Bilal Ibn Rabah: A Living Lesson on Human Freedom

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The news of Bilal’s conversion to Islam was a shock to the chiefs of the Bani Jumah whose Abyssinian slave converted to Islam and followed Muhammad. What Bilal went through after that is a lesson of the true meaning of freedom and how Islam came to lay the grounds of human rights

human freedom

Blackness of skin and bondage would not decry the greatness of the soul if it found its faith, adhered to its Creator.

As for Bilal, he adopted an attitude that would honor not only Islam, even though Islam was more worthy of it, but also all humanity. He resisted the harshest kind of torture like all pious great men.

Allah made him an example of the fact that blackness of skin and bondage would not decry the greatness of the soul if it found its faith, adhered to its Creator, and clung to its right.

Bilal gave a profound lesson to those of his age and every age, for those of his religion and every religion, a lesson which embraced the idea that freedom and supremacy of conscience could not be bartered either for gold or punishment, even if it filled the earth. He was stripped naked and laid on hot coals to make him renounce his religion, but he refused.

The Messenger (peace be upon him) and Islam made this weak Abyssinian slave a teacher to all humanity in the art of respecting conscience and defending its freedom and supremacy.

Strength of Faith   

They used to take him out in the midday heat when the desert turned to a fatal hell. Then they would throw him naked on its scorching rocks and bring a burning hot rock, which took several men to lift from its place, and throw it onto his body and chest.

This savage torture was repeated every day until the hearts of some of his executioners took pity on him. Finally, they agreed to set him free on condition that he would speak well of their gods, even with only one word that would allow them to keep their pride so that the Quraish would not say they had been defeated and humiliated by the resistance of their persevering slave.

But even this one word, which he could eject from outside his heart and with it buy his life and soul without losing his faith or abandoning his conviction, Bilal refused to say.

Yes, he refused to say it and began to repeat his lasting chant Instead: “One… One!” His torturers shouted at him, imploring him, “Mention the name of Al-Laat and Al-`Uzzaa.” But he answered, “One . . . One” They said to him, “Say as we say.” But he answered them with remarkable mockery and caustic irony, “Indeed my tongue is not good at that.”

“One… One”

So Bilal remained in the melting heat and under the weight of the heavy rock, and by sunset they raised him up and put a rope around his neck. Then they ordered their boys to take him around the mountains and streets of Makkah. And Bilaal’s tongue did not mention anything other than his holy chant: “One… One.”

When the night overtook them, they began bargaining with him, “Tomorrow, speak well of our gods, say, ‘My lord is Al-Laat and Al `Uzzaa,’ and we’ll leave you alone. We are tired of torturing you as if we are the tortured ones.”

But he shook his head and said, “One… One.” So, Umayah ibn khalaf kicked him and exploded with exasperating fury, and shouted, “What bad luck has thrown you upon us, O slave of evil?

By Al-Laat and Al-`Uzzaa, I’ll make you an example for slaves and masters.” But Bilal answered with the holy greatness and certainty of a believer, “One… One.”

And he who was assigned to play the role of a sympathizer returned to talking and bargaining. He said “Take it easy, Umayah. By Al-Laat, he will not be tortured again. Indeed Bilal is one of us, his mother is our slave girl He will not be pleased to talk about and ridicule us because of his Islam.” But Bilal gazed at their lying cunning faces, and his mouth slackened like the light of dawn. He said with calmness that shook them violently, “One… One.”

Freedom

It was the next day and midday approached. Bilal was taken to the sun-baked ground. He was patient, brave, firm, and expecting the reward in the Hereafter.

Abu Bakr As-siddiq went to them while they were torturing him and shouted at them, “Are you killing a man because he says, ‘Allah is my Lord?’”

Then he shouted at Umayah lbn khalaf, “Take more than his price and set him free.” It was as if Umayah were drowning and had caught a lifeboat. It was to his liking and he was very much pleased when he heard Abu Bakr offering the price of his freedom, since they had despaired of subjugating Bilal.

And as they were merchants, they realized that selling him was more profitable to them than his death.

They sold him to Abu-Bakr, and then he emancipated him immediately, and Bilal took his place among free men. He lastly tasted freedom. When As-Siddiq put his arm round Bilal, rushing with him to freedom, Umayah said to him, “Take him, for by Al-Laat and Al-`Uzzaa if you had refused to buy him except for one ounce of gold, I would have sold him to you.”

Abu Bakr realized the bitterness of despair and disappointment hidden in these words. It was appropriate not to answer, but because they violated the dignity of this man who had become his brother and his equal, he answered Umayah saying, “By Allah, if you had refused to sell him except for a hundred ounces, I would have paid it.” He departed with his companion to the Messenger of Allah, giving him news of his liberation, and there was a great celebration; the first taste of freedom.

Thirteen Years Later… Allah is One

After the Hijrah of the Messenger (peace be upon him) and the Muslims to Al-Madinah and their settling there, the Messenger instituted the Adhan. So who would become the muezzin five times a day? Who would call across distant lands, “Allah is the Greatest” and “There is no god but Allah”?

It was Bilal, who had shouted thirteen years before while the torture was destroying him, “Allah is One… One.” He was chosen by the Messenger that day to be the first muezzin in Islam. With his melodious soul-stirring voice, he filled the hearts with faith and the ears with awe when he called:

Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest

Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest

I bear witness that there is no god but Allah

I bear witness that there is no god but Allah

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah

I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah

Come to Prayer

Come to Prayer

Come to Success

Come to Success

Allah is the Greatest, Allah is the Greatest

There is no god but Allah

Allah’s Justice

Fighting broke out between the Muslims and the army of the Quraish who came to invade Al-Madinah. The war raged fiercely and terribly while Bilal was there attacking and moving about in the first battle. Islam was plunged into the Battle of Badr, whose motto the Messenger ordered to be, “One… One.”

In this battle, the Quraish sacrificed their youth and all their noblemen to their destruction. Umayah Ibn khalaf, who had been Bilal’s master and who used to torture him with deadly brutality, was about to retreat from fighting. But his friend `Uqbah ibn Abu Mu`it went to him when he heard the news of his withdrawal, carrying a censer in his right hand. When he arrived he was sitting among his people. He threw the censer between his hands and said to him, “O Abu `Ally, use this. You are one of the women.”

But Umayah shouted at him saying, “May Allah make you and what you came with ugly!” And he did not find a way out, so he went out to fight.

What other secrets does destiny conceal and unfold? `Uqbah ibn Abu Mu’it had been the greatest supporter of Umayah in the torture of Bilal and other weak Muslims. And on that day, he himself was the one who urged him to go to the Battle of Badr where he would die, just as it would be the place where `Uqbah would die! Umayah had been one of the shirkers from war. Had it not been for what `Uqbah did to him, he would not have gone out fighting.

But Allah executes His command. So let Umayah go out, because there was an old account between him and one of the slaves of Allah. It was time to settle it. The Judge never dies. As you owe, you shall be owed to.

Indeed destiny would be very much pleased to mock the tyrants. Uqbah, whose provocations Umayah used to listen to and follow his desire to torture the innocent believers, was the same person who would lead Umayah to his death. By the hand of whom? By the hand of Bilal himself and Bilal alone! The same hands that Umayah used to chain and whose owner he beat and tortured. Those very hands were on that day, in the Battle of Badr, on a rendezvous that destiny had set the best time for, with the torture of the Quraish who had humiliated the believers unjustly and aggressively, robbed them of their human dignity and freedom. That is what really happened.

When the fighting began between the two sides, and the side of the Muslims shouted the motto, “One . . . One,” the heart of Umayah was startled, and a warning came to him. The word which his slave used to repeat yesterday under torture and horror became today the motto of a whole religion and of a whole new nation.

“One . . . One” Is it so? With this quickness? And with this rapid growth?

Served Right

The swords clashed in the battle and the fighting became severe. As the battle neared its end, Umayah lbn Khalaf noticed `Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf, the Companion of the Messenger of Allah. He sought refuge with him and asked to be his captive, hoping to save his life. `Abdul Rahman accepted his supplication and granted him refuge. Then he took him and walked with him amidst the battle to the place where captives were held.

On the way Bilal noticed him and shouted, “The head of kufr (disbelief), Umayah lbn Khalaf! May I not be saved if he is saved!” He lifted up his sword to cut off the head which was all the time full of pride and arrogance. But `Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf shouted at him, “O Bilal, he is my captive!” A captive while the war was still raging? A captive while his sword was still dripping blood because of what he had been doing just moments before to the bodies of the Muslims?

No! In Bilal’s opinion, this was irony and abuse of the mind, and Umayah had scoffed and abused the mind enough. He scoffed until there was no irony remaining for such a day, such a dilemma, and such a fate!

Bilal realized that he would not be able alone to storm the sanctuary of his brother in faith, `Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf. So he shouted at the top of his voice to the Muslims, “O helpers of Allah! The head of kufr, Umayah ibn khalaf! May I not be saved if he is saved!”

A band of Muslims approached with swords dripping blood. They surrounded Umayah and his son, who was fighting with the Quraish. `Abdul Rahman ibn `Awf could not do anything. He could not even protect his armor which the crowd removed. Bilal gazed long at the body of Umayah, who fell beneath the smashing swords. Then he hastened away from him shouting, “One… One.”

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The article is excerpted from the book “Men Around the Messenger”, which is a translation based on Khalid Muhammad Khalid’s celebrated work in Arabic “Rijal Hawla Ar-Rasul” which represents the real inspirational stories of sixty-four Companions of the Prophet.

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