The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora
I was shown paradise. . . . I heard the noise of the steps before me, and, lo, it was that of Bilal.—Prophet Muhammad1
After a band of Muhammad’s followers left Mecca in 622 C.E. for the Arabian town that would come to be known as Medina, the city of the Prophet, the community of Muslims grew to include not only the Proph-et’s followers from Mecca but many from Medina as well. These Muslims would gather at the appointed times—sunrise, midday, midafternoon, dusk, and after sundown—to perform the salat, the Muslim prayer that includes the prostration of the body in the direction of Mecca.
According to the stories in the hadith literature, which chronicles the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions, the Prophet de-cided that Muslims needed some sort of announcement that the prayers were about to begin. Many methods were considered—lighting a fire, blowing a horn, raising a flag, and using a bell or clapper.
All were eventually rejected. Instead, a man named Bilal ibn Rabah was asked to call Muslims to prayer using only his voice. According to Islamic tradition, Bilal was a tall man whose thin beard barely covered his cheeks. Some said that he “had sparkling eyes, a fine nose, and bright skin” and that “he was also gifted with a deep, melodious, resonant, and vibrant voice.”2
Bilal climbed to the roof of the tallest house around the mosque in Medina. From there he summoned the believers to prayer, saying,
Shrine of Bilal in Jordan. Although Bilal ibn Rabah was likely buried in Damascus, Syria, there is also a shrine dedicated to his memory in the Amman area of Jordan. Black Jordanians do not generally regard Bilal as a patron saint or racial ancestor in the same way that black Muslims in South Asia and many parts of Africa do. Instead he is seen mainly as an honored companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Courtesy of Bilal Dweik.
God is Great [or Greatest]! God is Great!
God is Great! God is Great!
I witness that there is no god but God.
I witness that there is no god but God.
I witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. I witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Come to prayer.
Come to prayer.
Come and thrive.
Come and thrive.
God is Great! God is Great!
There is no god but God.3
With great constancy Bilal continued to issue the adhan, or call to prayer, every day, with few breaks, for the rest of the Prophet’s life. Per-haps the greatest of these recitations was in 630 C.E., from the top of the Kaʿba, the sacred house of worship that was, according to Islamic tradition, originally built by Abraham. After conquering Mecca without a battle, the Prophet Muhammad entered the sacred house and then, emerging from the inside, asked Bilal to issue the call to prayer. It was likely the climax of Bilal’s career.4
From the viewpoint of Arabian tribal society, Bilal was an unlikely can-didate for this position of honor. Also called Ibn Hamama, Bilal was born into slavery in Mecca, perhaps to a master named Umayya bin Khalaf. Bilal’s mother was African, perhaps from Ethiopia.
Bilal also had dark or black skin, but it would be several centuries before blackness became synonymous with slavery in the Middle East. While there seemed to have been at least some prejudice against dark-skinned people, slaves could also be brown or white. In the seventh century, slavery in the Middle East, as in many other parts of the world, was a multiracial affair.5 It was largely the social stigma attached to Bilal as a former slave that made Muhammad’s decision to name him prayer-caller a countercultural one.
One of Muhammad’s very first followers, Bilal had earned a position of honor in the community after enduring great hardship. When it was discovered that he had converted to Islam, Bilal was punished and even tortured by Umayya bin Khalaf and other nobles. It was not the place of a slave, said Umayya, to reject the gods of Mecca. According to Islamic tra-dition, Bilal reacted to his torture—which included being crushed under a heavy stone—by at first shouting and then finally only whispering,
“Ahad,” the One, meaning that there was only one God.6 He was even-tually rescued by Abu Bakr, another of the Prophet’s earliest followers and the man who would become the first caliph of Islam after Muham-mad’s death. Abu Bakr purchased Bilal’s bond and manumitted him.7 Even then, as one of Muhammad’s earliest followers, Bilal also suffered the fate of early Muslims who struggled to make ends meet in the face of persecution in Mecca.8
Bilal became the Prophet’s constant companion, and hadiths record that he performed several functions besides calling Muhammad and those around him to prayer. In 624 C.E., for example, during the very first celebration of ʿId al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of the Rama-dan month of fasting, Bilal planted an ʿanaza, or spear, on the spot from which the Prophet would lead the congregational prayers. This spear indicated the direction of the Kaʿba, the sacred house in Mecca toward which Muslims were told to pray.9 He was also a personal servant and steward to Muhammad, to whom he would bring water for the perfor-mance of the ablutions necessary before making prayers.10
And Bilal ac-companied Muhammad into every battle he fought, eventually tracking down and killing his former tormenter, Umayya.11 Bilal sometimes acted as the Prophet’s treasurer. After the congregational prayers on the days of ʿid, the Prophet directed the women in attendance to give their sadaqa, or charitable donations, to Bilal, and they took off some of their jew-elry and flung it on Bilal’s garment.12 In other instances, Bilal distributed some of the Prophet’s gold, silver, food, and clothes to believers in need.13
In the time of the second caliph, Umar, Bilal moved to Syria, where he joined the military campaign to subdue the Levant. He died sometime between 638 and 642 C.E., no more than a decade after the death of the Prophet, and was buried somewhere in Syria. According to some sources, he had refused on almost all occasions to recite the adhan after the death of Abu Bakr, the man who freed him. There were exceptions, including the occasion of his own visit to Medina, when Hasan and Husayn, the Prophet’s grandchildren, asked him to perform the adhan.14
The paradox of Bilal’s low social status in pre-Islamic terms and his high social status in post-Islamic terms generated important ethical les-sons that outlived Bilal himself. One such lesson came by way of the Qurʾan. When, one day, a delegation of Meccan nobles came to see Mu-hammad, they balked at the presence of Bilal and other former slaves in Muhammad’s company. They asked Muhammad to dismiss these lower-class people or to see them separately. On this occasion, Muhammad recited the Qurʾanic verse that directed him and other Muslims to “expel not . . . those who worship their Lord day and night, seeking only God’s pleasure,” no matter what social stigma they may suffer (6:52).15 Mu-hammad also challenged the social and ethnic hierarchies in his fare-well sermon, forbidding division between Arab and non-Arab in Islam. According to Aisha, the Prophet’s daughter, Muhammad also said, “If a slave having some limb of his missing and having dark complexion is ap-pointed to govern you according to the Book of God the Exalted, listen to him and obey him.”16
THE HEIRS OF BILAL
This is not a book mainly about Bilal ibn Rabah, but his story is one that reverberates among African and African-descended Muslims and often symbolizes their experiences. Bilal’s “up from slavery” tale prefigures the ways in which later Muslims of African descent would claim his heritage as proof of their legitimate role as moral leaders for Muslims worldwide.
His role in early Islam as a prayer-caller also mirrors the creative activ-ity of later African-descended Muslims who made instruments named after him, traced their spiritual lineage to him, and invoked his name in spirit possession ceremonies. In some locales, Bilal became a saint whose intervention could be called upon when someone was in need of help or healing. In other places, Bilal represented a historical connection to the very origins of Islam, evidence that people of African descent have always heard and responded to the Prophet’s message.
Bilal’s experiences as a slave alert us to the pivotal role that slavery and later racism would come to play in the experiences of most African-descended Muslims in the diaspora. In some places, such as the Middle East and Africa, fellow Muslims enslaved Bilal’s heirs.17 In other places, including Europe and the Americas, non-Muslims stole the freedom of Muslims of African descent.18
Even after slavery was officially abolished in many countries, the descendants of slaves or those who were per-ceived to look like them were often subjected to both de jure and de facto racial discrimination. As this book will demonstrate, the religious practice and thought of most Muslims in the African diaspora has re-sponded directly to or has reflected the influence of the centuries-old trade in African human beings, the racialized societies that engaged in and were constituted by such trade, and the political consequences of slavery and racism.
Finally, Bilal’s story reminds us that there has been an African pres-ence in Islamic religion dating from the very origins of the faith. African Muslims were present and played a variety of roles in the expansion of the early Islamic state.
They served in the armies of Caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali and later in those of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires that conquered various cities in Europe, Africa, and Asia. African Muslims helped to fashion the Sunni and Shiʿa Islamic traditions that would become representative of most Muslims’ religious practices in the region. Some of the earliest leaders of Islam also had African relatives; to cite one prominent example, the paternal grandmother of Caliph Umar was Ethiopian.19 It was also African people who created the institutions, networks, governments, and religious technologies es-sential to the Islamization of Africa itself.
By the seventh century, Arab armies emerging from the Arabian Peninsula had established garrisons across North Africa. Military conquest did not mean forced conversion, however, and it took several centuries before the majority of Berbers and other North Africans indigenized the faith and professed their be-lief in Islam.20
Similarly, West Africans were largely responsible for the growth of Islam in their region. Beginning in the eleventh century, Manding speak-ers and others traversed the Sahara, establishing commercial networks with Muslims in the Maghrib, or North Africa. Using elements of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, to govern business transactions, some of these traders converted to Islam. Over many centuries, aspects of previously existing African religions were also blended with beliefs in Muhammad’s prophetic example and the efficacy of the Qurʾan to create a form of Islam that became popular among a larger group of West Africans. For most, the role of Sufi masters, those who commanded special knowledge and had cultivated a special relationship with God, was key to the prac-tice of Islam in the region. Powerful West African leaders such as Mansa Musa, Sunni Ali, and Askia Muhammad also patronized various Muslim institutions, especially schools and seminaries.21
Likewise, it took centuries for Islam to spread in East Africa, and East Africans themselves were largely responsible for making Islam an indig-enous East African religion. Muslims from Arabia and Egypt established a presence in the Horn of Africa by the 800s, but it was only from the twelfth to the fifteenth century that Swahili became the language of a large-scale Islamization along the entire East African coast.
Unlike Islam in West Africa, however, Islam in East Africa remained a largely coastal phenomenon until the 1800s when more and more groups in the interior converted to the faith.22
From the Middle Ages until today, Muslims from the African conti-nent have been on the move as travelers, pilgrims, merchants, scholars, performers, nomads, sailors, and mystics.23 Before the twentieth century, millions of them were enslaved, forcibly settled in communities across Eurasia, the Americas, and the African continent itself. Their diaspora, or dispersal, became global.
From the time of the North African conquest of Iberia in 711 C.E. until today, Muslims of sub-Saharan African descent have moved around in, lived in, and influenced Europe, and contem-porary communities of black Muslim migrants are having an important impact on the national life of European countries such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy.
When, in the late 1700s and 1800s, the North African and Middle Eastern middle and upper classes sought slaves, they increasingly turned to sub-Saharan Africa.24 Distinct diaspora communi-ties of sub-Saharan or black Africans have existed in the Arabic-speaking countries of North Africa and the Middle East ever since. Over a longer period of time, East African warriors, workers, concubines, merchants, and others came around the Horn of Africa and across the Indian Ocean to what today is India and Pakistan. Many of them became known as Sid-dis, a word related perhaps to the Arabic word sayyid, meaning a relative of the Prophet Muhammad or simply “Master” or “Mister.”25 Finally, the slave trade over the Atlantic brought well over a million Muslims to the New World, and while enslaved Muslims in North and South America did not generally pass on their Islamic identity to their children or grand-children, the number of African-descended Muslims in North America, South America, and the Caribbean rose again in the twentieth century as a result of both conversion and the immigration of free Africans to American shores.26
This book will explore the religious practices of all of these Muslims of African descent—those who have heard, at least symbolically, the call of Bilal. The book’s main goals are (1) to offer the first synthetic account of Islam in the global African diaspora, (2) to create a portrait of the di-verse ways in which Islam is practiced by people of African descent, and (3) to explore how those practices of Islam are influenced by the experi-ence and interpretation of diaspora.
Such a globe-trotting overview is made possible only by the expansion of scholarship produced mainly in the last decade or so about African-descended Muslims in the diaspora. While this book includes some of my own ethnographic and archival research, it relies even more on the scholarship of others. My hope is that readers of this book will gain an expanded view of the ways that African-descended people practice Islam—so that for U.S. readers, for example, the term “black Muslim” conjures images not only of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan but also of the devotees of Bava Gor in South Asia, the female trancers of the Stambali in Tunis, and the followers of Ahmadu Bamba in Paris.
The concept of an Africana Muslim diaspora is useful to this synthe-sis because it invites the analysis of similarities and differences among its subjects, and this book builds on recent efforts to further our un-derstanding of the African diaspora. It emphasizes both ruptures and links among African-descended people. The growth of studies focusing on various diasporas has been, quite literally, exponential in the past two decades.27 With the growth of diaspora studies have come com-peting definitions of the word “diaspora” and disputation over how it applies to people of African descent.28 Scholar William Safran’s influential 1991 theory of diaspora argues that it is fundamentally defined by the identification of a group with a homeland—diasporic people, he says, make myths about and maintain memories of the homeland, care about its destiny, and dream of returning to it one day.29
The problem with such a definition, answered some critics, was that it excluded a lot of dispersed populations. What happens, for example, when we try to understand dispersed groups of human beings who do not consider a “homeland” to be an essential part of their identification with the rest of the group? Sociologist Paul Gilroy argues, for example, that mod-ern black communities in the Atlantic world were brought together not by a shared belonging to Africa but by their shared experience of ra-cial oppression.30 In some cases, anthropologist James Clifford claims, diasporic routes may be more important than diasporic roots.
That is, instead of being rooted in a central location and dreaming of return-ing there, a dispersed community might be connected to one another in other ways. “Transnational connections linking diasporas,” Clifford asserts, “need not be articulated primarily through a real or symbolic homeland. . . . Decentered, lateral connections may be as important as those formed around a teleology of origin/return.”31
So instead of a diaspora centering all of its hopes and dreams on a homeland, dispersed people might actually put their collective hopes in one another, in mul-tiple places, in global institutions, in various networks, in their race, or in their religion.32
Another challenge posed by many studies on diaspora is that, focused as they are on national, transnational, and other kinds of political meanings and identities, they do not always take into account the multiple religious dimensions of diaspora.33 This lack of attention to religious mean-ings is strange, given that diaspora has been so associated in the English language with the Galut, the forced exile of Jews from Roman Palestine in the first century.
For many Jews, the Galut was not only a political exile but also a religious event interpreted as divine punishment for collective sin and as a divine promise of redemption and restoration, not only for Jews but perhaps for the whole world. Still other Jews insisted that the Galut could be understood only in a “metaphysical-ontological domain.”
In this view the Galut was “the shattering in the divine being when part of the divine . . . is driven away and alienated from its true place.” It is the “cosmic exile of the divine.”34 As these definitions of the Jewish diaspora after 70 C.E. suggest, analyzing a diaspora through a religious studies lens requires a broad array of categories through which one can view the meanings of physical dispersion.
Using the approaches of religious studies invites us to look beyond earthly territory and focus on the idea of space more generally. Sacred space, whether on the earth or in some other realm or plane, can be a meaningful component of diasporic practice.35 Some theories of diaspora are limited in their ability to explain otherworldly views of human scattering despite the fact that, for many humans, religious maps of disper-sion possess cosmological and metaphysical dimensions.36
These maps of diaspora need not refer to physical territory.37 Diaspora can mean the scattering of groups of people in spaces and places that go beyond this earth—as religious people imagine that they have been transported to the heavens and sometimes back. Furthermore, human experiences of diaspora are often created using more than words and images. Maps of human scattering can also be embodied, felt, ritualized, and experienced in ways that are as concrete to religious practitioners as those found in any atlas.
If that is so, understanding Islam in the African diaspora requires a definition of diaspora that helps to analyze the multiple meanings of Africa, religious and political, to Muslim practitioners. I propose, simply and provisionally, that diaspora be understood as a physical scattering of human beings across time and space that has political, economic, social, cultural, psychological, religious, and emotional meanings. This definition focuses on two components: the physical dispersion of humans and
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