Bilal, the Outrunner
Beginning with this issue of Young Muslim Digest, the life of Bilal bin Rawaha, the famous Companion of the Prophet, is planned to be serialized in this column every month. Presented herein under is the first installment in this series taken from the biography by SYED IQBAL ZAHEER.
Once … long back … at a point in our history…
Our history?! What’s our history? When does it begin? Isn’t our history the history of the human race?
The answer is, yes, ours is the history of the human race. But, even though part and parcel of the great sea of humanity, we stand out very clearly as a distinct people. We, the Muslims, have our own history, our own past and present, our own rise and fall, and our own starting and ending points.
Even if we are very much a part of the humanity in general, our mental, moral, and spiritual make‑up and hence the paths dictated by them, the way of life suggested by them, are different. Hence we, the torch‑bearers of morality, of order, of justice for all, of responsibility towards Man and nature, and, above all, of acknowledgement of the Oneness of God, have a history of our own that has followed a different path altogether.
Of the humanity in general, only those belong to us that will meet with these conditions, and bear the burden of a responsible life on earth with us. Those that do not, are not our people: the Pharaohs, the Hitlers, and those that worship others of their kind – the statesmen, the scientists and the ideologist, or those that worship wealth, power, or whatever else of false gods they erect for themselves. Those that worship anything besides Allah (swt), do not belong to us. We do not belong to them. We give them their rights and dues – the neighbor’s rights, the human rights, the rights of the citizens, the right to govern themselves, and whatever of the rights that are justly demanded of us: we give them those rights – but we do not belong to them! They do not belong to us.
We are not with them in anything, unless it be the good and the virtuous, a moral point, the curbing of an evil, a service to humanity, or a cause of general happiness. We hold hands there, and hold them firm, faithfully, wavering not, falling to the ground first, if sacrifice be the watchword. But in the rest of the things – and the rest is evil, if they knew – we are not with them. We part ways.
To some that may sound cynical. But does it?
Let us look at some of the facts.
Who in the world fights today for the right to be modest, to wear scarves, to use veils, to guard chastity?
Who in the world protests against night clubs, wine, gambling and prostitution?
Who in the world executes the rapists, homosexuals, child molesters?
Further, who in the world is struggling today for the establishment of states and governments on principles dictated by God, with readiness to lay down the life for such a cause?
Yes, today we are the only ones on earth who are the upholders of God’s religion as brought by the Prophets, the only ones to demand that it be established on earth, the only ones to judge on the criteria set by the revelation of God, the only ones to hate and love, live and struggle by these standards. No one shares this burden with us. People live and die for earthly causes. We live and die for heavenly causes. Surely one needs to stretch one’s imagination to its full to believe that we and the rest of the mankind shall share the same future.
No, indeed! We are different.
Our women are different. Our children are different.
Our paths are different. Our dreams different.
Our hopes and fears different. And our destinies different.
Our history then is the history of Islam.
The History of Islam
When did our history begin?
Did it begin with the appearance of Muhammad in Arabia some 1400 years ago?
Most people think so. But that’s not correct. Our history begins with the appearance of the first Muslim on earth. Muhammad was the Final Prophet and not the first Muslim. The first Muslim was Adam, on whom be peace: our great great ancestor who was the first man on earth and also the first Prophet for his fast multiplying progeny. We are his inheritors, in blood, in spirit, and, in religion.
We belong to that current, that streak, that fringe, or that lining in humanity, call it what you will, that has always followed the Prophets, the Revelations, the Truth.
“Tell them, `We believe in Allah, in that which has been revealed unto us, that which was revealed unto Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes (that originated from the sons of Jacob), that which was given to Moses and Jesus, and which the (other) Prophets were given by their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them. And we have surrendered ourselves unto Him.’” (The Qur’an: 136)
Ours is a history in continuum. But if someone wants to divide it for ease of understanding, he can divide it into the ancient era, the middle ages, and a modern era. The ancient era starts with Adam and ends with Abraham. From Abraham until Jesus Christ, the son of Mary, are our middle ages. The modern era starts with the last Prophet, Muhammad, and shall continue through the time when Jesus Christ will reappear, then, through the rest of the great Signs of the Doomsday, down to the Day of Great Catastrophe itself: the Day of Resurrection, Reckoning and Judgment.
“And soon the unbelievers shall know what turns their affairs will take.” (The Qur’an: 26: 227)
So we were saying … at a point in our history, that is, history of the modern era, beginning somewhere 609 years after the appearance of Jesus Christ, the time when our Prophet arose, like a bright sun, that dispelled all darkness, chasing them off to the far off lands, to the `unbelieving’ dark corners of the globe, to the lands of the proud. At that time there lived in Makkah, an amiable and soft‑spoken young man. He was thick-lipped, of heavy-set jaws, unkempt hair, thin and tall (Tabaqat Ibn Sa`d). And although frail looking, he was supple but of steel nerves, as we shall presently see. And he was black, jet black. In his later days his hair turned gray, but he did not dye it. (Safwatu al‑Safwah). Nor – shall we add? – did he ever kink it!
He was quiet, unassuming, and, perhaps, like his kind everywhere, graceful too.
His parents were of African origin who had, perhaps, been brought into Makkah from Yemen, at the ancient harbors of which most Abyssinian Africans found themselves staring at with their wide innocent eyes, landing there by way of trade, migration, refuge, or, worse, slavery. His parents, or their parents – we don’t know for sure – had probably landed there with that most nefarious neck‑lace humans have ever forced others of their kind put on: that of slavery.
His name was Bilal.
Some names seem to have something to do with the persons that adopt them. For, if his mother’s name was Hamamah, meaning ‘a dove,’ Bilal’s own name meant – more or less – ‘wetness.’ He was malleable.
Probably born in Makkah, when he opened his eyes, he found himself already a slave. He was owned by one Umayyah b. Khalaf. But that man was only the immediate master. For after him, the Banu Jumah, Umayyah’s clan, were Bilal’s owners – in the general and loose sense of the term – since the prevalent rules gave every member of the clan some authority – however vague and undefined – over every slave of the clan.
An added quality of this tribe seems to be that it was not short of men devoted to opposing the only prophet that had appeared among them. One of their men – Abul Ashaddayn, a powerful man of whom it is reported that he would stand on a leather piece and invite ten people to pull him; the leather piece would get torn to pieces but he couldn’t be unsettled – was one such. If it is he that is alluded to by the verse 5 of chapter Al‑Balad, then this man must have spent a lot of his wealth in the opposition of Islam.
Anyway, we were saying that Bilal opened his eyes as a slave. Now, perhaps it is a bit hard for a person today to imagine what it meant to be a slave those days. And maybe people do not know, to begin with, what it meant to be a slave at all, far from realizing what it meant to be a slave in those days – the days that we are talking of.
Well, firstly, until recent times when slavery came to be banned in Asia, Europe and America, a slave was someone who was owned by another person: just as one owns a head of cattle which he can buy and sell, and treat the way he likes. In America, they fared the worst. After the day’s hard labor – under a gun‑totting, horse‑riding, cowboy‑like stunt man called foreman – they used to be chained in the evenings and spent their nights in huts that resembled dog‑kernels more than the shacks they were called.
They didn’t fare that bad in the Arab world, but not too well either. In this part of the world, the world of the self‑assured Arabs, constant humiliation was, at least, not the objective of the masters. That comes from a false sense of pride, in those whose self‑confidence finds no basis in the chicken‑like personality they hide within their massive structure. Interestingly, such souls find no re‑assurance from within when a blunt look stares hard in their faces.
Another reason why the slaves received a better deal in the Arab world was that they were on the scene for ages. In contrast, they were a somewhat recent phenomenon in America, and it always takes societies a long spell to adjust themselves to new phenomena and remove some of the glaring injustices. That way, their quick emancipation in the West is creditable. For sure, that! But the persistent racism is not.
So the Arab did not humiliate him. He didn’t give him names and didn’t look down upon him as a different species, a different race. Nor were blacks the only slaves. There were plenty of fair-skinned foreigners around that had been purchased in the international markets or captured in wars. Nor yet was a slave in that world a slave from the cradle to the grave. He could – even if that happened not too often – buy his freedom. And the proud Arab owner knew that there was some chance of the man under him winning freedom – and the freedom was real – and coming back giving him a somewhat hard look, or throw a punch packed in a sweet but meaningful smile, or let slip a blunt word, that would convey his real assessment of him. That, he knew, who knew his worth as a human being, would be an intolerable situation and a time to disappear from the range. Therefore, he tried to behave in an irreproachable manner with everyone he had to deal with, not excluding his slaves.
When Abu Sufyan appeared in the Roman court, he didn’t lie, although a lie there would have served him well, not because he thought it was a vile thing to do, but because he feared his companions would publicize this aspect of his character. To be known as one ‘capable of lying’ was too much of a humiliation for the proud desert‑dweller.
In other words, when the Arab demanded that he be respected, he saw to it that the respect was real, and not merely in appearance. That made some demands on him and forced a character and personality upon him. And that ‘character’ and ‘personality’ made for the difference between the slaves of the Arab world and the slaves of the rest of the world.
Yet, nobody is going to defend slavery without betraying some amount of insensitivity, to say the least. The Qur’an has not ordered taking of slaves. It does not sanction it but in indirect terms. In contrast, it speaks of their emancipation, their liberation, their honorable treatment too often to be ignored even by a casual reader. No less than ten times has it spoken of the emancipation of the slaves. For instance, while speaking of salvation, it said, powerfully: “But the man (working for his salvation) did not cross the barriers? And what do you know are the barriers? The freeing of a slave…” (90: 13)
(To be continued)