The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora

The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora

The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora

The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora


How do people in the African diaspora practice Islam? While the term "Black Muslim" may conjure images of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, millions of African-descended Muslims around the globe have no connection to the American-based Nation of Islam. The Call of Bilal is a penetrating account of the rich diversity of Islamic religious practice among Africana Muslims worldwide. Covering North Africa and the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Europe, and the Americas, Edward E. Curtis IV reveals a fascinating range of religious activities--from the observance of the five pillars of Islam and the creation of transnational Sufi networks to the veneration of African saints and political struggles for racial justice.

Weaving together ethnographic fieldwork and historical perspectives, Curtis shows how Africana Muslims interpret not only their religious identities but also their attachments to the African diaspora. For some, the dispersal of African people across time and space has been understood as a mere physical scattering or perhaps an economic opportunity. For others, it has been a metaphysical and spiritual exile of the soul from its sacred land and eternal home.


I was shown paradise…. I heard the noise of the steps before me,
and, lo, it was that of Bilal.—Prophet Muhammad

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 Prophet’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 decided 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.”

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.

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