Bilal al-Habashi was one of the closest and most trusted companions of the prophet of Islam, Muhammad. But few know of his humble beginnings.
His story, as all the great tales do, begins with a prophecy.
Bilal al-Habashi was born into slavery in March of 580 AD. The son of an enslaved military commander and Ethiopian princess, royalty and intelligence were his heritage, restrained only by the bonds about his wrists.
Until his mid-thirties, Bilal made a name for himself a slave of unusual skill, herding sheep for his callous master, Abdullah ibn Jud’an, who failed to recognize Bilal’s potential. Abdullah’s steward, however, did see something special in the young man, and called on Bilal to supervise a caravan of Abdullah’s goods, ensuring they reached their destination in Damascus.
The journey was difficult, crossing deserts and dunes. Bilal’s beautifully resonant voice became the joy of his traveling companions, and his spoken poetry relieved the tedium of the expedition.
Along the road to Damascus, they stopped and made camp outside of the city of Bursa. At some point during this time, a member of the caravan—Abu Bakr—experienced an unnamed vision that left him absolutely shaken, anxious for an explanation.
When he entered Bursa, Abu and Bilal sought out someone that might be able to explain the vision, and was directed to Bahira, the most famous Christian priest in the region.
The priest told him the man that his dream was a beautiful one, and that it meant that someone from among his people would be sent out as a prophet, one who would go on to invite people to believe in the One Allah, and to forsake their pagan idol worship, despite resistance from the pagan Arabs.
Bilal was stunned by this, and over the next weeks and months, he began to eagerly anticipate the coming of this prophet, hoping that he might have the chance to shake off the chains of slavery and follow him.
This feeling began to burn in him as he worked, and he soon found that the despair he once felt at his enslavement began to lift. As he tended his master’s sheep in the solitude of the mountains, Bilal found himself, for the first time, mentally free of his slavery. He knew that it was a temporary condition.
He had found hope in the prophecy of the soon-to-come prophet of Islam.
Bilal began to hear rumors of a man who declared that all humans were as equal as the teeth on a comb, and that no one had the right to make anyone a slave.
This man’s name was Muhammad.
Bilal began to sneak out of the city, searching for this Muhammad, whom he had come to admire greatly from the many stories that reached his ears. Long was this search, and Bilal found nothing for quite some time, and eventually gave up, returning to his everyday life of slavery and oppression.
Unknown to Bilal, Abu Bakr—the man who experienced the vision—and the prophet Muhammad had retreated to a cave, to lay low for a time, after facing violence from the pagan Arabs. The pagans opposed Muhammad’s teaching of Islam because the prophet’s teachings stood to disrupt the lucrative trade of idols in the region. And money, above all else, incites the greedy to violence.
Bilal happened upon this cave while tending to his sheep, and Muhammad called out to him.
“O shepherd, do you have some milk you can spare?”
When Bilal saw Muhammad, he knew that they he was special—they he was different, in some way, than anyone he had ever met. He was also shocked that had spoken to him like a normal person—as a slave and an individual of African descent, he had been treated as less than human for his entire life.
There, in that cave, Muhammad shared the divine revelation of Islam with Bilal over a shared portion of milk. It soon became clear that Muhammad’s words could not only free Bilal from slavery, but his heart from the oppression of sin, itself.
There, in that cave, Bilal recited the Islamic Declaration of Faith and became a follower of Islam.
Muhammad then sent Bilal away, urging him to keep his conversion a secret, lest the Meccans kill him for it.
Each time Bilal took his sheep out to pasture, he visited Muhammad in his cave, and each time, he came away with more and more wisdom, leaving only when the sun began to dip below the horizon. He lamented his chains at these times more than ever.
But darkness would soon come for Bilal. His anger at the Meccans’ enslavement of other peoples, and at their worship of idols boiled over one day, and he spat on an idol, calling out, “Debased be those who worship you!”
He was overheard, and a group of Meccans came running. When they questioned Bilal, a strange courage came over him, and he admitted that he had. But that courage lasted only for a moment, and when it flickered out, Bilal ran back to his master’s home.