Neil de Grasse Tyson, an American astronomer, once said, "When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It's kind of resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human." The fullness of humanity comes with a humble recognition of the vastness of the heavens. In this century, rarely do we achieve such a sober consciousness. Perhaps it is because of the blinding light pollution that has hidden from us the majesty of the vast night skies.
Seldom do we look up, and seldom are we infused with humility by night gazing at the stars or inspired for a fuller life by the adornment of the lower heaven. The ancient and contemporary lovers of the night sky had it right - life at its best on earth occurs with an acknowledgement of our smallness in comparison to the expansiveness of the cosmos, even if only by recognizing the brilliance of one star.
The Prophet Muhammad recognized that the shrinking vastness of the night sky would lead to an incompleteness of humanity; he prophetically spoke of his companions facing a difficult and declining world where they would confront the inflexibility of ideological darkness and large egos. After perfectly instilling in his companions an appreciation of the heavens and the humility to lead a life with full humanity, he said to us, "My Companions are like stars. Whichever of them you use as a guide, you will be rightly guided." These companions are the type of personalities illuminated only after gazing upon what they described as the 'full moon' beautiful character of the Prophet.
In honor of this Black History Month let us consider one incandescent Black companion during this month of ours who lit the way for good character found in serving others as a guiding star of American Islam. He was an amalgam of sober mindedness and selfless service, and his character was capable of breaking through the crust of legends and myths and sifting the truth from the falsehood of his times. When asked about his status in comparison to Abu Bakr as Siddiq, the Prophet's "right hand" man, he replied, 'I am but one of his many good deeds.' He was humility personified and his sight was oriented not toward himself but rather the scales of deeds in the eternal measure. This companion is a star and certainly a guiding force for anyone capable of discernment.
This star is Bilal ibn Rabah, who has been a guiding force in the history of Black American Muslims, possessing an illuminated combination of humility and humanity. In the Black American imagination, liberation is a foundational goal of our minds, bodies and spirits.
Thus, learning the narrative of Bilal ibn Rabah mirrors the North Star in the slave song "Foller the Drinkin Gou'd" which offered slaves on the run" in Georgia and Alabama guidance towards freedom. The song gives a season to leave, trees to locate, rivers to follow, and a mountain to climb. Ultimately, the chorus refrain is celestially orientated, leading slaves by the North Star. The lyrics of "Foller the Drinkin Gou'd" are remarkably similar to a verse from the Qur'an in Surah an- Nahl. In this passage,
God describes the synthesis of guidance: "And He has set up on earth mountains standing firm, lest it shake with you, and rivers and paths; that you may guide yourselves, And landmarks and sign-posts; and by the stars (people) guide themselves." Similar to "Foller the Drinkin Gou'd," this passage begins with terrestrial symbols and ends with celestial ones.
Two of my teachers, albeit in different ways, looked at Bilal ibn Rabah as a guiding star for their Black American Muslim communities.To the first community of Muslims, Bilal ibn Rabah was perceived as a separate guiding light set aside from the collective of companions of the Prophet Muhammad. In the absence of a complete visible night sky, Bilal ibn Rabah became the imminent guiding star in a community called the Bilalians, formed under the leadership of Imam Warrith Deen Mohammed in the late 70's and early 80's in the United States.
Although the global community identified as Muslims, Imam Mohammed at the time understood the urgency and agency in stabilizing our identity and traumatized mental state under Like the light pollution that incapacitates our ability to see far and beyond when we attempt to gaze at the heavens today, Imam Mohammed's community could only see Bilal ibn Rabah - a Black slave turned hero - when they looked at the Prophet Muhammad's companions. Perhaps Imam Mohammed knew that in our vulnerability as a community, we risked losing our identity as African American Muslims if we did not follow a brilliantly familiar star.
So just like in the slave song, we were told to courageously "Foller the Drinkin Gou'd" or that North Shining Star whose recognizable narrative secured him footsteps in paradise or ultimate freedom. Although Imam Mohammed would eventually change the community's name (he would do so several times), forever would the idea of Bilal ibn Rabah be with his community as a navigational source of guidance despite a disappearing ability to see the complete night sky.
My other teacher, Imam Zaid Shakir, recognizes the brilliance of Bilal ibn Rabah by placing him as one among a constellation of many bright stars of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Zaid, due to access to traditional scholars in Damascus (where Bilal ibn Rabah is buried), unlike Imam Mohammed, had the privilege of being able to see more of the night sky despite the glow, glare and clutter of the urban sky. To Imam Zaid, to stay narrowly focused on one star despite its brilliance was limiting. As Henry David Thoreau said, "I should not like to think that some demigod had come before me and picked out some of the best of the stars. I wish to know an entire heaven and an entire earth." Thus, Imam Zaid Shakir in the rich Black History narrative chose to describe and articulate the way to sobriety and moral excellence through intimacy with the broader night sky.
So like "the ole man" or legend of "Peg Leg Joe" in the slave song "Foller the Drinkin Gou'd," Imam
Zaid encourages us to gain our freedom collectively not just depending on one person to bring you to the promise land. We are encouraged to strive to know intimately the whole navigational system to Bilal ibn Rabah in American Islam represents a real-life instance of Muslims following Prophet Muhammad's advice to treat his "companions like stars." Bilal Ibn Rabah, for a Black American Muslim, represents a liberated Black man who courageously resisted and then became the caller for all Muslims, and the collector, distributor and convener of the office of public charities for social justice. Both Imam WD Mohammed and Imam Zaid Shakir agree on the brilliance of his light as a guiding factor for both mental sobriety and a source of light for our moral courage today. The former used his light as source of community stabilization and the latter uses his light as a means of mobilization toward liberation.
During Black History Month, we must remember that Black American Muslim History represents a collective struggle at restorative justice and resistance to the 'light pollution' of our times. It represents the Qur'anic wisdom that orients us towards the majestic lower heavens as a central concern of ours. At the same time, the prophetic wisdom illustrates that the Prophet Muhammad
has cultivated stars among his companions in times of complete darkness as sufficient means of
guidance. Bilal ibn Rabah, the one intimately familiar with the night sky who gazed upon it to call believers to prayer. We must remember the conversation of all our Black American imams as nothing but a collective effort toward our liberation through complete service and an intentional orientation Light pollution is a metaphor of our present condition. Bilal ibn Rabah represented a quest to find one star of guidance toward emancipation, purification, health and wellness across our planet.
How mentally sobering, awe-inspiring and humbling to our egos it would be to become witnesses of the lower heavens again. As former US President Lyndon B. Johnson said, "If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not
just after we got through with it." President Johnson's statement perfectly encapsulates the vision
of Zaytuna College and the focus of one its founders Imam Zaid in our fight to take back the night sky and resettle the egos that enslave, blind and misguide us and to turn ourselves towards peaceful coexistence with our neighbors of humanity.