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Why We Remember Hagar

By Jamillah Karim

ISNA photos courtesy of Bilal Mahmud
O Allah, honor us by making us the beloved community, and there is no honor except by You. And finally, in these special days, when the selected among our community prepare to walk in the footsteps of our mother Hajar, or Hagar, make us faithful and content with You, as was she when she faced the adversity of being left alone in a new land that You, O Allah, made her home and the home of Your beloved Muhammad, prayers and peace be upon him. And like her, O Allah, may we struggle for Your pleasure so that our children can be at home in this new land, thriving in this new land where the people of Muhammad will shine with your light and love. Ameen.

With this prayer I closed my Friday night speech at the 2016 Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) Convention. To close evoking Lady Hagar and her legacy was unusual. It is customary to close with prayers on our beloved Prophet and his family, but not customary to name individuals in his family. And when we remember the women in his blessed family by name, it is usually not Hagar that we name but the women immediately around him; women like Khadija, Fatima, and Aisha, may God be pleased with them all. And when we highlight these remarkable women of the Prophet’s family, it is most likely when the theme of the conference or speech relates to women.*

My speech was not about women. It was about American Muslims' becoming the beloved community, a community beloved in the hearts of the American people and beloved in the sense that Dr. Martin Luther King and his generation of freedom fighters imagined it: a community known for brotherhood and sisterhood across differences.

But even when the focus of my speech is not women or gender, I make it a point to highlight exemplary women, their struggles and their triumphs. Remembering Hagar at that moment in my speech flowed naturally for two reasons. One, that night marked the first day of Dhul-Hijjah, the Islamic month of the Hajj, a holy season for Muslims that would not even exist if not for the sacrifice and faith of Hagar. And two, Hagar gave birth to the prophetic line that would later produce the light of Muhammad in a land to which she was brought not by choice, as American Muslims have the honor to introduce the light and beauty of Muhammad in this land to which our ancestors were brought by force.

Hagar, the great foremother of the Prophet Muhammad, may God grant him blessings and peace, is the same Hagar of the Bible; however, the Islamic version of this story has its unique elements, which I believe enhance the ways in which Hagar’s legacy empower women. While the biblical version focuses on Sarah’s initiating Hagar’s involuntary parting from Prophet Ibraham’s household and subsequent transfer to the inhospitable desert, the Islamic version focuses on the dialogue that ensued between Hagar and Prophet Ibrahim as he proceeded to leave her and their baby, Isma’il, utterly alone:

“O Ibrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no  person for company, nor anything for us to eat or drink?” She asked him many times, but Ibrahim wouldn’t look back at her. She then shouted, “Has God ordered you to do this?” He turned, replying, “Yes, I am leaving you in Allah’s care.” Content with this answer, she said, “I am satisfied to be with Allah. He will not neglect us.”  (Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs, A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents)

When Hagar ran out of the water she had brought, she had no milk to nurse her crying baby. She ran up the closest hill to look out for help, but there was no one. Back down the valley she went, only to scurry up the opposite hill. Again, no one in sight. Moved by her child’s sobs, she persistently ran between the two hills seven times in search of help before stopping to check on Isma’il, whom she left in the scant shade. Miraculously, she heard a voice to which she pleaded for help. It was the angel Gabriel. The angel of revelation struck the earth with his heel and water gushed forth. Hagar arranged the sand to contain the water that today we call the well of Zam Zam.   

Hagar’s act of faith marks the site out of which the city of Mecca grew. Though reliance on God, prayer, and struggle, Hagar’s hand’s shaped the ground upon which a faith community, later a coveted city, and ultimately a world civilization would shine its light on the world.  

Tariq Ramadan (L) and Yasir Fahmy (M)
Being the only female scholar on stage with three popular male religious scholars that Friday night reaffirmed for me why we must remember Hagar. Hagar has not been remembered to the measure that her great legacy calls us, and this imbalance is partly due to the fact that women scholars had not shared public platforms with men on any systematic basis until recently thanks to women’s activism and scholarly pursuits in the last decade or so.

So when given the platform on a stage with men whom the large audience adored, particularly the distinguished and beloved Tariq Ramadan, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to remember Lady Hagar. It was a moment of activism, to bring consciousness to the way women have contributed to this great religion.

Listening to Tariq Ramadan speak. In addition to women speakers, one of the ways in which ISNA seeks to increase women's presence on stage is to assign women moderators (the woman in green). The woman in black is the sign language interpreter.

And then there was another way that I hoped to raise consciousness by evoking Hagar that night. I was among the few African American Muslim main speakers at ISNA, which is organized and attended predominantly by nonblack Muslims, mostly immigrants and their American-born children. As much as I commit to telling women’s stories, I commit to highlighting the contributions of black Muslims, of African Muslims, to Islam, especially in front of this audience. By remembering Hagar, I remember not only a woman exemplar of our faith but also an African exemplar of our faith.

Zarinah Abdur Rahman (L)
The person who made me vividly see Hagar as a black woman larger than life was Sister Zarinah of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, a Warith Deen Mohammed mosque community. Sister Zarinah was partner with two men in a company that organized and led pilgrims’ travel on the Hajj. At least once a year, she spoke to the community during our Sunday service. In glowing terms, Sister Zarinah emphasized that it was an African woman who is the mother of our faith. When Sister Zarinah described Hagar’s incredible dash between the two hills in search of sustenance, we saw a woman who looked like us. Every pilgrim arriving in Mecca, man or woman, hajj season or off season, the first thing they must do, Sister Zarinah reminded us, is pay respect to God and His house by circling the Ka’ba, offer prayer at the station of Ibraham, and then honor a black woman by literally walking and running in her footsteps.

But in reality, the color of Hagar’s skin is a side point. Only because we live in a world where blackness and African descent are treated as second class that it becomes necessary to highlight her origins: Egypt says the Bible, and Upper Egypt (Nubia) specify other historical sources. African American women’s most compelling claim to Hagar is not her skin but her trial. As God tested her to survive in a foreign wilderness in dire circumstances without the protection, provision, and support of her husband, God tested our African foremothers with surviving in the devastating wilderness of America virtually without husbands. Here, their men’s manhood was beaten out of them. What could they could do when black women were raped by slaveholders? What could they do when their wives and children were sold to another plantation 200 miles away? When they attempted to do something, they met severe consequences. Black women watched as their men were whipped, and later as their men were lynched, and now we watch today as our men are executed in the streets.

And here is where Hagar’s story and our story as black women intersect so perfectly. Abraham loved Hagar dearly. Imagine how much it hurt him to leave Hagar in the wilderness. But remember, this is the same noble man who prepared to kill his son when God commanded that he do so. As much as it hurt, he understood that God’s decree was perfect and that he must fulfill it. Similarly, our men have always loved us dearly, but forces beyond their control have left black women in the predicament we still endure today.

At the same time, our situation is different from Hagar’s. Soon after Prophet Ibrahim left Hagar and his son, he stopped, turned to God and begged that God “fill some hearts among people with love towards them, and provide them with food, so that they may give thanks.” Abraham always remembered them in prayer and later returned to his family. He built a house for them and one dedicated to the worship of God, to which Muslims turn five times a day for prayer. The Zam Zam water attracted a wandering tribe that permanently established itself there. A faith community thrived and supported Hagar when Abraham was away.

African American women, on the other hand, continue to face systemic racism, which restricts many black men’s ability to take care of their families. Also, we live in a culture that promotes extramarital sex. Additionally, it is a culture that empowers women to be financially independent of men, a good thing given the predicament of our men. These three factors combined, however, put many black women in a perpetual state of singlehood that Hagar experienced only temporarily.

Many studies have noted this crisis: “Black women are only half as likely as white women to be married, and more than two times as likely as white women never to marry….[As for those fortunate enough to marry], eventually, more than two out of every three black marriages will dissolve.” (Is Marriage for White People: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone)

Given this hardship, “Hagar Lives” hopes to inspire black women to claim Hagar, especially in the moment that she understood that her trial was beyond Abraham--when Abraham answered that God told him to leave her there alone. We aspire to be like Hagar in the moment when she realized her struggle was between her and her Lord. It is what God decreed for her, not what Prophet Ibrahim wanted for her, and so it was the moment to fully give her heart and limbs to God.

Although we aim to recognize that our trial is what God has decreed for us in His perfect wisdom and strive to see it as an opportunity to grow closer to Him, we also understand that our struggle demands that we fight injustices and hold ourselves, our husbands, our communities, and those in power accountable, particularly those perpetuating anti-black racism. And it is here too where the Islamic version of Hagar’s story provides some powerful instruction.

Unique to the Islamic version of Hagar’s story is that it required more than prayer for Gabriel to appear and miraculously produce water. It required effort, work and struggle on the part of Hagar. She did more than pray for help in the depths of the desert. She persistently searched, even though, attempt after attempt, she saw no one in sight on the hilltops of Safa and Marwa. God loves for us to ask from Him through prayer, but He also loves for us to strive for His sake. It was Hagar’s exertion for which she is remembered and saluted every time a pilgrim enters the sacred precincts.

“Hagar Lives” seeks to tell a variety of stories of African American women’s struggles and triumphs in their Hagar-like moments. Certainly there are stories of men who have abandoned us in ways that are not acceptable, but too there are stories of men who left us to God in their pursuit of that which pleases God. There are stories in which we as women showed the wisdom and grace of Hagar from the start of our relationships, and others where we made bad decisions and acted not with a complete faith in God, and still God came running with assistance when we called. And finally, there are stories that show Muslim women’s personal choices as resistance to racial injustices and disparities in this country, and others that show us moved simply by the sheer force of survival, or the basic need for a man’s touch, or for God’s love and the love of His Beloveds.     

If you would like to contribute to "Hagar Lives," contact us: hajarlives@gmail.com.

*Tayyibah Taylor, may Allah have mercy on her, was the first person I remember bringing my attention to the ways in which women speakers were always asked or expected to speak on women’s issues or the “women’s panel.”  She saw Azizah magazine as a long needed correction to confining women’s interests, ideas, and concerns to a woman’s column or to the occasional conference talk.  She organized and spoke regularly at ISNA, pushing for more women speakers. She would have been delighted to see my following in her footsteps speaking as a woman at a session not focused on "women's issues."

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