SHAFAQNA – The modern relevance of the hajj is reflected in the symbolic actions of one woman: Hagar, the African servant slave of Abraham and Sarah, who historians estimate lived between 1930 BC and 1840 BC. But, how, exactly, can one black slave living in Biblical times transcend history and inspire social justice and gender equality today?
The answer lies in a simple exploration of hajj rituals. One of the key obligatory practices, the saee, involves a two mile run between two hills. In doing the saee, each pilgrim – man and woman – is asked to step into the sacred footsteps of Hagar, who according to some traditions, was the daughter of an Egyptian king and an early follower of Abraham.
According to monotheistic tradition, Hagar was asked to intercede when it became clear Sarah could not have a child with Abraham. After a baby boy, Ishmael, was born to Hagar, Abraham was commanded by God to resettle mother and son in a desolate and barren valley on the plains of Mecca.
Soon after her arrival, Hagar’s food supply ran out and she began desperately searching for water to nourish her baby. She placed Ishmael down on a site adjacent to where the Kaabasits today and ran frantically seven times between the two nearby hills of Safa and Marwa, only to come up empty handed. Upon returning to Ishmael, Hagar found a spring of water bursting forth from the sand where the baby’s foot lay. The spring became known in the Islamic tradition as the miracle of Zam Zam and was pivotal in setting into motion the foundation of the future city of Mecca.
It is a story that every Muslim, and undoubtedly every pilgrim, has heard. But how much of this narrative resonates with today’s (predominately) male political and religious leaders across the Muslim world? If these men genuinely held Hagar up as the shining example of piety, patience and resolve that she clearly is, there would not be a glaring discrepancy between Islam’s demand for respect toward black women (indeed all women) and labor workers and how these populations are treated in some Muslim majority countries (most notably in the Gulf) today.
In his book on the hajj, famed Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati wrote about Hagar’s place in the Islamic tradition. He described Hagar’s burial near the third pillar of the Kaaba and noted that “all of the Hajj is joined” to her memory. “He chose a black slave woman – the most humiliated of his creatures – to be the mother of great Prophets of God and manifestations of the most magnificent values which God creates…. He has placed her beside himself,” Shariati wrote.
The paradox is, of course, that women continue to be excluded and discriminated against at horrifyingly high rates in Muslim countries, particularly in the Arab world. Social indicators and gender statistics from the United Nations reveal that women in the Arab region are on average more disadvantaged economically, socially, and politically than women from other parts of the world.
Labor workers from some of the world’s poorest countries are given residency and work visas to build glittering high rises in Dubai and Abu Dubai and receive lax work safety standards and decrepit accommodation in exchange. And for all of the Quran’s emphasis on racial equality and references to prophetic messengers of African origin, you would be hard pressed to find Muslim families – living in the west or the east – who are open to inter-racial marriage.
Hagar’s story is also relevant from the perspective of today’s migrant crisis.
In a column in the Istanbul-based Daily Sabah newspaper, Hatem Bazian writes that today Hagar represents the refugee mothers streaming onto western shores from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Yemen, and other countries. Ishmael, carried in the arms of his distraught mother, represents all the children carried across borders and seas without functioning life jackets or enough food, water, or blankets to survive.
Bazian also notes that the death of Aylan Kurdi on the Mediterranean shoreline is today’s symbolic bursting of Zam Zam water. The heart rendering image of Kurdi stirred millions across the world to initiate a response – best seen perhaps in the “majestic and prophetic” character of Western Europeans lining up to welcome the strangers and refugees into their midst.
If only leaders in Muslim majority countries would find similar inspiration in Hagar’s actions – and abide by Islam’s tenants of social justice in their treatment of women and migrant laborers.