not want ourselves to be seen in the company of these. That will appear a bit cheap of us. So, let's arrange it this way. When we come, let these people go away. After we are gone you may choose your company."
However absurd it might sound today, it was in reality no less than a grand gesture on the part of these important men. For in those days any Arab who commanded influence, power or wealth in any measure, felt too proud to even greet the Prophet if he encountered him in the street. Therefore for these two men to condescend to visit the Prophet and talk to him was a gesture generous enough.
On his part, if the Prophet was anxious about anything those days it was to get his message across. For, although Makkah was a large town, he was feeling suffocated. He was just not being listened to. And he was fearful that their continued rejection might bring down Allah's punishment. Therefore, any opening, any means of closing the barrier was welcome. He agreed to the proposal.
As for these early Muslims, he well knew their place in Islam, as they themselves well knew their own worth in Islam. In fact they were in full agreement with the Prophet over this issue. They were as eager as he to get the message across somehow. Their greatness lay in this: they had completely obliterated their personalities. If asked they would have agreed to suffer permanent banishment ... if that would help Islam win more converts. We have the word "surrender" in our Islamic terminology. They were its manifestation.
Surely, they were a people of their own class.
Anyway. The Prophet agreed to the proposal, and the two chiefs said it would be best if it was put in writing. It is possible they wanted to impress on the other Arabs that they were able to force a compromise on the Prophet and extract concessions a kind of political victory. Whatever the reason, they wanted it in writing, and the Prophet agreed to do that also. He asked `Ali to commit the agreement to writing.
These men: Bilal, `Ammar, Sa`d and others moved some distance away. Honoring the agreement before it was written!? Triumph would have clearly shown itself on the faces of the Makkan chiefs.
`Ali came down, ready with his pen and paper.
The dictation began.
But then came the intervention from on High.
A fresh revelation came. The Prophet's eagerness alright ... their own agreement notwithstanding ... the Arab chiefs were not worth two straws in comparison to these. They would not be asked to move away. The Arab chiefs ... men of power, prestige, wealth and nobility ... would be invited to Islam. They would be invited to the honor of the company of Bilal and his likes. If they would accept, good for them. If they would refuse, so much the worse for them. But these noble souls would not be asked to move away. Jibra'il came down with the passage:
Drive not away those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, desiring to win His approval; nothing of their account falls upon you (O Prophet), and nothing of your account falls upon them, that you should drive them away, and so become one of the wrongdoers. (6:52)
The Prophet threw away the piece of paper, drove away the evil chiefs and called back Bilal, Sa`d, `Ammar and others.
And they came back. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir from Hakim who remarked that the report meets with the conditions of Bukhari and Muslim)
And they were not proud! Both these chiefs later succumbed to Islam. Aqra` b. Habis surfaces in a report that throws some light on what kind of people the Prophet (saws) had to deal with and win them over to his call. Abu Huraira (ra) says that the Prophet kissed Hassan b. `Ali in the presence of Aqra` b. Habis. Aqra` said, `I have ten children but I never kiss any of them.' The Prophet looked at him briefly and said, `He who is not kind upon others, will not have kindness shown to him.' (Bukhari)
Yet, and however evaluated in the heavens, even if that evaluation might have been a matter of great comfort, life was far from convenient for Muslims in Makkah. Persecution showed no signs of abating. In fact it was getting worse by the day. Makkans were pretty panicky about the way Islam was spreading its influence in the Peninsula. What's the driving force? was a question they had so often discussed among themselves but had let the answer slip by them, for, as far as they were concerned, they had made up their minds: they'd hear the truth no more; they'd follow the truth never; they'd oppose the Prophet ever and ever.
This was not out of ignorance. Rather, not only had the message been clearly delivered belief in one Allah, messengership of the Prophet, feeding of the poor, emancipation of the slaves, observation of chastity, non slandering of chaste women, and many other moral injunctions of the sort that no one can have a quarrel with not only had this message been clearly delivered the Makkans had, in the Qur'an and in its tremendous salutary effect upon its adherents, an additional sign.
None the less, the Makkans had made up their minds. They had made up their minds that they were not going to believe, sign or no sign. This incurred a sealing of their hearts: a doubly effective sealing as a result of which Islam would not enter their hearts, and kufr would not find its way out.
They had in fact gone one step further in disbelief. It was to oppose the truth and persecute its followers ... and, audacity unbound, even persecute the Messenger of God. This was evident right from the beginning; but they were given the respite of a whole ten years during which they could change their minds if the mind was the problem and not the ego. But, after a full decade of intransigence, not only had it become pointless to carry on with the call among them, but also some form of demonstration became incumbent that Divine Law of retribution existed and operated. There was some indication of this the impeding Divine punishment when, as a first step, the Muslims were allowed to move to safer areas.
They began to move out in batches. The first courageous lot headed for Habasha (Abyssinia): a place to which Bilal originally belonged. They were followed by several other groups.
Had Bilal chosen to go to Abyssinia, he would have joined a people of his own kind and felt homogenous among them. But he did not go. One thing was sure, he was not going to choose the place of migration based on such considerations. He had broken all bonds with the un Islamic world. Another reason for not migrating could possibly have been that he was not undergoing any special persecution lately, as in the earlier days. An added reason could have been that he wouldn't want to part company with the Prophet.
Again if he tarried for a while it could have been because Makkah was dear to him. Finally, the Prophet (saws) might have not nodded a yes to Bilal's overtures.
Anyway he didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave the city. Even after having received a nod, he might have hung around hoping that something might happen: something that would allow him to stay back.
But that hope was fast fading and life was getting tougher. The best of Muslims were in Abyssinia. What few were left, were not only feeling lonely, but insecure to a greater and greater degree. Additionally, it was quite difficult to follow the Islamic practices. And, obviously, Islam was dearer to Bilal than the city, even if the city was Makkah. Therefore, he finally decided to leave the city. It is also possible that the Prophet might have given him the hint to move out a little ahead of himself, for it wouldn't have been wise for them to travel together exposing everyone to the same dangers. One or two slipping out at a time would have made for their enemies organizing man hunts an unexciting affair. If the Prophet (asws) proved not to be lacking in organizational capabilities later in Madinah, surely he wouldn't have let those qualities lie fallow unused at Makkah. "Muhammad at Makkah" and "Muhammad at Madinah" are two obtuse titles. Let alone a Prophet, even a man is a man. He is not transformed into a new and unrecognizable person with the crossing of five meters of land.
Nevertheless, Bilal spoke of his intention to Sa`d b. Abi Waqqas and `Ammar b. Yasir the others of the batch that "were not proud." They asked him to tarry for a while so they could join him. Some time later the three left the city heading for Madinah then known as Yethreb. A report in Bukhari has Bara' b. `Azib as saying that the first ever to arrive at Madinah were Mus`ab b. `Umayr and Ibn Umm Maktum. After them Bilal, Sa`d and `Ammar.
Surely they would have left Makkah with heavy hearts. Up to a long distance they would have turned again and again to cast a last glance at the beloved town, until it would have disappeared behind the familiar hills. And those familiar hills themselves would have disappeared behind the unfamiliar ones. They would have trod on with heavy feet; hoping that something would happen suddenly and they would be called back.
But nothing happened, they were not called back, and so they continued to march forward until they disappeared behind the craggy, barren hills.
They would have been terribly sad.
But sometimes, to preserve your faith, you have to not only stand up against a lot of pressure, but have to also give up a lot in terms of comforts, a fat pay check, and "the town you are familiar with." Those who hang back, with material considerations in their mind, hoping against hope that something might happen and their children will never be "transformed" from the "innocent little 'uns" of today into the "hedonists" of tomorrow with exposure to school and social evils, are not the ones that make the right choice for themselves and their families. As Islam grows with sacrifices, one's faith too grows with sacrifices. That's how things work. It's never a pleasant ride through an unhedged sycamore.
You shall surely ride upon event after event. (Al Inshiqaq, 19)
The First Muedhdhin
In Madinah Bilal was a host to Banu Sa`d ibn Khaythumah.11 Ibn Sa`d We do not know what he did for his living and how he managed to meet with his everyday expenses, even if minimal. Surely, having been used to going about hungry so often at Makkah would have helped him a bit. Yet, with so many new people constantly pouring into a place which was anything but a jostling commercial town, it couldn't have been a joyous arrival for any. Neither were jobs easy to find, nor did other means amount to much. Nonetheless, the main difference was the atmosphere. It was so fresh and friendly. Here the Muslims could go about in the town center and the fields without the fear of someone lurking behind looking for an opportunity to insult.
It wasn't very long after Bilal's arrival at Madinah that the Prophet also arrived, accompanied by Abu Bakr.
Initially the Madinan climate did not suit the Makkans. Makkah was warm and dry. Madinan climate was comparatively moderate. But the winter was freezing. And wild winds blowing at storm speed would have chilled the ill clad immigrants. Many of them fell ill either because of the climate or, as some have thought, because of the influenza making its round. Bilal also fell ill. So did Abu Bakr. Both lay with high fever. It was in this state that the Makkan memories began to hound them lending their suffering a touch of acuteness.
When `Ayesha, Abu Bakr's daughter, went to Abu Bakr to feel his pulse and asked him how he felt, Abu Bakr recited a poetical couplet in reply in which he extolled death. She knew it was high fever that was speaking.
Abu Bakr said,
A man might be greeted by his family in the morning
While death could be nearer than the lace of his shoes.
Next she went to `Aamir b. Suhayl, (the veil was not yet obligatory), and asked him how he was doing. `Aamir was also thinking of death. He recited the following lines in response:
I have experienced death before actually tasting it;
The coward's death comes upon him as he sits
Every man resists it with all his might
Like the ox who protects the body with its horns.
After him she went to Bilal. His lamentations of Makkan mountains, its valleys, its climate, its fresh and fragrant air.....just everything ... were no less heart rending. He said,
Shall I ever spend a night in Fakhkh
With sweet herbs and thyme around me?
Will the day dawn when I come down to the waters of Majanna
Shall I ever see Shama and Tafil again? (Fakh is the name of a valley in Makkah. Shama and Tafil are surrounding hills. The translation of the poetical pieces is by Alfred Guillaume)
At last the Prophet prayed to Allah that Madinah be made as dear to the migrants as was Makkah, and to drive away the fever from the city to the mountains. This rendered Madinah more bearable to the immigrants.
After the construction of the mosque ... a place to govern from ... the first thing the Prophet (saws) did was to institute brotherhood between the muhajiroon (immigrants) and the Madinan Muslims now called ansar (helpers). Every immigrant was made a brother unto a helper. They were to share food and housing and were even to inherit each other. Bilal was made a brother to Abu Ruwayha.
Bilal never forgot the relationship instituted by the Prophet. Many years later when Bilal wanted to migrate to Syria, `Umar, the second khalifah asked him about whom he would authorize to collect his state allowances. "Abu Ruwayha," was Bilal's answer. Later, when he stayed back in Syria, he also took permission for Abu Ruwayha to live with him there. Hence, according to the historians, Bilal and Abu Ruwayha's names remained registered together in the Syrian official books for a long time. (Al Bidaya wa al Nihaya)
In Madinah also, as in Makkah, Bilal remained mainly attached to the Prophet. People would encounter him at the door of the Prophet's house, as they went to see him. They would see him with his shirt front spread and passing through rows of women worshippers during the `Eid Prayers to collect pieces of jewelry as charity. They would see him holding silver in his shirt front and the Prophet (saws) scooping out of it and handing it out to the poor. They would see him pitching a spear in front of the Prophet (saws) before he would start the Prayers, if he happened to pray in the open. They could see him pitching a tent for him when they camped during the journeys. They would see him carrying the standard (`alam) when marching across, and handing it over to whom the Prophet would order. They could see him leading the Prophet's camel by its halter through the crowds of pilgrims in Hajj and shielding the Prophet (saws) with an umbrella when he alighted. And they could hear him making announcements for the Prophet (saws) such as the one the Prophet (saws) ordered him to make after the battle of Khayber when he was informed of a man who had fought bravely for the Muslims laying down his life, but had kept back a cheap unworthy article from the booty. Bilal was told to announce: "No soul, but that which has wholly surrendered itself to Allah, shall enter Paradise. And, verily, sometimes Allah promotes the cause of His religion by a corrupt person." In fact Bilal occupied such a rank with the Prophet (saws) that when `Abdullah ibn Ubayy, the arch hypocrite, spoke some nasty things about the Prophet and the Muslims, `Umar suggested that Bilal be sent to behead the hypocrite.Haykal, The Life of Muhammad. The incident also throws some hint about the muscle power of Bilal. Ubayy was no chicken.
Thus, where the Prophet was, Bilal was. In one thing at least Bilal scored the distinction that no one else did. The Prophet (saws) used to, as a hadith of Nasa'ee tells us, lean on Bilal and deliver the `Eid sermons. One can imagine what Hercules, the last Byzantine Emperor would not have felt like, on receiving the news of the Prophet (saws) leaning on Bilal, who had said to Abu Sufyan, `If I could see him, I would wash his feet.'
The services that Bilal rendered to the Prophet were of his own accord. No one, not even the Prophet, ever asked him to do anything for him. The Prophet (saws) was self reliant and avoided to be served.
On his part, the Prophet trusted Bilal and had deep regards for him. Once he saw Bilal in an angry mood and was told that his wife had refused to believe in something he had told her about the Prophet himself. Instead of waving it away as a husband wife skirmish of little significance, he went with Bilal to his house, met his wife there and told her: "If Bilal reports to you something as what I have said, then that is what I have said. Bilal never lies."
That was justice.
But he added: "Don't provoke Bilal to anger." (Ibn `Asakir)
That was love!
And a warning to those that do not know that there are grades and levels of the believers. Some occupy such positions that one will not anger them without risking the anger of the One on High.
However, and to continue, Bilal abandoned all else in life and devoted himself entirely to the services of the Prophet (saws). It was fitting, therefore, that he should be on hand to receive blessings, as it once happened during a journey. It is said that a bedouin came to the Prophet (saws) to remind him of his earlier promise to help him when he had something come his way. "Glad tidings unto you," the Prophet (saws) told him. "Enough of these glad tidings", the man said in impatience. "How long will you keep telling me, `glad tidings?'"
The Prophet (saws) was angry. He turned to Bilal and Abu Musa al Ash`ari and said: "This man has rejected the blessing. So let it be the share of you two." He asked for a bowl of water, washed his hands and face into it and spat into it. Then he told the two: "Drink it. Sprinkle it on your faces and necks, and receive the blessing." The two did as they were told. Umm Salamah, the Prophet's wife who was accompanying him and was watching the proceedings from her tent cried out: "And the two of you, don't forget your mother. Let her also have a share in it." They left some water in the bowl and passed it on to her. The report is in Bukhari. In our times some people might wonder about what kind of a lady this Umm Salamah was. To many, perhaps, a simpleton overanxious about benedictions. Overanxious, true. Benedictions, yes. But simpleton?! Both yes and no. People then were simple, so yes. But if that implies that they didn't understand complex things, then no. Consider the following statement that declares the standard position of a Muslim about asma' wa sifat (Names and Attributes) of Allah (swt). While many scholars, both ancient as well as modern have stumbled, she said in explanation of what is meant by the terms: istawa `ala al `arsh in the Qur'an: "istawa is not unknown. Its `how' is unfathomable (ghayr ma`qul), its acknowledgment (iqrar bihi) is (a part of) faith, and to argue about it is unbelief (kufr). (`Awn al Ma`bud, vol. 13, p. 39). If one cannot appreciate this statement, he may realize how little he knows of the wives of the Prophet (saws), and how little, indeed, of Islam.
A little after his arrival at Madinah the Prophet arranged for Bilal to marry a girl of his approval. It came about this way. Some people of the Bukayr tribe came down to the Prophet seeking his help in getting a girl of theirs married to a suitable person. The Prophet (saws) surprised them by saying: "(I wonder) how you measure up with Bilal". They got the hint, but apparently not agreeing to the match went away without answering. Perhaps their Arabism came in the way. Or maybe something else. However, sometime later they again broached the same subject with him but got the same answer. And, a little while later, perhaps having failed to find a suitable match, they spoke to him about it a third time. He gave them the same reply. But this time he was more forceful. He said, "(I wonder) how you measure up with Bilal," and added, "(I wonder) how you measure up with a man of Paradise." These words might have initially caught them off their guards, but they did help them get over whatever that had held them from accepting Bilal in the first place. (Ibn Sa`d)
One of the early injunctions at Madinah was about the Prayer call, the adhan. Bilal, with his clear, piercing, and melodious voice was the obvious choice, although we can't be sure if sonoric qualities were the main factors in the choice. However, the melancholic note in his voice softened the hearts hardened in the fields and markets. Abu Mah dhura and Ibn Umm Maktum were substitute muedhdhinin. Ibn Umm Maktum also made the second adhan of the fajr.
According to a report in Ibn Majah, although declared weak by some traditionists, the phrase "Al salatu khairum minan naum" (Prayer is better than sleep) were added to the adhan of fajr by Bilal, and the Prophet (saws) endorsed its acceptance by not objecting to it.
Another report, also in Ibn Majah, and also declared a weak one, but which strengthens the above one, says that once when Bilal reported for adhan of fajr and he was told that the Prophet (saws) was still asleep, Bilal said these words twice: "Al salatu khairum minan naum," and the Prophet (saws) let them remain added to the adhan.
To Bilal adhan was not a mere religious obligation that was to be dutifully carried out. It was something he loved to do. Over the years he waited anxiously for each call time to arrive and looked forward to the next after the last. Reports say that normally he arrived much before the time and waited on the roof top for the dawn to greet him there. Yet, it is also reported that he didn't follow this as a rule. Sometimes he delayed either the adhan or the iqamah probably following the circumstances of those reporting for Prayers. (Ibn Sa`d)
Once he called out for the fajr Prayers. But when the Prophet came out he found that no one had turned. "What has held them back?" he enquired. "(The biting) cold," Bilal answered. The Prophet (saws) prayed that Allah drive away the cold from Madinah. However, what's to be noted is that Bilal was there undaunted by the weather.
Reports a woman of Banu Najjar: "Ours was the tallest house near the mosque. Bilal used to climb to its roof to make the call from there. He would come early and wait for the first streak of dawn to peep from behind the hills. When that happened he would stretch his hands and supplicate in the following words:
`O Lord. I praise Thee, and I seek Thy help that the Quraysh take up the cause of Thy religion.'
"Never did it happen," adds the lady, "that Bilal forgot these words before making the call." Abu Da'ud
The words of supplication indicate Bilal's deep concern for Islam. He prayed for its victory, but knowing that the Quraysh held the key to it, he prayed for their conversion, even though he knew well that those proud ones did not reciprocate to him in the same manner.
Sometimes Bilal also hummed poetical lines as he rose up to call for the Prayers. Once he was heard singing:
What's wrong with Bilal, may his mother lose him,
His forehead be wetted with blood.
The intent is unclear. But it could be that Bilal might have felt some pleasure at being honored to call for the Prayers from the Prophet's mosque and sang that out loud by way of self reproach.
Some reports suggest that Bilal never delayed the call, though sometimes he delayed the iqamah (the second call, inside the mosque, with which the Prayers start). Normally he allowed some time between the adhan and the iqamah. And then, when he knew it was time to start the Prayers, he would go to the door of the Prophet and say, softly, Hayya `Alas Salah, Hayya `Ala 'l Falah ... Salah, Ya Rasul Allah. Sometimes he would sit right there at the doorsteps. When he saw the Prophet emerging from the inner door, he would begin to say the iqamah (ie. even before the Prophet had reached his place of Prayer). Once he was late in saying the iqamah of the fajr Prayers because `Ayesha (ra) had asked him to help her in something. When Bilal returned to the mosque it was beginning to get bright. He called the Prophet (saws) for Prayers. When he emerged, Bilal, in his characteristic simplicity, told him that it was `Ayesha who had delayed him. The Prophet (saws) didn't have anything to say about him, `Ayesha, or the delay. (Abu Da'ud, Salah al Tatawwu`)
Reports tell us that Bilal had a clear, melodious, deep toned and melancholic voice that reached the very hearts of the people. No wonder. For a well called adhan is as refreshing to the ear every time it is called out, as every new morning or evening bird song is. Adhan is never tiresome to hear. In fact, it has a strange effect upon the non Muslims too. `Aqqad has quoted Gerar De Narval from his book Middle Eastern Travels: "The first time I heard the adhan I was moved by a feeling so strange but powerful that defies description. I asked the interpreter what the Caller was saying. He told me, `He is saying there is no god save One.' I asked him what it was he was saying subsequently. He told me, he says, `O sleepers. Have trust in Him Who does not sleep!'" `Aqqad also quotes La Fcadio Hearn as saying: "Without any doubt the serene Muslim call to Prayer, especially when one happens to hear it for the first time, has a tranquilizing effect upon the heart."
A Fit Recompense
The second Islamic year after Hijrah, stands out for the eventful battle of Badr. The Makkans were itching for it ever since the Muslims migrated to Madinah. As a matter of fact, what is called as migration was in reality an expulsion. And so the Muslims had the right to fight back their way into Makkah. Specially so in view of the fact that the Makkans had expropriated the property they had left behind. But, it was not war the Muslims were eager for. They had experienced enough violence in Makkah. All they wanted at Madinah, was to be allowed to lead a peaceful life of their own design without any outside interference. But such were not the designs of the Quraysh. They began to raid the Madinan cattle and threaten its population, Muslims and non Muslims alike, with extirpation. The Muslims had to answer forcefully. As a result a series of battles started. The one at Badr was the first.
Bilal also participated in that `one of the smallest battles in the history of mankind, but one of the most important in its annals for its consequences.' Although the Makkans had declared total war on the Muslims, this particular battle took place for no sound reason. It could have been avoided. For, it was true that in retaliation to the Makkan raid of Madinan cattle, the Prophet (saws) had tried to lay his hands on a Makkan trade caravan that was returning from Syria, but the Muslims had missed the caravan by miles and days. Before the Makkans could reach Badr, the caravan was in safe territory, far beyond the reach of the Muslims. And the Quraysh knew about it. Those of them that had come out in its defense ought to have returned peacefully to Makkah, as suggested by some of their own men who objected to the confrontation, on grounds that their objective had been achieved. But the fact is, the great majority of them were warlike men who hadn't displayed their valor in a battle for quite a spell. And so, as with every warlike people who have acquired military strength, they were itching for a fight and impatient to go for a kill. If a pretext had not arisen, they'd have worked up one.
The two armies, if it is right to call the Muslim force that was accompanying the Prophet an army, met at Badr, a sleepy town some 200 kilometers from Madinah. The Makkans were there with all their strength, and the Muslims with all their weakness. Here, for the first time, the persecuted faced the persecutors. The former slaves faced their former tyrannous masters. Fathers faced their sons, uncles their nephews and kin, kin. For many it was a strange situation, and many were unwilling to fight, especially the Muslims, who hadn't set out of Madinah prepared for a war.
So a number of people from both sides preferred withdrawal to a showdown, but Abu Jahl foiled all attempts at peace.
How many proud leaders haven't there been that have led their nations to swift destruction?
It is strange, but true. The unbelievers see God as needing assistance of others for the execution of His will: supposed deities in the clouds and priests on the earth. The God of their belief interferes seldom, and only in the affairs of the individuals, leaving nations to manage their affairs as best as they can by themselves without any guidelines from above. That's where their leaders discover a void. They exploit a crisis, evoke national pride and lead the masses into battles to meet head on with their destruction!
They say they can't successfully explain the causes of the first and second world wars! Will they ever?
So they met head on: the two, the pagans and the Muslims. One believing in One God, the sole Lord of the universe, surrendering their will to Him and pursuing the way of life that pleased Him, and the other, equally, if not fanatically, believing in the historical truths as manifested in the mysterious appeal of the deities upon their virgin souls!
The two faiths, contradictory to each other, made all the difference in the results of the battle: one was fighting in the way of God and the other in the way of the Devil.
It was, however, as we have said, a strange situation for both. Kin facing kin; especially for the Muslims. It wasn't easy for them to be fighting those whom they hated to see in the battle field lined up on the opposite side. "Only if they hadn't come," they would have wished. But now there was no escape. For, having come so far, facing each other with swords in their hands, the consideration that came first was that of faith. Does the faith come first or the kin?
For the Muslims at Badr, when it came to Allah, Islam and Muslims, the kindred didn't matter. It was faith that came first. There was never a second thought. For them it was a simple question ... straight logic. Do you believe in the Qur'an? Do you believe in its words? ... Do you really? ... Or do you not? ... To whom is your allegiance due: first and foremost? To your country? Your society? Your family? Your wife and children? Or, to the Lord your God?
Do you belong to the main stream of believers trickling down since the time of Adam? Or do you belong to the small or big pond that must sooner or later dry up. It has to dry up in the scheme of God: you willing or unwilling; humanity willing or unwilling. For the world is God's. He is guiding it to an end. The world will go His way. You aren't going to change its course. You only decide to be with God's forces or with forces opposed to Him. Your choice is not going to alter the outcome. Allah's forces will be victorious. If not in this battle, in the next. If not in your life time, in somebody else's. If not in this century, in the next. But it is going to prevail.
So choose your alliances. And your choice will speak of your faith and not the words that you pronounce and quite solemnly too! But you forget, or tend to forget even after you have learnt, that words are empty. Deeds lend them weight. Deeds are like sponge. The more water in it, the weightier it gets. And the water of the sponge of deeds is sincerity with Allah. The more sincere you are, the more the same volume of sponge will weigh! Words are empty, weightless, unworthy.
So choose your alliances. Choose your religion. And the choice is not always in the battle fields. It has to be made every day, every hour.
The first generation of Muslims had chosen their religion. They hadn't inherited faith. Can faith be inherited? They had opted for it in the full light of the day. It was a hard choice that had demanded a hard price. And they had paid that price: the price in pain, agony, in days darker than the nights, in persecution, in self respected men being dragged around by the street boys, in proud men being abused in public and in decent people being misbehaved with before the multitudes. They had paid their price in fear during the day and agony in the night. Was there a way out then, at that time? Was there any hope of the survival of faith or the faithful at that time? No. There wasn't as much hope as of the Eskimos becoming a super power within a couple of years. Yes, there were promises of ultimate triumph. But when? Probably after them. Yet they had hung on, obtrusively, rugged heartedly ... sincerely.
The believers at Badr were people who had made their choices and had paid the price for those choices. They left an example to be long followed. Following them, Muslims in every age have made their own choices to prove that theirs is not an inherited faith. It has been earned. History tells us that whenever calls have been made across the centuries, some have always responded positively and appeared at the examination tables. Their acceptance of the call meant they stood against the currents: the powerful currents that often swept them off their feet. But they hung on, clutching at whatever they could. They had the pressure of the world upon them. They were called fundamentalists, extremists, fanatics and what else not. They became strangers to their friends, relatives, even their own wives and children. They were pitied for their choices, laughed at, jeered, persecuted, thrown out of jobs and into prisons. Some of them were executed. But they stayed firm and squarely faced the challenge thrown at them. They didn't run away, didn't ask for mercy. They turned into reality the fiction of the death on the cross. They didn't flinch, didn't weaken down:
"Of them were some who had made true their promises and some who are waiting (for an opportunity to arise)" (ch.33 v.23)
So the Muslims at Badr were those that had made their choices. They were facing an army three times larger in number than their own. As for arms, they were almost empty handed when compared to their enemies. The Makkans were armed to their teeth. The Muslims were so short of arms that they began the battle by throwing stones at the enemy. "As if you can win a war with stones," the skeptic, both believing as well as the unbelieving, would chuckle. But they forgot who was throwing the stones. Hadn't David shot a stone before?
There was another aspect that cannot be lost sight of, of which the Muslims were well aware. The Muslims were weak only in material power. In terms of moral and spiritual power, they were the strongest single group on earth at that time. And moral power, they knew, is undefeatable, indestructible.
Therefore, for the Makkans the battle was lost almost from the start as had one Makkan himself predicted. There was no hope for them. God was angry with them. Victory was impossible. Muslims were right on top of them assaulting them from all sides. They were soon in complete disarray. While some fought on bravely, others gave themselves up as prisoners as many began to flee. The Muslims pursued them ... cutting them down.
It was in this bedlam that Bilal spotted his former master Umayyah ibn Khalaf. He was an unwilling participant who had originally decided to stay back. But it was `Uqba b. Abi Mu`eet and Abu Jahl who had enlisted him, by cunning. When they had learnt of Umayyah's unwillingness they had gone to him with perfume and kohl. `Uqba pushed forward perfume and told him: "Here! Take it. This is for you. For you are a woman!" Then Abu Jahl thrust forward kohl (finely ground black paste applied to the eyelids for beautification) at him and said: "Here. Take it and apply to your eyes. For you are a woman!" Umayyah grunted, cursed them, but had to join in. (Rijal Haul al Rasul)
Another thing could have bothered him. His brother Ubayy b. Khalaf had once been told by the visiting Sa`d b. Mu`adh that the Prophet (saws) had predicted that he would kill him. "Did you hear him say that, yourself?" Ubayy had asked. "Yes," Sa`d had said. Now, although neither Umayyah nor his brother Ubayy had testified to the faith, they took this prediction seriously. They couldn't have been very willing to take chances.16 (Bukhari, Kitab al Maghazi)
But once in, Umayyah proved to be a useful participant, at least until the action began. He put into service the best camel that could be purchased in Makkah, at the fabulous price of 300 Dirhams, which was no mean figure then, and later, as the army marched across, he was one of the nine leaders who slaughtered ten camels a day, in turns, to feed the army.
There were two more reasons why he wasn't very optimistic of the outcome of the battle. One, `Atika, the daughter of `Abdul Muttalib, who was still in Makkah, had dreamt those days that something terrible was going to befall the Makkans. And two, when he had consulted the deities whether it was wise for him to participate, by throwing the lots, the answer he got from the dumb things was a firm "No." And although he would have known that those earthen idols could neither be right nor wrong, Umayyah perhaps wanted to use the negative answer as a pretext for staying back. But `Uqba ibn Abi Mu`eet and Abu Jahl proved to be smarter.
So the unwilling participant, having contributed heavily to the provision, adopted a low profile during the battle and sought to be taken a prisoner when he saw the tables turn. His captor was `Abd al Rahman ibn `Auf who, admittedly, had his eyes more on the expensive coat of mail his prisoner wore, rather than the prisoner himself. He was leading them away ... he and his son ... when Umayyah's destiny spotted him.
"Get this enemy of God, O Believers," cried out Bilal in great anxiety as he spotted him. "May I not live if he lives."
This was Bilal's voice. It couldn't be neglected. Everyone who heard him, answered with his sword. In a minute Umayyah b. Khalaf and his son were surrounded. `Abd al Rahman protested and even pleaded with Bilal to spare his captives. But Bilal repeated his words, "May I not live if this man lives." And if it was Bilal saying that, there was no listening to others, unless it was the Prophet himself.
Someone struck at Umayyah's son. The sword returned with its prize. It was the shank. At this Umayyah let out a shriek, which was so loud and piercing that it shook the hills around. It was the agony of a father crying out for a piece of his heart, his son. But it was too late for him to demonstrate that he had a kind spot in his heart. It had no soft spot for Bilal anyway. In a moment he too lay in the dust. Bilal and Khubayb b. Yasaf had despatched him to Hell. The information that Bilal killed Umayyah is in Isti`ab. Waqidi has added the name of Khubayb.
Hell! A fit recompense for him who chose to reject the Prophet and tortured a believer in him. A believer who? Bilal!
Not only he. All those that had once raised their heads high in pride and arrogance lay in the dust that day. In all, seventy of them.
And `Abd al Rahman ibn `Auf used to say referring to the incident: "May Allah show mercy to Bilal. He neither let me have the prize of the captives, nor the coat of mail!"
As opposed to his former, hefty master, the frail looking Bilal played an active role in the battle. According to a report it was Bilal who killed Zayd ibn Mulayyis that day. He also took one lion, who proved to be a chicken, prisoner. It was Umayyah b. Abi Hudhaifah ibn al Mughira, a namesake of his former master and another pride of the Quraysh army.
When the battle was over, the Prophet (saws) ordered the carcasses of the Makkans thrown into a pit and covered with earth. They were dragged by their feet and given a push down the pit. But when they attempted to drag Umayyah's corpse, surprisingly, they found it had begun to decay. When they tried to drag him and he was a heavy man flesh began to fall apart. It was strange that the corpse should have begun to decompose within a couple of hours! And of none other save Umayyah?! The Prophet (saws) ordered them to leave his corpse where it was. The same has been reported of the communists in Afghanistan, whose corpses alone would begin to decompose within hours, despite snow around. Another, similar nature of Allah's punishment of the dead, comes to mind. It is in Tirmidhi. `Imarah b. `Umayr reports: "When the head of `Ubaydullah b. Ziad (the killer of Hussain) was brought among others and displayed in a mosque, after he was killed by the forces of Ibrahim b. Ashter in Mosil, I went up there. When I entered I heard the people crying out excitedly, `Here it is. It's come back.' I closed in on to see a thin short snake slithering between the heads, curling itself through the nostril into Ziad's head and, after a while (re emerging from his mouth). Then it disappeared. After a while the people were again saying, `Here it is. It's come back.'"
No Mean Contributors
Sometime later another incident occurred in Madinah which demonstrated the status of Bilal and the likes of him in Islam.
It was the period when the Prophet had entered into a treaty with the Makkans at Hudaibiyyah some six years after hijrah. By this treaty both the parties were free to move about in each other's territory. Abu Sufyan, an infidel until then, and the Commander in Chief of the Quraysh army, was visiting Madinah. Bilal, Suhayb, Salman and others ... the same lot that were treated like dirt by the Makkan unbelievers ... were sitting together and perhaps passing an evening in a pleasant chat ... when Abu Sufyan passed by. One of them was heard remarking: "Hasn't yet a sword of God taken a share of the neck of this enemy of God?" (meaning Abu Sufyan).
Those words would have been very provocative for Abu Sufyan. He must have felt incensed. In his own eyes, as well as in the eyes of a large world around him, he was no ordinary a person. He was the chief of the chiefs, the uncrowned king of Makkah, who could make or break treaties.
Abu Bakr also overheard the remark, and didn't like it. "Do you say that of a chief of Quraysh and a noble man?" he said in some anger and surprise. He spoke of it to the Prophet (saws). But Abu Bakr had not expected the Prophet's stern response, especially in view of the fact that Abu Sufyan was a guest in Madinah, and tradition required respectful behavior. There was another reason for Abu Bakr to be expecting Abu Sufyan not being treated so roughly. He was the Prophet's father in law. But the Prophet (saws) said in a reproachful tone: "Perhaps, Abu Bakr, you have angered those men with your remark. And if you have angered them, you have angered your Lord."
This would have jolted Abu Bakr. But it was Abu Bakr, the greatest of men in Islam after the Prophet. He went straight to those men and said: "Did I displease you my brothers?"
They were no less generous: "Not at all. May Allah forgive you." (Muslim)
How High Can You Rise
Badr was only the first battle. Several others followed both against the Makkan as well as non Makkan unbelievers. They never gave up their efforts to destroy Islam root and branch. Bilal participated in every battle the Prophet fought. It was the fall of Makkah that finally broke the will of the Arabs.
This happened in the eighth year after hijrah. Bilal was also there accompanying the Prophet when he entered Makkah triumphantly, leading an army of 10,000.
When the Prophet cleared the holy House of its 360 idols, and the time for Prayers came, who else was it but Bilal that was ordered to make the first call for Prayers? It was obvious that it should have been he. But something else was not so obvious. Bilal was asked to climb the roof of Ka`ba, the House built by Ibrahim, and make the call from there.
It is possible that since this was the first adhan in Makkah, and the time for proclamation of the victory of Truth over falsehood, it was also a time suitable to announce of ranks in Islam. Hence it was the roof of the holy Ka`ba that was chosen as the site most visible and Bilal as the figure most prominent. It is also said that it was aimed at pulverizing the pride of the Makkans.
But that was not all of the honor to Bilal. When the Prophet ordered the door of the holy Ka`ba opened, and entered into the House to clear the place of its deities, idols and pictures, it was none other than Bilal ... along with the custodian of the key `Uthman b. Talha, and the Prophet's adopted son Usamah b. Zayd ... that entered the House of God. Other reports suggest that when the Prophet (saws) did his Prayer inside, it was Bilal that was asked to guard the door and not allow anyone to enter while the Prophet prayed. Who was it, therefore, who could tell onrushing `Abdullah ibn `Umar about the exact spot where the Prophet had Prayed inside the House but Bilal?!19 Bukhari, Muslim and others.
That day, after the Prophet himself, the former slave was the most important man at the most important site in Islam. What an ascent for a man once dragged in the streets of the same town with a rope around his neck?!
Say: `Master of the Kingdom,
Thou givest the kingdom to whom Thou wilt,
and seizest the kingdom from whom Thou wilt,
Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt, and Thou
abasest whom Thou wilt; in Thy hand
is the good. Thou art powerful over everything.'
(The Qur'an 3:26)
Today one may not feel the full significance of Bilal's entry into the Ka`ba along with the Prophet, or of him raising his voice from its rooftop proclaiming the greatness of one God from there. After Islam it sounds like a thing most ordinary, but it was an unthinkable and unbearable event for the proud, non believing Arabs then. It was as unthinkable and unbearable to the Quraysh of Makkah as unthinkable and unbearable it has been to the Christians to imagine a Black Pope. If that happens we know the consequence. The dismay might prompt many to give a final farewell to Christianity. Said a proud Arab, when he heard Bilal's call from the rooftop of the Ka`ba: "It is lucky of Sa`id b. `Aas (a Makkan chief) that he is dead and no more alive to be hearing this Negro calling from this Sanctuary!"Ibn Ishaq and others
But this was not merely all that high that Bilal had risen. Much earlier the Prophet had heard his footsteps echoing in Paradise while Bilal was yet there on earth. One morning the Prophet asked Bilal: "What's your special virtue Bilal, that when I entered Paradise last night, I heard your footsteps ahead of me?"
In reply Bilal did not mention the persecutions he had gone through, the fearful nights and the apprehensive days he had left behind, the thirst and hunger he had borne, the exemplary courage and patience he had demonstrated, et al, although if he had said those things he would have been speaking the truth. But he didn't talk of them. Rather, "Nothing special," said Bilal in his characteristic childlike style, "except that whenever it is nullified I make a fresh ablution, and whenever I make a fresh ablution, I offer as many bows (raka`at) to God as I can, as also after every adhan." (Siyer A`lam al Nubala'.) Similar reports are in Bukhari and Muslim.
People do not understand this simple statement from Bilal and the humble position that he took. They think it is a couple of bows of Prayer after every ablution that earned him this honor. Honor it was yes. And a few bows of Prayer after every ablution, yes. And a cause enough yes. But what has to be understood is that the few bows of Prayer were those of Bilal, and that made all the difference.
Also, it may be noted, if the Prophet was called to the presence of his Lord in the heavens to be rewarded for the ten most difficult and trying years of his life, some of his true followers were not forgotten!
Not As Humorless As That
Bilal also took part in many other campaigns that were led by the Prophet (asws) before and after the fall of Makkah. He remained the right hand man of the Prophet during those journeys, as he was back at home in Madinah. It is said that he was in charge of the provisions and spoils of war.
Another interesting incident took place during the campaign of Khayber. In those times the people were used to travelling in the coolness of the night and rest after the sunrise to avoid facing the hot sun. One night, during that campaign, the journey became too long. Eyelids were drooping down despite efforts to keep them open. At last the Companions requested the Prophet to halt and allow them some sleep. He feared they would not rise up for the fajr Prayers. But Bilal promised he would stay awake and wake them up at dawn.
The Prophet agreed and they halted. Everyone made a quick bed for himself and as quickly released his soul to the bliss of the other world.
One can imagine the kind of sleep it would have been for them! It was the sleep of the believers who had no tension in their lives. They were at complete peace with the Creator as well as the created. What was there to worry them when in the bed? Further, on this occasion they had been travelling heavily ... on foot and on beast ... through the best part of the night. Their bones, muscles and flesh, everything in the body could be aching. Moreover, it was the late hours of the night ... the sweetest part of any night. One can imagine the kind of sleep it would have been for them as good as that of the seven sleepers!
To drive away his own sleep, Bilal took to Prayers and prayed until he could. Then, as dawn neared and fatigue increased, he sat down resting himself against the back of his sleepy camel. He must have begun to stare at the horizon, waiting to spot the first streak of dawn when he would rise up and pierce the heart of the desert with the proclamation of God's greatness.
But the fatigue!
And the coolness of the night approaching its end!
The lullaby of the desert breeze!
And the constant stare into the heart of darkness!
Bilal was sound asleep too!!
It was the warm rays of the sun that awoke everyone, including the Prophet. It had never happened before that the Prophet had missed to offer his Prayer on time. His Companions too had perhaps never experienced such a thing before. Everybody was upset. Bilal was upset too. But when the Prophet asked him, "And what about your promise, Bilal?," Bilal was quick witted enough to reply, "The same thing overtook me O Apostle of God, as that which overtook you."
"You spoke the truth," was the reply. Abu Da'ud, Ibn Majah.
Bilal demonstrated that he concealed a sense of good humor behind that serious countenance. The Prophet demonstrated that he accepted a point of good sense and humor when the occasion arose. In fact one report says the Prophet smiled when Bilal said that: so simply, but so factually. The incident also reminded everyone of the closeness of relationship between the Prophet and Bilal! Who else could have dared to reply to the Prophet in those words?
The closeness, however, did not make Bilal proud in the least. Two years later, when some ten men came down to Madinah from the tribe of Banu Mahari, it was Bilal who used to carry lunch and dinner for them! Few writers, preachers, speech makers, and chair persons can imagine themselves doing that today. When `Umar called him Sayyiduna, he had some sound reason to do so.
A Friend is Gone
In the tenth year after Hijrah the Prophet died. His death brought a dramatic change in Bilal's life. He never felt the same again and never recovered from the loss. It is said that he cried like a baby at his death. Later too, the pain must have lasted as a dull lump somewhere in the heart rendering all on earth rather uninteresting. That's evident from Bilal's attitude in latter days.
A day after the Prophet's death Bilal went up to make the usual fajr call. But when he reached "I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah," the pain in the heart surged forward. The hedges around the tear bank broke down and streams of tear began to roll freely down his cheek. Bilal couldn't continue. When the crying subsided, he somehow finished the rest of the call in a low voice and came down with heavy footsteps.
After that Bilal didn't report for the adhan any more. Abu Bakr, the first khalifah asked him to make the call. Bilal refused. When he insisted Bilal told him: "If you freed me, the day you freed me from Umayyah b. Khalaf, for your own sake then I'll do as you say. But if you did it for Allah's sake, then don't force me to do what I don't like to." Abu Bakr told him: "I had freed you for the sake of God." (Bukhari, Manaqib.) So the matter rested there and Bilal ceased to call for Prayers.
Madinatun Nabiyy was not the place where Bilal could find peace after that. There were too many things in it to remind him of the past. He decided to leave the town and take part in jihad. But Abu Bakr wouldn't let him go. Bilal was too dear to him. One day Bilal pressed hard for release. Abu Bakr pleaded: "Bilal, I entreat you in the name of Allah, and in the name of whatever service I have rendered you, that you do not abandon me in my old age." (Siyer A`lam al Nubala' )
Powerful words. And for many, strange words too! But to understand them we'll have to search for the lost pages of history if there were any. If found they might throw some light on the reasons for such love, respect and trust that existed between them: a relationship, the foundations for which had been laid, perhaps, in pre Islamic times. Aside that, Abu Bakr knew Bilal's true worth. To him Bilal was not dear because of his abilities to govern territories or shape policies, but because of his abilities to rule the hearts and shape the lives of people. To Abu Bakr, "faith" was important. To us the "material effects" of faith are more important. Bilal would perhaps be a useless man today were he to be with us: without the qualities of tongue and pen and without a degree, humbly but proudly suffixed to his name. That is the bitter reality that we face today. We may admire him but only on the pages of history. In the contemporary life, we grossly ignore the likes of him and value little the qualities that made him, him.
The words, anyway, were too powerful for Bilal to say anything in reply and he had to abandon the idea for some time.
Some reports suggest that Bilal managed to extract permission from Abu Bakr by entreating him, just when he had climbed the mimber to deliver the Friday sermon, with those famous words: "Abu Bakr, did you free me for Allah or for yourself?" Abu Bakr replied: "For Allah." "Then let me go to jihad". Abu Bakr relented.
After Abu Bakr, Bilal once again began to make moves to embark northwards with the intention of jihad. But it was the second khalifah `Umar now who wouldn't let him go. He used to call Bilal Sayyiduna (our master), and would say: "Abu Bakr Sayyiduna, freed Sayyiduna Bilal". How could he let him go, the one who was closest to the Prophet after Abu Bakr? Back in Makkah, some 25 years ago, hadn't the Prophet, when someone had asked him how many people believed in him, said: "Two! One, a free man, and another, a slave?" The free man, Abu Bakr, was gone. How could he bear to lose the "third of the three?"
It would not be surprising if `Umar felt a part of the deceased Prophet himself, there with him, when Bilal was around!
As Abu Bakr, `Umar too was well aware of Bilal's worth. Once, during his caliphate, when some men who held important positions in the pre Islamic days, and were late in becoming Muslims, asked to be let in while `Umar was in the company of some people, he asked them to sit down where they were ... near the entrance. But when Bilal and others showed up moments later he got up to receive them and gave them a place next to himself. The former chieftains were displeased. The displeasure showed itself in their faces. At this one of them ... the moderate one ... addressed the rest: "Friends. I can see displeasure writ large on your faces. But if you are angry, be angry with yourselves. People were invited and you were invited. They responded but you delayed. How will you react if they are invited and you are ignored on the Day of Judgment too?"
According to another report, it was `Umar who said on this occasion: "By Allah. I have treated them and you the way the Prophet (saws) would have done, were he to be here with us today. And this is how Allah will treat you and them tomorrow when the Scales are set up. They overtook you here and shall overtake you there."
And, if `Umar knew Bilal's worth, his son `Abdullah couldn't have remained much behind in demonstrating forcefully that the situation couldn't be altered anymore. It will stay so until the Day of Judgement. Dhahabi has recorded that once a poet praised another Bilal Bilal b. `Abdullah in words: "And Bilal b. `Abdullah is the best of all Bilals," `Umar's son `Abdullah ibn `Umar, didn't appreciate the piece. He rebuked the poet, saying, "You have lied. Bilal b. Rabah is the best of Bilals." (Siyer A`lam al Nubala')
Ibn `Umar's reaction gives us some idea of how sensitive the Companions were about the Companions to be defending them in such remote matters. Hence we see that when Bilal came to know that some people said he was better than Abu Bakr, he reacted: "How can they place me above him, when I'm one of his good deeds!" (Siyer A`lam al Nubala'). What a way to put things firmly in their place!
So `Umar wouldn't let him go. But Bilal's desire for jihad was too intense to be curbed. He persisted and `Umar had to finally give in.
Therefore, we find Bilal next at the Syrian front. The mujahideen everywhere must have felt proud to have him with them. It was no ordinary thing for them to have at their side one of the first converts to Islam, a life long companion of the Prophet, his personal secretary, the standard bearer, treasurer and executive and, a muedhdhin of a mosque of which the imam was Muhammad!
Obviously there would be no giving in to the enemy when they had a person of Bilal's stature among them. Bilal was also there, as specifically stated by Tabari in his history, at the fall of Hims (or Homs). There were many Companions in the battle field with them. But Bilal with his tall, slender and slightly stooping figure, clad in the majestic shroud of modesty, would have stood distinct. Though it is another thing that the war days are not time for people to gather in a tent, sip tea and listen to gossip. War times are times of death, injuries, cries of the maimed, and, overhaul of the arms for next day's battle. Bilal couldn't have been given the attention they would have wished.
Nevertheless, honored by men and honored by God, Bilal used to say of himself, especially when people spoke of his virtues before him: "I am only a Negro who was a slave until yesterday!" How close was Bilal to the Prophet who had said: "I'm but a man born of a woman that used to eat bread made from course flour."
But what is worthy of note is that despite his self effacement Bilal wasn't unaware of his place in Islam or among the Muslims. He accepted it just as another fact of life. When `Umar (ra) sent his representative to make inquiries about the conduct of the famous commander Khalid ibn al Waleed but the Commander in chief Abu `Ubaydah, as well as the representative himself who was sent with the orders, felt some discomfort at beginning the inquiry, it was Bilal who came forward and removed the turban from the head of the lion, the Sword of Allah, Khalid ibn al Waleed, in front of the multitudes for the enquiry to begin. No one could dare do it when the Commander in chief himself felt diffident. It is said that Abu `Ubaydah had actually concealed the first letter of `Umar in an effort to delay the inquiry. But `Umar wrote to him a second time asking him to take action. And the action involved de officiating Khalid from the post of a Commander, conducting the enquiry and reinstalling him if found innocent.
Further, if Bilal, on his own, without anyone inviting him, thought it fit to take the initiative, who in the world would have had the courage to restrain him?
Yet modesty was there, through and through. It never left him. For it was not the modesty of an artificial man, nor an acquired trait. In Bilal, modesty had found a human form. Hence when the enquiry proved Khalid innocent, it was Bilal again who restored his headgear saying: "We respect our leaders and obey them." (Al Bidaya wa al Nihaya)
When `Umar toured the Syrian region in the 16th year after hijrah, Bilal was there to meet him at the town of Jabiyah. From there on they travelled together to Bayt al Maqdis. It was either in Jabiyah or in Jerusalem that people asked `Umar to ask Bilal to call for the Prayers. Bilal said, "I had promised myself that I would not call for Prayers after the Prophet. Nevertheless, today I shall do it for you."
He rose up and began to call in the manner he used to in Madinah ... in the same soft tone and in the same melodious, heart piercing voice.
The call brought back memories of the Prophet's time. `Umar was deeply moved. Tears began rolling down his cheeks. He wept so hard, although such a strong man, that it caused him hiccups. None of the other Companions that were present, such as Abu `Ubayda and Mu`adh b. Jabal or others could hold back the tears that wetted their graying beards. (Ibn Sa`d. The incident is widely reported)
These were strong men who had subdued a third of the then known world. When they fell upon an enemy, they fell like lions upon gazelles, scattering them in all direction. Yet here they were, crying like children!
The two, toughness and softness of the heart seem, to many, conflicting qualities. But not in a believer. For his personality is composed of layer upon layer of qualities. Each layer has its bank of qualities that he draws from while dealing with different situations. A believer is capable of reconciling many irreconcilables.
As for the ability to cry ... it comes from a tender heart and is the very sign of faith. If, under the influence of unbelievers, or due to hardness of their hearts, Muslims have also begun to believe that to cry is a weakness, and one comes across those that appear very religious and scholarly but are incapable of crying, while the Prophet has promised Paradise to him who remembers Allah when alone, and the remembrance brings tears to his eyes ... if that is so, then it is not for the heavens to cry at the loss of the humans.
That was one adhan of Bilal in Syria. But it had a long lasting effect. Waleed used to say: "To this day the adhan of the Syrian Muslims is of the same style as the adhan of Bilal." (Siyer A`lam al Nubala')
A Quiet Life
Bilal had gone to Syria primarily for jihad, but with time he took to liking this historical land of Prophets. When the Syrian conquests were over he decided to stay back and when `Umar visited the area he requested him that he and Abu Ruwayha be allowed to remain there.
Probably it was after he had settled in Syria that people gradually began to know him. Some families were keen to create matrimonial alliance with him. So it was no problem for Bilal to get married a second time, although we do not know what happened to the first wife as to whether she was then alive or not. There are some reports that speak of a third marriage in between the one arranged by the Prophet, and the last one. It was contracted with a girl of the Zuhra tribe. Further, it is not clear whether the following incident took place in Syria, or in Yemen to which Bilal is reported to have once headed along with his brother, in pursuit of a match. When he and another person decided to get married into a family, they went together and Bilal did the talking. For Bilal it was occasion for some plane talking. He said: "I'm Bilal. And this is my brother. The two of us are originally slaves from Habasha. We were misguided and then Allah guided us. We were slaves and Allah gave us freedom. If you will accept the proposal, then Allah deserves to be praised. But if you refuse, then Allah is great."
The above sentences speak volumes about Bilal's frankness, modesty, unshakable faith in God and readiness to accept life as it came. His Islam seems to have truly liberated him. Events of life did not touch him as they passed by. Both ways, it was the same for him. This way it was Al hamdulillah, and that way it was Allahu Akbar!
It is said that the family accepted both of them and they were married. (Ibn Sa`d)
Indeed, not only was Bilal acceptable to honorable families, his recommendation itself was enough for someone else to find a good match. It happened that when someone who claimed to be an Arab asked for a girl's hand in marriage, her people's reply was: "The proposal would be acceptable to us if you would bring Bilal's recommendation." The man went up to Bilal and sought his help. Bilal agreed and went to those people. He told them: "People, I'm Bilal the son of Rabah, and this is my brother in Islam whose faith and character is not exemplary. Now it is up to you, either you accept the proposal or reject it." They accepted the proposal perhaps on grounds that he had spoken of the man as his brother, despite the fact that Bilal did not conceal the truth. (Ibn Sa`d)
One may pass over this incident as a very ordinary one. But those who have first hand experience of the ordinary Arab's prejudice against non Arabs will know that it was a great achievement on the part of Islam that a non Arab's recommendation was sought for an Arab. Save for those few who practice Islam in all walks of life and are knowledgeable and so rare they are even today it is unthinkable for an Arab that a non Arab should recommend his case to another Arab! He will feel sunk in shame if that were to happen.
So Bilal settled down to a quiet life in Syria. He had taken up residence just a little outside of Damascus with a small plot of land adjacent to his house in which he did some gardening. He must have heard the Prophet (asws) say: "No Muslim will plant a tree by which men, animals or birds will profit, but it will be counted as charity from him." (Bukhari)
In spare time he also sold arms. A hadith preserved in Musnad Ahmed reports `Amr b. Mirdas as saying: "Once I went to Syria. There I spotted a thick lipped, big nosed man with arms (piled up) before him. He was saying: `People! Take these arms. Seek to improve yourself. Fight in the way of Allah, the Mighty, the Exalted ... This is what I have heard the Prophet (saws) say.' I asked someone: `Who is this man?' I was told: `This is Bilal.' (Al Fath al Rabbani, vol. 14, hadith 17)
Bilal hadn't given up jihad.
He didn't seem to have played any significant role in public life, except, perhaps, for the stand he took about the conquered lands of Syria and Iraq. He was of the opinion that they be distributed among the Muslims that had participated in jihad there, as had the Prophet (saws) distributed the lands of Khyber. He had Zubayr b. al `Awwam in support of his opinion. And the two pressed hard on `Umar ibn al Khattab. But `Umar, backed by Uthman, `Ali and Talha was of the opinion that the lands remain in the hands of the original owners and khiraj be applied. After several sessions of consultations at Madinah, the second opinion prevailed. (Muhammad Hussein Haykal, Al Farooq `Umar)
The Farewell Visit
But a believer's life hardly knows rest and tranquility. What is known as "getting settled" is a phenomenon that true believers rarely experience.
It is said that the Prophet appeared in Bilal's dream one night and said: "Bilal, how long this mirthless life? Hasn't the time come for you to visit me?" Although Dhahabi has quoted this in his al A`lam, he has said that the report has some strange elements in it, another way of saying it must be taken with a pinch of salt. The report is also in Ibn al Athir. Old wounds opened up. Wasn't it the Prophet's absence from Madinah that had made the city unattractive to Bilal? Not merely unattractive, it was painful to live there without the one who gave Light to the city.
The call made him restless. He started for Madinah at once. Arriving there, he went straight to the Prophet's grave. Tears were rolling down his cheeks.
When Hassan and Hussain, the Prophet's grandsons appeared, he hugged them both, kissing them all over their body, like in old times. They desired that he make the call for fajr Prayers from the Prophet's mosque. He complied.
When he ascended the roof as usual and said: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Madinah shook. People lost control of themselves. It made fresh those memories that lay deep down in the heart and soul: valued no less than the heart and soul themselves. All those that had seen the days of the Prophet began to weep from their hearts. When he reached: Ash hadu anna Muhammadar Rasulullah, even women could not hold themselves back in their quarters. They came out and filled the lanes, involuntarily heading for the Prophet's mosque, weeping and sobbing uncontrollably perhaps hoping, even if the chance was one in a million that maybe the Prophet was alive, and Bilal was obeying his command to call. Finished with his call, Bilal would descend, and after a while of attending to bits and pieces of work, would go to the door of the Prophet's house and say ... in a soft voice ... "Salah, Ya Rasul Allah", just as in the bygone days ... and lo ... the Prophet would emerge and lead in the Prayers! Who knows?!
It is said that such a moving scene has not been witnessed by the Madinans ever since.
After spending some time there Bilal returned to his quiet life in Damascus. It proved to be a farewell visit. A year or two later, in 20 A.H. or so, when he was about as old as the Prophet when he died, sixty three, he fell ill. The illness prolonged until people around him knew that he would not last long. When his wife saw him in pain, she would say: "O misery." Bilal would open his eyes from his delirium and say: "Rather. Oh joy! Tomorrow I shall meet the beloved: the Prophet and his Companions."
There is difference of opinion over the exact year of his death. Most probably it was 20 A.H. It was a quiet life up there in Damascus and a quiet death. Bilal did not invite the attention of the world to himself. None of the Companions of the Prophet (saws) did that. The story that is narrated of Thawban has another reason behind it. The story as re narrated by Ibn Kathir from Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal and as reported by Shurayh b. `Abeedah goes that Thawban, another of those who frequently attended upon the Prophet (saws), fell ill in Hims during the Governorate of `Abdullah b. Qurt al Azdi. When someone visited Thawban he asked him if he knew how to write. When the man said yes, he dictated him a letter to ibn Qurt in which he said: `Were a man who had served Musa and `Isa were to be here in your midst, surely you would have visited him.' When `Abdullah ibn Qurt read that letter he jumped to the fright of the people around him. He hurried to Thawban and sat with him for an hour. When he rose up to leave, Thawban pulled him by his gown saying, `Sit down. I have a hadith to narrate.' Then he said, `I have heard the Prophet (saws) say: "Seventy thousand of my people shall enter Paradise without going through the reckoning, with every thousand of them being accompanied by seventy thousand."' (Ibn Kathir, verse 110, surah Al Nisa')
And the reason that seems to be behind this effort to draw attention was firstly, to get a friend to his bedside and talk to him before dying, and secondly, to relate a hadith to someone, albeit in a dramatic manner, to assure of its survival among the coming generations. And Allah knows best.
Although Bilal seems to have adopted the kunniya of "Abu `Abdul Kareem," "Abu `Abdullah", and "Abu `Amr" at various times, it doesn't seem he left anyone behind, except, as `Aqqad has put it, his legacy.
But if there has been at least one Christian of our own age who wrote a tributary life of Bilal in no less than twenty pages, then in the earliest age too there was at least one Christian who knew the true worth of Bilal. Once Warqah b. Nawfal, the respected elder of Makkah, an ascetic and a Unitarian Christian, happened to pass by Bilal while he was being tortured. He turned to Bilal who was saying Ahad, Ahad, and said: "(Yes), One, one, by God, Bilal." Then he went up to Umayyah and others that were torturing him and said: "I swear by God that if you kill him in this way I shall make his tomb a shrine." Hilyatu al Aulia Some critics have said that Warqah ibn Naufal died before the Prophet (saws) had begun to openly proclaim the Islamic message. But, first, it is not very certain when he died, and second, it could be another Christian monk that might have been visiting Makkah, and the narrator mistook him for Warqah. It must be borne in mind that since the Prophet's proclamation of his mission, Makkah was a frequent point of visit both by the Jews as well as the Christians, who came in singly as well as groups, with the secret intentions of checking on the Prophet (saws) if he met with the conditions set by their Scriptures.
Today Bilal's tomb is in Damascus. But it is not a shrine and not a legacy.
Bilal's name is the legacy.
Allah's peace and blessings on him and the likes of him in all ages. And may Allah inspire us to follow in their footsteps and in the footsteps of our Prophet, Muhammad, alaihi al salat wa al salam, and admit us in their company in the life to come. And surely, granting us that is not hard for Allah. He is Capable of everything.
Aamin! Wa al hamdu lillahi rabbil `alamin.
The following are three of the forty four ahadith narrated by Bilal, out of which four are in Bukhari and Muslim:
1. Harith ibn al Harith bin Mu`awiyyah al Kindi and Abu Jandal bin Suhayl were making ablution and talking about wiping over the socks, instead of washing the feet, when Bilal passed by. They asked him and he related the hadith: "You can wipe over the khuffayn and the turban (`imamah)." (Jami` Saghir, hadith no. 1644).
[Note: Khuffayn (or what are today known as jurrab (pl. jirab) are those thick socks that will not tear off if one walked some distance with only them on. According to the Hanafiyya, it is applicable to those socks that will not, because of their thickness, let water ooze out immediately].
2. Usamah b. Zayd says the Prophet (saws) and Bilal entered the market. The Prophet (saws) went some way to meet a call of nature. When he returned I asked Bilal what was it that the Prophet (saws) did. He said: "He went to attend the nature's call. Then he made ablution washing his face, hands and wiping his head and the khuffayn. And then he Prayed." (Nasa'ee: Taharah, no.95)
[Note that with the last sentence Bilal sent home the point that the ablution in question was not for benedictions alone. It was valid for religious rites].
The Night of Qadr
3. Sunabihiyy says I asked Bilal if he knew of the Night of Qadr and he said it is the twenty seventh of Ramadan. (Bukhari: Al Maghazi) (There are various ahadith on this subject. The scholars generally believe that the night of Qadr should be sought in the last ten nights of Ramadan.)
4. Bilal reports the Prophet (saws) as having said: "Offer your fajr Prayers after the dawn has lit up the sky, for it carries greater rewards." Actually, Bilal figures as a narrator in the footnote of this hadith in Tirmidhi (Bab Isfar al Fajr). And the chain of narrators of this footnote version has a weak reporter in the line. But the actual hadith, with Rafi` b. Khadeej as the narrator, is trustworthy (Tuhfatu al Ahwazi), as are others of similar nature, (footnote of A`lam al Nubala'). But the exact meaning and implication is contended (ed.).
If people imagine that the whites are the only racists on earth then they are as much prejudiced against them as the fair colored have ever been against the dark colored. No doubt the unbelieving whites notch the first place, and beat others by miles. But there isn't an evil on earth that is not the share of those that are not closely bound to Allah in love and obedience. Islamic literature is not without lies invented by the racists and fastened upon the Prophet (saws) as speaking derogatorily of the Black race. But hadith experts have painstakingly chased every reporter of such traditions, and have exposed him and his lies. Here are two of the several ahadith taken from Nasiruddin Albani's collection of fake traditions in a work called Al ahadith al Da`eefa wa Athruha al Sa'iyy fi al Ummah.
Tabrani and Khateeb have recorded a narration that says that the Prophet (saws) said: "Let me alone of the blacks. The blacks are for their bellies and sex." (no. 727) But the report is fake. Imam Bukhari has judged one of the reporters as "very untrustworthy."
The inventor of the following report seems to believe that an apology is due from him after his derogatory remark about the Blacks. It is reported that Prophet (saws) said: "If the Negro is well fed he will take to adultery, if he is starving he will steal, although, admittedly, there is good amount of tolerance and nobility in them." (729) This hadith is also a fabrication. Abu Da'ud, Nasa'ee and others have distrusted one or more of the chain of the infamous narrators.
There are several other fibs concerning the Blacks. But Ibn Jawzi and Ibn Qayyim have examined each of them and declared that none can withstand scholarly criticism.
And, almost as if some kind hearted buddies have tried to offset the above, we also have some untrustworthy reports that speak of the virtues of the Africans. For instance a hadith recorded in Ibn Hibban, Tabrani and `Asakir, reports the Prophet (saws) as having said: "Be mindful of the blacks for three of the prominent dwellers of Paradise are of the blacks Luqman the wise, Najashi and Bilal the muedhdhin. But according to Ibn Jauzi, Dara Qutni and Albani the report is not trustworthy (even if the statement might be true: au.) Albani
Scholars have also shown that the much publicized story of Abu Dharr calling Bilal `the son of a black woman' did not happen with Bilal ibn Rabah. It was another Bilal.
It should be of interest to note that while it is most often the subject of Prayers and cleanliness in which Bilal is the narrator, yet out of several traditions that have come to us concerning the virtues of adhan none is reported by the first muedhdhin himself.
For instance the hadith of Ibn Majah: "None of the jinn, men, trees and stones hear the adhan but shall bear witness in his favor," is a narration reported by Abu Sa`eed. The hadith: "The callers shall be of the longest necks on the Day of Judgement," is preserved in Ibn Majah and narrated by Mu`awiyyah ibn Abi Sufyan. Similarly, the hadith: "When a man raises his voice in adhan he is forgiven to the extent his voice reaches," which has been preserved by Abu Da'ud and other compilers, is narrated by Abu Hurayrah.
Although, as the preceding pages show, Bilal was so well tuned to the Prophet's thoughts, that it rarely happened that he wan unhappy with a thing that Bilal did. Undeniably, the Prophet (saws) was a very patient person, but it is undeniable that Bilal provided little cause for criticism. At most two or three occasions can be pointed out when the Prophet (saws) had to admonish him, or, a step further, reproach him.
Once, during the campaign of Khyber, when the Muslims, having conquered Al Qamus, a Jewish fort at Khyber, sent two women prisoners to the Prophet in the custody of Bilal. He chose to take them past the Jews that were slain in the battle. When the women saw them, one of them slapped herself in the face and threw dust on her head. When the Prophet (saws) saw her he said, "Take this devil out of my sight." And then he chided Bilal: "Had you no compassion, Bilal, that you brought those two women past their dead husbands?"
The occasion when the Prophet (saws) admonished Bilal was when he saw some dates in his safekeeping. He asked him what it was. Bilal told him that those were dates that he had saved for him (the Prophet) and his visitors. "Spend Bilal," said the Prophet (saws), "and fear not poverty from the Owner of the `Arsh." (Safwatu al Safwah). Perhaps it was the effect of such admonition that Bilal used to give away a little more than what the Prophet (saws) would order him to give. As for instance in the case of Jabir when the Prophet (saws) ordered Bilal to pay an ounce of silver, Jabir himself reports that Bilal gave him a little more than that. (Ibn Ishaq)
Admiration and love are good things, but should not be based on ignorance. It is a loving, but ignorant person behind the hadith which reports that in his adhan, Bilal pronounced sheen as seen. Equally ignorant followers have used the hadith to escape from the rigors of tajweed. But experts of hadith have declared the report baseless. "Far from that", says Ibn Kathir," he was a gifted man of words." What Ibn Kathir was alluding to is that a gifted man of words does not suffer from the deficiencies of the tongue.
Ibn Kathir wasn't exaggerating. Recall Bilal's words, "How can they place me above him, when I'm one of his good deeds?" This writer is yet to come across another, more eloquent way of acknowledging a debt. Only Bilal could have put it so simply, so truthfully.
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