Bilal, the Outrunner (Part-6)


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.


The Free and the Slave: One day Abu Bakr happened to pass by. He witnessed the scene of torture being enacted on Bilal in the valley of But‑ha. Some reports suggest that he found him buried in a heap of stones. (Al‑Isti`ab)

It is also possible that the visit was not a casual one. It had an inostensible purpose behind it.

“Hasn’t the time come to release this hapless man?” He asked the master.

By now the master must have felt pretty tired and frustrated. He would have known that there was perhaps nothing he could do that would bring Bilal back to his old faith. Bilal seemed to be tougher than ten of his like.

It is imaginable that while he lashed him, with the fury of a mad man, in response Bilal would have eyed him with calm self‑confidence, and even in a detached manner. It was as if Bilal wasn’t the one who was being whipped. It was as if Bilal was a third person who, watching the struggle between the master and the slave from afar, made his own judgment of the two: the torturer and the tortured.

It would have been as if his master was whipping a stream. Each time he brought down the whip with the last ounce of his strength summoned to the aid of his arm, there was a noise – of the splash. Sometimes it was a pretty wide splash emitting a pretty loud noise. There was a jolt. The water parted. Currents hurried out in opposite directions. For a couple of seconds, everything became hazy and unclear. The striker himself needed a few moments to gather himself after that mighty stroke. It shook his body so vehemently that momentarily he lost his moorings.

The situation lasted for a few seconds. But, a little later, it was all calm. The water leveled itself up and was clear again: smooth, and serene. And when the master tried to bend down and examine it, it did not reveal much of what was under the surface – beyond that he knew it had depth. How much, he couldn’t say. But a good amount of depth. When he peered hard, he only saw his own reflection. And he was surprised to see that reflection. It was a panting, twisted, ugly face that he saw down there! The master recoiled almost startled. He wouldn’t accept it was himself that he was seeing the stream reflect.

But his inner convulsions told him that perhaps the reflection he saw down there was his own. It startled him … disappointed him … angered him. It was pretty ugly to look at. He felt scared.

`Could others also see his reflection as it appeared there?’ he asked himself.

If they did, they’d think poor of him.

That is the example of Bilal and his master.

At times, the master would have thought that the slave looked at him with pity. In such situations, he would have felt belittled, mean and worthless. When it came to peaceful times, the slave would have been the master of the situation. Bilal’s heavy personality, when he was around, would have reduced his master’s to insignificance. He would have felt himself a rabbit before a lion that wasn’t interested in him. He was too small for that. But what if the lion decided to jump on him? He could surely tear him apart.

With such thoughts on the mind, he would have felt extremely uneasy, nervous and insecure. He would have wanted to withdraw, quietly, unnoticed, as a rabbit would from the majestic presence of a lion. It would have hurt him to feel that he wasn’t worth anything to the lion. He would have had an inkling that perhaps he’d have to add up to his stature for the lion to take notice of him.

If he had tried to air confidence, he would have appeared absurd or funny. If he had tried to converse with Bilal, it would have ended with Bilal’s opinion coming out the more considered, the more realistic and the more weighty.

Bilal seemed to have a key to sure knowledge. He would have expressed himself with confidence and with such air of certainty that the master would have forgotten all that he would have learnt in the company of his upper class, aristocratic and normally well‑informed friends. He would have known that he knew very little when compared to Bilal. And what little he knew seemed to be questionable.

It is possible that when he was with his friends the mere fact of Bilal being around would have locked his tongue in his mouth. He would have looked furtively at Bilal serving drinks with his characteristic coolness. `Had Bilal heard his last remark?’ he would have asked himself. When he would see nothing on Bilal’s face suggesting that he had heard him, and that he wasn’t grinning from within at his master’s imbecility, he would have sighed with relief and wished Bilal would go away sooner than he would.

Surely, Bilal was becoming too much for him. And the tension would have been something new and strange for him. He had always felt himself free of all oppressive thought. His courage in dealing with people, skill in trade, his pride, which was like an impenetrable wall that he had built around his personality which made him unreachable to the plebeians, and the superiority of his class that he had inherited by birth … would have all given him a sense of security, confidence and a feeling of being the master of every situation.

But here was Bilal, crushing him with the very rocks that he used to place on his chest in the heat of the deserts. Bilal’s rocks were removed by the evening. But the burden on his breast remained, and crushed him in the stillness of the nights. It would have given him a restless time, unpleasant dreams … insomnia.

Yes, sir! Bilal was becoming too much for him … the miserable depressed soul … the settler in Hell.

In normal circumstances, he would have told Abu Bakr not to interfere. But at this moment, when he asked him if it wasn’t time to release the hapless man, all these things would have flashed through his mind.

‘Yes, it was,’ he would have told himself. It was time they parted company. It was time he freed himself: from the slavery of Bilal’s overwhelming oppressive personality!

But what about the money he had invested in Bilal? All said, Bilal was hard working, efficient and thorough. He didn’t have to complain when Bilal had done something. He was honest too. He would suffer financially without Bilal. At least he would need a replacement.

So he jumped at the idea, but responded, like every civilized man, with an air of disinterestedness.

“Free him yourself,” he said tauntingly, “After all, you are the one who corrupted him” – referring to the fact that Abu Bakr was the one who had introduced Bilal to the Prophet.

To his great relief, he heard Abu Bakr say, “I shall do it.”

Although it was not an easy thing to bear the cost of freeing a slave, and despite the fact that he had already purchased the freedom of six other Muslim slaves before Bilal, Abu Bakr decided to bear this burden also. A burden here is better than the burden in the hereafter, he might have thought.

Sometime later, he managed to raise enough money to offer the price to Bilal’s master: it was seven ounces of silver. The master hastily accepted the price, released Bilal and heaved a deep sigh of relief.

The deal done, the sum paid, and the sigh out, the former master quipped, “Gosh! I would have sold him for an ounce.”

“By God,” replied Abu Bakr, perhaps to Umayyah’s great regret, “I would have bought him for a hundred!” (SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’)

Umayyah couldn’t have been proud of the deal. He seemed to have been denied the last laugh also.

(Some reports suggest [Al‑Isti`ab] that it was the Prophet (saws) who had first expressed the desire before Abu Bakr that Bilal be freed. But due to difficulties that he would encounter if he attempted to purchase Bilal, Abu Bakr had sought the help of `Abbas ibn `Abdul Muttalib. He, in turn, expressed his desire before Umaiyyah b. Khalaf. That man immediately began to heap insults on Bilal and, perhaps because he was friendly with `Abbas, even discouraged him from buying a nut as hard to crack. But `Abbas persisted, purchased him and subsequently sold him out to Abu Bakr. But the earlier version is the most often quoted one.)

To many, it would appear that Abu Bakr had freed an ordinary person. His father, Abu Quhafa, although not necessarily on this occasion, had suggested: “Son, I see you freeing weak slaves. Why shouldn’t you free strong men who can defend and protect you (in times of need)?” (Ibn Ishaq) But, in actual fact, Abu Bakr had freed no ordinary a person. When he informed the Prophet of the deal, he sought a share in the cost. But Abu Bakr wouldn’t agree (SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’). He seemed to have wanted the honor and the reward in the Hereafter all for himself!

(Today people talk of women’s emancipation. After the Prophet, Abu Bakr was the greatest of emancipators. In all, he freed five women‑slaves before he bid farewell to the town of his birth, Makkah. Twentieth century oppressed woman has to realize that loquacity isn’t going to free an ant of its burden).


Freedom was something that Bilal was experiencing for the first time in his life. It must have taken him a long time to adjust himself to the new feeling. There must have been the nagging question of how to feed himself. Bilal had no means of his own. No doubt, he would have been happier being free, though hungry, than a slave, though fed. Yet the best man cannot take his mind off bread when hungry.

We do not know how reliable the report is of the Prophet (saws) instituting, as some reports suggest, brotherhood in Makkah also, just as he later did at Madinah. But we do have reports of Bilal being made a ‘brother’ of `Ubaydahibn al‑Harith b. `Abdul Muttalib. And since we also know that Bilal was declared a brother unto Abu Ruwayha in Madinah, it is quite likely that such brotherhood, which had all the advantages of a social security scheme, but without the harm that such bodies perpetuate, when operated by governmental agencies, was instituted at Makkah also.

If that is so, then surely it would have rendered life a little bit more tolerable for Bilal. If the report is true, then one might note that the Prophet (saws) had made Bilal a brother unto one of his own family.

Yet, and the brotherhood granted, it wouldn’t have been very easy for Bilal to meet with his daily needs, since we know that jobs were hard to land, especially for one who did not specialize in a trade. Further, the Makkans avoided dealing with the Muslims – if they gave them any trade rights!

Worse, a little later, the Muslims went through the harrowing experience of being virtually locked up by a total boycott in a valley for three straight years until they were ready to chew grass … and grass there wasn’t to chew.

But more than food, we can imagine it would have been hard for Bilal to psychologically adjust himself to the new situation of being a free person. Perhaps, he wouldn’t believe it initially. Old habits might have persisted. He might have even seen some bad dreams: himself in chains … being dragged around … a crushing rock on his chest. Surely, it would have given him nightmares to think of returning to slavery. How gruesome were the days he had left behind, and how discomforting the very idea of being owned by another person, can be guessed from an incident that took place almost a decade later. But, even after such long interval of time, the incident revived all the old memories and shook Bilal down to the marrow of his bones. The incident is as follows.

`Abdullah al‑Howzani says he met Bilal in the Syrian town of Halab and asked him about the means of Prophet’s sustenance. Bilal said:

“From the day I attached myself to him, there was nothing (in his personal affairs) that he had to attend to but which he did not entrust to me; so that when a needy person dropped in asking for help, he would order me to do something for him. I would borrow money and help the man out with food and clothes. Now, a pagan told me, ‘Bilal, I have enough money. Any time you need some, you can count on me and don’t have to go around looking for it.’

“So I began to borrow from him. One day, as I had made ablution and was about to call out for Prayers, the pagan appeared along with a couple of other traders. When he came near he said: ‘You nigger!’ I said, ‘Now, what’s that!?’ Instead of replying, he pounced upon me and began to speak vile things. Then he said, ‘Do you know how many days are left for you to repay all that you have borrowed from me?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, ‘Exactly four days from now. If you don’t pay back all that you have borrowed I’m gonna take you a slave. I didn’t loan it all for your love nor for the love of your companion (meaning the Prophet). I lent it to enslave you and put you back on to shepherding the cattle as before. Ha! Ha!’”

Says Bilal,

“(The man’s threat shook me and) I began to imagine wild things. For the moment, I went and called out for Prayers and after the night Prayers when the Prophet (saws) had retired home, I knocked at the door and sought permission to see him. He called me in and I laid the whole story before him.  Then, (as we had no solution to this problem, the sum being too large to be borrowed from anyone we knew) I suggested that I (abscond and) seek refuge with some unknown and newly converted Muslims. He said I could do that.

“I went home, gathered my things, in preparation of the next day’s departure just before day-break, when a man could walk about without being spotted, and tried to get some sleep. But there was no sleep. Every time I dozed off, I woke up with a start to find that it was still dark.”

(You can’t get much sleep, one can presume, when you stare hard at the ceiling … at the plaster tearing off in places … at the timber beam the object of the mite’s savory dinner … then, the ant‑hills associated with mites … which reminds you of the person whose shadow fell on the ant hill while you were staring hard at the ants as a child! Poor chap, he’s dead. Died in a battle, … Then you are back again … to the timber beam … and the roof … and the chips of plaster about to succumb to the earth’s pull … and wonder what would happen if the roof caved in?! `Well, no harm done. After all martyrdom is better than slavery!’)

To continue with Bilal,

“At last, the night ended and the first streak of light pierced the dark horizon. As I was about to sneak out, I heard someone calling me by my name. It was a man sent by the Prophet (saws). He had come to tell me that by the grace of Allah (swt), four camel‑loads of goods had arrived as a gift from the Governor of Fadak.

“I heaved a deep sigh, thanked Allah (swt), and returned the man’s loans as well as others from whom I had been borrowing.”

It should be noticed, how, instead of recounting the hardships that the Prophet (saws), and hence Bilal, went through, Bilal chose to recount an incident which, while interesting and hence easy to remember for the listener, gave an idea about the kind of provision that the Prophet would have enjoyed.

At the end of the episode Bilal also indicated that if the circumstance remained penurious most of the time, it was sort of self‑inflicted. Who cared for money then? The rest of the story is as follows:

“When I returned to the Prophet ( saws),” continues Bilal, “he asked me how I had fared. I told him that I had paid back all the dues and everything that I had borrowed from anyone else, and yet there were some of it left. The Prophet told me that he wasn’t going to go home until I had disposed that off also, by way of charity. Therefore, he remained in the mosque.

“Come `isha, and he asked me if I had cleared it and I told him no. The Prophet (saws) said he wasn’t going to enter his house with that on him. He spent that night in the mosque. It was at the next day’s `isha Prayers that I gave him the good news that I had been able to dispose off the rest. The Prophet thanked Allah (swt) and entered his house.” (Abu Da’ud)

Once a free man, Bilal attached himself to the Prophet (saws), not parting his company until his death. He acted as his personal secretary, managed his accounts, travelled with him, fought with him and suffered with him. What better testimony than the words of the Prophet (saws) himself?

Anas reports the Prophet (saws) as having said: “I have been tormented in the way of Allah (swt) as like no one has ever been. And I have been terrorized in the way of Allah (swt) as like no one has ever been. (There were times when), thirty days and nights would pass and I and Bilal wouldn’t have anything to eat save for what could be concealed under Bilal’s armpit.” (Tirmidhi, IbnMajah)

So Bilal and the Prophet (saws) were tied up together … in hunger.

And They Were Not Proud

Let’s get back to where we were. We were saying Bilal was a free man now!

More than that. He was equal to all Muslims even though a slave and a Negro in the earlier society. It should be recalled that he was declared a brother to no less than `Ubaydahibn al‑Harith b. `Abdul Muttalib, a Hashemite, and a proud cousin of the Prophet!

In fact, Bilal was not just any Muslim. He held an honorable place in the sight of Allah (swt), a position he shared with some of the early Muslims. An incident brought this out.

It so happened that two Makkan chiefs: Al‑Aqra` b. Habis al‑Tamimi, and `Uyayna b. Hisn al Fazari, came to see the Prophet (saws). They found him surrounded by Bilal, `Ammar, Sa`d b. AbiWaqqas, Suhayb, Khabbab, Ibn Mas`ud, Miqdad, and others.

Now these were men who altered the course of history; those that brought a lasting change to more than half of the world. In contrast, the great men with whose life and works history books have been fattened, are insubstantial. But in the eyes of the unbelievers these early converts were an irrelevant lot, even as they are an irrelevant lot today in the eyes of those who measure men not by what they are but by criterion such as where they come from: United States or Sri Lanka, what is their color: white, yellow or black; what is their qualification: a PhD, or a school dropout; what they posses of material things: mural‑studded villas, vehicles and hefty bank balances, or live in low class housing; and, professionally what they are: a doctor, or a coiffeur!

The people who surrounded the Prophet (saws) morning and evening, wore rags, and went hungry most of the time. Many of them were former slaves who belonged to no tribe. Therefore, they were inconsequential in the eyes of the rich and well‑connected chiefs of the Arab tribes; inconsequential in the eyes of these two proud Arab chiefs: `Aqra` and `Uyayna.

They suggested to the Prophet, saying in effect, “Look! We would really like to meet and discuss things with you. But all the time you are surrounded by these chaps. You know that, at times, important people come down to the town. We do not want ourselves to be seen in the company of these. That will appear a bit cheap of us. So, let’s arrange it this way. When we come, let these people go away. After we are gone you may choose your company.”

However absurd it might sound today, it was, in reality, no less than a grand gesture on the part of these important men. For in those days, any Arab who commanded influence, power or wealth in any measure, felt too proud to even greet the Prophet if he encountered him in the street. Therefore, for these two men to condescend to visit the Prophet and talk to him was a gesture generous enough.

On his part, if the Prophet was anxious about anything those days it was to get his message across. For, although Makkah was a large town, he was feeling suffocated. He was just not being listened to. And he was fearful that their continued rejection might bring down Allah’s punishment. Therefore, any opening, any means of closing the barrier was welcome. He agreed to the proposal.

As for these early Muslims, he well knew their place in Islam, as they themselves well knew their own worth in Islam. In fact, they were in full agreement with the Prophet over this issue. They were as eager as he to get the message across – somehow. Their greatness lay in this: they had completely obliterated their personalities. If asked, they would have agreed to suffer permanent banishment … if that would help Islam win more converts. We have the word ‘surrender’ in our Islamic terminology. They were its manifestation.

Surely, they were a people of their own class.

Anyway. The Prophet agreed to the proposal, and the two chiefs said it would be best if it was put in writing. It is possible they wanted to impress on the other Arabs that they were able to force a compromise on the Prophet and extract concessions – a kind of political victory. Whatever the reason, they wanted it in writing, and the Prophet agreed to do that also. He asked `Ali to commit the agreement to writing.

These men: Bilal, `Ammar, Sa`d and others moved some distance away. Honoring the agreement before it was written?! Triumph would have clearly shown itself on the faces of the Makkan chiefs.

`Ali came down, ready with his pen and paper.

The dictation began.

But then came the intervention from on High.

A fresh revelation came. The Prophet’s eagerness alright … their own agreement notwithstanding … the Arab chiefs were not worth two straws in comparison to these. They would not be asked to move away. The Arab chiefs … men of power, prestige, wealth and nobility … would be invited to Islam. They would be invited to the honor of the company of Bilal and his likes. If they would accept, good for them. If they would refuse, so much the worse for them. But these noble souls would not be asked to move away. Jibra’il came down with the passage:

“Drive not away those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, desiring to win His approval; nothing of their account falls upon you (O Prophet), and nothing of your account falls upon them, that you should drive them away, and so become one of the wrongdoers.” (The Qur’an 6:52)

The Prophet threw away the piece of paper, drove away the evil chiefs and called back Bilal, Sa`d, `Ammar and others. And they came back. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir from Hakim who remarked that the report meets with the conditions of Bukhari and Muslim)

And they were not proud!

Both these chiefs later succumbed to Islam.

Aqra` b. Habis surfaces in a report that throws some light on what kind of people the Prophet (saws) had to deal with and win them over to his call. Abu Huraira (ra) says that the Prophet kissed Hassan b. `Ali in the presence of Aqra` b. Habis. Aqra` said, ‘I have ten children, but I never kiss any of them.’

The Prophet looked at him briefly and said, ‘He who is not kind upon others, will not have kindness shown to him.’ (Bukhari)

(To be continued)

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