Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi (580-640)

Bilal Calling For Prayer
Bilal ibn Rabah calling for prayer, Islamic miniature from Siyer-i Nebi, Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), 1500s
Public domain image

Bilal ibn Rabah al-Habashi was a loyal Sahabah (companion) to the Prophet Muhammad and thus one of the earliest converts in the newly-emerging religion of Islam. He was also the first mu’azzin (prayer caller) in the Muslim faith. Rabah is the first person of known African ancestry to become a Muslim.

Rabah was born on March 5, 580, in Mecca to slave parents, Hamamah, who was once a princess of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) but was subsequently captured and enslaved, and Rabah, an Arab slave from the Banu Humah Clan in Mecca, Arabia (now Saudi Arabia). Rabah was born into slavery and belonged to Umayyah Ibn Khlaf, a leading member of the Quraish, the Arab tribe that controlled Mecca at the time, and head of Bani Jumah, a clan who were allies of the polytheist Meccans. Rabah was described by his contemporaries as of impressive stature, dark brown complexion, with sparking eyes, a fine nose, and bushy hair.

Rabah converted to Islam sometime around 615 after he heard the message of the Prophet Muhammad and five years after the Prophet began to gather followers. Converting to the new Islamic faith was a challenge for this enslaved person since it was not the religion of his owner, and many of the earliest Muslims faced ridicule and harassment from non-Muslims once their decision to embrace Islam became known. Rabah’s owner Khalf, who was anti-Islam, discovered Rabah’s conversion and immediately subjected him to torture as punishment for converting to Islam. Khalf ordered his men to take Rabah to the desert during the long, hot summers where he was stripped naked. On other occasions, heavy rocks were placed on his chest to force his renouncement of Islam.

News of Rabah’s torture and his resistance to it eventually spread leading the Prophet Muhammad to send Abu Bakr, a wealthy trader and his close friend to investigate Rabah’s plight. Bakr came to an open field where after witnessing Rabah’s torture, decided to negotiate with Khalf for his freedom. Abu Bakr exchanged three slaves for Rabah whom he cared for and nursed back to health. Once he recovered, Rabah was taken to the Prophet Muhammad and would remain with him, and loyal to him for the rest of the Prophet’s life.

In 622, the Prophet Muhammad, Rabah, and rest of the small Muslim community migrated from Mecca to the city of Medina, Arabia. There Muhammad would establish the Islamic religion in that city. The Prophet appointed Rabah minister of the Bayt al-Mal (Treasury). In that position, Rabah distributed funds to people in need, including widows and orphans. Muhammad also appointed Rabah as the first mu’azzin or prayer caller.

Rabah accompanied the Prophet Muhammad during his early military expeditions and was given the honor of carrying his spear. Rabah fought in the Battle of Badr in 624, during which he killed his former master, Khalaf. Rabah also participated in the Battle of Uhud in 625 and the Battle of the Trench in 627, all of which helped rapidly spread the Islamic faith across the Arabian Peninsula.

After mourning the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Rabah left Medina and moved to Damascus, Syria, helping to establish Islam in that region. His precise death date is disputed among historians who claim he died somewhere between 638 and 642 in Damascus. Rabah married a woman named Hind, and she and their children migrated to Ethiopia.