This week the Islamic pilgrimage or Hajj was completed. For those not gathering on the dusty plains of the desert in Arabia, we have the celebration of the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating the exchange of a lamb for the blood of the son of Abraham. This story is coated with patriarchy, and so it is with some fascination that Hajar (biblical Hagar) configures so significantly in the Islamic telling of it.
According to the same patriarchal twist, it is Abraham’s first son that is pivotal to the story’s continuation and the salvation of a people, yet to be born. That his first son, Ishmael, was born of a slave woman—some say of African origins—is not without extreme symbolism for African-American women, mostly Christian. That she is the mother of the tribes of Arabs is also not without some extreme genealogy along with that symbolism. But that she a single female head of household, whose sojourn in the desert still, has a central ritual re-enactment in the Hajj, that I turn to here.
The story goes, Abraham’s wife Sarah had reached her seniority without producing an heir. This caused our old patriarch some disconcert and she took advantage of an age-old custom to support his desire (?) by providing a concubine, a slave woman, specifically for the purpose of sex and hopefully for the conclusion of that intercourse to reproduce a child. That such was indeed the case, and a male child to boot, is again not my focus here. Already, we see that Hajar is without status. Whatever child she produces becomes the acknowledged son of Abraham’s patriarchal household. She and Sarah are both equally rendered invisible utilities to the completion of his need for progeny.
Jewish and Christian continuation of the story plays little into the Islamic continuation and our ritual re-enactment. For by the miracle of the Creator, Sarah too bears a child (and male to boot, Isaac!). The erasure of Hajar becomes more than symbolic. She is banished to the desert. Why they didn’t just kill her and the child is beyond me because what she was consigned to was only short of death by a hair’s breath. Furthermore, it is Abrahham, at once pictured as a loving father, and husband to two women, who must deliver her up to her fate. Now the test arises in earnest. Not only did she wish for her survival under impossible circumstances, but also she wished to save her innocent child. As the story goes, dehydration seemed to be the most eminent threat and she began frantically to search for water.
Seven (7) times she went back and forth between two foothills (Safa, where the child lay) and Marwa almost a half kilometer apart. At some point in this frantic search, she even ran. I can imagine the angst of her search and the despair of success, although she never ceased her search. Again the divine miracle intercedes and water springs forth, just at the heel of the child. She and he are saved, for the moment… and apparently, although details are scarce in Islamic literature and lore…she is joined with a tribe somewhere out there in the desert.
Fast forward a few thousand years and now Muslims (young and old, female and male, in wheelchairs and able bodied) replicate this frantic journey between two foothills during the Hajj in the ritual act called Sa’iy. Little of the reality of Hajar’s struggle to survive is sufficiently emphasized today. For example, at the places where she is said to have ran, pilgrims are encouraged to likewise run. But wait, NOT all pilgrims—just the male, able bodied ones. People (male and female) in wheel chairs are zoomed along the air-conditioned pavilion and no distinction is made between any one part of the long corridor. The young (males) pushing the chairs simply zip along, to collect a few hundred riyal and take up the next customer. It’s all business for them. Older men and women (like me) are simply grateful to be able to complete the 3.5 kilometer total of the 7 circuits using our own two feet. As much as a part of me wanted to defy the Saudi restriction of “running” to only the men, I actually had not the state of fitness to pull off anything more than walking.
It feels cheap to walk in clean, tiled conditions under pumping central air-condition. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe in ritual suffering (nor in life suffering). But here’s the thing. Something is amiss in our entire Muslim culture, and has been so for more than a few centuries now, when the central theme of this story is white-washed. Here is the ultimate expression of the inter-sectionality of race, class and gender made barren by our lack of commemoration.
In Muslim cultures, the patriarchal family rules supreme, and yet Hajar was (literally) thrown out in the desert to fend for herself and her child without even a second’s thought to the impossibility of her location as confirmation of patriarchy. How does such a woman who enters the story to confirm patriarchy even survive when the same patriarchy abandons her? Now she re-configures as the most significant player in the survival of a people and their entire legacy. How then do we reconcile with Abraham, the dead beat dad, Sarah the selfish bitch, and even God, the benevolent?!
The pristine ultra-modern conditions of the Hajj pavilion, the grand mosque, built around the Kaabah (and even as I type, subject to further, more elaborate renovations and expansions) should NOT detract from the realization of the plight of Hajar and the details of her survival. For while we, on the one hand, re-enact her race for water, and drink from the wells of Zam-Zam, still flowing today, I can only think on the other hand, of one thing: a single black female, head of household not only makes this ritual necessary but also makes it possible by her tenacity of survival in spite of gross race, class and gender inequality. Thank you Hajar, I needed that reminder and I am heartened by it.
amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.