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Story of the first Muslim of African descent

Historic figure: Bilal Ibn Rabah Al-Habashi was the first known person of African ancestry to become Muslim

I take this opportunity during Black History month to highlight a famous and much loved African Muslim, Bilal Ibn Rabah Al-Habashi.

Bilal Ibn Rabah al-Habashi was a loyal Sahabah (companion) of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and one of the first converts of Islam. Bilal was also the first muezzin (caller to prayer). Bilal too is the first person of known African ancestry to become Muslim.

Bilal was born in Mecca, Western Arabia in 580 and died around 640.

His father Rabah was reported to be a slave from the clan of Banu Jumah while his mother, Hamamah, was reported to be a former princess of Abyssinia who was abducted and put into slavery.

Bilal was known for his hard work and loyalty to his master, Umayyah ibn Khalaf, a leader in Mecca and one of the arch enemies of Islam. Bilal’s presence in the household of Umayyah gave him the opportunity to hear the comments made by the leaders of the Quraysh tribe about Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

The Quraysh were a much respected tribe in Mecca who were vehemently against Islam. And even though Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was a member of this tribe they were against him.

These comments were a mixture of envy and hatred as well as an admission of Muhammad’s (pbuh) integrity and honesty, which could not be denied. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was known for his impeccable character.

Bilal was impressed by what he heard of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and therefore joined the faith of Islam. Even during these times, Muslims were subjected to ridicule and harassment and even persecution for converting to Islam, so imagine being an African slave converting to Islam.

It was in no way easy for Bilal, yet he persevered in his new found faith. Bilal suffered terribly due to his acceptance of Islam. He was beaten mercilessly, and literally dragged around the hills of Mecca and subjected to long periods without food or water.

His owner, Umayyah Ibn Khalaf, committed all sorts of torture on Bilal to make him renounce Islam. He would bring Bilal out at the hottest part of the day and had him lay on his back in the open valley whilst placing a large rock on his chest; then he would say to him, ‘“You will stay here till you die or deny Muhammad and worship al-Lat and al-’Uzza [gods worshipped by the people of Mecca].”

Despite these heinous actions levied against him, Bilal's response amid his suffering was only one word – “Ahad” — which means, “God is One”. He said nothing else, but to him this was sufficient to give him all the spiritual support needed to bear the effects of the torture he was exposed to.

Bilal had an unwavering faith in Islam. It gave him hope, strength, and purpose. Despite his poor, dejected, enslaved life, Islam held light for him and he was determined not to surrender and give up his beliefs, no matter what.

News of the slave who cried out “God is One!“ even amid torture soon reached Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions. Abu Bakr, Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) closest friend and a wealthy trader was sent to set Bilal free.

At the time slavery was a worldwide, entrenched institution. The laws of Islam sought to emancipate slaves; to free a slave was regarded as an act of piety and an atonement for sins.

After a long while, Umayyah and his men got tired of torturing Bilal. The persecutors tried coercing Bilal to say something in favour of their gods to let him go, but Bilal refused to give in. Finally Umayyah gave up and accepted Abu Bakr’s offer to buy Bilal.

A freed Bilal immediately became one of the closest, most trusted and distinguished companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). After the migration to Madinah, and when the institution of Adhan (call to prayer) was established, it was Bilal who was given the honour to be the first muezzin (caller to prayer) in Islam.

Bilal had an echoing, mesmerising and harmonious voice which made the call to prayer even more beautiful. The moment people heard Bilal's call to prayer, they came running to the mosque for prayer.

Later, upon the victorious entry to Mecca, it was Bilal again who was asked to climb and stand on top of the Kabah (a sacred structure; location used as a direction to prayer) to perform the call to prayer.

Bilal Ibn Rabah is one of the most inspirational and respected persons in Islamic history. He is honoured by approximately 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide. Bilal’s life story reflects the deep love, determination and conviction he had in God and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). His story also demonstrates Islam’s respect for human equality, kindness, anti-racism and social equity.

Indeed, God does not measure people by their skin colour, nationality, social status nor race, but by the measure of their character, taqwa (piety) and their actions.

Allah says in Koran 49:13: “Oh humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honoured among you in the sight of Allah is he who is the most righteous of you.”

In this area, I wonder how we are faring?

Bermuda let us continuously pray and stand up for peace and justice at home and abroad. As salaam alaikum (peace be unto you).

Linda Walia Ming is a member of the Bermuda Hijab Dawah team, a group of Muslim women who reside in Bermuda and have a goal of educating the community about the religion of Islam

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Published February 10, 2024 at 7:58 am (Updated February 10, 2024 at 8:28 am)

Story of the first Muslim of African descent

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