Bilal, the Outrunner (Part-5)
Beginning with the previous three issues of Young Muslim Digest, the life of Bilal bin Rawaha, the famous Companion of the Prophet, is being serialized in this column every month. Presented herein under is the fourth installment in this series taken from the brief, but significant, biography by SYED IQBAL ZAHEER.
A Lion among Jackasses: So Bilal’s troubles stayed on. For he stayed firm and his firmness maddened them. They continued to torture him in a variety of ways. They would ask Bilal to utter once – at least once – for the satisfaction of their ego, and for his own release – that Lat and `Uzza were true gods. But, as one report says, “Bilal didn’t give them one word.” At one time, when they told them, “Say as we say (damn it),” he replied, in such forceful words as: “My tongue is incapable of that.”
They also tortured Bilal’s mother Hamamah (as reported by Ibn `Asakir). Although it is not known if she withstood the persecution and whether she survived it at all, for history is silent about her. It is also not known if his brother Khalid and sister Ghufra also went through the same ordeal. But so far as Bilal was concerned, his inner strength was of a class that even his enemies could not have but secretly admired. But, expectedly, that would have increased their madness. It would have cast a dark spell on their faces, and with Bilal’s firmness their fury would have turned into a frenzy. In response, they could only increase the severity of tortures, so that Bilal would not end up the winner. They did that.
He would be laid up on burning sands… at noon, when the sun directed its poisonous flares at the Arabian Peninsula… and rocks were placed on his chest. His master, Umayyah b. Khalaf, would say: “You will stay here until you die, or deny Muhammad and resume the worship of Lat and `Uzza.”
Bilal did not vary his reply; and no words were more hateful to them to hear than “Ahad, Ahad!” especially when they came from Bilal. They tired themselves out, but Bilal was firmer under the rocks in the sun than they were in the shade with a glass of cool drink in their hands. Frustrated, and perhaps needing some respite, they handed him over to the town urchins who lassoed a rope around his neck and dragged him around. It is said that they dragged him so hard and for such long spells that the rope left a permanent mark on his neck.
Obviously, the operations would have made Bilal sad. But his faith!? Could he abandon it? There was just no question of that. He suffered it all… in the name of one God… for the sake of one God. He didn’t ask them for mercy. Ask these dregs of the society for mercy?
No he couldn’t.
They didn’t measure up well enough for that. He didn’t weep. He didn’t cry for help. He just suffered it: in the name of one God… for the sake of one God.
Ultimately, it can only be death; but death is the goal, O masters of my body.
Not my soul.
His soul was not a partner in this affair. Perhaps, it stood apart, hovering above him – and them – and peering down at them: amused, but not hurt even if Bilal’s every bone ached.
If you behave with a decent and gentle man the way they did with Bilal, what can he do? What could Bilal do? Cry out? Curse? Spit?
But Bilal had a character now. “Ahad, Ahad!” was all that he would say. If there was a challenge in those words for the Makkans, there was also a lesson for the posterity. For everyone new in Islam, has to, at some time or the other, bear the burden of stones on his breast. Should he, when alone against the tide, against the winds, against a whole organized, civilized, and materially well-equipped society, show weakness?
No, it is not becoming at all that you bend down with the burden of the rocks. No. You stand firm – physically and spiritually. No, it is not the right thing to say that wisdom of the moment requires that you make compromises. No. Compromise is the morning song of the coward. If you begin to make compromises, you’ll ultimately end up asking your masters if they’d mind if you set up your own missile plant.
Further, if the faithful will make compromises, who’ll demonstrate the truth? How will the people know the alternative ways of life? Therefore, if you crash headlong against them – the enemies of God – on the strength of al‑Ahad, then there is nothing wrong in that. It is not being fanatic.
Fanaticism is blind adherence to false ideas, and not bold adherence to truth and its requirements. It is those who scream against the veils and scarves and allow nudity to flourish, it is those who will be in tears at the death of a dog and firmly back governments that spray bullets on their citizens, those who will cry shame to polygamy but legalize prostitution… it is these, indeed, that are fanatics in the truest sense of the term.
Blind adherence to truth is entirely praise‑worthy, irrespective of what lengths one has to go for it, and irrespective of what price one has to pay for it. Any price is a small price in its cause. Should the world witness only the weak believers? The compromising believers? The comfort‑seeking believers? The kind of believers who will say, “God is one,” and upon the unbeliever disliking the idea, quickly add, “Alright. Let’s go for a round of billiards!?”
If it was Bilal’s unmatchable courage and unfailing strength that stood out, it was the stupidity on the part of his torturers – apart from meanness and cowardice – that stood out most. They were stupid… as stupid as the torturers and persecutors of all ages have been: whether the Arabs of that time, or the Westerners or Easterners of the modern age that persecute, albeit, in a more civilized manner, but in no less cowardly ways. Serbs, civilized Europeans to the last sinews of their bodies, during their recent crusade against the Bosnians, would ask a Muslim to sit on a 75 mm. diameter bottle. When he couldn’t, they would press the man down from the shoulders. Sometimes, they’d ask a man to rape a friend before a crowd. No lesser harrowing stories from no lesser civilized people of the East, that pack in their kits both the Western humanism as well as “the wisdom of the east,” keep pouring in at regular pace from lands in which Muslims are in minority. The word “civilization” needs an Islamic definition before it becomes a password for all that is evil in man.
The stupid torturers do not known the depth of faith in truth. They think that the faith of the Muslims in one God is of the same nature and order as their own convictions about the physical world. They think faith resides in the mind and, therefore, some education can alter its quality, quantity and, in fact, its very substance. If that will not, then some “whipping” will. They believe faith in one God, can, just like an idea, be altered and propagated and influenced with education, money, power, guns, women and missiles. They do not know that if it is true faith, and not mere convictions, it resides deep in one’s heart from where it cannot be plucked out, just as you cannot pluck out the veins of a person without killing him. It grows there, in the heart, watered by the very blood that is dried up by persecutions launched against it. They do not at all know faith. They have no idea of its cooling effect on the heart, its burning effect upon the soul, its soothing effect upon the responses to difficulties and adversities. They don’t know that just as the body has its soul: the spirit, the mind has its own soul, the heart.
And this was the heart of Bilal. A lion’s heart.
It was no less tougher than the rocks placed on it.
Stupid torturers. They didn’t know who they were up against, and what they were up against. They were up against the heart of a lion … up against faith in One God.
Stupid persecutors. Stupid they always are. Stupid they will always remain: whether it is the Quraysh of Makkah of the Prophet’s time, or their modern‑day counterparts spread all over the earth: be they those that defend a decaying, dying civilization, or be they devotees of the stone‑age gods, either suppressing Islam by democratic means, or more bluntly with the use of raw force. Over the centuries they have learnt nothing and will learn nothing. They never learn that ultimately they can only dispatch their victims to Paradise, to the company of Prophets and the chosen men. They cannot defeat Islam. They can only weaken the Muslims physically. But every such weakness adds up to the strength of their spirit. It rises up from the ashes and strikes with the vigor of flames driven by dry winds wiping out all that comes before it. Such is the promise of the God Muslims believe in:
“Allah has promised those of you who believe and do righteous deeds that He will surely make you successors in the land, even as He made those who were before them, successors, and that He will surely establish for them their religion that He has approved for them, and will give them in exchange, after their fear, security: `They shall serve Me, not associating with Me anything’….” (Al‑Nur, verse 55)
If that is the promise to the believers, it might profit the unbelievers to note:
“Think not the unbelievers will be able to frustrate God in the earth: their refuge is the Fire – an evil homecoming.” (Al‑Nur, 57)
So, all that the persecuted of all times need to do is to persevere.
Bilal defied them with a great defiance, to the great surprise of everyone involved: whether on his side, the other side, or the neutrals that watched with some concern, some amusement, and some anticipation. Of course, he knew that he was skating on thin ice. For, they could have as well murdered him as had Abu Jahl, the accursed, murdered Sumaiyyah. If he was spared, perhaps it was because he was comparatively young and could still fetch a good price, in contrast to the lady who was old and wouldn’t have attracted many buyers. But who could predict that the chiefs and the nobles, the outwardly civilized, but inwardly cavemen, would never let their inner wolves out into the open with all the fury of a blood hungry hound? Especially when Bilal was defiant enough to provoke the coolest of them, the nicest of them, the most dignified of them, to maddening fury? For Bilal was demonstrating his own will against the will of the coolest of them, the nicest of them, the most dignified of them. Deities were, by now, a small issue.
Nevertheless, and whatever degree of their fury, Bilal stuck to his guns and went through what could break down any man.
But Bilal was not any man!
Bilal went through it all with the grace of an honorable man placed by circumstances among a people mean. He went through it all with faith and trust in one God. It is said that when Umayyah had exhausted himself he sought the help of Abu Jahl, and complained to him of Bilal’s stubbornness. Abu Jahl then took charge of Bilal and must have tried out all his sadist ideas on Bilal. But to no avail. Abu Jahl was too insignificant for Bilal. It is said that it was Abu Jahl, who, after having tired himself out, tied a rope around Bilal’s neck and handed him over to those rowdy boys. Abu Jahl must have then heaved a great sigh of relief.
Let’s stop here for a moment and consider this point. Abu Jahl was no weakling. He was a powerfully built man in the prime of his youth. He was good at martial arts and was considered the equal of ten men in the battle‑field. He was ruthless. He had cold-bloodedly murdered an old woman who had harmed him in no way. He was a tyrant too. He would buy things from people, and tell them to get lost – bluntly refusing to pay. He was man of such talents that against the prevalent rules, he had been chosen to join the body of elderly statesmen of Makkah that sat in the Dar al‑Nadwah, in his youth itself (Dr. Hameedullah: Khutabat‑e‑Bhagalpur). That was no small achievement. Finally, he was filled to the last tissue in his body with the hatred of Islam and Muslims. What does it mean when it is said that he tired himself out against Bilal’s firmness?
Obviously it means a lot. It speaks volumes of what Bilal would have gone through.
Having failed in his task to extract from Bilal “a word that would please them,” Abu Jahl would have felt terribly hurt. He couldn’t have forgiven or forgotten him. Bilal had wounded his pride. He would have taken Bilal’s memory with him to his pit. In this light, Ibn Jarir’s following report acquires added significance. In the explanation of the verse (38: 62,63): “How come we do not see people that we counted among the evil ones and made good fun of them; or is it that our sights fail to perceive them (now)?”, he reports the well‑known commentator of the Qur’an Mujahid as saying:
“This refers to Abu Jahl in Hell‑fire. (When ushered in there) He will shout out, `Where is Bilal? Where is so and so? And so and so? Those whom we looked down upon as evil men? Why don’t we see them in here today? Or, are they in a place beyond our sight?’”
But, besides Abu Jahl, there were others that tortured Bilal in turns. The name of Ubayy b. Khalaf also surfaces in this connection. He was Umayyah’s brother.
Of course, Bilal would have been aware that there were several others that were experiencing the same treatment then and there in Makkah. Further, he would have known through in the earlier times too, the faithful had to go through the same treatment.
The Qur’an had recorded that whenever a Messenger had gone to a people, his weak followers were persecuted. Perhaps, he would have thought, this was the way of the Lord – His Sunnah. Or maybe, this was a purification process through which only the pure get through.
Perhaps they had a future. Perhaps not… Not on this earth maybe! Perhaps, triumph would only be of the next world. The Prophet (saws) told them that truth would triumph. But when? Would they survive to witness the triumph? That nobody could say.
When someone complained to the Prophet (saws) about the persecutions, he told them to bear them with patience. “By God,” he told them, “there were people before you that had steel saws run through their head, slitting them into two from the middle, but they did not flinch the least.” Lebanese Christians, inheritors of French culture and nicety, used to tie up the legs of Palestinians to two vehicles and run them in the opposite direction.
And then, as usual, he promised them that ultimately this religion was going to prevail. They shouldn’t be hasty.
Although we do not know definitely when the following story of persecution and defiant response of the believers during Christ’s era was narrated, it is quite possible that the Prophet spoke of it in Makkah during those very days of persecution. That it is related by Suhayb Rumi, one of the earliest converts, who also experienced persecutions of various sort, makes it plausible that it was related during that period. Suhayb reports the Prophet (saws) narrating the following:
“In the days bygone, there used to be a king who had a magician (in his employment). When the magician got old, he told the king, `I’ve gotten old and nearing my end. Sponsor a boy to whom I can impart my knowledge’. (According to another version, “Send me a talented boy”). The king nominated a boy whom the magician began to train and teach in his art.
“Now, on the path between the king and the sorcerer there lived a hermit. The boy happened to drop in at the hermit and was impressed by him and his words. However, when he sat with the hermit, the magician beat him up for arriving late, and so did the people at home when he reached home late.
“He complained of this to the hermit who told him to tell the magician when he was late that he was held by his people at home, and tell the folks at home when he went home late, that he was delayed by the sorcerer.
“It went on until one day the boy came across a huge beast that had blocked people’s passage. He said to himself, `Today I’ll know which of the two ways is dearer to God: that of the sorcerer or of the hermit.’ He picked up a stone and said, `O Allah! If the ways of the hermit are dearer to You than those of the sorcerer, then kill this beast so that the path opens up for the people.’
“Then he threw it at the beast and it killed it. The path was freed for the people. Later, he spoke of the incident to the hermit. He told him, `Yes, my son! You have an edge over me now. And you’ll be tested. But if you are tested, don’t reveal my identity.’
“The young man began to treat the blind, the leper and those suffering from other diseases, curing them all. Now, the king had a courtier who became blind. He came to him loaded with gifts and said, `Cure me and these are yours.’ The boy said, `It’s not me who cures anyone. It is Allah, the Mighty, the Exalted, who does it. If you will believe in Him, I will pray that He cure you.’ The man accepted the faith. The boy prayed for him and he was cured.
“When the courtier went back to the king and occupied his usual place, the king asked him who had cured him of his blindness. He said, `My Lord.’ The king enquired, `(You mean) I?’ The man said, `No. Your and My Lord.’
“The king asked, `Do you have a Lord besides me?’
“He said, `Yes. He is the One who is my Lord and He is your Lord too.’
“The king tortured him until he revealed the name of the boy.
“So he sent for the boy and said, `Son. You seem to have made great progress in magic that you can now heal the blind, the leper and the other diseased.’
“The boy replied, `I do not cure anyone. It is Allah the Mighty, the Exalted who cures.’
“The king asked, `Is it I you mean?’
“The boy said, `No.’
“He said, `Do you have a Lord besides me?’
“The boy said, `My Lord and your Lord is Allah.’
“So the king tortured him until he led him to the hermit. He got the hermit brought up and ordered him to accept him as his Lord. He refused. So he ordered a saw run through the middle of his head that slit him into two. Then he ordered the once blind courtier to abandon his religion. He refused. So he got him slit into two also.
“Next, he ordered the boy to abandon his religion. When he refused, he ordered his soldiers to take him to such and such a cliff and give the boy a last chance there. `If he persists,’ he ordered them, `hurl him down.’
“When they climbed the mountain the boy prayed: `My Lord! Be Thou sufficient for me against these in the manner You will.’ The mountain shook and scattered them dead.
“The boy came down and found his way back to the king. He enquired about the soldiers. He told him, `Allah was sufficient for me against them.’
“So the king ordered his soldiers to take him into the sea in a large boat. If the boy would not recant, he was to be tossed into the sea. When they entered the deep waters the boy prayed: `My Lord. Be Thou sufficient for me against these in the manner You will.’
“So they all sank and the boy came back to the king. He asked him about the soldiers. He said, `Allah was sufficient for me against them.’ Then he added, `You’ll not be able to kill me until you will act as I say.’
“The king asked, `And what’s to be done?’
“He said, `You’ll gather the people in a plain field. You’ll tie me up to a cross, take an arrow from my quill and shoot at me saying: ‘In the name of Allah, the Lord of the boy.’ If you do that you might be able to kill me.’
“The king did so. He placed the arrow in his bow and shot it out saying, ‘In the name of Allah, the Lord of the boy.’ The arrow struck the boy at the ear‑lock. He put his hand to where the arrow had struck and died.
“At this, the people cried out loud: ‘We believe in the Lord of the boy.’
“The king was told: ‘Isn’t this what you were afraid of? By God, you fell into the trap. The people have all entered into Allah’s faith.’
“The king sent word that pits be dug in the town and fires lit. Then he ordered, `Let the people choose. He who abandons his new faith, release him. The rest cast them into the flames.’
“The believers began to appear in droves offering themselves without any hesitation. Then came a woman with an infant she was breast-feeding. She hesitated for a moment. The infant said: `Mother! Be steadfast. For you are on Truth.'”
That was one story of past persecution. And, obviously, while the Prophet (saws) exhorted Bilal, Suhayb, Khabbab, `Ammar and others to be patient, he would have told them more about persecutions in earlier times, and, therefore, Ahad, ahad !(One God, One God), was all that Bilal would say in response to what he was subjected to by the unbelievers.
When these words inflamed his persecutors they would bawl out at him: “Don’t you say those words at least!” But the cool and collected Bilal, would reveal a great store of strength within him, and shout back at them: “By God, if I knew another word that would madden you more, I would say that in your face.” (Footnote: SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’)
That was Bilal. A rock against sand storms.
One can imagine their vexation too!
Was Bilal afraid? He didn’t seem to be. Indeed his clear, cool gaze could have taunted them and they would have ground their teeth and foamed at their mouths in rage.
That was Bilal.
A lion among jackasses.
(To be continued)