During Black History Month, I have the intention of writing brief summaries, not in depth biographies, of some of the early figures in Islamic history who were black. My usage of the word black, for the sake of what I plan on writing, will not be restricted to Nubians and Abyssinians but also for Arabs who had black and brown colored skin in which in contemporary times would be perceived as black such as Sudanese who are both Arabs and blacks.
The first luminous figure in this series that was a companion is Barakah also known as Umm Ayman. Umm Ayman was Abyssinian and a servant of Abdullah bin Abdil Muttalib, the father of the Prophet . When Aminah, the mother of the Prophet died, Umm Ayman took over as primary care-giver of the Prophet . Umm Ayman was later emancipated at the time of the marriage of the Prophet to Sayyidah Khadijah bint Khuwaylid .
Umm Ayman was one of the early adherents of Islam in Mecca and was one of those who faced persecution from Quraysh. She was among those who migrated from Mecca to Al-Madinah.
Umm Ayman’s first marriage was to Ubayd bin Zayd who was from Bani Khazraj, a prominent tribe in the Hijaz. According to ibn Kathir in Al-Bidayah wa An-Nihayah and others, Ubayd (RA) himself was black in color or Al-Habashi though his lineage was from Bani Khazraj, a prominent Arab tribe in the Hijaz. Umm Ayman and Ubayd bore a son named Ayman who was also black. Ubayd was martyred at Ghazwah Khaybar, and Ayman was martyred at Ghazwah Hunayn. Umm Ayman participated in Ghazwah Uhud and Ghazwah Khaybar.
After Ubayd’s martyrdom, it’s reported by Ibn Sa’ad in At-Tabaqat Al-Kubra that the Prophet said to the companions that if anyone wanted to marry a lady from the People of Paradise then marry Umm Ayman . Zayd bin Harithah , the man who the Prophet emancipated and raised like a son, was then married to Umm Ayman . Though Zayd was Arab and there are some conflicting descriptions about his physical appearance, Tanwir Al-Ghabash min Fadl Al-Sudan wa Al-Habash by ibn Al-Jawzi and others states that Zayd was short with a flat nose and had dark skin.
Umm Ayman had a particularly close relationship to Ahl al-Bayt, the Household of the Prophet . She shared intimate moments with Ahl al-Bayt such as being present at the marriage that the Prophet conducted between his daughter Sayyidah Fatimah and imam Ali . At the time of the passing of the Prophet , she grieved alongside Ahl al-Bayt.
There are conflicting narrations about Umm Ayman’s passing.
Usamah bin Zayd was one of the beloved companions of the Prophet .
Both of Usamah’s parents, Zayd bin Harithah who was Arab and Umm Ayman who was Ethiopian, were freed from slavery by the Prophet . He was born in Mecca seven years prior to hijrah and is described as having black skin.
Much of Usamah’s upbringing was done in the house of the Prophet in the same time-frame as the rearing of the Prophet’s grandson Al-Hasan bin ‘Ali .
Usamah was later married by the Prophet to Fatimah bint Qays, who was Arab and from Quraysh. It is narrated that this marriage took place when Usamah was at the age of 15 years old and that on his ring was etched at the time of the wedding “Love of the Messenger of Allah.”
While a teenager, Usamah was elected by the Prophet to be a general of an expedition against the Romans in Syria. Some of the companions became extremely angry at Usamah being appointed as general over older companions from Quraysh. The Prophet said after praising and thanking Allah (SWT), “Oh People! Word has come to me that some of you mad that I appointed Usamah bin Zayd. I swear by Allah that surely your obeying Usamah is certainly your obeying me just as obeying his father before him.”
Usamah passed in 61 A.H. in Al-Madinah during the government of Mu’awiyah bin Abi Sufyan.
One of the black companions of the Prophet was Sa’ad Al-Aswad As-Sulami (RA).
Sa’ad was from the Ansar and suffered discrimination in Al-Madinah.
Due to an inferiority complex, Sa’ad asked the Prophet if he too could enter into Jannah because of his low position among the Muslims. The Prophet replied to him that he was entitled to the same reward as other believers. Sa’ad then inquired that if he was an equal believer then why would none of the Arabs allow him to marry one of their daughters.
The Prophet then told Sa’ad to go to the home of ‘Amr bin Wahb to ask him for his daughter for marriage. When Sa’ad told ibn Wahb that the Prophet sent him to request for his daughter for marriage, Ibn Wahb became angry at the proposal. Ibn Wahb also stated to him that didn’t he know that his daughter is known for her beauty! When Ibn Wahb’s daughter heard this, she told her father that she could not turn down a proposal that came at the suggestion of the Messenger of Allah !
Sa’ad was later martyred in a battle in which it is narrated that the Prophet wept over him while holding him in his lap.
One of the helpers of the Prophet who is mentioned in a number of texts is the companion known as Julaybib .
Julaybib accepted Islam in Al-Madinah, thus is described as one of the men from the Ansar. His lineage was unknown among the Arabs which made him an outcast. According to ibn Al-Jawzi in Tanwir Al-Ghabash, he was described as black (aswad). The companion Abu Barzah according to ibn Al-Athir also described him as short (qasir) and ugly (damim).
Being that Julaybib had no tribal and family connections in Al-Madinah as well as no wife, he spent more time in the company of the Prophet than many of the other Ansar. In fact, the People of Al-Madinah used to ridicule Julaybib and would not befriend him.
In narrations that are deemed sound, the Prophet (SAWS) proceeded to find a wife for the honorable Julaybib. When he went to the home of one of the Ansar, a father opened the door in which the Prophet told him that he came to him for a marriage proposal. The father immediately said yes thinking that his daughter would get the honor of being one of the Prophet’s wives. The Prophet told him that he did not come for himself but was asking on behalf of Julaybib. The father then said that he was going to defer the decision to his wife.
When the wife of the Ansari came, the Prophet told her that he had a marriage proposal. The wife also became happy and said yes. Then the Prophet told her that he came on behalf of Julaybib. The wife then replied that she would not allow her daughter to marry a man like Julaybib!
Upon hearing noise, the daughter of the two came out and asked the reason for the Prophet coming to their home. The mother told the daughter that he came on behalf of Julaybib but that she was not accepting for her to marry him! The daughter replied, how can we turn down a proposal coming from the Messenger of Allah ? She said to send Julaybib to her, for surely he will not bring ruin to her!
In Al-Asabah by ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, it is mentioned in reference to this event the application of Surah 33, ayah 36, “It is not fitting for a believing man or woman that when Allah and His messenger decree a matter that they should have an opinion about it from their matter. And whoever disobeys Allah and His messenger surely is in clear error.” It is mentioned in several texts including Al-Musannaf by ibn Abi Shaybah in the Chapter of Compatibility in Marriage that the Prophet then performed the marriage between Julaybib and the lady.
In a battle after the marriage, Julaybib achieved martyrdom. When the Prophet (SAWS) saw the martyred Julaybib, he said twice, “This [man] is from me, and I am from him.” An-Nanawi said in his commentary of Sahih Muslim that the Prophet used exaggeration (mubalaghah) showing the importance of Julaybib as if Julaybib was a member of his own klan such as when the Prophet said about Salman [ranua], who was Persian, “Salman is from us, the People of the Household (Ahl al-Bayt).”
It is also narrated that the Prophet personally dug the grave of Julaybib and placed him in the grave without washing him, signifying his status as a martyr.
One of the companions who has several narrated merits pertaining to his faith, personality and resilience is ‘Ammar bin Yasir .
‘Ammar is described in Al-Mustadarak ‘ala As-Sahihayn by Al-Hakim and authenticated by Adh-Dhahabi as being tall in stature, black in skin color and having kinky hair. His father Yasir was Arab.
‘Ammar was one of the earliest Muslims to accept Islam and was regularly tortured along with his family. Once while being severely tortured, he unwillingly recanted Islam. He later came to the Prophet in a state of tears saying that he verbally recanted Islam but did not mean it, in which the Prophet wiped away his tears and recited Surah 16, ayah 106, “Whoever disbelieves in Allah after belief except who is forced and whose heart is still content with faith…”
After much persecution, ‘Ammar with other companions migrated to Abyssinia finding protection under a just Christian king though ibn Ishaq disputes that he was one of those companions in Abyssinia. He later migrated with other companions to Al-Madinah making him within a select group of companions that made two migrations for the sake of Allah .
‘Ammar later participated in the major campaigns to protect the Muslim community including Badr and Uhud. He also was a witness to the Farewell Pilgrimage and the event of Ghadir Khumm.
Prior to the death of the Prophet , he told ‘Ammar, “You will be killed by a group of transgressors.” This hadith is sahih and mutawatir, meaning narrated so widely by many sound people that it is beyond doubt.
During the government of ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, ‘Ammar was nominated to be the governor of Kufah in Iraq to be later removed from his position when ‘Umar consolidated the governorship of Kufah with Basrah under Abu Musa Al-Ashari.
During the government of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib , ‘Ammar accompanied imam Ali’s army at the Battle of Jamal and defended him against the Khawarij movement, the original takfiris. ‘Ammar later achieved martyrdom at the Battle of Siffin by being killed by a man from the army of Mu’awiyah bin Abi Sufyan.
One of the famed companions of the Prophet is Mihja’ bin Salih (RA). Mihja’ was one of the early adherents of Islam in Mecca, and one of those who migrated for the sake of Allah to Al-Madinah.
According to At-Tabaqat Al-Kubra of ibn Sa’ad, Mihja’s lineage traces back to Yemen. He’s described as has having black skin (aswad al-lawn) and Arab. He was enslaved in the Hijaz and suffered as other enslaved (wo)men did. He was later emancipated by Umar bin al-Khattab.
In Mecca, Quraysh used to mock the Prophet because he used to sit and keep company with his poor followers who were formerly enslaved. Allah told the Prophet in Surah 6, ayah 52, “Do not repel those who call upon their Lord in the morning and the evening seeking His face.” According to Abdullah bin Abbas in Zad Al-Masir fi ‘ilm At-Tafsir by ibn Al-Jawzi, those people that Allah was referring to were Bilal, Suhayb, Khabbab, ‘Ammar, Mihja’, Salman, ‘Amir bin Quhayrah and Salim, who was freed by Abu Hudhayfah.
After migration according to At-Tabari and others, Mihja’ was the first to be martyred at Ghazwah Badr.
It is narrated by Al-Hakim in Al-Mustadrak ‘ala As-Sahihayn and authenticated as sahih by As-Suyuti in Al-Jami’ As-Saghir that the Prophet said, “The best of the blacks are three: Bilal, Luqman [who is mentioned in the Qur’an] and Mihja’.”
One of the honorable companions, who is known for his faithfulness and concern for the poor was Abu Dharr .
Abu Dharr’s full name was Jundab bin Junadah from the Tribe of Ghifar. He was described by ibn Sa’ad in At-Tabaqat Al-Kubra and others as being tall with brown (asmar) skin.
In the Era of Ignorance, the Ghifari tribe was known for banditry and alcohol consumption besides worshiping idols. Abu Dharr, however, turned away from these tribal norms even before embracing Islam.
When a man from his tribe informed his people that he saw a man in Mecca, meaning the Prophet , who he saw enjoining good and forbidding evil, Abu Dharr set off for Mecca. After meeting the Prophet , Abu Dharr swiftly accepted Islam. He went to the Ka’bah to publicly declare his faith in which Quraysh proceeded to beat him. He went the following day to proclaim his faith again in which he was beaten again. After days of doing this and facing beatings, the Prophet (SAWS) told him to go back to his tribe, so he could declare his message to them.
He later migrated to Al-Madinah and participated in Ghazwah Badr and other expeditions with the companions.
During the government of ‘Uthman, Abu Dharr was one of the outspoken companions against the lavish lifestyle and large amounts of money which particular Muslims were receiving from the treasury. After conflict between Abu Dharr and Marwan in Al-Hakam, a cousin of ‘Uthman, over a payment that he received of 500,000 dirhams, Abu Dharr was sent away from Al-Madinah to Damascus. While in Damascus, Abu Dharr continued to speak out against luxuries and neglect of the poor which brought him into conflict with the Governor of Damascus, Mu’awiyah bin Abi Sufyan, who was also a cousin of ‘Uthman.
The Prophet predicted to Abu Dharr, “You will live alone, die alone, rise from the dead alone, and enter Jannah alone.” This prediction of his living and dying manifested itself. Due to the circumstances of the time, Abu Dharr left Damascus for Ar-Rabathah desert with virtual no possessions in which he eventually died alone.
One of the faithful companions of the Prophet was Ayman bin ‘Ubayd .
Ayman’s roots were Abyssinian through his mother. He was born through the union of his mother Barakah, a woman who was eventually freed from slavery by the Prophet and his father ‘Ubayd bin Zayd who was from the tribe of Harith bin Khazraj; their marriage took place in Mecca in the Era of Al-Jahiliyyah. Ayman was also born in Mecca.
Ayman embraced Islam in Mecca and made migration for the sake of Allah to Al-Madinah. He was a shepherd and was entrusted by the Prophet to look after his goats.
Ayman was a participant in the campaigns to defend Islam. At Ghazwah Hunayn when some of the Muslims became panicked, Ayman was one of eight Muslims who stood by the Prophet (SAWS) and defended him. The Muslims ended up winning the battle. In the process, Ayman achieved martyrdom.
After his martyrdom, Al-Abbas , one of the Prophet’s uncles who was one of those eight that stood firmly with Ayman to defend the Prophet, composed a poem praising the steadfastness and bravery of Ayman.