Apr 11, 2022 by SOFIA ALI-KHAN
There's a common story that Muslims are told about Hagar in the context of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) ritual. It has some variations because there's almost nothing about it in the Qur'an, and it's instead rooted in oral traditions recorded after the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Remarkably, our version of Hagar is quite different in tone and in detail than the Jewish or Christian versions. Specifically, ours identifies Hagar as a resourceful, independent, and primary parent to Ismail and so the prophetic lineage that gives us Prophet Muhammad.
Normally, Muslims are taught, without much preface, that Hagar is the younger wife of Ibrahim (Abraham) from Egypt. In Jewish and Christian traditions, there seems to be much made of her status as a slave or a concubine, her origins in Egypt, and of Sarah's antipathy towards her for bearing Ibrahim's eldest son, especially once the elderly Sarah, to her great surprise, gives birth to Isaac. None of those elements are really a part of the Muslim tradition, and importantly, Hagar serves as an indication to us that status in Islam and access to faith are not supposed to be dependent on race, nationality, marriage, or parentage--even gender.
We are taught that Ibrahim leaves Hagar with her infant son Ismail in Mecca--which was not yet Mecca at the time, but a dry, uninhabited place in the desert--on God's command. And we are told that when Hagar ran out of food and water, she went searching for help in desperation, running to the top of the nearby hills of Safa and Marwa as her infant son cried in hunger on the ground below. We're taught alternately that where Ismail's own foot, or where the foot of Angel Gabriel standing beside him, struck the sand, water sprung up from below. Hagar, witnessing this, returned to her son and dug a basin that is now the holy well of Zam Zam, from which millions of Muslims still drink each year when they make pilgrimage to that site. Running between Safa and Marwa is also a significant aspect of the hajj ritual.
The reason I'm obsessed with Hagar is because the brilliant scholar and theologian Dr. Rifat Hassan wrote (and cited) a version of this story that changed everything about how I saw Hagar. She pauses in all the right places to take in the implications of what we are being shown in the story of this matriarch. I draw from her telling in this version:
We are told to call ourselves followers of the religion of Ibrahim for one reason: that Ibrahim's God consciousness was whole-hearted, that he turned again and again to a Divinity with which he had a constant, personal relationship. I won't go into it here, but we have reason to think of Sarah in the same way. The household Ibrahim shared with Sarah and with Hagar would have been engaged in constant worship and remembrance. According to our tradition, Hagar and Ismail were not displaced into the desert by Sarah's jealousy, and possibly not even after the birth of Isaac. In our tradition, Hagar is not violently expelled or tricked into her exile in the desert. Instead, when Ibrahim turns to leave she asks only one question: is this God's will?
It's hard today, I think, for us to wrap our heads around this because we are so used to men (and women) appropriating God's will for their own mostly terrible purposes, but Hagar in all likelihood had witnessed Ibrahim speaking directly to, or being spoken to directly by, God. Everything we know about her (much of it follows here) suggests that she herself experienced a proximity to the Divine that, in our deep secularism and modernity, we could only think of as trickery or insanity.
But the mandate Ibrahim has from God, and that Hagar fulfills, isn't ultimately for Ibrahim's worldly gain or status. In fact, he hardly figures into the initial settling of Mecca. Instead, it is Hagar's role that is central to that birthplace of Islam. Hagar's destiny will be to raise her son Ismail among a people foreign to both of them, among whom he will marry. Ibrahim will only periodically visit and on one of those visits he will rebuild the Ka'ba, the central House of Worship, towards which all Muslims pray, with his adult son Ismail.
Going back, Hagar with her infant in the desert, upon hearing that her fate has been determined by God, has no conflict with Ibrahim. She does not try to follow him home. She settles into the desert, alone, with minimal provisions, and feeds her baby until there is no more for either of them. Only then, in desperation, calling out to God, does she search for the help she *knows* is coming. And then when the well of ZamZam emerges, she does not just drink idly, but digs a basin to catch the water. Water is life everwhere, but especially in the desert. When the people of Jurhum send scouts to find the water source that is suddenly drawing birds to that spot in the desert, they find Hagar there with baby Ismail.
In a profound testament to her faith, Hagar does not negotiate her departure with the Jurhum, but instead uses the precious commodity of ZamZam, plentiful fresh water in the desert, to secure her place and Ismail's place in a new community that comes to join her in that once-desolate spot. According to tradition, they asked, "Do you allow us to stay with you?" and she replied, "Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water." Hagar is committed not to Ibrahim, not to Ismail, not to the economic power that the water confers, but to the simple Divine intention that she be there in the desert. This is about her individual faith in the Divine and the faculties she uses in service to that faith, unconnected to any man. She's not trying to get home, to run away, to be comforted. She nurtures her child, she stewards the water, she negotiates her status among a strange people with no male intermediary, marshalling the one asset she has (the water). She is an immigrant in a strange land, displaced at least twice from her birthplace.
Hagar was ultimately buried (as was Ismail) in the mosque that surrounds the Ka'ba. She lived a whole, full life, built from nothing but God's promise and lots of (super feminist from a modern perspective) resourcefulness. And, by the grace of God, we are her children.
May peace and blessings be showered upon them all.