Friday, December 21, 2007

Remembering Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael

From the Daily Journal in Illinois

By Kristin Szremski

Muslims performing the hajj this week do so remembering Abraham; the sacrifice God called upon him to make; and a woman, who is considered to have "laid the first brick" in the creation of the Islamic community, albeit more than 2,500 years before the birth of Muhammad.

More than 2 million pilgrims are in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, this week performing a variety of rituals that will culminate in circling the Kaaba, which the Qur'an describes as the "first house of worship appointed for mankind" and that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael.

The hajj and Eid (holiday) after it celebrate the sacrifices of Abraham, his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael. In remembering their stories, Muslims today hope to emulate their courage and obedience to God, said Azeem Ahmed, of Bourbonnais, an Islamic scholar who has memorized the entire Qur'an and performed the hajj twice.

The story of Hagar

According to, an Islamic reference Web site, Hagar's story goes something like this: Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless. Abraham also married the daughter of an Egyptian king, Hagar, who was Sarah's servant. Hagar bore a son named Ishmael. While the child was still an infant, Abraham told Hagar that God instructed him to take her and the baby from Palestine, where they were living, to Mecca.

At the time, Mecca was a barren place, with no water, little vegetation and no people, on the western desert plains of Arabia. Abraham brought his wife and son to this seeming no-man's-land and left them. As he walked away, Hagar ran after him asking several times, "O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?"

Abraham continued to walk, until his wife asked him, "Did God order you to do this?" After he answered in the affirmative, Hagar replied, "Then I will not be afraid."

Soon thereafter, Hagar's provisions ran out and she desperately started searching for water. She ran up two hills, Safa and Marwa, seven times, a ritual pilgrims still perform today. Finding no water, she ran back to Ishmael to see a fountain of water had sprung up under his heel. This is called the well of Zam Zam, and pilgrims today still drink from it.

Elevated status

Abraham holds a place of honor in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. His story is treated differently in the Old Testament and the Qur'an. In the biblical Old Testament, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son born to Sarah.

In the Qur'an, Hagar's status is elevated, not only physically but spiritually as well. She is used as an example of piety and unwavering faith, the wife of one prophet, Abraham, and the mother of another, Ishmael. While the 12 tribes of Israel stem from the line of Isaac, it is from Ishmael whom the messenger of Islam eventually would spring. Hagar's story is one of fortitude, determination and steadfastness.

"Islam gives her (Hagar) a great status," Ahmed said. "It shows how great a role a woman plays (in Islam). She laid the first brick of this 'umma' (Islamic community) ... the sacrifices she made for her son."


Hagar is not the only one whose sacrifice is remembered during al-Hijja, the 12th month of the lunar Islamic calendar, during which the hajj is performed. Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, and the latter's willingness to comply, also are remembered.

Saima Ashraf Mozaffar, who is a member of the American Islamic Association mosque in Frankfort, went on the hajj four years ago with her husband, Khalid. Still today, her voice fills with emotion as she remembers the experience that she said was "total bliss."

"The hajj was the most amazing experience of my life," she said. "You're in a different mindset. The whole purpose is to worship God and you do that with millions of people."

Even before embarking on the journey, the Mozaffars prepared themselves to learn life lessons from the experience.

"Re-enacting these historical events from the lives of Prophet Abraham and his family (taught us) everlasting lessons," she said.

Running up the mountains Hagar did thousands of years ago brought alive the faith she must have had to endure her ordeal.

It's a lesson Mozaffar still relies upon. When life throws its inevitable curveballs, when she's facing a struggle or a crisis, she can't help but "go back and think of Hagar." She's reminded to "be like Hagar and have faith," she said.

An essay written by Javeed Akhter, the executive director of the International Strategy and Policy Institute in Chicago, an American Muslim advocacy organization, and published on about a previous hajj experience, elaborates:

"I thought about my fellow pilgrims running between the two hills in what was once a desert, re-enacting the desperate search for water by Ishmael's mother, Hagar.

"I thought about us stoning the pillars, symbolically warding off evil, and emulating Abraham's stoning of the devil each of the three times the devil tried to stop him from fulfilling his duty to God.

"And I thought about the celebration of Eid al-Adha, 'the festival of the sacrifice,' on the last day of hajj. The holiday commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his dearest possession, his son, at God's command."

Muslims look up to and try to emulate the faith of the sacrifices of these three people, Ahmed said.

"We are meant to sacrifice," he said. "This faith is meant to sacrifice our whims, wants and our desires so we can please Allah and serve humanity. We are not here just for self-gratification ... we have a much greater purpose in life."

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