February marks Black History Month here in the United States, a time dedicated to honoring the African Americans who fought tirelessly for their dream of equality. To celebrate this month, we wanted to highlight Black Muslims who contributed greatly to the history of Islam, starting with a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) named Bilal ibn Rabah.
Bilal was the son of an Arab man, Rabah, and a Black princess, Hamamah. They were important members of their community before being taken as slaves to Makkah. There, Bilal was born and grew up as a slave. Because of his intelligence and strength, Bilal was a slave to the royals of Makkah. His master was a staunch opponent of Islam, Umayya bin Khalaf.
On one occasion, Bilal overheard Umayya speaking about the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) during the early days of Islam. The notion of believing in one God is something Muslims consider as inherent in all people. From the little Bilal overheard, he accepted the belief in one God. Due to his saying “Ahadun, ahad” meaning, “One, one” about God, Bilal was subject to much torture. This torture included being tied up, starved, spit on, dragged by a collar in the desert, publicly whipped, and burned with iron. He endured all this while still saying, “One, one.”
Later in Bilal’s life, a Companion named Umar asked him why he only said “one.” Bilal responded that if he knew anything more than that about Islam, he would have said it. This shows his incredible faith, that by just overhearing a small portion of a conversation about the message the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him), Bilal was able to accept the religion and gain the strength to stand up for his belief.
Before his torturers could kill him with a massive rock on his back, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) and his Companion Abu Bakr heard about Bilal and what he endured. Abu Bakr came to the scene to buy Bilal’s freedom, no matter the cost. Upon his freeing, the Muslims called him sayyiduna, our master. This shows the honor and immediate acceptance the Muslims had for one of the faith’s adherents, even though moments prior he was mistreated in the most horrible ways.
Bilal holds the status of being the first person to make the adhaan, the call to prayer. The Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) appointed Bilal himself to this position. Bilal did this first in Madinah, then on top of the Kaba in Makkah after the Muslims were able to reenter the land. After the death of the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him), Bilal was unable to make the call to prayer due to his extreme sadness. He could not even remain in Madinah because the loss of his beloved friend was too much for him to bear.
Some years later, Umar, the caliph at the time, requested Bilal to make the call to prayer once more—this time in Jerusalem. Bilal agreed, and the Muslims heard his voice once again with tears in their eyes because the last time they heard his voice call this adhaan, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) was still with them.
About this esteemed Companion, the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) said, “I heard the sound of the steps of your shoes in front of me in Jannah [Heaven]” (Bukhari).
From this little glimpse into Bilal’s life, we learn of a man who was extremely strong and true in both his faith and body. He physically endured torture we cannot even fathom for saying “Ahadun, ahad” having only known a single thing about Islam: that God is one. His status in the religion is one of great ranks, as he was a very close Companion to the Prophet (may the blessings and peace of God be upon him) so much so, that he received the glad tidings of Paradise.
May God be pleased with Bilal, and may we be steadfast in our belief just as he was.