Adhan, the call summoning the faithful to prayer, delivered by a muezzin, has rang out from atop the minarets of mosques around the world for the last 15 centuries, ever since the Islamic commonwealth of nations began in the seventh century to spread its wings to the West an East — where, indeed, the twain did actually meet, and meet in a communal sense of reference and devout compliance to a shared faith.
At no time on the Muslim calendar does the adhan cohere Muslims together more than during Ramadan, when even unobservant or lax Muslims find themselves, through fasting and prayer, truly close to the divine in their lives. It is with the muezzin’s call to prayer, heralding the advent of dawn, that they begin their fast, and with it, at sunset, that they end it.
And here you cannot reflect on the genesis of adhan without evoking the name of Bilal Bin Rabah, or simply Bilal, as he is often referred to when his legacy as the first muezzin in Islam is evoked, a figure with an honoured place in modern Islamic Studies and, more recently, in the imagination of African-American Muslims.
Muezzins are venerate in Islam, but the first in it to become one, in this case an African Arab, is held in special regard because he is viewed as a symbol of how Islam does not define human beings by their national, ethnic, racial or class background, but by their taqwa, or piety.
The story of Bilal does not only fascinate us, it also points by implication to how Islam as a faith is steadfast in its refusal to attach significance to a human being’s skin colour.
Bilal, a former slave born in Makkah to Ethiopian (then known as Abyssinian) parents in 580AD, was freed soon after he embraced the Message, and from there on it was as if salvation imbued his bruised spirit, and the hero in him stepped towards grace out of the shadow of damnation. He went on to become one of the Companions of the Prophet (PBUH), engaging with him in every major military expedition launched by the then emergent faith, including the Battle of Badr in 630, where Muslims defeated an army three times the size of their own.
It was at that battle that Bilal reportedly faced his former slave master and put him to the sword. In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Makkah, Bilal, who had long before been chosen by the Prophet (PBUH) to become the first muezzin, ascended to the top of the Ka’aba, in Islam’s holiest city, and called the Muslim faithful to prayer. Makkah would henceforth become the focal point of Islam’s new, zestful tense of reality.
And Bilal, we are told, had an extraordinarily melodious, deep-bass voice.
Muezzins are venerate in Islam, but the first in it to become one, in this case an African Arab, is held in special regard because he is viewed as a symbol of how Islam does not define human beings by their national, ethnic, racial or class background, but by their taqwa, or piety. Don’t dig deep into the Holy Texts for proof of that. Just read The Farewell Sermon. delivered by the Prophet (PBUH) at Mount Ararat in March 632. Various versions of it have been published (all thematically, though not textually the same), but I choose that of Imam Al Bukhari (d. 870): Oh people/ your God is one and you share the same father/ There is no preference for Arabs over non-Arabs/nor for non-Arabs over Arabs/ Neither is there preference for white people over black people/ nor for black people over white people.
Thus, Islam’s transnational, transcultural, transracial and translinguistic ethos, throughout history, never differentiated between black and white, African and Afghan, Levantine and Oriental, seeing all Muslims as equal denizens of the umma is today a subject of special interest in African-American Studies, and certainly to African-Americans as a whole.
One such, Edward Curtis, the Millennium Chair of liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, dwells, in his book, The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora (2016) on “the historical figure” that became the first muezzin in Islam, whose rise from slavery “inspire Muslims of African descent to reclaim their heritage and to play a legitimate role as moral leaders for Muslims worldwide”.
Never in Islamic history had an adhan recital given to us such a full yield of meaning than that delivered by Bilal Bin Rabah — Companion of the Prophet (PBUH), consummate warrior and an enchanting muezzin.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.