In commemorating world figures for Black History Month, we start with a legend who is renowned among Muslims as well as non-Muslims. For Muslims, the story of Bilal Ibn Rabbah – also known as the first Muezzin in Islam – has been memorised and taught by all. Here’s a story of a man who started as a black Arab slave and gradually transformed into one of the most influential companions in Islam.
Not An Ordinary Slave
Born in Makkah in the year 580, he was only ten years younger than the Prophet Muhammad PBUH. Before the advent of prophethood, Bilal was just another slave who was under the command of the tyrannical Quraysh leader, Umayyah Ibn Khalaf. This meant the end of the road for many slaves, as Umayyah was part of a tribe that had full authority over Makkah at the time. Despite his mother being an Abyssinian Princess, she was taken captive and used as a slave by Abraha. This naturally meant that Bilal RA would follow suit.
As was the case with many black Arab slaves at the time, Bilal RA was just another handsome, strong and polite man – attributes that he carried with him throughout his entire life. With a burning desire for the ultimate truth and a positive attitude, Bilal RA fast became the first person to become a Muslim of African ancestry.
Bilal’s contemporaries described his physical appearance well by stating that he was very dark, had sparkling hazel eyes, had a light beard and plenty of hair on his head. Although he was an extremely low-ranking member of society, Bilal RA always gave the impression of being a strong, righteous, healthy and confident man.
Conversion To Islam
The story of Bilal’s conversion to Islam is nothing short of inspiring. Bilal RA converted to Islam around the year 615, which was five years after the Prophet PBUH began gathering early converts. Conversion as a black slave was no easy feat at the time, as Quraysh leaders were ready to dish out the worst kind of punishment for acts like this. Those who were not slaves faced much in the way of being mocked, abused and harassed when news spread that they converted to Islam, so you can only imagine the case of Bilal RA.
Pain and Resilience of Bilal
The story of Bilal’s punishment is well-known among many. Umayyah, after hearing of Bilal’s conversion, ordered him to be taken to the desert and stripped naked in front of the blazing sun. On many occasions, Bilal RA was subjected to harsher punishment with rocks being placed on his chest as he faced the scorching heat of the midday sun.
Bilal RA found the call to Islam refreshing, specifically because his parents were both slaves. With Islam welcoming people of any faith, gender, race and rank, Bilal RA fixated on aspects such as monotheism, equality and justice. Knowing that God is one and all of humanity comes under Him, was the reason why Bilal RA dared to repeat the words, “Ahad (One), Ahad (One)”.
As news spread of his torture, the Prophet PBUH sent Abu Bakr RA to scan the situation. As Abu Bakr RA was a wealthy merchant at the time, he offered three slaves in place of Bilal RA. After gaining freedom, Bilal RA recovered with Abu Bakr RA, after which he made his way to the Prophet PBUH and stayed with him for the remainder of the Prophet’s PBUH life.
Bilal: The First Muezzin In Islam
Upon his conversion, Bilal RA became extremely close to the Prophet PBUH. Upon arriving in Madinah after the great migration, ideas were discussed on how the Muslim community can be alerted when its prayer time. One of the companions named Abdullah Ibn Zayd RA had a dream about the Adhan. What’s more, Umar Ibn Khattab RA had the very same dream. After much discussion, it was decided that there would be a call to prayer and Bilal RA would be the one to call out. Thus, he was titled the first Muezzin (caller to prayers) in Islam.
The idea of a black man calling out to prayers was far-fetched by many and was a phenomenon which caused many to become jealous and hateful. But despite the haters, Bilal’s melodic and mesmerizing voice filled Muslims in Madinah with joy and inspiration, as they now had their very own symbol.
Madinah was not the only place to witness Bilal RA performing the Adhan. Soon after the conquest of Makkah, the Prophet PBUH – to wipe out traces of racism in the backwards society at the time – ordered Bilal RA to ascend the Ka’bah and perform Adhan. This was a progressive move and one that shook the polytheists of Makkah at the time. This was it. The call to prayer on top of the Ka’bah was a binding stamp of conquest and a symbol of solidarity, strength and conviction amongst the companions.
Suffering Great Loss
After spending many years with the Prophet PBUH, Bilal RA was extremely affected by his death. The Prophet PBUH was someone who nurtured him, protected him and gave him rank in society, so it naturally made him utter the words, “Oh what grief I’m in if only I had died before this.”
After the Prophet’s PBUH death, performing the Adhan was not an easy ordeal. Although he would begin the call to prayer fine, he began trembling when he arrived at the part about the Prophet PBUH being the messenger of Allah. Finding it extremely difficult to remain in Madinah with reminders and remnants of the Prophet PBUH everywhere he turned, Bilal RA migrated to Sham. It was there that he met with Umar Ibn Khattab RA. Upon request, he performed the Adhan in Masjid al-Aqsa and became known as the first Muezzin to perform Adhan in Makkah, Madinah and Jerusalem!
Juber Ahmed is our Digital Editor and travel enthusiast with a keen interest in Islamic history and heritage. He travels with his wife to various places around the world and writes about his experiences.
Juber's favourite Quote...
"The World Is a Book and Those Who Do Not Travel Read Only One Page" [Saint Augustine]