Islam Abolishes Slavery
As is often the case with revolutionary movements, early Islam encountered fierce opposition from many elites.
The Quraysh, for example, who controlled trade in the Holy City of Makkah – a business from which they profited greatly – had no intention of giving up the comfortable lifestyles they’d built on the backs of others, especially their slaves brought over from Africa.
The Prophet’s ﷺ message of egalitarianism (the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities) tended to attract the “undesirables” –people from the margins of society. Early Muslims included young men from less influential tribes escaping that stigma and slaves who were promised emancipation by embracing Islam.
Early Islam also attracted non-Arabs, outsiders with little standing in traditional Arab society. These included Salman the Persian, who travelled to the Arabian Peninsula, seeking religious truth, Suhayb the Greek, a trader, and an enslaved Ethiopian named Bilal.
All three would rise to prominence in Islam during Muhammad’s ﷺ lifetime.
Bilal’s (RA) much-improved fortunes, in particular, illustrate how the egalitarianism preached by Islam changed Arab society.
An enslaved servant of a Meccan aristocrat named Umayya, Bilal (RA) was persecuted by his owner for embracing the new faith. Umayya would place a rock on Bilal’s (RA) chest, trying to choke the air out of his body so that he would abandon Islam.
Moved by Bilal’s (RA) suffering, Muhammad’s ﷺ friend and confidant Abu Bakr (RA), who would go on to rule the Muslim community after the Prophet’s ﷺ death, set him free.
Bilal (RA) was exceptionally close to Muhammad ﷺ too. In 622, the Prophet ﷺ appointed him the first person to give the public call to prayer in recognition of his powerful, pleasing voice and personal piety. Bilal (RA) would later marry an Arab woman from a respectable tribe – unthinkable for an enslaved African in the pre-Islamic period.
For many modern Muslims, Bilal (RA) is the symbol of Islam’s egalitarian message, which in its ideal application recognizes no difference among humans on the basis of ethnicity or race but rather is more concerned with personal integrity.
Many Muslims in the U.S. are taking action, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting police brutality and systemic racism. Their actions reflect the revolutionary – and still unrealized – egalitarian message that Prophet Muhammad set down over 1,400 years ago as a cornerstone of the Muslim faith.