About twenty years before the start of the Prophet’s (sa) mission, around the middle of the sixth century CE, an Arab named Sinan Ibn Malik governed the city of Al-Uballah on behalf of the Persian emperor. The city, now part of Al-Basrah, lay on the banks of the Euphrates River. Sinan lived in a luxurious palace on the banks of the river. He had several children and was particularly fond of one, who was then barely five years old. His name was Suhayb Ibn Sinan. He was blond and fair-complexioned. He was active and alert and gave much pleasure to his father.
One day Suhayb’s (rta) mother took him and some members of her household to a village called Ath-Thani for a picnic. There a raiding party of Byzantine soldiers attacked the village. The guards accompanying the picnic party were overwhelmed and killed. All possessions were seized and a large number of persons were taken as prisoners. Among these was Suhayb Ibn Sinan (rta).
Suhayb (rta) was taken to one of the slave markets of the Byzantine Empire, the capital of which was Constantinople, where he was sold. Thereafter he passed from the hands of one slave master to another. His fate was no different from thousands of other slaves, who filled the houses, the palaces and castles of Byzantine rulers and aristocrats.
Suhayb (rta) spent his boyhood and his youth as a slave. For about twenty years he stayed in Byzantine lands. This gave him the opportunity to get a rare knowledge and understanding of the Byzantine Empire and society. In the palaces of the aristocracy, he saw with his own eyes the injustices and the corruption of Byzantine life. He detested that society and later would say: “A society like this can only be purified by a deluge.”
Suhayb (rta) grew up speaking Greek, the language of the Byzantine Empire. He practically forgot Arabic. But he never forgot that he was a son of the desert. He longed for the day, when he would be free again to join his people. At the first opportunity, Suhayb (rta) escaped from bondage and headed straight for Makkah, which was a place of refuge. There people called him Suhayb ‘ar-Rumi’ or ‘the Byzantine’ because of his peculiarly heavy speech and his blond hair. He became the assistant of one of the aristocrats of Makkah, Abdullah Ibn Judan. He engaged in trade and prospered.
One day returning to Makkah from one of his trading journeys, he was told that Muhammad (sa) the son of Abdullah had begun calling people to believe in Allah (swt) alone, commanding them to be just and prohibiting them from shameful and reprehensible deeds. He immediately enquired who Muhammad (sa) was and where he stayed.
Suhayb (rta) went cautiously to the house of Al-Arqam and listened to what Muhammad (sa) was saying. He was readily convinced of the truth of the message. The light of faith entered his heart. At this meeting, he pledged loyalty to the Prophet (sa), declaring that there is no God but Allah (swt) and Muhammad (sa) is the Messenger of Allah. He spent the entire day in the company of the noble Prophet (sa). At night, he happily left the house of Al-Arqam, with the light of faith in his heart.
Then, the familiar pattern of events followed. The idolatrous Quraish learnt about Suhayb’s (rta) acceptance of Islam and began harassing and persecuting him. The punishment was inhuman and severe but Suhayb (rta) bore it all with a patient and courageous heart, because he knew that the path to Jannah is paved with thorns and difficulties. The teachings of the noble Prophet (sa) had instilled in him and other companions a rare strength and courage.
When the Prophet (sa) eventually gave permission for his followers to migrate to Madinah, Suhayb (rta) resolved to go in the company of the Prophet (sa) and Abu Bakr (rta). The Quraish, however, found out about his intentions and foiled his plans. They placed guards over him to prevent him from leaving and taking with him the wealth, which he had acquired through trade.
After the departure of the Prophet (sa) and Abu Bakr (rta), Suhayb (rta) continued to bide his time, waiting for an opportunity to join them. He remained unsuccessful. The eyes of his guards were ever alert and watchful.
One cold night, Suhayb (rta) pretended to have stomach problems and went out repeatedly, as if responding to calls of nature. His captors became relaxed and sleep got the better of them. Suhayb (rta) quietly slipped out, armed himself, and headed in the direction of Madinah.
When his captors awoke, they realized that Suhayb (rta) was gone. They set out in hot pursuit and eventually caught up with him. Seeing them approach, Suhayb (rta) clambered up a hill. Ready with his bow and arrow, he shouted: “Men of Quraish! You know, by Allah, that I am one of the best archers and my aim is unerring. By Allah, if you come near me, with each arrow I have, I shall kill one of you. Then, I shall strike with my sword.” A Quraish spokesman responded: “By God, we shall not let you escape from us with your life and money. You came to Makkah weak and poor and you have acquired what you have acquired.” “What would you say, if I leave you my wealth?” interrupted Suhayb (rta). “Would you get out of my way?” “Yes,” they agreed.
Suhayb (rta) described the place in his house in Makkah, where he had left the money, and they allowed him to go.
He set off as quickly as he could for Madinah, cherishing the prospect of being with the Prophet (sa) and of having the freedom to worship God in peace. Whenever he felt tired, the thought of meeting the Prophet (sa) sustained him, and he proceeded with increased determination. When Suhayb (rta) reached Quba, just outside Madinah where the Prophet (sa) himself alighted after his Hijrah, the Prophet (sa) saw him approaching. He was over-joyed and greeted Suhayb (rta) with beaming smiles. “Your transaction has been fruitful, O Abu Yahya. Your transaction has been fruitful.” He repeated this-three times.
Suhayb’s (rta) face was filled with happiness, as he said: “By Allah, no one has come before me to you, Messenger of Allah (sa), and only Jibril could have told you about this.”
Yes indeed! Suhayb’s (rta) transaction was fruitful. Revelation affirmed the truth of this: “And of mankind is he who would sell himself, seeking the Pleasure of Allah. And Allah is full of Kindness to (His) slaves.” (Al-Baqarah 2:207)
The Prophet (sa) loved Suhayb (rta) a great deal. He was commended by the Prophet and described as preceding the Byzantines to Islam. In addition to his piety and sobriety, Suhayb (rta) was also light-hearted at times and had a good sense of humour.
One day the Prophet (sa) saw him eating dates. He noticed that Suhayb (rta) had an infection in one eye. The Prophet (sa) said to him laughingly: “Do you eat ripe dates while you have an infection in one eye?” “What’s wrong?” replied Suhayb (rta), “I am eating it with the other eye.”
Suhayb (rta) was also known for his generosity. In the period of the caliphate, he used to give his entire stipend from the public treasury to help the poor and distressed. He was so generous that Umar (rta) once remarked: “I have seen you giving out so much food that you appear to be too extravagant.” Suhayb (rta) replied: “I have heard the Messenger of Allah (sa) say: ‘The best of you is the one, who gives out food.’”
Suhayb’s (rta) piety and his standing among Muslims was so high that he was selected by Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (rta) to lead the Muslims in the period between his death and the choosing of his successor.
Suhayb (rta) was undoubtedly among the shining stars, who contributed immensely in the infancy of Islam and earned a respectable status for his love of Allah (swt) and the Messenger (sa).