Hardly had the outrage following the brutal murder of George Floyd subsided did we witness another attempt on an innocent life, when a police officer fired seven shots point-blank into Jacob Blake’s back. This atrocity was committed in plain sight of his three children, leaving him paralysed from waist down and in a state of perpetual excruciating pain. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the recent death of the Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman and the ongoing struggle for social justice by the black community living in the West, we present a few pertinent lessons from the life of one of the most esteemed companions in Islam.
A Real Hero
Bilal (ra) was described as very dark in complexion, slender, very tall, thick-haired and with a sparse beard.
Jabir ibn Abdullah reported: Umar (ra) used to say:
أَبُو بَكْرٍ سَيِّدُنَا وَأَعْتَقَ سَيِّدَنَا
“Abu Bakr is our master and he emancipated our master.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3754)
Here we can see one of the greatest companions referring to Bilal (ra) as his sayed (leader/ master). This is despite Bilal (ra) having been considered from the bottom of society for the majority of Umar’s (ra) life. In addition, he referred to him in a way so as if to equate him with the greatest companion of all: Abu Bakr (ra). This was whilst acknowledging that Abu Bakr (ra) was the very man who freed Bilal (ra) from slavery, demonstrating the Sahabah (rah) understood that status did not come from wealth, power or the colour of one’s skin. Rather they internalised and embodied the words of Allah (ﷻ):
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted” [TMQ Al-Hujurat:13]
How desperately is the world today in need for the justice of this noble verse? Our late brother in Islam, Malcolm X (may Allah (ﷻ) have mercy on him) famously said: “America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.”
Bilal (ra) was the first muadhhin (caller to prayer) of Islam, being entrusted with the responsibility of calling the Muslim community of Madinah to Al-Falah (success), one of the greatest obligations of Islam and the central pivot of a Muslim’s life: the prayers, five times a day.
Perhaps from his greatest virtues is that which was narrated by Abu Hurayrah (ra):
أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قَالَ لِبِلاَلٍ عِنْدَ صَلاَةِ الْفَجْرِ “ يَا بِلاَلُ حَدِّثْنِي بِأَرْجَى عَمَلٍ عَمِلْتَهُ فِي الإِسْلاَمِ، فَإِنِّي سَمِعْتُ دَفَّ نَعْلَيْكَ بَيْنَ يَدَىَّ فِي الْجَنَّةِ ”. قَالَ مَا عَمِلْتُ عَمَلاً أَرْجَى عِنْدِي أَنِّي لَمْ أَتَطَهَّرْ طُهُورًا فِي سَاعَةِ لَيْلٍ أَوْ نَهَارٍ إِلاَّ صَلَّيْتُ بِذَلِكَ الطُّهُورِ مَا كُتِبَ لِي أَنْ أُصَلِّيَ. قَالَ أَبُو عَبْدِ اللَّهِ دَفَّ نَعْلَيْكَ يَعْنِي تَحْرِيكَ
At the time of the Fajr prayer the Prophet (ﷺ) asked Bilal, “Tell me of the best deed you did after embracing Islam, for I heard your footsteps in front of me in Paradise.” Bilal replied, “I did not do anything worth mentioning except that whenever I performed ablution during the day or night, I prayed after that ablution as much as was written for me.”(Sahih Al-Bukhari 1149)
The Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), the greatest of all creation to have ever walked this Earth, is informing Bilal (ra) that he heard his footsteps in front of him in Paradise! Notice RasulAllah (ﷺ) did not say he saw his footsteps, but rather he (ﷺ) simply heard them. In other words, and Allah (ﷻ) knows best, he (ﷺ) could recognise his footsteps just from their sound, demonstrating their great intimacy and companionship.
It should be stressed that Bilal (ra) is a true, real-life hero of Islam. He is but one of a legacy of Muslims of African origin whose immense sacrifices for Islam shaped the world in which we live today. The Quran itself mentions the esteem of such individuals including Luqman and Dhul-Qarnayn. It is a testament to the failure of Western civilisation that the heroes they bring forth for the younger generation, whether black or white, are largely fictitious or mythical. There are few real heroes promoted that are worthy of emulation. However, the aggrandisement of such heroes is completely understandable given the brutal history of Western civilisation being plagued with real-life villains, genocidal maniacs and evil criminals of the highest order. Furthermore, the fact that black communities took so much pride in the Black Panther, one such fictitious hero -from a land of myth to add -is indicative of the systemic inequality rife within Western societies. Western media has been saturated with overwhelmingly negative depictions of black people for decades, making the Black Panther such a rare exception. The legacy of Islam is such that our history is replete with heroes of all ethnicities in every era from Sumayyah (ra), a Sahabi and African slave commemorated as the first martyr of Islam, to Sheikh Usman dan Fodio (rh), a late 18th century reformer and founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in modern Nigeria.
The first highlight of Bilal’s (ra) life is the immense sabr (perseverence) he displayed at the hands of one of the greatest enemies of Islam: Umayyah bin Khalaf. Stripped naked and thrown on to scorching hot coals in the midday heat when the desert was an inferno, only for a burning hot boulder, which took several men to lift from its place, to be thrown onto his body and chest. Yet the only words uttered from his lips were “Ahadun Ahad”. Meaning: He (ﷻ) is one, He (ﷻ) is one.
Let us pause and reflect on how heavy a few words can be in the sight of Allah (ﷻ), even if they are as simple as Ahadun Ahad (or their contemporary socio-political equivalent). Today we live in times where holding onto the deen is as arduous as holding on to hot coals, like those placed beneath Bilal’s (ra) bare body. We are presented only the options of democracy and nationalism in our quest for the revival of this Ummah, the Lat and ’Uzzah of today, “if not in your hearts than at least on your tongue!” This same democracy which brought to power the worst of people through racist and divisive rhetoric, exploiting the genuine grievances of minorities and emboldening the right-wing to the extent they comfortably roam past police officers after having killed innocent protestors, rifle in plain sight! Yet innocent black men are shot at, strangled and murdered whilst posing no genuine threat. This same nationalism which has cemented institutional racism, divided communities and historically justified Western nations to colonise and enslave people of “inferior race”.
أَفَحُكْمَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ يَبْغُونَ ۚ وَمَنْ أَحْسَنُ مِنَ اللَّهِ حُكْمًا لِّقَوْمٍ يُوقِنُونَ
“Then is it the judgement of [the time of] ignorance they desire? But who is better than Allah in judgement for a people who are certain [in faith].” [TMQ Al-Mai’dah: 50]
The Mushrikeen (polytheists) couldn’t fathom how this slave they deemed to be weak of will and feeble of strength could bear such an agonising punishment. Eventually they agreed to set him free on condition that he would speak just one good word of their false gods, but his iman and affirmation of tawheed couldn’t bring him to do so. By sunset they would put a rope around his neck and order their boys to drag him around the mountains and streets of Makkah. At last, relief came in the form of Abu Bakr (ra) who freed him from slavery and shortly entered into a beautiful exchange with Umayyah bin Khalaf who remarked: “Take him for by Al-Lat and Al-’Uzza if you had refused to buy him except for one ounce of gold I would have sold him to you.” Abu Bakr (ra) replied “By Allah if you had refused to sell him except for a hundred ounces I would have paid it.”
From this first highlight of Bilal’s (ra) life, we can truly understand the significance and power of iman. The strength of an individual is not based on his physical capability but rather based on his aqeedah. Likewise, the strength of a nation is not based on the strength of their economy or military prowess but rather on the ideological foundation of that nation. Consider the words of Allah (ﷻ):
أَلَمۡ تَرَ كَيۡفَ فَعَلَ رَبُّكَ بِعَادٍ (٦) إِرَمَ ذَاتِ ٱلۡعِمَادِ (٧) ٱلَّتِى لَمۡ يُخۡلَقۡ مِثۡلُهَا فِى ٱلۡبِلَـٰدِ (٨) وَثَمُودَ ٱلَّذِينَ جَابُواْ ٱلصَّخۡرَ بِٱلۡوَادِ (٩) وَفِرۡعَوۡنَ ذِى ٱلۡأَوۡتَادِ (١٠) ٱلَّذِينَ طَغَوۡاْ فِى ٱلۡبِلَـٰدِ (١١) فَأَكۡثَرُواْ فِيہَا ٱلۡفَسَادَ (١٢) فَصَبَّ عَلَيۡهِمۡ رَبُّكَ سَوۡطَ عَذَابٍ (١٣)
“Have you not considered how your Lord dealt with ‘Aad. [With] Iram – who had lofty pillars. The likes of whom had never been created in the land? And [with] Thamud, who carved out the rocks in the valley? And [with] Pharaoh, owner of the stakes? [All of] whom oppressed within the lands. And increased therein the corruption. So your Lord poured upon them a scourge of punishment.” [TMQ Al-Fajr: 6-13]
Allah (ﷻ) is teaching us here that powerful nations existed before us, yet despite their might they were destroyed because they did not possess the most powerful tool in their arsenal: iman. Similarly in recent modern history we have witnessed the rise and fall of the British, Russian, French, Japanese, Prussian and Austrian empires to name just a few. Therefore it is alien for a Muslim to conceive that the supposed might of those nations oppressing and subduing this noble Ummah and wider humanity day and night cannot be overcome. When the global pandemic of Covid-19 emerged, the world never thought that two of the most powerful nations of the era, Britain and America, would be the worst affected. Yet Allah (ﷻ) willed otherwise.
وَلِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ أَجَلٌ ۖ فَإِذَا جَاءَ أَجَلُهُمْ لَا يَسْتَأْخِرُونَ سَاعَةً ۖ وَلَا يَسْتَقْدِمُونَ
“And for every nation is a [specified] term. So when their time has come, they will not remain behind an hour, nor will they precede [it].” [TMQ Al-‘Araf: 34]
It is from our aqeedah to know that the dominance of tyranny and kufr is unendurable and it is from the reality to know that its demise is imminent.
The Motto of Badr
However, this doesn’t mean that we should sit back, relax and let Allah (ﷻ) handle everything -though He (ﷻ) is all capable. Rather, we will be accountable before Allah (ﷻ) for bringing this reality into existence through the work to resume the Islamic way of life by establishing the Khilafah. We can see a very apt connection via the example of Bilal (ra), between the da’wah done by the Sahabah (rah) in Makkah producing the establishment of Islam in Madinah. The words that were uttered by Bilal (ra) when the Muslims were at their weakest in Makkah were the very same words used when the Islamic state of Madinah was established and capable. The motto on the day of the battle of Badr was none other than “Ahadun Ahad!”
Despite this, the actions of Bilal (ra) on the day of Badr would possibly be the subject of much dispute by Muslims living in the West today. In the age where we have been stripped of our ‘izzah (dignity) and feel the only service we can offer the world is ceaseless kindness and compassion -to the extent that many Muslims were making du’a for the swift recovery of Boris Johson when he was diagnosed with Covid-19. Bilal’s (ra) act of killing his former oppressor in battle, despite him having laid down his weapons and begging for mercy, may sit rather uneasy.
Bilal (ra) understood the perfect balance of both loving and hating for the sake of Allah (ﷻ). Forgiveness and compassion are great virtues that we should aspire to practice upon those who have wronged us and is part of the perfection of a Muslim’s exemplification of sabr. However, this treatment does not necessarily apply to those who have harmed and wronged the Ummah, wishing only further harm and destruction upon her. This is akin to when the Prophet (ﷺ) was victorious at the conquest of Makkah and subsequently pardoned all and sundry despite their prior animosity towards him (ﷺ) and his companions. Yet still, there were four criminals who were persecuted and put to death due to their heinous actions committed against Muslims. Similarly, Bilal (ra) was not motivated by personal vendetta but rather by the words of Allah (ﷻ):
وَإِن نَّكَثُوا أَيْمَانَهُم مِّن بَعْدِ عَهْدِهِمْ وَطَعَنُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ فَقَاتِلُوا أَئِمَّةَ الْكُفْرِ ۙ إِنَّهُمْ لَا أَيْمَانَ
لَهُمْ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَنتَهُونَ
“And if they break their oaths after their treaty and defame your religion, then fight the leaders of disbelief, for indeed, there are no oaths [sacred] to them; [fight them that] they might cease.” [TMQ Al-Tawbah: 12]
Although this verse was revealed many years after the battle of Badr, the centrality of fighting the leader’s of disbelief was still understood and acted upon prior to its revelation. This is clear from Bilal’s (ra) statement: “The head of kufr (disbelief), Umayah ibn Khalaf! May I not be saved if he is saved!”. Ibn Kathir (rh) in his tafseer of the verse above states the following: “So that they may refrain from the disbelief, rebellion and the transgression they indulge in. Qatadah and others said that the leaders of disbelief were Abu Jahl, `Utbah and Shaybah, Umayyah bin Khalaf, and he went on to mention several others.”
The conquest of Makkah was perhaps the greatest victory this Ummah has ever witnessed. It is stated in Ar-Raheeq al-Makhtum (The Sealed Nectar): “Ibn Al-Qayyim described the conquest of Makkah as the greatest one by which Allah honoured His religion, Messenger, soldiers and honest party.” It would be no exaggeration to say that this day was also the peak of Bilal’s (ra) life; not only did he enter the Ka’bah with RasulAllah(ﷺ) to destroy the idols that had infested the Sacred House, but he was given the honour of ascending atop the Ka’bah before the entirety of the Muslim army and Quraysh. Here we get a real appreciation of the humility and mercy of RasulAllah (ﷺ) who, having accomplished one of the greatest victories of his (ﷺ) life against those who physically and emotionally harmed him, rejected him and tried to kill him, did not enter as a victor, but rather as an embodiment of the words of Allah (ﷻ):
وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَاكَ إِلَّا رَحْمَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ
“And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.” [TMQ Al-Anbiya: 107]
The Prophet (ﷺ), being the leader and prophet of the triumphant camp, had every right to ascend atop the Ka’bah, declaring the victory of Islam and the Muslims. Instead he (ﷺ) chose to elevate what these very people perceived as the lowest of society to the very highest position, upon the ashes of their idols atop the most sacred building in the world. A remarkable moment demonstrating his (ﷺ) true intention for the people being one of teaching, guidance and purification, not humiliation, hatred and evil.
كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولًا مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ
Just as We have sent among you a messenger from yourselves reciting to you Our verses and purifying you and teaching you the Book and wisdom and teaching you that which you did not know. [TMQ Al-Baqarah: 151]
This spectacular scene was strikingly symbolic of the social justice Islam gave to the oppressed. This was not a publicity stunt on behalf of the Prophet (ﷺ) or a political campaign to win favour with oppressed minorities in the Arabian Peninsula, as has become typical of the political-left today in their respective countries. Instead, the motivation for the justice given to the oppressed was simply because it was a clear command from the most Just of Judges: Allah (ﷻ). Hence we see Bilal (ra) was raised and elevated atop the Ka’bah for one single reason: to make the word of Allah (ﷻ) the most high as he proceeded to announce the adhan, declaring His (ﷻ) supremacy. Similarly today, the destruction of one or two statues, overturning of legislation or removal of politicians will not bring about justice for the black community living in the West or any other oppressed peoples in the world be it the Palestinians, Uighurs, Kashmiris or Rohingya. Rather it is only when the word of Allah (ﷻ) is made the most high will this world finally witness the true justice and equality it is desperately yearning for.
Husn al-Khatimah (A blessed ending)
The life of Bilal (ra) is symbolic of the very journey of Islam itself, it began as but a word, leading to its domination of the Arabia Peninsula before spreading to the rest of the world.
After the tragic event of the death of RasulAllah (ﷺ), Bilal (ra) refused to make the adhan any longer. The same man who’s mighty voice struck like a flash of lightning in the face of the Mushrikeen under the most burdensome of torture, could not bring himself to recite the words “Ashhadu anna Muhammadun RasulAllah” (I bear witness that Muhammad (saw) is the Messenger of Allah) for that would cause his voice to vanish from the unbearable heartache he felt. Bilal (ra) vowed the remaining part of his life to fight in jihad, determined to meet Allah (ﷻ) having done the best deed He (ﷻ) loves. Allah (ﷻ) however, strengthened his heart for one final pronouncement of the adhan during the Khilafah of Umar ibn al-Khattab (ra), the Commander of the Faithful, when he visited Syria. The Muslims entreated him to persuade Bilal (ra) to call one last adhan for them. There the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) witnessed a most awe-inspiring scene which immediately brought back beloved memories of their companionship with the greatest of creation (ﷺ); there they wept as they never did before, and Umar (ra) the most strongly.
Bilal’s (ra) noble life ended in Syria, fighting in the cause of Allah (ﷻ) just as he had wanted. Beneath the dust of Damascus, today therlies the body of one of the greatest men of humankind in serving Islam. May Allah (ﷻ) have mercy on Bilal’s (ra) soul, reunite him with his beloved companion (ﷺ) and bring forth the likes of him from amongst this noble Ummah once again.