Bilal ibn Rabah: The Voice of Resilience

February 29, 2024 Articles

By: Noor Khan, MPAC Policy Intern

Bilal ibn Rabah stands as an emblematic figure of resilience amongst the noble and revered individuals in early Islamic history. He was born in 580 in Mecca to enslaved parents. His father, Rabah, was an enslaved Black Arab, and his mother, Hamama, was abducted as a princess from Abyssinia, modern-day Ethiopia, and sold as a slave at a young age. Being born into servitude, Bilal had no other option but to work for his enslaver, Umayyah ibn Khalaf who was one of the leaders of the Quraysh tribes. Umayyah was a custodian of the Kaaba, and he favored Bilal for his loyalty and work ethic. In a patriarchal society marked by tribalism and racism, some historical narrations suggest that Bilal was often called “the son of a Black woman.” This term was meant to degrade Bilal, insinuating that his status was only reflective of his Abyssinian mother and stripped him of his Arab father’s lineage.

Bilal is said to be one of the first people to have embraced Islam despite his environment. Because he was in the presence of Umayyah and other members of the Quraysh, Bilal likely heard of Islam through their discussions and criticisms about the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his message. Upon discovering that Bilal had converted, Umayyah resorted to methods of torture to try to make him renounce his faith and return to the faith of the Quraish. Although it was unpopular to stand on Islamic principles at the time, Bilal did not waver in his faith and refused to compromise, even in bondage. Bilal was deprived of any sustenance for long periods, while also being tied up and left out in the scorching heat from sunrise to sunset. Yet, enduring these merciless efforts, Bilal relentlessly proclaimed, “Ahadun, Ahad” or “the One, the One,” — affirming the oneness of God. 

As Umayyah’s frustrations escalated, so did his cruelty. When his tyrannical methods proved ineffective, he told others to beat and assault Bilal in any way they wanted to break Bilal’s spirit and force him to give in to his demands. To Bilal, the belief in one God and the message of Islam was a source of hope and strength. Despite facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, he never surrendered his principles. With a heavy stone placed on his chest in the desert, Bilal continued to declare the oneness of God: “Ahadun, Ahad”.

Upon hearing about Bilal, the Prophet (PBUH) sent Abu Bakr to make a deal with Umayyah. It was only after months of torture that he realized that he would not win against Bilal’s determination, and eventually sold Bilal to Abu Bakr. Soon after his freedom from Umayyah, Bilal became one of the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH). Bilal was appointed as the minister of treasury as well as the first muezzin, or caller to prayer, because of his beautiful voice. In fact, after the conquest of Mecca, Bilal was granted the honor of ascending the Kaaba and leading the call for prayer, or the Adhan–a deeply symbolic moment. It marked a stark contrast to the days when Bilal uttered the word “ahad” under brutal forms of torture. Now, he stood privileged atop one of the most sacred sites in Islam, as a leader in his community, calling upon them to pray. He was the first to call for prayer in Medina, Mecca, and Jerusalem. 

Not only did he demonstrate leadership in his unwavering devotion to God, but also through his valor on the battlefield alongside the Prophet (PBUH). It was at the Battle of Badr, a crucial point in Islamic history when Muslims fought against the Quraysh, where Bilal found his long-awaited justice. Bilal confronted and defeated the man who had ruthlessly oppressed him for years.

Bilal’s steadfastness in faith and remarkable resilience under severe torment and hostility earned him a place of honor in the tapestry of Islamic history. He was one of the most trusted and righteous companions, and his life embodies the essence of perseverance, courage, and devotion to Islam. As we continue the fight for the freedom of persecuted and oppressed peoples across the globe, Bilal’s legacy serves as a reminder of the strength we have when guided by faith and conviction.  

Our society parallels the times of the Quraysh in many ways, namely the use of structural racism and classism as tools of oppression. The tyranny of the Quraysh can be found everywhere today, and in movements such as Black and Palestinian liberation, we witness echoes of the unwavering courage of Bilal to speak truth to power. We see the people of Gaza reciting the shahada, or profession of faith, as airstrikes take the lives of loved ones. They have been stripped of their livelihood, yet they continue to resist the oppressive forces, knowing that justice is around the corner. 

As we approach the spiritual month of  Ramadan, let us reflect: What is our duty? If we cannot aid those in direct conflict, we must help them with our resources. And, if we lack the resources to give for the freedom of others, we can certainly give ourselves to the cause just as Bilal ibn Rabah did with his devotion. 

The shackles of oppression that uphold systems of power and allow the exploitation and suffering of marginalized communities must be removed because only then can a just society exist where absolute liberty and equality is guaranteed for all.  And like Bilal, we must remain resilient, knowing that change often requires sustained effort and perseverance.

You can build a future free from fear and bigotry.

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