Bilal, the Ethiopian

This post is about something historic, something recent, something African, something Arab…and all of it relevant. With the recent events in Syria, it’s good to begin this series of articles with a reminder about a blessed companion of the Prophet (saws) who is buried in Damascus, and who embodies Culturally Speaking’s ethos.

Bilal ibn Rabah Al-Habashi, (the Ethiopian) is well-known as the African Muslim who called the early Muslims to prayer. But he was much more than that. In addition to lending his magnificent voice to the adhan and being a humble believer who was promised paradise, he was, in today’s terms, the Prophet’s personal administrative assistant. He was in charge of the Prophet’s schedule and finances, as well as his trusted companion on the battlefield.

Bilal was a slave in Mecca, the “property” of a man named Umayyah bin Khalaf. Bilal lived a difficult life during his pre-Islamic days because Bin Khalif was not a kind man by any means, although he kept Bilal strong and treated him as valuable property. When Bilal heard the message of Islam, he marveled at, among other things, its doctrines of human equality – slaves being treated kindly, fed well and not overworked. He saw his freedom in Islam and was among the first to become Muslim. Of course his master didn’t react kindly to his conversion.

As both punishment and incentive to renounce Islam, Bin Khalif frequently placed Bilal on the hot sand under the harsh desert sun with a bare chest and a boulder placed on his ribcage. Bin Khalif mocked him and asked, “Why doesn’t your God come and save you?” Bilal said nothing but “Ahad, Ahad,” God is one, God is one. This infuriated Bin Khalif not only because he was a polytheist, but because the implied belief in human dignity for all went against his treasured self-superiority.

The more Bilal insisted that God was one, the more torment was inflicted upon him, until one day Abu Bakr approached his master during one of these sessions and offered to buy him. Bin Khalaf knew by this point that there was no chance Bilal would renounce Islam, and the price that Abu Bakr offered was twice what a slave would normally bring. So he sold Bilal to Abu Bakr, who immediately freed him.

When the adhan was adopted as the call to prayer, Bilal’s habit was to stand on a rooftop every morning and call, “O Allah, I praise you and I ask your help for Qur’aish, that they may accept your religion.” Then he made the call to prayer. When the time for prayers arrived during the day, Rasoolullah (saws) would say, “Bilal, relieve us from it,” meaning “Bilal, relieve us from these worldly concerns by calling us to the tranquility of prayer.”

Tomb of Bilal in Damascus, Syria - Photo courtesy of ""

When the Prophet died, Bilal was too grief-stricken to stay in Medinah. He ceased to make the adhan and traveled instead. In this way he came to be buried in Damascus.

Now, some 1400 years later, people in Syria and all over the world are standing up in the face of violence and oppression and demanding the human dignity bestowed upon them by Allah in the Qur’an – the same universal rights that inspired Bilal to stand up to Bin Khalaf in the middle of the Arabian desert so many years ago.

At Culturally Speaking our goal is to help create a world where everyone’s humanity is esteemed, everyone’s culture celebrated, everyone’s religion respected and everyone’s contribution valued. Just as Islam teaches.


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