“Footsteps in Paradise”

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Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi (Radi Allahu ‘anhu) (May Allah be pleased with him) (AD 580-640) was an African of Ethiopian heritage and a faithful companion of the Prophet Muhammad (Salla ‘llah ‘Alayhi wa Alihi wa Sabihi wa salaam) (May the exaltations and peace of Allah be upon him and his family)..

Born in Mecca, Bilal (RA), ‘Sayyid al-Mu’azzin’ (leader of the Mu’azzins), was chosen by the Prophet Muhammad himself (Salla ‘llah ‘alayhi wa Alihi wa salaam) (May Allah exalt and bring peace upon him, his family, and his companions). He was among the emancipated slaves freed by Abu Bakr (RA) and was known for his beautiful voice with which he called the faithful to prayer. His name can also be known as, “Bilal ibn Riyah” and he is sometimes known as “Bilal al-Habashi” or “Bilal the one from Habesha (today’s Ethiopia)”.  He died sometime between 638 and 642 AD, he was just over sixty years old.

Bilal ibn Rabah, was an emancipated slave of key importance in Islam.  He is said to have been one of the most trusted and loyal Sahaba (companion) of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).  His respected stature during the birth of Islam is often cited by Muslims as evidence of the importance of pluralism and racial equality in the foundations of the religion.

Living With Muhammad / Slavery

According to Muhammad ibn Ishaq ibn Yashir (Ibn Ishaq), Abdullah Ibn Zaid Ibn Abd Rabbihi went to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) with his story that he saw Adhan in his dream, Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), approving the method for calling to prayer, told him to ask an Ethiopian named Bilal, who had a marvelous voice, to call the Muslims to prayer (Adhan). As Ibn Ishaq told the story (in Albert Guillaume’s translation):

‘When the Apostle was told of this he said that it was a true vision if Allah so willed it, and that he should go to Bilal and communicate it to him so that he may call to prayer thus, for he had a more penetrating voice.  When Bilal acted as muezzin, Umar I, who later became the second Caliph (successor to the Prophet), heard him in his house and came to the Apostle… saying that he had seen precisely the same vision.   The Rasulullah (Apostle of Allah) (s.a.w) said “Allah be praised for that.” 

Though slightly different versions of the story exist, all scholars of hadith agree that Islam’s first muezzin (caller to prayer) was Bilal.

One version state that one of the slaves of Umayyah ibn Khalaf, a terrible foe of Islam and Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), was named Bilal.  Bilal learned about Muhammad (s.a.w) and his teachings and became Muslim, but kept his belief in secret.  However, his master Umayyah came to know that he had opted to become Muslim.  So he started punishing him.

He ordered his slaves to make Bilal lay on the hot sand and put heavy stones on his body so that he could not move.  After such punishments, news of this slave reached some of Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w) companions who told Muhammad (s.a.w) of the slave, Muhammad (pbuh) then sent Abu Bakr (RA).  Mahammad (s.a.w) later learned of Bilal’s unique way of praying and unique voice with which he spoke from the soul and as a result of this Bilal became the first muezzin.

Later on, some people suggested that this honor should be given to someone else, because Bilal could not pronounce the Arabic letter ‘sheen’ properly and instead used the letter ‘seen’ (the two sounds had merged in ‘s’ in classical Ge’ez).  It is reported that Muhammad (s.a.w) said, “The ‘seen’ of Bilal is ‘sheen’in the hearing of Allah,” meaning that Allah does not see the physical manifestation; He appreciates the purity of heart.  This saying of Muhammad (s.a.w) is held to be continuous by scholars of hadith, with almost all of them grading it as baseless.  Bilal felt deep love for Muhammad (pbuh), and he is quoted as reciting some lines of poetry in his own language, in praise of Muhammad (s.a.w).  One verse translated:

“When noble traits are described in our country, thou art pointed out as a model among us” 

Migration:

In 622, the year of the Hijra, Bilal migrated to Medina and over the next decade accompanied Muhammad (pbuh) on his military expeditions, according to Islamic tradition, a lawyer revered by Muslims for his majestically sonorous renditions of the adhan.  Bilal also carried Muhammad’s (sallallahu alaiyhi wa salaam) spear, which was used from 624 onward to point the direction of prayer.

He fought in the Battle of Badr, in the aftermath of which he killed his former master,  Umayyah ibn Khalaf, inspite of the protestation of Umayyah’s capturer and long friend Abdur Rahman bin Awf.  Bilal was also present in all of the major events and battles, including the battles of Uhud and Battle of the Trench.

Bilal’s finest hour came in January 630, on an occasion regarded as one of the most hallowed moments in Islamic history.  After the Muslim force had captured Mecca, Muhammad’s (pbuh) muezzin ascended to the top of the Kaaba to call the prayer, – the first time the call to prayer was heard within Islam’s holiest city, however this was never proven and many dispute the fact that it would be against the faith to actually have climbed the Kaaba, no matter how big the conquest.

After Prophet Muhammad:

There are contradictory reports about what happened to Bilal after the death of the Prophet (s.a.w) in 632.  What seems clear is that at some point Bilal accompanied the Muslim armies to Syria.  After the death of Muhammad (sallallahu alaiyhi wa salaam), Usama  ibn Zayd continued a military expedition to Syria, as commanded by Muhammad (pbuh). However, it is very uncertain if that is the army Bilal accompanied.

Sunni view:

Sunni authors say that after Muhammad’s death (s.a.w), Bilal never called Adhan.  But when Caliph Umar visited Jerusalem, other Sahaba requested Umar to ask Bilal for one more last Adhan, and when Bilal did it, It was a very emotional moment for all of the Sahaba.

Some Sunni authors say that Bilal’s grave is in the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, in a village called “Bilal,” and he died there between 638 and 642, though the exact date of death and place of burial are disputed.  There is also another tomb in Damascus believed to be his.

Death date:

Bilal died there between 638 and 642, though the exact date of death and place of burial are disputed.

The Sunni scholar al-Suyuti in his Tarikh al-kululafa wrote:

He (Bilal) died in Damascus in 17 or 18 AH, but some say 20 AH, or even 21 AH when he was just over 60 years old.  Some say he died in Medinah, but that is wrong.  That is how it is in al-Isabah and other works such as the Thadhib of an-Nawawi.

Shia view:

Shia state that Bilal was one of Ali’s devoted followers after the death of Muhammad (s.a.w), and that he died in Damascus around 20 AH, and was buried within Bab al-Saghir cemetery.

The Bab al-Saghir, is an ancient cemetery and street in Damascus Syria, with tombs on either side of the street.   Notable internments in the Bab al-Saghir cemetary include the tombs of Umm Kulthum, daughter of Ali and Fatima, Sukaynah, daughter of the Imam, Husayn ibn Ali, Fidha, the maid of Fatimah (Muhammad’s daughter), Abdullah, son of the fourth Imam, Ali Zaynul ‘Aabideen, Maymuunah, daughter of the second Imam, Hasan al-Mujtaba.

The tombs of Prophet Muhammad’s wives, Umm Salama Hind bint Abi Umayya and Ramlah bint Abi-Sufyan (aka Umm Habeebah) are also found within this cemetery, however these are empty graves created for the purpose of Ziyarah.  The actual graves are at Jannaitul Baqee’, in Medina Saudi Arabia.

Ziyarah is an Arabic term which literally means “visit”, and is used to refer to a form of pilgrimage to sites associated with the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), his family members and descendants (including Shi’i Imams), his companions or other venerated figures in Islam, such as prophets, Sufi saints and Islamic scholars.  Sites of pilgrimage include mosques, graves, battlefields, mountains and caves.  Ziyarah can also refer to a form of supplication made by Shia, in which they send salutations and greetings to Muhammad and his family.

Legacy:

Though there are some disagreements concerning the facts of Bilal’s life and death, his importance on a number of levels is incontestable.  Muezzine guilds, especially those in Turkey and Africa, have traditionally venerated the original practitioner of their noble profession, and Muslims of African ancestry as a whole feel a special closeness and kinship to him; he was an Ethiopian, after all, who had been exceptionally close to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), and is a model of steadfastness and devotion to the faith.

The story of Bilal (RA), in fact, remains the classic and most frequently cited demonstration that in the eyes of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w), the measure of a man was neither nationality nor social status nor race but piety.

On the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah 10 A.H., in the ‘Unranah Valley of Mount Arafat’ (in Mecca), Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) delivered his last and famous (sermon):

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over a white except by piety and good actions.  Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that Muslims constitute one brotherhood.  Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belong to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly.  Do not therefore, do injustice to one another.”  

History:

When ever Umar Ibn Al Khattab, ( RA) mention Abu Bakr (RA) he would say, “Abu Bakr is our master and emancipator of our master.” That is to say, Bilal.

Edward Wilmont Blyden, Foreign Minister of Liberia (founded in 1822 by former American slaves) wrote in his book, “Islam, Christianity and the Negro Race,” 1874:

“The eloquent Adzan or Caller to Prayer, to which to this day summons at the same hours millions of the human race to their devotions, was first uttered by a Negro, Bilal by name, whom Mohammed, in obedience to a dream, appointed the first Muezzin or Crier.  And it has been remarked that even Alexander the Great is in Asia an unknown personage by the side of this honored Negro.”

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