By Wesley Muhammad, PhD
© 2011 Wesley Muhammad, PhD
It is popularly believed that Bilal, the Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and first mu’adhin or Caller to Prayer, was an Abyssinian and, thus, the first “black Muslim” or Black man to accept Islam. The latter claim is certainly false, and the former claim is no doubt wrong as well. That is to say, Bilal certainly was NOT the first Black man to accept Islam, and he was likely not an Abyssinian in the strict sense of that description, viz. he likely was not from Abyssinia. This means that the whole question of ‘racism’ in early Islam must be reconsidered.
1.] Bilal the Ethiopian?
The important Syrian Muslim scholar and historian of Islam, al-Dhahabī (d. 1348), in his entry on Bilal in his encyclopedic Siyar a’lam al-nubala’, reports the following tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad:
“There are four Forerunners (in Islam, al-Subbaq): I am the sabiq (forerunner) of the Arabs; Salman [al-Farsi] is the sabiq of the Persians; Bilal is the sabiq of the Ethiopians; and Suhayb [al-Rumi] is the sabiq of the Romans.”
This hadith would seem to suggest that Bilal was an Ethiopian. However, interestingly al-Dhahabi goes on to affirm that Bilal was in fact born, not in Ethiopian on the African side of the Red Sea, but in Sirah in Yemen (I:351). It was Bilal’s mother, Hamam, who was actually an Abyssinian. He therefore inherited not only her slave-status but also here “Abyssinian-ness”. On the other hand Bilal’s father, Ribah, was an Arab. The Egyptian writer Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad (d. 1964) thus notes:
“There is a consensus of opinion among historians that Hadrat Bilal (ra) was not a pure Abyssinian. He was, however, born of [an] Abyssinian mother. His father was an Arab. Bilal’s complexion was dark brown. His body was slim and tall, with a prominent chest. His hair was thick and his cheeks were thin.
“These features are found in races of the Saud and the Samis. These races mostly lived between Abyssinia and Yemen from ancient times. His features are not identical with those of the Zanj or the sons of Sam (Shem, i.e. the Semites). His complexion was black and his hair was thick; but his nose was not snub, nor was his hair curly. This betrayed that he came of parents of two different races…
“There is a difference of opinion about his birthplace. Some historians claim that he was born at Mecca, whereas the others were of the opinion that he was born in Sarat (=Sirah). The latter view seems to be more plausible for Sarat is a town near Yemen and Abyssinia, where there can be found a mixed race. It is also stated that he went to that place once to get married.”
2.] Not The First Black Muslim
Even though Bilal was of “mixed race,” one should not think of him as a mulatto in the popular sense, a black and white crossbreed, as one is tempted to do on the false assumption that Arabs are white. Such mulattos in Arabia, like in America, tended to be swarthy in complexion, not intensely black as Bilal was. The Arabic description of him is more telling than the English ones above: he was ādam shadīd al-udma, black, exceedingly black. How could Bilal, as an Arab/Ethiopian hajin or mixed race, be so black-skinned? It is because both of his parents – his Arab father no less than his Ethiopian mother – were black-skinned. As the famous grammarian Muhammad b. Barri al-‘Adawi (d. 1193) noted: an akhdar or black-skinned Arab was “a pure Arab (‘arabi mahd)” with a pure genealogy, “because Arabs describe their color as black (al-aswad).” And pure Arabs whose blackness was equal to that of Bilal’s preceded him in Islam.
Zayd b. Haritha (d. 629) was the Prophet’s adopted son and likely the first male to accept Islam after the Prophet. He was, like Bilal, intensely black-skinned, ādam shadīd al-udma. He therefore would have looked like Bilal in complexion. Zayd even had a flat nose, something Bilal didn’t even have. Because of his short stature, black skin and flat nose Zayd has occasionally been mistaken as “a negro,” i.e., an African black. Dr John Henrik Clark even claimed that both Bilal and Zayd were Ethiopians. However, Zayd was a true Arab Bedouin (a’rabi) from the Arab tribe Banu Kalb. Nevertheless, he was a Black man who preceded Bilal in Islam.
‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661) was the first-cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. Many claim that it was he, not Zayd, who was the first male convert to Islam after Prophet Muhammad. Whether the first or the second convert, these two both preceded Bilal. And like Zayd, Ali was intensely black, ādam shadīd al-udma.  He too is described with precisely the same complexion as Bilal. ‘Alī’s own son, Abu Ja’far Muhammad, according to Ibn Sa’d (d. 845), described ‘Alī thusly: “He was a black-skinned man with big, heavy eyes, pot-bellied, bald, and kind of short.” ‘Alī’s descendents, the sharifs/sayyids, were similarly described as black-skinned. Zayd and Ali were thus ‘Black Muslims’ before Bilal.
3.] Bilal and Arabian Racism?
Bilal is also the centerpiece of another misconception: that his situation and treatment in Mecca illustrates that the Arabs at that time were white and racist. In fact, details of his biography clearly indicate the opposite.
Bilal inherited his Ethiopian mother’s slave status. The fact that this Black man was an abused slave to an Arab family is often taken as proof of the anti-black racism that allegedly characterized pre-Islamic and even Islamic Arabia. This conclusion is falsified not only by the fact that most slaves in Arabia at time were actually white slaves, but also by a more telling fact:
Bilal and his mother Hamam were slaves to the notorious Qurayshi tribe, Banu Jumah. Their owner, Umayya b. Khalaf b. Safwan, a Meccan Arab, was a leading Qurayshi and head of the Banu Jumah. Umayya is the Qurayshi Arab who so abused and tortured Bilal to make him recant his monotheistic proclamation: Ahad (“One God”). And it is Umayya whom Bilal sought out and killed at the Battle of Badr in 624. This is important here because the Banu Jumah were a famously black-skinned Arab tribe. According to al-Dhahabi, they were, like Bilal, “exceedingly black-skinned, shadīd al-udma.” (I: 359). Thus the scene in Moustapha Akkad’s 1977 movie The Message depicting a white-skinned Umayya (played by Bruno Barnabe) torturing in the hot sun the black-skinned Bilal (played by Johnny Sekka) is all wrong. A more accurate depiction would have an intensely black-skinned Bilal tortured by an equally black-skinned Umayya. Now, while this correction doesn’t make the enslavement and torture right, it does make it about something totally different from the putative “white Arab racism.”
Lastly, another good illustration of this point and the fallacy of the “white Arab racism” theme is the case of Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (d. 652), a famous Companion of Muhammad, and his insulting Bilal. It is reported that Abu Dharr, from the Arab tribe Ghafar, insulted Bilal by calling him ‘son of a black woman’. While this is frequently cited as an example of an early (white) Arab anti-black sentiment, several factors invalidate this:
(1) Abu Dharr was himself a black-skinned Arab. According to al-Dhahabi, it was said that Abu Dharr was “black-skinned (ādam), huge, with a thick beard.” A-Dhahabi goes on to quote Ibn Burayda who claimed: “Abu Dharr was a black man (rajul aswad).” Siyar, II: 47, 50, 74.
(2) The insult is social, not racial, expressing the contempt of the highborn for the baseborn. The slave status of Bilal’s mother was the point of the insult, not her dark-complexion.
(3) The insult comments on the fact that Bilal’s mother was a non-Arab, and Bilal was thus a hajin or half-breed. Such persons across the board were looked down upon by purebred Arabs. “Son of a Persian woman (ibn al-farisiyya)” and “Son of a Frankish woman (ibn al-ifranjiyya)” were insults hurled around equally.
(4) Abu Dharr later explained the insult, and made it clear that race was not the factor: Al-Dhahabi,Siyar, II:72-73 reports Abu Dharr as saying:
“Once there were heated words between a friend (Bilal) and I. His mother was a non-Arab and I insulted her. Then the Prophet (s) asked me, ‘Did you insult so-and-so?’ I said yes. He (the Prophet) asked, ‘Did you mention his mother?’ I said, when a person insults another he usually mentions his mother or father. The Prophet then said: ‘Surely you are one with the Days of Ignorance in him.”
From this report it is clear that Bilal’s or his mother’s blackness had nothing to do with the insult, but non-Arabness and slave-status did.
Bilal b. Ribah was a tremendous Muslim and his history (thanks to his mother) has much to teach us about the African experience in Islam. However, he was not the first Black man in Islam, as is often claimed. At least three preceded him in this distinction: Ali b. Abi Talib, Zayd b. Haritha and, indeed, Muhammad b. Abd Allah.
Nor do Bilal’s experiences in pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia give evidence for the popular narrative of white Arab racism. They more so give evidence of Black-on-Black abuse, something we in America and in Africa can certainly relate too.
 Hazrat Bilal (English Adaptation; New Delhi: Islamic Books Service, 2001) 5-6.
 Baladhuri, Ansab al-ashraf, ed. Muhammad Hamid Allah (Cairo: Dar al-Ma’arif, 1987) I:193.
 Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘arab, s.v. اخضر IV:245.
 Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqat al-kubr§, III/i, 30; Baladhuri, Ansab al-ashraf, I:470; Al-Tabari,Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk, XIII: 2301; Ibn ‘Asakir, Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq, ed. Umar Gharamah ‘Amrawi (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1995) XIV:351. See also Ibn al-Jawzī, Kitāb tanwīr al-ghabash fī fa∙l ‘l-sūdān wa’l-Èabash, ed. and trns. by Imran Hamza Alawiye, “Ibn al-Jawzī’s Apologia on Behalf of the Black People and their status in Islam: A Critical Editon and Translation ofKitāb tanwīr al-ghabash fī fa∙l ‘l-sūdān wa’l-Èabash,” (PhD. Dissertation, University of London, 1985) 298 [Ar.]; 132 [Eng.]; Khalid Muhammad Khalid, Men Around the Messenger (New Revised Edition; Kuala Lumpur, 2005) 232.
 E.g. J.A. Rogers, World’s Great Men of Color 2 vols. (New York: Collier Books, 1996 ) II: 539-40; idem, Sex and Race: Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands (St. Petersburg, Fl: Helga M. Rogers, 1967; 9th edition) 96; Vasudeo B. Mehto, “If Europe had been Muslimised,” Islamic Review 2 (1932): 220.
 Ibn ‘Asakir, Ta’rikh madinat Dimashq, XIV:349-50.
 Al-Suyuti, Tārikh al-khulafā, 134.
 Ibn Sa’d, al-Tabaqāt al-kubrā (Beirut: Dar Sadir) 8:25.
 Ibn al-SabbAgh, Al-Fusul al-muhimmah fi ma’rifat ahwa l-a’ummah (Najaf: Dar al-Kutub al-Tijariyah, 1950); Tariq Berry, Unknown Arabs and Tariq Berry, “A True Description of the Prophet Mohamed's Family (SAWS),” http://savethetruearabs.blogspot.com/2009/08/true-description-of-prophet-mohameds_26.html.
 See Lewis, “Crows,” 89; Goldziher, Muslim Studies, I:120.
 See also Tariq Berry, Unknown Arabs.