Many people these days suffer the hardships of losing their families. Sometimes people cannot deal with such problems and become depressed and carry this burden throughout their lives. But there are those who gain the inner resources to surmount difficulties and live successful and fruitful lives. Suhaib ar-Rumi was one such person.
About twenty years before the start of the Prophet’s mission (peace be upon him) there was a man named Sinan ibn Malik. This man was an Arab and was the leader of the city of Uballah which is now a part of Basrah. He represented the Persian emperor and he and his family lived in a fine palace amid all kinds of luxuries. This palace was on the banks of the Euphrates River. He had several children but one in particular was his favorite. This child’s name was Suhaib. Suhaib had a fair complexion and was active and intelligent. The place where they lived was particularly beautiful and had many gorgeous places to enjoy picnics and outings. One day, Suhaib’s mother took him, as well as some other members of their household, on a picnic. This was to be a special day; one of happiness and fun. However, a rude shock was in store for them all.
They were attacked by Byzantine soldiers and the guards they had with them were killed. This left the women and children vulnerable and many were murdered and others were taken prisoner to be sold as slaves. Among those taken as slaves was the little five-year-old Suhaib. Separated from his mother and family, the little boy endured the hardships of all those like him who were being sold in the slave markets of the Byzantine Empire. He was passed from one owner to another; from one master to another. His days of happiness and luxury were over. He was a simple slave with no choices; no freedom; no respect. He and so many others like him filled the houses, palaces and castles of the Byzantine rulers and aristocrats.
Suhaib stayed in this miserable condition for about twenty years. He lived in Byzantine lands and learnt the Greek language and knew the ways of the people. He forgot most of the Arabic language he had been taught for the five short years he had lived with his own family. He witnessed the corruption and injustices of the Byzantine Empire and society and detested it. But he never forgot that he came from the Arabs and he longed for the day he would be free again.
At last the opportunity arrived that Suhaib could escape from bondage and he headed straight for Makkah which was known as a place of refuge. The people of Makkah had a special name for Suhaib because of his fair hair and heavy Greek accent. They called him “Ar-Rumi” which means “the Byzantine”. Suhaib was extremely happy to be free and worked hard in trade and soon became quite rich. He used to travel from place to place trading goods and making money and one day when he returned to Makkah after a trade journey he heard some unusual news.
He was told that Muhammad (peace be upon him), the son of `Abdullah, was telling people that he had been called by Allah as a prophet and messenger to the people. Everyone was startled at this news and they were afraid that their idols would no longer be worshipped and that their way of life would change. Even though Muhammad (peace be upon him) was calling the people to common human values like feeding the poor, being honest, giving women their rights, respecting parents, and spreading goodness, not evil, they rejected the call because their own way of life was more convenient to them. For example, if they had to feed the poor, they would have to give away some of their wealth. If they had to give women their rights, then they could no longer use and misuse women as they had been doing. No, the idea of obeying the prophet of Allah required more sacrifice than they were willing to give.
When Suhaib heard about the Prophet Muhammad, he made up his mind to find out for himself what was really going on. The non-believers told Suhaib to be careful, and told him he would be in danger if he went to the house of Al-Arqam where the Muslims used to meet. Nevertheless, he went there. When he was near the door he met his friend `Ammar. They were both curious to find out about Muhammad and the Muslims, so together they entered the house. They both stayed with the Prophet for the whole day and their hearts were gladdened and lit with the beauty of faith. Their faces beamed with new found happiness and strength.
Like the other people who accepted Islam, Suhaib had to undergo many hardships because of his new faith. The non-Muslims of Makkah persecuted him and others severely. Suhaib, who had already experienced many hardships in life, managed to persevere and be patient. He believed without any doubt that the way to Paradise was filled with all kinds of difficulties but Allah had granted him a steady heart and inner strength.
Finally the time came when the Prophet Muhammad gave his followers permission to migrate to Madinah. Suhaib wanted to wait until the time when the Prophet and Abu Bakr would leave but the Quraysh, the tribe that led the campaign against Muhammad, discovered his intentions and put many obstacles in front of him achieving his aims. The Quraysh was worried that Suhaib would take all his wealth and leave their city, thereby affecting the economy of the city.
So the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bakr left Makkah and arrived safely in Madinah, but Suhaib had to stay behind for some time. The Quraysh placed guards on Suhaib and watched his every move. Suhaib realized that he would have to resort to trickery if he were to escape.
One cold night, he pretended to have a problem with his stomach and went out many times as if he was relieving himself. His captors thought he was sick and did not pay much attention to him. Finally they fell asleep. This was Suhaib’s chance and he slipped away carefully and quietly, found a horse and galloped off into the desert heading toward Madinah.
When his captors woke up, they realized what had happened and rushed off after him. They realized he had got the better of them and so were determined to bring him back. Suhaib saw them coming and clambered up a hill. He crouched down with his bow and arrows in his hands and his eyes looked steadily at his enemies. He was not afraid. When his enemies approached he shouted, “Men of Quraysh! You know I’m the best archer and that I never miss my target. If you come near me I’ll kill you both.” The enemies knew that indeed Suhaib was the best archer around and they also knew he was very determined so they dare not approach him. But they answered him, “We shall not let you escape from us with your life and your money. You came to Makkah weak and poor and you have acquired so much.”
Suhaib replied, “What would you say if I leave you my wealth? Would you then leave me alone?”
They agreed and Suhaib described the place in his house in Makkah where he had left his money, so they let him go. When they left, Suhaib set off in great haste for Madinah with a feeling of gladness in his heart. All he could think about was the idea of meeting the Prophet and the companions again whenever he felt tired or hungry or thirsty he just remembered this and he would feel a surge of energy and happiness that kept him going until he reached Madinah.
When the Prophet saw Suhaib he was very happy and told him, “Your transaction has been fruitful.” He repeated this three times and Suhaib knew the Prophet was referring to the fact that he gave all his wealth so he would be free to live with the Muslims. Suhaib was filled with happiness and said to the Prophet Muhammad, “By Allah, no one has come before me to you. Only Jibril could have told you about this!” The Prophet Muhammad received a revelation about this very thing.
[And there is a type of man who gives his life to earn the pleasure of Allah. And Allah is full of kindness to His servants.] (Al-Baqarah 2:207)
In Suhaib’s mind, gold and wealth were of no importance in this life as long as he had faith. The Prophet Muhammad loved Suhaib very much. He had a good sense of humor and liked making jokes and making people laugh but his humor was gentle and he never made fun at anyone’s expense.
Suhaib was also known for his generosity. In later years when he was entitled to receive a stipend from the public treasury of the Muslims, he would give all of it away to the poor and needy. He was a living example of the Qur’anic verse that says what means, [He gives good for the love of Allah to the needy, the orphan and the captive…] (Al-Baqarah 2:177).
He was also well-loved and respected by the companions. When `Umar ibn al-Khattab was dying after having been stabbed while praying Fajr Prayer, he called six of his companions to decide between themselves who should be the caliph after his death. There was a few days in-between this and the actual time that `Umar died and during this time he ordered that Suhaib should lead the Muslims in Prayer. This was a great honor and responsibility. He was virtually responsible for the Muslim community for that period of time until `Umar passed away and the new caliph took his place.
Suhaib had come a long way from the little lost boy who had been sold into slavery and lost from his family. He endured the hardships of his life with patience, determination, and a positive attitude. He was much loved by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions, and left a clear and strong mark in the history of Islam, that has continued until today.
By Latiefa Achmat