PROFESSOR NURAAN DAVIDS engages the traditional narrative of Hajar (AS) as wife of Ibrahim (AS), mother of Isma’eel (AS) and as central figure in the symbols of the Hajj. She shows how the narrative elevates the role of a woman in the ideal expression of faith and sacrifice.
THE story of Hajar, while not mentioned in the Quran, is described in detail in Sahih Al-Bukhari (The Anbiya, 15:9).
Although it may be inferred that Saarah did not look kindly upon Hajar, it is clear that Nabi Ibrahim’s (AS) decision to leave Hajar and her baby, Ismail, in the desert, was not based on his desire to appease Saarah. Instead, his actions stem from two motivations: enacting Allah’s command and fulfilling his prophetic mission to (re)build the sacred Kaabah.
According to narration, Nabi Ibrahim left Hajar and Ismail near the Kaabah, under a tree on the spot of the Zam-zam – neither of which were visible at the time. He left them with a leather bag containing some dates and a small waterskin containing some water.
As he was about to return home, Hajar followed, and asked him where he was going and why he was leaving them alone in a barren valley. Upon receiving no response, she asked him: ‘Has Allah commanded you to do so?’
He replied: ‘Yes.’
Remarkably, she, in turn, responded: ‘Then Allah will not cause us to be lost.’
Nabi Ibrahim’s duah, which he made, once out of Hajar’s sight, indicates his faith that the uninhabited, uncultivated land would become populated and fruitful, and that Allah would ensure that those whom he were leaving behind would find sustenance and love in their new environment.
‘O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your sacred house (Kaabah, in Makkah) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. Fill the hearts of people with love towards them, and provide them with fruits so that they may give thanks.’ (Surah Ibrahim, verse 37)
Significantly, the granting of this duah exceeds much more than Nabi Ibrahim could ever have imagined. Not only does Allah ensure the safety and nourishment of Hajar and Ismail but Muslims, of course, continually travel to what will eventually become Masjid al-Haram, intent upon perfecting their relationship with Allah SWT.
As Nabi Ibrahim disappeared from sight, Hajar was left to attend to her baby. Soon the replenishments left by Nabi Ibrahim were depleted and she struggled to suckle her baby. When Ismail began to fret from thirst and hunger, she frantically looked around for any source of sustenance.
In desperation, she ran between the mounts of As-Safa and Al-Marwa, hoping to see any individual or community – an act which would later become honoured and re-enacted in the saa’i of Hajj or Umrah.
When she reached Al-Marwah (for the last time), she heard a voice and she exclaimed: ‘Sh, sh!’ (silencing herself) and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said: ‘O (whoever you may be), you have made me hear your voice; have you any relief/ help for me?’ And she saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or with his wing) till water flowed from that place.
The angel said to her: ‘Do not be afraid of being neglected for this is the site on which the House of Allah will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah will never neglect His people.’
The House of Allah (the Kaabah) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left.
Using her hands, she started to shape something like a basin around it, and began to fill her waterskin with water, and the water flowed out until she had scooped some of it.
Many years later, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) shared the story of Hajar: ‘May Allah bestow mercy on Isma’eel’s mother! Had she let the Zam-zam flow without trying to control it (or had she not scooped in that water) while filling her waterskin, Zam-zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth.’
After living by herself for some time, the area of the Zam-zam attracted the attention of the tribe of Jurhum. She granted them permission to join her on condition that they do not claim possession of the water – reminding us that this world is not ours to own.
What was once a barren piece of desert soon transformed into a vibrant centre of new civilisation in Arabia. For Isma’eel, the presence of the Jurhum tribe presented an opportunity to learn to speak Arabic and, later, to marry one of their daughters.
And so we find the establishment of one of Islam’s greatest narratives: The marriage between Nabi Ibrahim, the progenitor of Islam’s monotheism (Touheed), and an Egyptian slave girl (Hajar) who have a son, Isma’eel, and set in motion the genealogical connection between Nabi Ibrahim and Nabi Muhammad (SAW).
This is the story of Hajar. But who was she and what is the significance of her life and story for us?
Abraham is presented in the Quran and hadith as well as exegetical literature as a patriarchal prophetic figure whose journeys carry him from Biblical Canaan to Egypt and also to the valley of Makkah.
In the Muslim tradition, he is depicted as the progenitor of the monotheistic tradition both in its Isma’eelite (Islam springs out of this Abraham-Isma’eel-Muhammad spiritual matrix) and Isaac lines (Judaism comes out of this Abraham-Isaac-Moses spiritual connection).
In turn, Hajar is viewed as the pioneer woman who led the way to the establishment of a new civilisation. Hajar was from the land of the Nile and Ibrahim was from the land of the Euphrates, in Mesopotamia. And their son, Isma’eel, was from the land of Zam-zam.
She lived as a servant in the house of the pharoah and gifted to Saarah. At the time, she was simply referred to as Ajar (i.e. Hagar).
We would describe Hajar as being of the marginalised and enslaved, without autonomy and agency. Yet, the gifting of her to Saarah set in motion a grand historical narrative, which would have a direct bearing not only on the lineage on the birth of our prophet, Muhammad (SAW), but on one of the key practices of our fifth pillar.
There are a number of significant aspects and principles about Hajar about which we need to be cognisant. These stories, which exist in the Quran (prophetic stories, parables, eschatological expositions), ahadith and seerah, hold significant meanings for us, and if we are to fully understand the historical and theological impact of Islam then it is imperative that we engage with these texts.
‘There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding. Never was the Quran a narration invented but a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of all things and guidance and mercy for a people who believe.’ (Surah Yusuf, verse 111)
First, Hajar’s status as both black and enslaved did not preclude her from being selected by Allah SWT to play a significant role in establishing monotheism and to be the matriarch of a people whose descendent is Prophet Muhammad (SAW). As such, she embodies Islam’s disregard of gender, ethnic, racial and economic differences.
Second: her banishment from the home of Nabi Ibrahim and Saarah led her to the establishment of Islam’s greatest home – Masjid al-Haram – and despite being completely unaware of this, she remained resolute.
Third: far from being a marginal figure representing otherness or rejection, Hagar’s portrayal in the hadith presents her as a woman of courage, piety and influence. She enters the narrative as a slave and endures abandonment to emerge as the matriarch and progenitor of a great world religion, thanks to her resilience and resourcefulness as well as the mercy, compassion and favour shown to her by Allah SWT.
Fourth: Hajar endured suffering and became a vehicle for a sacred goal. Her religious significance has to do with her participation in the drama of re-establishing true monotheism in Arabia – hence the enactment of her plight in the Hajj rituals. As such, she transitions and transcends from the position of a disempowered African/ Egyptian slave-girl to the highest place of honour in the Islamic tradition.
Fifth: in every iteration, Hajar is viewed in terms of her relationship to other humans – Saarah’s maid, Nabi Ibrahim’s wife, Isma’eel’s mother and matriarch of the Arab people. However, it is Hajar’s relationship with God that is the most compelling. From her, we learn tawakkul (trust in Allah), sabr (patience) and taqwa (God-consciousness).
Sixth: as millions of pilgrims run or walk between the points that symbolise As-Safa and Al-Marwa, they pay homage to Hajar, who has become an indestructible emblem not only of a mother’s love for her offspring but of a true believer’s faith in the mercy and compassion of Allah SWT.
Notably, while Judaeo-Christian traditions have marginalised Hajar, in contrast, the Islamic tradition elevates her from liminality to inclusion. Hajar becomes an insider, she is given a home in the hadith and the Islamic exegesis, in the association between her story and the Kaabah in Makkah and the rites of Hajj.
Finally, Hajar is associated with the idea of hijrah, or going into exile for the sake of Allah SWT. Her initial abandonment provides the context for the rebirth of the covenant of Touheed (monotheism). Her promise finds fulfilment not in exile but as a hijra, an emigration from a place of despair to one of success that will foreshadow the hijra of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).
This is the transformative design of the Islamic tradition. If we reflect on Hajar’s story and on her life, we will begin to understand notions of surrendering to the will of Allah, recognising that each of our lives has purpose, that trials and tribulations are reminders to detach ourselves from this world, and to surrender only to Allah and His decree.
Professor Nuraan Davids is Chairperson in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University. Her research interests also include democratic citizenship education, values and ethics in education and educational leadership.
Featured image: Muslim pilgrims run or walk between the points that symbolise As-Safa and Al-Marwa, as they pay homage to Hajar, who has become an indestructible emblem not only of a mother’s love for her offspring but of a true believer’s faith in the mercy and compassion of Allah SWT. (Photo MAWARDI BAHAR/ 123RF.COM)