This is the humbling story of an African man in an Arab society, where as a slave he was considered a commodity, an item of trade to be bought and sold as the owner wished. It is an account of courage, love, and mercy – the story of a man who rose from the lowest status in society to one promised eternal life in the Gardens of Paradise. This is the tale of Bilal ibn Rabah (RA).

Tall, skinny, and quiet, Bilal (RA) was born into slavery in Mecca. With Abyssinian roots (modern-day Ethiopia), Bilal was sold to Umayyah bin Khalaf, a leading member of the Quraysh and one of Islam’s archenemies. Umayyah was a harsh and cruel master who kept his slaves overworked and undernourished.

As one of the leaders of the Quraysh, Umayyah would gather with the other leaders and his guests to discuss the claims of Muhammad (PBUH), that he was the Messenger of Allah, and this ideology that he was spreading called Islam. The more Bilal overheard these conversations, the more his heart drew nearer to this faith that spoke of equality and justice. Eventually, he made the decision to accept Islam, becoming the seventh person to testify to the worship of one God.

When Umayyah came to know of Bilal’s new beliefs, he tortured and punished him in the most unimaginable and inhumane ways. Bilal (RA) was a man of few words, with true pureness of heart. Whenever he was told to submit to the idols of the Quraysh in order to stop the torture upon him, he would reply with the simplest and deepest proclamation of faith: “Ahad, Ahad” (One, One), testifying the Oneness of Allah.

His torturers, the Quraysh leaders including Umayyah, tried to break Bilal and make him renounce his faith, but instead, Bilal (RA) broke them by his steadfastness and certitude in his faith. The Quraysh leaders became so desperate and tired of torturing him that there came a point when they asked him to just say something nice about their idols and they’d let him go. However, Bilal (RA) didn’t sacrifice even one inch of his faith.

When the Prophet (PBUH) came to know of the sufferings of Bilal (RA), he sent Abu Bakr (RA) to buy him from his owner and set him free. A free man, Bilal (RA) became one of the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH) and held the esteemed honour of being the Mu’adhin-ur-Rasool, the only caller to prayer of the Messenger of Allah, who would invite the Muslims to the prayers led by the Prophet (PBUH) himself. His integrity, truthfulness, and steadfastness were so great that the Prophet (PBUH) heard the footsteps of Bilal ibn Rabah in Jannah (Sahih Bukhari).

Racism isn’t even a ‘thing’ in Islam, for Imaan (belief) has no race, gender, age, or class. We are all equally the slaves of Allah, differing only in our level of piety. As we learn from Bilal (RA), a ‘nobody’ in society can actually be a significant ‘somebody’ in the eyes of Allah. Indeed, this is the story of a great African man in an Arab society, the slave of another man, who freed himself by becoming the slave of Allah.