Bilal Ibn Rabah
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|Bilal ibn Rabah
Arabic: بلال بن رباح
|Titles: al-Habashi Arabic: التمار and Sayyid al-Mu’azzin Islamic miniature from Siyer-i Nebi (16th century, Turkey), depicting Bilal giving the call to prayer|
|Birth Year||580 AD|
|Known For||Being a loyal companion of Muhammad and the first muezzin in Islam|
|Occupation||Secretary of Treasure of The Islamic State of Medina|
|Died||March 2, 640AD(aged 59)|
Bilal ibn Rabah Arabic: بلال بن رباح (580–640 AD) also known as Bilal al-Habashi, Bilal ibn Riyah, and ibn Rabah was one of the most trusted and loyal Sahabah (companion) of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca and is considered as the first muezzin, chosen by Muhammad himself. Born as a slave, Bilal was among the emancipated slaves freed by Abu Bakr due to the Islamic teachings of slavery (see Muhammad's views on slavery). He was known for his beautiful voice with which he called people to their prayers. He died sometime between 638 to 642, when he was just over sixty years old. Bilal ibn Rabah, rose to a position of prominence in Islam. His respected stature during the birth of Islam is often cited by Muslims as evidence of the importance of pluralism and racial equality in the foundations of the religion.
Birth and early life
Bilal ibn Rabah was born in Mecca, Hejaz in the year 580 AD. His father Rabah was an Arab slave while his mother, Hamamah, was a former princess of Abysinna who was captured after the event of Amul-Fil (the attempt to destroy the Kaaba) and put into slavery. Being born into slavery, Bilal had no other option but to work for his master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf. Through hard work, Bilal became recognised as a good slave and was entrusted with the keys to the Idols of Arabia. However, racism and sociopolitical statues of Arabia prevented Bilal from achieving a lofty position in society.
Muhammad Abdul-Rauf in his book, Bilal ibn Rabah, states,
- "He (Bilal) was of a handsome and impressive stature, dark brown complexion with sparkling eyes, a fine nose and bright skin. He was also gifted with a deep, melodious, resonant voice. He wore a beard which was thin on both cheeks. He was endowed with great wisdom and a sense of dignity and self esteem"
Similarly, Sir William Muir in his book, The Life of Muhammad, states,
- "He (Bilal) was tall, dark, and with African feature and bushy hair."
Conversion to Islam
When Muhammad announced his prophethood and started to preach the message of God, Bilal would listen to what was being conveyed. The preaching of Muhammad attracted Bilal towards Islam and he was among its earliest converts. Bilal renounced idol worship and as a result was subjected to torture.
Persecution of Bilal
When Bilal's master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf found out, he began violently to torture Bilal. With Abu Jahl instigating, Umayyah tied Bilal up and had him dragged around Mecca as a means to break Bilal's faith. In addition, children mocked Bilal for disobeying Umayyah and rejecting idol worship. Although the extent of torture was painful, Bilal never renounced Islam. Even when the torture was taken to the extreme, Bilal would repeat "Ahad Ahad" (God is absolute/one). Frustrated upon Bilal's refusal to denounce Islam, Umayyah became even more angry. He ordered that Bilal's limbs were to be stretched out and tied to stakes lying flat on desert sand, so that he could feel the intensity of the sun and the Arabian heat. He would be whipped and beaten while tied to the stakes. Constantly refusing to denounce Islam, Umayyah became frustrated and ordered that a large boulder/stone be placed on Bilal's chest. The boulder heated by the sun burned Bilal's body while also crushing him. However, Bilal remained firm in belief and continued to say "Ahad Ahad". After such punishments, news of this slave reached some of Muhammad's companions who told Muhammad of the slave. Muhammad then sent Abu Bakr. Eventually, Abu Bakr negotiated a deal with Umayyah to purchase Bilal and emancipate him from slavery.
In 622 AD, the year of the Hijra, Bilal along with the other Muslims migrated to Yathrib (Medina). Over the next decade, he accompanied Muhammad on all his military expeditions. According to Islamic tradition, Bilal was a lawyer revered by Muslims for his majestically sonorous renditions of the adhan. Bilal was given the honor of carrying Muhammad's spear, which he used from 624 AD onward to point the direction of prayer.
He fought in the Battle of Badr, in the aftermath of which he killed his former master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, in spite of the protestation of Umayyah's capturer and long-time friend Abdur Rahman bin Awf. Bilal was also present in all of the major events and battles, including the Battle of Uhud and the Battle of the Trench.
In January 630 AD, the Muslims were able to regain Mecca through nonviolent means. After the Muslim forces captured Mecca, Bilal ascended to the top of the Kaaba to call the believers to prayer. It was the first time the call to prayer (Adhan) was heard within Islam's holiest city.
After Medina emerged as a well established state, the Prophet appointed Bilal as the secretary of treasure of the Islamic State of Medina. Bilal was give a prominent position within the Islamic State, as in he became the first treasurer of Islam who was in charge of the Bayt al-Mal (Treasury). As the treasurer of the Bayt al-Mal, Bilal allocated all funds. In addition, he distributed funds to widows, orphans, the wayfayers (travelers), and people who could not support themselves.
Both Sunnis and Shias agree that the Adhan (call to prayer) was established by the Prophet Muhammad in 1 AH (approximately 622-623 AD). He chose Bilal as the first muezzin because of his deep, melodious, and resonant voice. Although Sunnis and Shias have a slightly different versions of how Ahdan was established, both agree that Islam's first muezzin was Bilal.
Sunnis believed that the Prophet Muhammad specifically chose Bilal to become the Muezzin (caller to prayer) of Islam. He personally taught Bilal how to call the Muslims to prayer. However, other Sunni traditions suggest that a companion suggested to the Prophet that they should blow a trumpet or ring a bell in order to alert the Muslims before the time of each prayer. According to the Sunni traditions the Prophet did not accept this suggestion because he did not want to adopt the Jewish or Christian customs. One day, Abdullah ibn Ziyad, a citizen of Yathrib (Medina), came to see the Prophet. Abdullah ibn Ziyad explained to him that while he was half-awake or half-asleep, a man appeared before him in his dream. And told Abdullah that the human voice ought to be used to call the Muslims to prayer. In addition, the man also taught Abdullah the Adhan along with the manner of saying it. The Sunni historians state that the Prophet was pleased with the idea and adopted it. After adobting the Adhan the Prophet called Bilal and taught the Adhan to him.
Similarly, according to Ibn Ishaq, Abdullah Ibn Zaid Ibn Abd Rabbihi went to Muhammad with his story that he saw Adhan in his dream, Muhammad, approving the method for calling to prayers, told him to ask Bilal, who had a marvelous voice, to call the Muslims to prayer (the Adhan). As Ibn Ishaq told the story (in Albert Guillaume's translation):
When the Apostle was told of this he said that it was a true vision if God so willed it, and that he should go to Bilal and communicate it to him so that he might call to prayer thus, for he had a more penetrating voice. When Bilal acted as muezzin, Umar, who later became the second caliph, heard him in his house and came to the Apostle... saying that he had seen precisely the same vision. The Apostle said 'God be praised for that!'
Though slightly different versions of the story exist, all agree that Islam's first muezzin was Bilal. Muhammad later learned of Bilal's unique way of praying and unique voice with which he spoke from the soul and as a result of this Bilal became the first muezzin.
"When noble traits are described in our country, thou art pointed out as a model among us."
Shias on the other hand, do not accept Abdullah ibn Ziyad’s story. They state that the Adhan was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad just as the Qur'an al-Majid was revealed to him. Shias believe that the Adhan could not be left to the dreams or reveries of some Arab. Furthermore, Sayed Ali Asgher Razwy states,
- “If the Prophet could teach the Muslims how to perform lustrations, and how, when, and what to say in each prayer, he could also teach them how and when to alert others before the time for each prayer.”
According to the Shia traditions, the angel who taught the Prophet how to perform lustrations preparatory to prayers and how to perform prayers also taught him the Adhan.
Bilal never called Adhan again. However, when Umar visited Jerusalem during his caliphate, the Sahaba requested Umar to ask Bilal for one last Adhan. When Bilal called the Adhan, all of the Sahaba became very emotional remembering the Prophet Muhammad.
After Muhammad died in 632 AD, Bilal was one of the people who did not give bay'ah (oath of allegencee) to Abu Bakr. It is documented that when Bilal did not give bay'ah (oath/pledge of allegiance) to Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab grabbed Bilal by his clothes and said,
"Is this the reward of Abu Bakr; he emancipated you and you are now refusing to pay allegiance to him?"
To which Bilal replied,
"If Abu Bakr had emancipated me for the pleasure of Allah, then let him leave me alone for Allah; and if he had emancipated me for his service, then I am ready to render him the services required. But I am not going to pay allegiance to a person whom the Messenger of God had not appointed as his caliph."
"If you have emancipated me for yourself, then make me a captive again; but if you had emancipated me for Allah, then let me go in the way of Allah."
The following is a poem by Bilal on his refusal to give Abu Bakr bay'ah:
- By Allah! I did not turn towards Abu Bakr,
- If Allah had not protected me,
- hyena would have stood on my limbs.
- Allah has bestowed on me good
- and honoured me,
- Surely there is vast good with Allah.
- You will not find me following an innovator,
- Because I am not an innovator, as they are.
Being exiled from Medina by Umar and Abu Bakr, Bilal migrated to Syria. He was among the earliest "Shias of Ali" (supporters of Ali and followers of Ali's teachings), and remained so until his death. Shaykh Abu Ja'far al-Tusi, a Shia scholar, has also stated in lkhtiyar al-Rijal that Bilal refused to pay allegiance to Abu Bakr.
Bilal's death is disputed between historians. Some believe that he died in 638 AD. While others believe he died in 642 AD. It is said the Bilal was 63 years old when he died.
The majority of historians believe that Bilal's actual grave is at Bab al-Saghir in Damascus, Syria. However, there is another grave in the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, in a village called "Rabahiya". This grave is seen as a shrine built in Bilal's honor.
He (Bilal) died in Damascus in 17 or 18 AH, but some say 20 AH, or even 21 AH when he was just over sixty years old. Some said he died in Medina, but that is wrong. That is how it is in al-Isabah and other works such as the Tahdhib of an-Nawawi.
When Bilal's wife realized that death was approaching Bilal, she became sorrow. It is documented that she cried and said,
- "What a painful affliction!"
However, Bilal objected his wife's opinion by stating,
- "On the contrary, what a happy occasion! Tomorrow I will meet my beloved Muhammad and his host (hizb)!"
Shia state that Bilal was one of Ali's devouted followers after the death of Muhammad, and that he died in Damascus around 20 AH, and was buried within the Bab al-Saghir cemetery.
The descendants of Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi are said to have migrated to the land of Mali in Africa. Furthermore, Bilal's decedents established the Mandinka clan Keita, who later helped to construct the Mali Empire (one of the richest empires that existed in the world).
Though there are some disagreements concerning the hard facts of Bilal's life and death, his importance on a number of levels is incontestable. Muezzin guilds, especially those in Turkey and Africa, have traditionally venerated the original practitioner of their noble profession. The story of Bilal is the most frequently cited demonstration of Islam's views of measure people not by their nationality nor social status nor race, but measuring people by their Taqwah (piety). Which is demonstrated in Prophet Muhammad's The Farewell Sermon in Mina:
O people! Your Lord is one Lord, and you all share the same father. There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs, nor for non-Arabs over Arabs. Neither is their preference for white people over black people, nor for black people over white people. Preference is only through righteousness.
In 1874, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a former slave of African descent, wrote:
The eloquent Adzan or Call to Prayer, which to this day summons at the same hours millions of the human race to their devotions, was first uttered by a Negro, Bilal by name, whom Mohammed, in obedience to a dream, appointed the first Muezzin or Crier. And it has been remarked that even Alexander the Great is in Asia an unknown personage by the side of this honoured Negro.
Ali Asgher Razwy, a Shia Muslim Scholar, in his book A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims states:
If anyone wishes to see the real spirit of Islam, he will find it, not in the deeds of the nouveaux riches of Medina, but in the life, character and deeds of such companions of the Apostle of God as Ali ibn Abi Talib, Salman the Persian, Abu Dharr el-Ghiffari, Ammar ibn Yasir, Owais Qarni and Bilal. The orientalists will change their assessment of the spirit of Islam if they contemplate it in the austere, pure and sanctified lives of these latter companions.
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