On January 20, 2009, Americans witnessed history in the making as the first African- American man became the 44th president of the
While President Obama’s story can be inspiring to many of our youth, I would like to turn our attention to another inspiring African whose actions and faith have left an even greater legacy. Based on both Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions, Hajar, also known as Hagar in the Bible, lived in ancient
While the racial background of the Pharaohs is still debated, there are some scholars who suggest that Egyptians at the time of Abraham were black Africans. One of the evidences for this assumption is that during the 5th century, Greek historian Herodotus referred to the ancient Egyptians as “melanchroes” (black-skinned). Whether they were black or brown, the Pharaohs had developed a grand civilization that still baffles historians today.
In most traditions, Hajar was the daughter of one of these Pharaoh’s who was killed by a new tyrannical Pharaoh, and as a young girl, she was taken as captive of war to serve the palace. However, some Christian traditions relate that Hajar was the daughter of the Pharaoh himself who captured Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Either way, Hajar lived in the palace when Sarah and Prophet Abraham entered
Unbeknownst to Abraham and Sarah, the tyrannical Pharaoh had the reputation of capturing any woman at his pleasure, whether she was single or married. If she was married, he would have her husband killed immediately. Prophet Abraham and Sarah had already survived several attempts to their lives as they tried to spread their message of monotheism. But they had found almost no followers in their region except Abraham’s nephew, Prophet Lot. Being one of the few people who believed in the ancient message of Adam, Noah, and the past prophets, Abraham knew that his death would mean also the death of the message. Therefore, to safeguard the message of unity, Abraham had to lie to the Pharaoh’s army and say that Sarah was his sister when the men of the Pharaoh came for her. Sarah was taken to the palace to be yet another concubine. However, when the Pharaoh came to touch Sarah, she sought refuge and protection in God. God answered her prayer and paralyzed the Pharaoh whenever he approached her. The Pharaoh, scared and dumbfounded, finally released Sarah. In order to appease this powerful “sorceress”, as he might have considered her, he also gave her Hajar to be her slave. Living in the palace, Hajar most likely heard about and perhaps even witnessed this incident because soon she also came to believe in the one God of which Abraham and Sarah preached. Her life in the palace proved to her, similar to the life experiences of Prophet Moses, that the Pharaoh was nothing but a mere human with no extra ordinary powers.
Abraham, Sarah, and Hajar left
Unfortunately some have placed the blame on Sarah, saying that she became jealous of Hajar’s new status and asked Abraham to send her away. On deeper reflection and knowing the history of Abraham and Sarah, that version of the story seems quite against the character and unbecoming of any of these righteous figures. First, Sarah was not an ordinary wife as it was she who had suggested the marriage of Abraham and Hajar in the first place. At her late age, Sarah was less interested in her marital life as she was about keeping the message of monotheism alive. She was not a weak woman controlled by her whims and desires as that version would have us believe. It would have taken much strength, faith, and character to have lived through such hardships as she did being a Prophet’s wife. Thus, wishing to send Ishmael away at this infant stage would have defeated her original motivation to bring up the next generation of Prophets. Secondly, Abraham would never leave his new wife (who was also a believer) and only son (the future of the religion) in a barren land unless it was dictated by God himself. Thirdly, for her faith and good character, God blessed Sarah with Isaac thirteen years later, who would also become a prophet. God would not have given this blessing to Sarah if she had such a low character as the one described by some.
Therefore, as the “friend of God”, Prophet Abraham obeyed his vision and mounted his second wife and their son on a camel with some food and water and headed 700 km south from Palestine towards Yemen. During this long trek, Hajar must have known that Abraham intended to “resettle” her and her son somewhere else. She might have imagined that it was another believing or friendly community. But when they stopped in the middle of nowhere, in a barren and harsh land with no water, people and food, she questioned Abraham “O Abraham, where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we can enjoy, nor is there anything here?” Abraham could not respond as there was no human logic, only a divine vision which he was afraid to explain to her. She asked him three times, but being a believing woman, she finally asked him “Has God asked you to do so?” Abraham stopped, turned back and said, “Yes!” Feeling a degree of comfort in this answer, Hagar asked, “O Abraham, to whom are you leaving us?” Abraham replied “I am leaving you to God’s care”. Hajar then showed her strong faith by responding that, “I am satisfied to be with God!”
Now if this happened to any of us, we would have thought our husband was out of his mind acting on a dream. We may have pleaded and thrown ourselves at his feet or gone hysterical out of desperation. Not this brave and strong willed woman. She had already seen or heard of how God saved Sarah from the Pharaoh. She had heard the story of how God saved Abraham from the fire. So she knew that the same God will also test her and save her and her son from this predicament. She had complete trust in God.
When Abraham left, Hajar was completely alone with only a baby to care for. She did not have a “Mahram” or male relative to defend or help her. She could not depend on her father, her husband or her son to protect her. In fact, her son’s survival depended on her. She had only God and herself to count on. The story is usually related that out of desperation for water, she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa. But Hajar had already shown that she did not act in desperation but in faith when Abraham turned around and left. The food and water they had left was soon depleted. While she had complete trust in God, she knew she could not stand still but must seek God’s sustenance. So she first ran up to higher ground on one side of the valley and then to the other side. She did this seven times, yet she did not see anything. If we were in a hot desert, either low or without water, our first instinct would be to conserve our energy. If we climbed once or even twice on the same hill and saw nothing, we’d most likely quit in frustration and hopelessness. But Hajar knew that God would not let them die. Because her faith was so strong, she kept seeking for God’s grace. By running seven times up and down those hills, she showed a will and determination that few of us have. It was this faith and hope that made Hajar pass the test. God would not have honored Hajar with the legacy of the Sa’i, (part of the Hajj ritual), if Hajar showed lack of resolve and perhaps blasphemy for her situation. Any one of us may have found that we would have lost our faith in God if we were put in such a dire situation, as so many of us do with even smaller tests. If she was desperate, she would have gone once or twice and then given up. But it was her determination and trust in God that kept her seeking and she would have continued to run up and down those hills had it not been that she heard a noise near her son’s feet.
God answered her prayers and sent angel Gabriel, the same angel that brought the revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad, down to strike the ground and spring up the well of Zam Zam. Hajar heard the sound of the spring coming under Ishmael’s feet. A hadith of Prophet Muhammad says that if Hajar had left the spring alone, it would have become a rushing river. However, Hajar said to the water “zam zam” which means “stay...stay” and it became just a well. This hadiths may suggest to some that Hajar had interfered with a miracle of God out of her own ignorance. Yet, the real meaning of this hadith indicates that God had given this African slave woman the same power as He would later give to Moses when he split the
God had promised Abraham that his wife and child would be kept safe in a community of people and that a great nation would arise from them. As such, God sent some birds to the area which then were attracted to the presence of water and circled around it. A passing caravan of the Jerhome tribe from
While many have considered this behavior of the tribesmen and Hajar as strange, when we consider the whole situation, it was not so strange after all. The Jerhome tribe had recently emigrated from
Ishmael was thirteen or so when Abraham and Sarah were visited by angels to give the good news of their son Isaac. Therefore, it would make sense that Abraham had come to visit Hajar and Ishmael in
While the name of Hajar is not mentioned in this passage, and she may have not known at that time Abraham’s reasons for returning, Ishmael’s ready acceptance of his father’s vision reflects the upbringing Ishmael had received under his mother, his first and for his case only teacher. Hajar was left with the full responsibilities of raising her son as a single parent. She could have chosen to be upset at her predicament and tell Ishmael negative stories about his father and how he had abandoned them and left them to die in the harsh desert environment. But Ishmael’s reaction showed that he knew his father to be a truthful and trustworthy man, a man with whom God speaks, a man to be admired and followed. He could have known that only if his mother had made sure Ishmael knew the good character of his father and that it was God who chose for them to be in
When God accepted both Abraham’s and Ishmael’s submission to His will, He replaced Ishmael with the ram. Ishmael had also passed his test and now was considered a prophet like his father. Afterwards, he and his father were commanded to establish the first house of prayer to Allah, at a site next to the well of Zam Zam and the two hills of Safa and Marwa. As mentioned earlier, the people of Jerhome were also God fearing men and women. They had great respect for Hajar and her son Ishmael who grew up among them. Therefore, they extended that respect to his father who was a stranger to them. They did not protest that Ishmael and his father were building the Kaaba, next to their precious well of Zam Zam, as that well belonged to Ishmael and his mother. Additionally, because of their respect for Hajar and Ishmael, they accepted the religion of monotheism and the ritual of circumambulating the House of God. Abraham would not have gotten this grand respect had it not been for Hajar.
The descendants of Ishmael continued to have control of both the well of Zam Zam and the Kaaba, and were the religious heads of the region up until the time of Prophet Muhammad some 2,500 years later. This could not have been possible if it was not for the bravery and astuteness of Hajar, the founder of the holy city of
God has kept her legacy alive for over almost 4,000 years to the present time so that we may not forget about this great woman. Every single day, millions of Muslims come to the city of
There are several lessons we can learn from her story. First, we can see that Islam’s roots were established on a multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-linguistic basis. Ishmael was the son of Prophet Abraham, a Chaldean, and an African Egyptian slave woman, and brought up among the Arab people of
Secondly, her life story reaffirms the high status women have in Islam, who are considered equal under the eyes of God. God could have easily told Abraham to go dig the well of Zam Zam and wait for the tribe to come before departing back to
Lastly, we learn the true effects of being empowered. Hajar could have given up her search for water after one or two tries, but she believed in God and believed in herself. She would not just watch her son die of thirst and hunger without trying her best to prevent it. Hajar also came from a noble and knowledgeable background. She understood politics, understood human nature and understood how to best position herself in any situation. She did not cower with fear and desperation as Abraham walked out of view, leaving them in the desert. She did not cower with fear when a group of strange men approached her and asked for her to share her water. This empowerment came from her Taqwa. When you know deep down inside that God is with you and watching, you learn to only fear and trust Him and no one else.
While Obama’s actual legacy yet remains to be seen as it’s only been a day he’s been president, all of us can learn from the legacy of this greatly empowered African woman, our mother Hajar.