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How did Bilal (ra) become Muslim?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Bilal (ra) overheard about the message of tawhid from his master Ummayah bin Khalaf and became interested in it. He later met the Messenger (saw) who performed a miracle in front of him that led him to embrace Islam.

Introduction

When the Messenger (saw) first received revelation, he was not asked to call people to a new faith as individuals. The revelation was for his nation, community or polity to accept and reorient their entire collective way of life (deen).

From the outset he was commanded to focus on the tribal leaders, elites and influentials, those whom society trusted and would follow should they change the collective way of life, influentials who thus could collectively reorient society - as opposed to individuals who would personally agree with him whilst society still continued with their existing way of life.

Bilal (ra) was an Ethiopian slave living under the authority and control of Ummayah bin Khalaf, one of the biggest enemies of Islam. He was one of the early companions who embraced Islam. He was also one of those whom their leaders tortured for their new faith.

Abu Bakr (ra) wanted to relieve him from this torture; he purchased him from Ummayah and gave him his freedom. Bilal then became one of the great characters in Islam, labelled Mu'adhin al-Rasul (the Messenger's prayer caller).

Bilal's Conversion Story

Bilal (ra) belonged to Banu Jumah Tribe, a member of Quraish. Before Islam, the Jumah tribe were considered to be experts in palmistry. Bilal was born into slavery, his parents were also slaves. Slaves had the lowest status in society at that time. Bilal's master was Umayyah ibn Khalaf who was leader of Banu Jumah.

When the Messenger (saw) received revelation in Mecca and started calling the tribal leaders and elites to Islam, this included Ummayah bin Khalaf who was Bilal's master. In one of the leaders' gatherings they sought to discuss the Messenger's call. Bilal (ra) overheard his master talking about a man claiming that there is only one God. Bilal (ra) was inspired by the idea of one God and yearned to meet the Messenger (saw). (Khalid Thabit, Rijal Hawl al-Rasul, pp. 60-63)

One day, the Messenger (saw) was sitting in the cave with Abu Bakr (ra) while Bilal (ra) was pasturing around the cave. The Messenger (saw) asked him for some milk which he provided. The milk was enough for one person but it was miraculously increased; something that surprised Bilal (ra).

Ibn Asakir narrates:

فأطْلَعَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه و سَلَّمَ رَأْسَهُ مِنْ ذَلِكَ الْغَارِ فَقَالً :" يا رَاعِي هَلْ مِنْ لَبَنٍ ؟" فَقَالَ بِلالٌ : مَا لِي إلّا شَاةٌ مِنْهَا قُوتِي فَإِنْ شِئْتُمَا آثَرْتُكُمَا بِلَبَنِهَا الْيَوْمِ ، فَقَالَ رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه و سَلَّمَ : إيتِ بِهِ ، فَجَاءَ بِهَا فَدَعَا رَسُولُ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه و سَلَّمً بِقَعْبَهٍ فَاُعْتُقِلَهَا رَسُولَ اللهِ صَلَّى اللهُ عَلَيه و سُلَّمُ فَحَلَبَ فِي القَعْبِ حَتَّى مَلأَهُ فَشَرِبَِ حَتَّى رَوِيٍّ ثَمَّ حَلَبَ حَتَّى مَلأَهُ فَسَقَى أَبَا بَكْرٍ ثُمَّ اِحْتَلَبَ حَتَّى مَلأَهُ فَسَقَى بِلالَا حَتَّى رَوِيٍّ ثُمَّ أُرْسَلَهَا وَهِي أَحَفْلُ مَا كَانَتْ .
"The Messenger (saw) rose his head out of the cave and said, 'O herder (Bilal), do you have milk?'
'I only own one sheep that I drink its milk,' Bilal (ra) answered. He continued, 'If you want to drink, there is no problem with drinking its milk today.' The Messenger (saw) told him, 'Bring it.' The Messenger (saw) then took his cup and milked the sheep until the cup was full.
The Messenger (saw) drank until he was satisfied; he then milked a full cup to Abu Bakr (ra) who drank until he was satisfied; he then milked a full cup to Bilal (ra) who drank until he was satisfied. The Messenger (saw) then released the sheep carrying milk much more than it did before." (Ibn Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, Vol. 10, p. 436)

This is similar to what happened with Ibn Mas'ud (ra) when the Messenger (saw) performed a miracle in front of him (Qurtubi, Jawami' as-Sira, Vol. 1, p. 38) which makes one suspect the two narrations may have become mixed.

Ibn Mas'ud had gone to the Messenger (saw) and said:

عَلِّمْنِي مِنْ هَذَا الْقَوْلِ الطَّيِّبِ، يَعْنِي الْقُرْآنَ، فَقَالَ: " إِنَّكَ غُلَامٌ مُعَلَّمٌ
"Teach me these blessed statements; i.e. the Qur'an. He (the Messenger) said: 'You are a learned youth.'" (Ibn Kathir, as-Sira al-Nabawiyyah, Vol. 1, pp. 444, Musnad Ahmed)

Likewise, the Messenger (saw) presented the truth to Bilal and he accepted it. Ibn Asakir narrates the Prophet (saw) asked him:

يا غُلاَمْ هَلْ لَكَ فِي الْإِسْلامِ ؟ فَإِنَِّي رَسُولُ اللهِ ... فَأَسْلَمَ وَقَالً :" أُكْتُمْ إِسْلامَكَ "
"(The Messenger said) 'O youth, do you want to be a Muslim? I am the Messenger of Allah …' He then embraced Islam. The Messenger (saw) advised him, 'Hide your Islam.'" (Ibn Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq, Vol. 10, p. 436)


Conclusion

Bilal (ra) overheard about the message of tawhid from his master and became interested in it. He later met the Messenger (saw) who performed a miracle in front of him that led him to embrace Islam.

References

Ibn Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq
Ibn Hisham, as-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah
Khalid Thabit, Rijal Hawlar-Rasul
Qurtubi, Jawami' as-Sira


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