Today, I came across an essay entitled Help a Sister Out: Another Reason Bilal is Our Master. It is remarkable for how unremarkable it is: that is, not to say it is a bad essay, but it is similar to hundreds of essays I have read in my life that passes for Islamic “wisdom.” I will summarize it very briefly, though you are welcome to access the link here as long as it remains active.
Bilal, one of the companions of the Prophet, is a former slave who was set free by Abu Bakr, and the first muezzin in Islamic history. Like all companions of the Prophet, much is made of his piety and of how his legacy can convey lessons to us. The essay in question here recounts a very simple story, really, about how he was late for prayers because he decided to help Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, whom he encountered along the way who needed some assistance.
The author spends a lot of time pontificating- almost marveling- over the facts. This was a man who was SO pious. And not only was he missing prayer, he was missing prayers with the Prophet himself (extraordinary event, even though one would think he would have been used to praying with him several times a day). And he was the muezzin. Prayer was the height of enjoyment for him. And yet… somehow… Bilal had the presence of mind to put his own gratification on hold to help the daughter of the most important and powerful man in his community.
Indeed, we have so much to learn from Bilal. How unfathomably amazing. Masha’Allah. And here we go about our own lives so thoughtlessly, always rushing, never helping those who, like the Prophet’s daughter, need help; and despite the fact that our own activities are nowhere near as important as that which Bilal was putting on hold.
I apologize for my cynicism, it is unbecoming of course. But such a marvelous specimen of anti-intellectualism posing as wisdom needs to be confronted, for the good of humankind. If you are reading this, there is a good chance you already find something is “off” about this story, as well as the thousands of others that follow the same pattern. But in case you are genuinely on the fence, here is why I pick on it.
First, this story could never stand by itself. The facts of the story are far too unremarkable to make an impact on anybody who is not “in” on the joke. There are far more effective stories one could imagine to get across the lesson that one should stop and help someone in need even if one is busy, if one does in fact think such a lesson is necessary to labor over imparting. That lesson is not overly complicated such that it would require a parable to clarify the meaning; nor is this parable particularly elegant so as to make it memorable; in fact, given that this is one of many tales like this about the companions of the Prophet doing one or another unremarkably decent thing, it is quite forgettable. Rather, it is the genre that is meaningful.
So what is it about the genre then? What purpose does the genre serve? Well, let’s take a look at what elements are common throughout, and what effects they have.
1) The stories are always about the Prophet or his companions. Obviously. Everyone understands that the Sunnah and Hadith are esteemed in the utmost in orthodox Islam, and that stories about the companions are an obvious complement. But it is not hard to see what this orientation does. It puts the focus on this specific group of people, simultaneously drawing from as well as reinforcing the notion that this was a uniquely blessed group of people who had all the answers, and that emulating them is the key to success in this life and the next. Of course, some people believe that, and thus see no problem with the story. But to those who find that idea problematic, stories like this are grating, even if ostensible “moral” of the story is agreeable (as it usually is).
2) The stories often reinforce the Prophet’s importance in subtle ways. Even though this story seemed to be about Bilal, it reinforced the central theme of adulation for the Prophet. In this story, it is emphasized how Bilal’s personal sacrifice in being late to prayers was all the more noteworthy because he prayed in the presence of the Prophet. It also might be implied that Bilal’s lateness chanced offending the Prophet (emphasizing the Prophet’s right over those who are late to prayer); but of course the Prophet does not actually get angry (not because it would be ludicrous to get angry, but because he is so magnanimous and forgiving). And of course, it was the Prophet’s daughter that Bilal was helping, which in the end could be seen as showing deference to the Prophet’s family.
3) The lessons are highly ambiguous, almost non-sequiturs. Since the focus of the genre is not finding the most important, compelling lessons for humanity, but rather on finding lessons that demonstrate the greatness of the Prophet and his companions, the lessons risk becoming increasingly opaque. An aside in the Bilal story concerns about how the Prophet once delayed prayers to the point where his congregation was near the point of dozing off, for the purpose of answering the questions of a seemingly oblivious interloper. Ostensibly, the Prophet’s great patience is a virtue here, though it could easily be inferred that to waste the time of several individuals instead of simply asking this person to wait (it is not implied that the matter was of any importance) is quite possibly a poor choice from an ethical standpoint. Tellingly, the story makes no effort at all to acknowledge that such a perspective might be valid, since it assumes that the reader knows that whatever the Prophet did is moral by the very fact that he did it.
I should suspend my critique for a moment to acknowledge a more virtuous function that the stories may yet have, and that is this. The companion stories offer readers a familiar cast of respected characters that can be used to demonstrate practically ANY lesson that the storyteller wishes to demonstrate. Much like an educational children’s cartoon, the companions have personas (Abu Bakr is wise and patient; Omar is stern but fair; Ali is passionate and insightful). And of course, the Prophet is the hero of every story, demonstrating every quality that the others do, but in excess. The familiarity and appreciation of the audience for the characters allows them to digest moral lessons in simple, repeatable ways. And that is not a bad thing at all. In fact, there are many people who have learned important lessons from stories like these, myself included.
Still, it is the subtle negative effects of these companion stories that I believe is grossly overlooked. To the extent that the companion stories reinforce the notion that there was a special person- and a special group of people- who were somehow the paragons of virtue over and above all the rest of humanity, I would suggest they do a disservice. And they can serve to retard one’s sense of what is truly ethical and moral, because true ethics and morality require weighing difficult choices and really thinking about the outcomes of those choices. Such complex analysis is entirely impossible here, because the thought of second guessing the lesson in the story is preposterous to most readers.
Of course, the genre of the companion stories is as much a product of this mentality as it is a perpetuator of it, but the fact that these stories continue to be retold without seemingly anything other than fawning appreciation
allows them to continue to reinforce these ideas.
Oh, here is the piece it talks about BTW: