Just wanted to share the story of Bilal (RA) one of the greatest companions of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). It's quite long but it's definitely worth reading. May Allah reward him with Al-Ferdous.
[Taken from 'Bilal' by H.A.L Craig]
Bilal is remembered for the love people felt for him. He inhabits the heart. But, by the same token, Bilal was so loved and so present in people’s affections that few felt he need to write down much about his life. It was sufficient to say that he was there, always beside the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and loved by him. In the few paintings of this historic moment, usually backward glances in manuscript decorations, Bilal is always easy to recognise. Bilal was black.
The few facts known about Bilal can be told quickly.
He was born in Mecca, the son of an Abyssinian slave called Rabah; in a city of idol-worship, he was tortured for his belief in one God, he was bought and freed from slavery by Muhammad (pbuh)’s close friend, Abu Bakr, he was made the first muezzin, the caller to prayer in Islam; he had the responsibility for the food supplies of the first small armies of Islam; he was so close to the Prophet that he had the duty of waking him in the morning.
After Muhammad’s (pbuh) death, Bilal’s legs, in his grief, failed him. He could not climb up the steps to make the call to prayer again. He died in Syria, probably in 644, twelve years after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death.
Not much to base a life upon- although, from the day of Bilal's conversion, every event in Muhammad’s (pbuh) was an event in the life of Bilal. Moreover, the two pillars of his memory, the love he had for the Prophet (pbuh) and his nearness to the Prophet (pbuh) are enough for a writer who shares the first and is awed by the second.
Muhammad (pbuh) called Bilal ‘a man of Paradise.’
- Bilal tells of slavery
I, Bilal, the child of slaves, was born into slavery and continued in it until the day my owner, the merchant Umaya, decided to put me to death.
A slave has fewer accidents in his life that a free man, but when they fall, they fall. Upon him, the whip; a slave is only skin. But I am an old man know and here in Damascus I am more in danger from the thorns of the roses at my door than I am from the hand of any Umaya, or from any of his headaches or the caprices of his wine bottle.
For a slave never knows, he only anticipates. There is no voice like the voice of your owner. You cannot hide from his voice when he calls you. If you are not in two places, under his eyes or within his shout, you have run away. He bought you and the price you pay is the rest of your life.
It is not my habit to joke about the dead, but I can tell you that when Umaya bought me in the market in Mecca he got more than he paid for. You see, if a man buys a horse he must be careful that the horse will not one day throw him and break his neck. It happens; and when it does, the man has made a bad bargain. But it is only God who decides who will laugh last.
I digress. I must be old indeed to digress before I begin. I cannot give to Umaya, who was only a driver of slaves, too much possession of my memory. Because I, Bilal, slave of Umaya, will tell you of days to be wondered at. I was present- 22 years present- when Muhammad, the Messenger of God, walked the earth. I heard what he said and saw what he did.
- Bilal tells of the man who troubled Mecca
That morning Umaya went as usual to sit with the other merchants beside the Kaa’ba.
I always looked forward to the mornings; squatting with my fellow slaves, whispering gossip, as we watched our masters, at their beck and call. But most we could enjoy the shade; and the shade in Mecca is as breath is to lungs.
For nothing grows in Mecca; no tree, no grass, no flower, and the rocky hills that surround the city hold the splitting heat of the midday sun long into the night. By the rigours of nature, Mecca is among the inclement places in the world. Yet, even in those days, people who knew Mecca could never get it out of their minds.
When away, they longed to return. No oasis or temperate country could satisfy them; it was always pack up and go back.
Even the camels in the desert lifted their heads and lengthened their stride when the word ‘Mecca’ was spoken; even I, a slave, auctioned in Mecca, prodded, pinched and put to run in circles to show my stamina, grew to love the place of my torment.
I can tell you that the water in this silver cup, this cool running water of Damascus, is not to be compared to the tangy sulphurous water of ZamZam trickling up in the courtyard of the Kaa’ba- though I drank it only from the cup of my hand.
Why? Why does that brown struck city, in a desolate valley, without a single tree, without bird or butterfly, without one merciful glance from nature, why does it compel the imagination and pursue the mind? You don’t have to look far.
The black brilliance of the Kaa’ba rises up like a jewel of Heaven worn by the earth; it has shade like the shade of a thousand palms; it is the ultimate oasis.
Even in pagan days it was a place of peace. No man might draw a sword or raise his hand to his enemy or bring any feud, was, disorder or brigandage to the neighbourhood of the Kaa’ba.
The first house of worship of the human race, the Kaa’ba, was built by Abraham, the farther of Ismael and Isaac, who prayed to the One God only. But such was the confusion of mankind, that this great house of reverance had become a warehouse for idols of carved wood and polished stone, the gods of Arabia; gods for day and night, gods for sure legs and lame legs, gods for luck and journeys. There were 360 different gods- and all of then for profit. Not the true profit of religion, which is gained in Heaven and is forever, but the profit of the caravan, which is found in the market-place and comes and goes like spit on a hot stone.
Every year, for an agreed month, the tribes of Arabia came to visit their gods in the Kaa’ba. A great market grew up around the occasion and to it came merchants from Syria, sea traders from Yemen, desert carriers from Persia, slavers from everywhere. The gods and gold were equal merchandise.
I tell you all this to put my story in place, literally where I sat in the shade of the Kaa’ba.
‘There goes the man who talks to God.’ It was Abu Jahl’s voice, and his slave squatting beside me was on his feet before the remark was lost in laughter. So he eased himself down again.
‘Why don’t you walk on water, prophet?’ This was Umaya, my master who now answers in Hell.
Then I saw him pass, Muhammad, the son of Abdullah, walking alone as usual, his face towards the mountains where, it was whispered, an angel had talked to him. He disappeared around the side of the Kaa’ba blown on by the gales at his back- or so it seemed to the laughter-makers, our masters.
But Abu Sufyan was not smiling- and in all Mecca the man to watch after your owner was Abu Sufyan. His story and ours are bound together as are the huntsmen and the hunted, the dog and the deer.
Perhaps the one needs the other; perhaps he helped make us who we are.
Suddenly he stood up and the talk stopped.
‘A man with one god is godless’ he said.
As usual, he had put his finger on the pulse, for pagans divide their superstitions among many gods and cannot, in their hearts, understand the pure certainty of One God. But you could see he was worried.
‘The gods will leave us and give their gifts to another city if we do not curb his blasphemy.’
He looked hard at Abu Lahab.
‘You are his uncle, it is the responsibility of his family to discipline him.’
Abu Lahab was flustered. He had been sitting apart from the discussion, hoping to be left out.
‘Discipline him? Muhammad is 40 years old! I know, I know, he is becoming a disgrace…to me, to his own family; to you, his own class. Yesterday he adopted his slave as his son. Madness! He gives away everything he has to whoever asks. Madness! He feeds the riff-raff, the debtors…everyday there are ten of them at his door. They are unlucky if they don’t get a sheep. What can we do? My nephew is mad.’
Abu Lahab turned from one side to the other as if they could help explain what was inexplicable- a prophet in his own country. In his worry he caught Abu Sufyan’s arm.
‘Tell me, Abu Sufyan: a man in his prime, strong, handsome, not a grey hair in his head, married to a rich wife, a man who can afford the best in Mecca…and what does he do? He sits shivering in a cave on the mountain…is that not mad? He has a warm bed at home! And all because of an angel he believes talks to him…that angel is a ringing in his own ears.’
Here Abu Lahab sat down wearily. His friends were now embarrassed. A madness in the family is every mans fear because nothing can be done and no advice is right. You can only hope sanity will come back by remembering it.
‘Yet a year ago, you all knew him and respected him. You would not have laughed at him then. He judged your disputes, and settled your quarrels. You went to him when you needed him, a man with a fair mind.’
Abu Lahab beckoned to his slave. What he had to say was said, for the time being. It is my grief that Abu Lahab at other times said more and turned towards the lime pits, when the rivers and trees of Paradise were within his reach. But only God knows the whereabouts of souls.
Abu Sufyan had made up his mind.
‘What he says of the gods is one thing- serious, I agree. But the gods will look after themselves. What he says to a man is another thing- and that might be dangerous. But we will find out soon. We will bring the slaves and unprotected men who listen to him.’
- Bilal defies his master
I was standing in slave position against the wall when they brought in Ammar. They pushed his to his knees, but he lifted his head to them. I saw then that it would end badly. Had he been a slave he would have known the protection of the bent head. But he insisted on his rights as a free man, however low on the ladder, and dared to face them.
‘What does Muhammad teach you?’
‘He teaches us that all men are equal before God as the teeth of a comb.’
I know that I, Bilal, the slave against the wall shivered with cold when I heard these words and I know that Umaya grew red in the face and was hot. But a slave has not the same pulse as his owner.
I’ve often wondered why Ammar was so bold that day. He might have said: ‘Muhammad teaches us to pray…to speak the truth…to desire for your neighbour what you desire for yourself,’ and they would have turned him loose. But Ammar, God have mercy on him, opened the book to them:
‘Muhammad teaches us to worship the One God only.’
Abu Sufyan had, I remember, a fly-swat which he would curl around his neck like a living thing. When Ammar said ‘One God’ the fly-swat rose like a swish of dog’s hair on his back.
Abu Sufyan was not the worst- I reserve that pity for the men of Taif- and besides Abu Sufyan’s own slaves thought him not a bad master. He never raised his voice when an eyebrow would do. But he frightened me with his softness and, that day, he frightened Ammar by presuming to talk equally with him.
‘One God?’ he asked, very logically, in a voice that seemed only curious.
‘But we have 360 gods who watch over us, who provide for us.’
I remember then something rare: a white butterfly outside the opposite window that would not go away. I remember Abu Sufyan walking around Ammar. I remember. I remember. And why not? In that room, in the next minutes, all my life changed.
‘Doesn’t Muhammad realize that we live bu giving housing to the gods. Every tribe has its worshipped god. Every year the tribes of Arabia come to Mecca to pray and to buy from us. The gods are both our worship and revenue. And don’t we look after the weak and the poor? Don’t you get your share? Now…’
He paused, as orators do to give themselves platform, and held the room on his next word…‘Were we to replace the 360 gods with one, whom we cannot see, but is supposed to be everywhere, in this garden…in Taif, in Medina, in Jerusalem…on the Moon…where would Mecca be then? Who would come here when they have God at home?’
Everyone seemed satisfied. The merchant prince had put down the One God and a short sentence had been roundly thrashed by a long speech/ the matter might have ended there with no hurt to anyone if my master had not involved me, who had as much part in the proceedings as the wall at my back. But suddenly there was no wall at my back; my name was spoken.
In a sway of silk, Umaya approached Ammar.
‘You say a slave is equal to his master…?’ The silk shivered on his back. ‘Is black Bilal for whom I paid money, equal to me?’
He paused to relish the absurdity of the question. I, ‘black Bilal,’ was really outside the question, ‘equal or unequal.’ I was nothing and therefore neither. Indeed, I might have joined in the laughter as Umaya in a clowning gesture cupped the question in the palm of his hand under Ammar’s nose. No answer was needed. But Ammar- what a fool he seemed then- dared take up the question that everyone else, even Umaya, had dropped.
‘Muhammad teaches us that all men, all races, all colours, all conditions, are equal before God.’
There was silence. Then I heard my name again.
How was I to know that when I was called then, I was called from one life to another? But it is only God who knows the next minute of any of our lives.
I came as bidden.
‘Bilal, show this man the difference between a Lord of Mecca and yourself. Lash his face to teach his mouth a lesson.’
To this day I cannot understand the neatness of the phrase. Except, perhaps, that cruelty is sometimes very neat; certainly torture is precise.
They put the whip into my hand and Ammar looked up at me, offering his face for the punishment.
How can I tell you what happened next? Even now, I cannot look back on that moment without a ringing in my ears and a sense of daze.
I remember, I suppose, very little. Umaya’s bulging eyes and Abu Sufyan’s profile, for he was a man who approved of punishments but would not lower his dignity to watch them.
But Ammar I saw clear. His gaze was pure and peaceful, unafraid, meek but strong. I saw in his eyes strength more powerful than my slavery.
In the moment I, Bilal, changed ownership.
I dropped the whip.
I heard their gasps. They knew what they had seen and I knew what I had done. A slave had revolted.
Ammar scrambled on the floor for the whip. He tried to put it back into my hand. His whispering was like a screaming in my head.
‘Do what they say, Bilal…here is the whip…do it…they will kill you Bilal.’
But this time when I threw the whip down everything became calm to me.
I saw Abu Sufyan gesture to Umaya. I heard Hind’s light laugh and turned towards her. I had watched Hind my whole life without ever daring to look directly at her. So I only saw her in flashes. I did not know, until that moment, that I had already seen all of her. She was only her flashes.
Umaya was calm, even quiet.
‘If you are human enough to have gods, Bilal, then they are gods of your owner. Mine. You will not bring any unseen gods into my slave quarters.’
He glanced at the declining day.
‘I will correct you…but I will wait for the heat of the sun; it has passed its peak today.’
I felt ropes on my wrists and around my neck as they did what they liked with me. I was never more obedient. Then they led me out and threw me down the slave quarters to wait for morning.
- Bilal waits for his death
They left me alone to myself, to stir all night in myself. My master was, as I’ve said, precise in his punishments. A whip in the morning is the best firewood to keep a slave on boil all night- in his description. But I had more to ponder than the whip. I had the sun; Umaya had condemned me to the sun; in Mecca the sun was the cart of execution.
An expectation of death can light many lanterns in a man and, to my grace and favour, that night God granted me light to see by. I saw again my father and mother working in the steam of the dye vats and the tanners’ yard- my father’s strength so exploited and worn down, that what should have been his full manhood was his old age- my mother coughing, always coughing, until life itself was coughed away. Yet that night, I saw again their tenderness and sadness when they looked at me.
They were Ethiopians from across the Red Sea. I never knew how they came into slavery. They never told me. They endured by forgetting, although my mother said once that though I was born to slavery, I was conceived in freedom. So I always knew that in the most mysterious part of my life, its conception, I had not been a slave.
Yet all men receive their life and station without their knowledge; no man may choose his door; no man may say ‘I enter here.’ Such is the human lot.
That night, again, in the ear of long ago I heard my father and mother whispering whether they should kill me and save me the slavery my birth had bestowed upon me. I felt again the tears on my face, not for myself, but for the pain of their love. As with Isaac, I would have submitted to my fathers will and, as with Isaac, it was not to be.
I saw the day when I came of age to be marketed, to become a slave in my own stature. Then sold and resold among the camels and their sheep of one inheritance or another, one shift of ownership to another. Bah!
I laugh at it now- from sticks to kicks to whips.
But that night in Umaya’s slave quarters, tied up from the knees to the neck? I had little laughter in me.
Then, again, in streaks of pain, I began to relive the beauty of the world. The beauty that was passing from me. What was it? A dog barking in the distance; the moonlight on the floor; a man snoring across the courtyard in the depth of his peace. I hardly remember now. How can I?
Thirty years have gone. The mind is too limited to possess itself. Yet I do remember, in that dark night, seeing a blinding daylight a red ladybird upon a stalk. Even today when I see a ladybird I am happy all day.
Ladybirds, ladybirds- what do men think about as death collects their wits?
Then there were the accidents of the evening before. What brought me to this precipice? Ammar? What had I to do with Ammar or Ammar to do with me? He would not have blamed me had I struck him. He even put the whip back into my hand. Yet I, Bilal, a man of nothing, discovered that nothing in my slavery could make me obey.
You might think I made this decision. You would be wrong. For how can a slave decide? He who has no opinion cannot have a decision. Why then had the whip- or was it a stick- fallen out of my hands? A slave is a fear even to himself and I was neither brave enough nor fool enough to revolt. The answer lay elsewhere. Where? In Muhammad?
I had seen Muhammad many times but I had never spoken to him. When the great Fair was over, when the caravans had disappeared into their own dust, Mecca shrank. The streets emptied into familiar faces, thought they passed me, a slave, without much notice and no familiarity. But Muhammad was different. He never passed any man without a look of friendship. Now he was the one witnessing the One God.
I had been lying there for some hours with the ropes cutting me and my situation pounding within me. I had some hope, I suppose, that whimpering and crawling and licking foot in the morning I might be given the benefit of the inch of life and death. I must have had hope. Hope is the last friend of a man and leaves him only with his last breath.
Morning was coming. A new air pushed through the old air of yesterday. I filled my lungs with it. My mind began to wander back to the One God. You must know that in those days I was illiterate, my thought had no alphabet, and when I say I wandered, I mean I was a nomad who possessed no wells. But I had my thirst; my thirst was all and my thirst compelled me towards I knew not what.
O God, it is not man who chooses you, but You who choose man. No man may believe except by your will.
That dawn, by the will of God, I made my surrender to God. My Islam.
Suddenly, so great a sweetness flowed through me that I was content even in the ropes. My soul sang. I knew that my only comfort would be to be near the One God. I knew it in a truth deeper than in the mind, in the fathoms of man, in his heart. I began to pray, and my soul rested. I began to praise God, and my mind was at peace. I began to look at his Mercy, and my fear departed from me.
Then the sun rose up by God’s hand.
When they came for me I thanked them. How could they have known? The proper course would have been to pray to their pity. They thought me mad. How could they have known that I had rested in the God who created me- and what they did or did not do to me would be done or not be done by the will of God? Their hands lifted me up.
How could they have known that God had already lifted me up beyond fear of their hands?
- Bilal dies and lives
They were quick with me. They hurried me through the streets, and here and there a window closed. For people are not brutal and those who like to look at pain are few and far between, they all, of course, understood and approved my correction- I had defied, discountenanced my owner in the presence of his class. The liberty could not be tolerated. But I still had to be hurried past their houses.
To Umaya, who had a hard tooth for a coin, my case was simple. To him I was a thief. I had destroyed my value as a slave; therefore I had stolen from him the price he had paid for me. Only my hide was useful to him now; he could flay it and exhibit it as a caution to slaves.
Fifty years later, I’m inclined to pity Umaya. A man who is unjust to others is unjust to himself. They staked me out on the ground, the poor forked animal called man, and Umaya took his whip.
I will not dwell on my torture. Pain has no memory; it exists in its own present. Besides, too much has been said about that day and I have found myself too much of a martyr. But God is stronger than the sun and the soul of man cannot be touched by a whip. I remember calling aloud to God in the only way I knew, saying the only name for Him that I knew: ‘One God.’
I, Bilal, who have since summoned ten of thousands to prayer, at that time knew no prayer. Yet when I spoke His name, He answered me in my heart. I did not scream under the whip, I held my breath for my God. I did not ask their mercy, but only His.
Every torture has its interludes, a recognition of limits. Had I died too soon in the shocks I would have been to Umaya, twice a thief.
It was during one of those interludes that Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan appeared over me in a drift of perfume and passing shade of parasol.
She leaned down to hear my words: ‘One God.’ Then she turned away and laughed. Hind had a very pretty laugh.
‘You could swear the slave was preaching,’ she said. Then the whip lashed down on me again, again and again.
I’ve often wondered if, for a moment, as in the swing of a new tree in the wind, I went over into death. But who can tell? It is only the dead who know that they have died. Yet I can tell you that I ceased to suffer. My torturers became distant to me; even when they put rocks down on me, weights that would eventually press me to death, I could only feel that they were doing something new and different. I was out of their reach. I watched them, engaged in their absurdities, like the dancing goats at the great Fair of Ukaz.
Then I closed my eyes and looked to up to Heaven. Suddenly I saw before me green fields and trees with fruits. I heard the running of streams. I tasted the sweetness of the shade. I entered a garden where youths of every race, both male and female, walked in dignity. They greeted me and led me to a fountain. As I drank, my soul ceased to thirst and I knew I was near God.
Was it a dream, a delirium, a fantasy? Or lucidity? Or had they crazed me with their whip? Or was it all these and poetry besides, for it is by poetry that men persuade themselves.
It was soon over, but I still ask myself: did I, Bilal, a slave under correction, see before me the land of the blessed dead?
- Bilal is bought again
I heard voices in argument, Umaya’s voice and a milder voice I did not know. I tried to open my eyes but the sun, now at its height, blinded me.
They were talking about money, which was not unusual. In Mecca money was an addiction, as if men’s bowels moved by money and time was told in dirham.
I had no interest. I longed to sleep again, never to wake in slavery; never to be under their faces; never to be within the distance of their call. For I knew now what I had never known. Even in the worst death that a man can devise for his fellow man, God is kind. In the taking of souls God’s hand is ever kind.
I heard a third voice. Abu Sufyan, authority itself was speaking:
‘It is against social order to buy or sell a slave during his correction.’
I tried to collect my wits. Umaya was answering back:
‘The slave is dead already! If Abu Bakr wants to buy a carcass for a hundred dirhams that is my windfall.’
A new name had been spoken: Abu Bakr? Why was he here? Even against the sun I opened my eyes. There was a gasp and a stop in their talk. A moment passed. Then a voice I did not know came closer and called my name to me across the burning distance between us. Umaya was beside himself. ‘The slave kicked. I saw him kick.’ Then he whispered into my head: ‘Breathe, you black animal.’ It was a turnabout, to say the least. The man who had been knocking the breath out of me for several hours was now exhorting me to hold onto my last gasp. Surely, life has more comedy than it has laughter. More voices. Umaya again. ‘He’s kicked his price up, Abu Bakr. He is worth two; give me two hundred and take him.’
They lifted the rocks from me and untied me. Bilal was sold again. Yes. And Bilal was bought again- but only for a minute. A young man helped me up. I had difficulty seeing him the first time. Then I knew who he was. He was Saeed, the adopted son of Muhammad. I said nothing. I had no need, for he had said it all:
‘You are freed from slavery, Bilal.’
Umaya was counting and chuckling.
‘You paid two hundred dirham for him but let me tell you I’d have sold him for one hundred.’
There was laughter. Then I saw Abu Bakr, a man like a lamp.
‘You have cheated yourself Umaya,’ he said. ‘Had you asked a thousand dirham for him I would have paid it.’
Surely my price had shot up! Abu Bakr took me by one arm, Saeed by the other and together they half dragged, half walked me away. I was not much help to them for my legs would not hold me.
For five days I lay in a darkened room in Abu Bakr’s house, drifting in and out of consciousness. Vague whispering shapes hovered over me with oils, ointments and cooling cloths.
Once, when I woke, I saw a man praying in a corner of the room, but then I slept again. On the sicth morning I was able to get up and take my first steps out into the air. Abu Bakr was so pleased he brought in a goat and milked it for me.
Then he told me:
‘The Messenger of God himself prayed beside you for three days until the fever dropped. Only when you were safe would he leave you. I never saw a man so happy. “Bilal is received into Islam,” he said. Tomorrow you and I will go to the Prophet together.’
They say I was the third man to believe in Islam. But it is too great a place they give me. I was only the ninth. I take pride in the fact that I was the lowest of the first Companions, for surely I was found under a stone.
- Bilal meets Muhammad (s.a.w)
To be continued...