Bilal, the Outrunner (Part-9)
Beginning with the previous eight 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 ninth installment in this series taken from the brief, but significant, biography by SYED IQBAL ZAHEER.
No Mean Contributors
Sometime later, another incident occurred in Madinah which demonstrated the status of Bilal and the likes of him in Islam. It was the period when the Prophet had entered into a treaty with the Makkans at Hudaibiyyah some six years after Hijrah. By this treaty, both the parties were free to move about in each other’s territory.
Abu Sufyan, an infidel until then, and the Commander‑in‑Chief of the Quraysh army, was visiting Madinah. Bilal, Suhayb, Salman and others… the same lot that were treated like dirt by the Makkan unbelievers… were sitting together and, perhaps, passing an evening in a pleasant chat… when Abu Sufyan passed by. One of them was heard remarking: “Hasn’t yet a sword of God taken a share of the neck of this enemy of God (meaning Abu Sufyan)?”
Those words would have been very provocative for Abu Sufyan. He must have felt incensed. In his own eyes, as well as in the eyes of a large world around him, he was no ordinary person. He was the chief of the chiefs, the uncrowned king of Makkah, who could make or break treaties.
Abu Bakr also overheard the remark, and didn’t like it. “Do you say that of a chief of Quraysh and a noble man?” he said in some anger and surprise. He spoke of it to the Prophet (saws). But Abu Bakr had not expected the Prophet’s stern response, especially in view of the fact that Abu Sufyan was a guest in Madinah, and tradition required respectful behavior.
There was another reason for Abu Bakr to be expecting Abu Sufyan not being treated so roughly. He was the Prophet’s father‑in‑law. But the Prophet (saws) said in a reproachful tone: “Perhaps, Abu Bakr, you have angered those men with your remark. And if you have angered them, you have angered your Lord.”
This would have jolted Abu Bakr. But it was Abu Bakr, the greatest of men in Islam after the Prophet. He went straight to those men and said: “Did I displease you, my brothers?”
They were no less generous: “Not at all! May Allah forgive you.” (Muslim)
How High Can You Rise
Badr was only the first battle. Several others followed both against the Makkan as well as non‑Makkan unbelievers. They never gave up their efforts to destroy Islam root and branch. Bilal participated in every battle the Prophet fought.
It was the fall of Makkah that finally broke the will of the Arabs. This happened in the eighth year after Hijrah. Bilal was also there accompanying the Prophet when he entered Makkah triumphantly, leading an army of 10,000.
When the Prophet cleared the holy House of its 360 idols, and the time for Prayers came, who else was it but Bilal that was ordered to make the first call for Prayers? It was obvious that it should have been he. But something else was not so obvious. Bilal was asked to climb the roof of Ka`ba, the House built by Ibrahim, and make the call from there.
It is possible that since this was the first Adhan in Makkah, and the time for proclamation of the victory of Truth over falsehood, it was also a time suitable to announce of ranks in Islam. Hence, it was the roof of the holy Ka`ba that was chosen as the site most visible and Bilal as the figure most prominent. It is also said that it was aimed at pulverizing the pride of the Makkans.
But that was not all of the honor to Bilal. When the Prophet ordered the door of the holy Ka`ba opened, and entered into the House to clear the place of its deities, idols and pictures, it was none other than Bilal… along with the custodian of the key `Uthman b. Talha, and the Prophet’s adopted son Usamah b. Zayd… that entered the House of God. Other reports suggest that when the Prophet (saws) did his Prayer inside, it was Bilal that was asked to guard the door and not allow anyone to enter while the Prophet prayed. Who was it, therefore, who could tell onrushing `Abdullah ibn `Umar about the exact spot where the Prophet had Prayed inside the House but Bilal?! (Bukhari, Muslim and others)
That day, after the Prophet himself, the former slave was the most important man at the most important site in Islam. What an ascent for a man once dragged in the streets of the same town with a rope around his neck?!
Say:`Master of the Kingdom,
Thou givest the kingdom to whom Thou wilt,
and seizest the kingdom from whom Thou wilt,
Thou exaltest whom Thou wilt, and Thou
abasest whom Thou wilt; in Thy hand
is the good. Thou art powerful over everything.’
(The Qur’an 3:26)
Today one may not feel the full significance of Bilal’s entry into the Ka`ba along with the Prophet, or of him raising his voice from its rooftop proclaiming the greatness of one God from there. After Islam it sounds like a thing most ordinary, but it was an unthinkable and unbearable event for the proud, non‑believing Arabs then.
It was as unthinkable and unbearable to the Quraysh of Makkah as unthinkable and unbearable it has been to the Christians to imagine a Black Pope. If that happens we know the consequence. The dismay might prompt many to give a final farewell to Christianity.
Said a proud Arab, when he heard Bilal’s call from the rooftop of the Ka`ba: “It is lucky of Sa`id b. `Aas (a Makkan chief) that he is dead and no more alive to be hearing this Negro calling from this Sanctuary!” (Ibn Is-haq and others)
But this was not merely all that high that Bilal had risen. Much earlier the Prophet had heard his footsteps echoing in Paradise while Bilal was yet there on earth. One morning, the Prophet asked Bilal: “What’s your special virtue Bilal, that when I entered Paradise last night, I heard your footsteps ahead of me?”
In reply, Bilal did not mention the persecutions he had gone through, the fearful nights and the apprehensive days he had left behind, the thirst and hunger he had borne, the exemplary courage and patience he had demonstrated, et al, although if he had said those things, he would have been speaking the truth. But he didn’t talk of them.
Rather, “Nothing special,” said Bilal in his characteristic childlike style, “except that whenever it is nullified, I make a fresh ablution, and whenever I make a fresh ablution, I offer as many bows (raka`at) to God as I can, as also after every Adhan.” (SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’)
Similar reports are in Bukhari and Muslim.
People do not understand this simple statement from Bilal and the humble position that he took. They think it is a couple of bows of Prayer after every ablution that earned him this honor. Honor it was yes. And a few bows of Prayer after every ablution, yes. And a cause enough yes. But what has to be understood is that the few bows of Prayer were those of Bilal, and that made all the difference.
Also, it may be noted, if the Prophet was called to the presence of his Lord in the heavens to be rewarded for the ten most difficult and trying years of his life, some of his true followers were not forgotten!
Not As Humorless As That
Bilal also took part in many other campaigns that were led by the Prophet (saws) before and after the fall of Makkah. He remained the right hand man of the Prophet during those journeys, as he was back at home in Madinah. It is said that he was in charge of the provisions and spoils of war.
Another interesting incident took place during the campaign of Khayber. In those times the people were used to travelling in the coolness of the night and rest after the sunrise to avoid facing the hot sun. One night, during that campaign, the journey became too long. Eyelids were drooping down despite efforts to keep them open. At last, the Companions requested the Prophet to halt and allow them some sleep. He feared they would not rise up for the Fajr Prayers. But Bilal promised he would stay awake and wake them up at dawn.
The Prophet agreed and they halted. Everyone made a quick bed for himself and as quickly released his soul to the bliss of the other world.
One can imagine the kind of sleep it would have been for them! It was the sleep of the believers who had no tension in their lives. They were at complete peace with the Creator as well as the created. What was there to worry them when in the bed? Further, on this occasion they had been travelling heavily… on foot and on beast… through the best part of the night. Their bones, muscles and flesh, everything in the body could be aching. Moreover, it was the late hours of the night… the sweetest part of any night. One can imagine the kind of sleep it would have been for them – as good as that of the seven sleepers!
To drive away his own sleep, Bilal took to Prayers and prayed until he could. Then, as dawn neared and fatigue increased, he sat down resting himself against the back of his sleepy camel. He must have begun to stare at the horizon, waiting to spot the first streak of dawn when he would rise up and pierce the heart of the desert with the proclamation of God’s greatness.
But the fatigue!
And the coolness of the night approaching its end!
The lullaby of the desert breeze!
And the constant stare into the heart of darkness!
Bilal was sound asleep too!!
It was the warm rays of the sun that awoke everyone, including the Prophet. It had never happened before that the Prophet had missed to offer his Prayer on time. His Companions too had perhaps never experienced such a thing before.
Everybody was upset. Bilal was upset too. But when the Prophet asked him, “And what about your promise, Bilal?” he was quick‑witted enough to reply, “The same thing overtook me, O Apostle of God, as that which overtook you.”
“You spoke the truth,” was the reply. (Abu Da’ud, Ibn Majah)
Bilal demonstrated that he concealed a sense of good humor behind that serious countenance. The Prophet demonstrated that he accepted a point of good sense and humor when the occasion arose. In fact, one report says the Prophet smiled when Bilal said that: so simply, but so factually. The incident also reminded everyone of the closeness of relationship between the Prophet and Bilal! Who else could have dared to reply to the Prophet in those words?
The closeness, however, did not make Bilal proud in the least. Two years later, when some ten men came down to Madinah from the tribe of Banu Mahari, it was Bilal who used to carry lunch and dinner for them! Few writers, preachers, speech‑makers, and chair‑persons can imagine themselves doing that today. When `Umar called him Sayyiduna, he had some sound reason to do so.
A Friend is Gone
In the tenth year after Hijrah, the Prophet died. His death brought a dramatic change in Bilal’s life. He never felt the same again and never recovered from the loss. It is said that he cried like a baby at his death. Later too, the pain must have lasted as a dull lump somewhere in the heart rendering all on earth rather uninteresting. That’s evident from Bilal’s attitude in later days.
A day after the Prophet’s death Bilal went up to make the usual Fajr call. But when he reached “I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah,” the pain in the heart surged forward. The hedges around the tear bank broke down and streams of tear began to roll freely down his cheek. Bilal couldn’t continue. When the crying subsided, he somehow finished the rest of the call in a low voice and came down with heavy footsteps.
After that Bilal didn’t report for the Adhan anymore. Abu Bakr, the first Khalifah asked him to make the call. Bilal refused. When he insisted, Bilal told him: “If you freed me, the day you freed me from Umayyah b. Khalaf, for your own sake, then I’ll do as you say. But if you did it for Allah’s sake, then don’t force me to do what I don’t like to.” Abu Bakr told him: “I had freed you for the sake of God.” (Bukhari, Manaqib)
So the matter rested there and Bilal ceased to call for Prayers.
Madinat-un-Nabiyy was not the place where Bilal could find peace after that. There were too many things in it to remind him of the past. He decided to leave the town and take part in Jihad. But Abu Bakr wouldn’t let him go. Bilal was too dear to him. One day, Bilal pressed hard for release. Abu Bakr pleaded: “Bilal, I entreat you in the name of Allah (swt), and in the name of whatever service I have rendered you, that you do not abandon me in my old age.” (SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’)
Powerful words. And for many, strange words too! But to understand them we’ll have to search for the lost pages of history – if there were any. If found, they might throw some light on the reasons for such love, respect and trust that existed between them: a relationship, the foundations for which had been laid, perhaps, in pre‑Islamic times. Aside that, Abu Bakr knew Bilal’s true worth. To him Bilal was not dear because of his abilities to govern territories or shape policies, but because of his abilities to rule the hearts and shape the lives of people.
To Abu Bakr, ‘faith’ was important. To us, the ‘material effects’ of faith are more important. Bilal would perhaps be a useless man today – were he to be with us: without the qualities of tongue and pen and without a degree, humbly, but proudly, suffixed to his name. That is the bitter reality that we face today. We may admire him – but only on the pages of history. In the contemporary life, we grossly ignore the likes of him and value little the qualities that made him, him.
The words, anyway, were too powerful for Bilal to say anything in reply and he had to abandon the idea for some time.[i]
After Abu Bakr, Bilal once again began to make moves to embark northwards with the intention of Jihad. But it was the second Khalifah `Umar now who wouldn’t let him go. He used to call Bilal Sayyiduna (our master), and would say: “Abu Bakr Sayyiduna, freed Sayyiduna Bilal.” How could he let him go, the one who was closest to the Prophet after Abu Bakr? Back in Makkah, some 25 years ago, hadn’t the Prophet, when someone had asked him how many people believed in him, said: “Two! One, a free man, and another, a slave?” The free man, Abu Bakr, was gone. How could he bear to lose the “third of the three?”
It would not be surprising if `Umar felt a part of the deceased Prophet himself, there with him, when Bilal was around!
As Abu Bakr, `Umar too was well aware of Bilal’s worth. Once, during his caliphate, when some men who held important positions in the pre‑Islamic days, and were late in becoming Muslims, asked to be let in while `Umar was in the company of some people, he asked them to sit down where they were… near the entrance. But when Bilal and others showed up moments later, he got up to receive them and gave them a place next to himself.
The former chieftains were displeased. The displeasure showed itself in their faces. At this, one of them… the moderate one… addressed the rest:
“Friends! I can see displeasure writ large on your faces. But if you are angry, be angry with yourselves. People were invited and you were invited. They responded, but you delayed. How will you react if they are invited and you are ignored on the Day of Judgment too?”
According to another report, it was `Umar who said on this occasion:
“By Allah! I have treated them and you the way the Prophet (saws) would have done, were he to be here with us today. And this is how Allah (swt) will treat you and them tomorrow when the Scales are set up. They overtook you here and shall overtake you there.”
And, if `Umar knew Bilal’s worth, his son `Abdullah couldn’t have remained much behind in demonstrating forcefully that the situation couldn’t be altered anymore. It will stay so until the Day of Judgement. Dhahabi has recorded that once a poet praised another Bilal – B lal b. `Abdullah – in words: “And Bilal b. `Abdullah is the best of all Bilals,” `Umar’s son, `Abdullah ibn `Umar, didn’t appreciate the piece. He rebuked the poet, saying, “You have lied! Bilal b. Rabah is the best of Bilals.” (SiyerA`lam al‑Nubala’)
Ibn `Umar’s reaction gives us some idea of how sensitive the Companions were about the Companions to be defending them in such remote matters. Hence, we see that when Bilal came to know that some people said he was better than Abu Bakr, he reacted: “How can they place me above him, when I’m one of his good deeds!” (Siyer A`lam al‑Nubala’). What a way to put things firmly in their place!
So `Umar wouldn’t let him go. But Bilal’s desire for Jihad was too intense to be curbed. He persisted and `Umar had to finally give in.
(To be concluded)
[i] Some reports suggest that Bilal managed to extract permission from Abu Bakr by entreating him, just when he had climbed the Mimber to deliver the Friday sermon, with those famous words: “Abu Bakr, did you free me for Allah or for yourself?” Abu Bakr replied: “For Allah.” At this, Bilal insisted: “Then let me go to Jihad.” Abu Bakr relented.