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My Muslim Ancestor Hagar

Everyone knows Hagar was Sarah’s maid who was made available to Abraham and then sent away with her son into the wilderness. . . a very modern story of class exploitation, sexual abuse, and the oppression of a vulnerable woman by her male-identified female boss. This, however, is a secular reductionist view of Hagar’s story. The story of Hagar is best told through her eyes. I am going to retell it here, looking back to what I consider part of my own history.

Hagar is my ancestral grandmother. In a family whose family tree goes back more than a thousand years, I know the name of every male ancestor I ever had, and often something about his life story. I do not know the names of my female ancestors, other than my immediate grandmothers. Fihmiyah and Azizah (my maternal grandmother who gave me her name), and a handful of historically outstanding women, such as Khadijah, Fatimah and Sukainah. For this reason, Hagar is very important to me. She is the mother of my whole family, the mother of my mostly unknown mothers.

The Qur’an does not mention Hagar, but commentaries by famous Muslim historians, such as al-Tabari (9th century) and Ibn Kathir (14th century) tell us that she became the wife of Abraham and gave him his first son, Ishmael, the very son, according to these historians, that Abraham almost sacrificed in order to prove his acceptance of God’s will. (How could that son be Isaac, Muslim historians ask, if God demanded from Abraham that he sacrifice his only son?)

I left Lebanon for the United States in the 1960s to continue my higher education. A few years later, I was invited to be a panelist at a conference on religion and feminism. In those days, Muslim presence at feminist conferences was negligible. During that conference I discovered that Hagar was not an honored figure in this culture. The shocking discovery took place when a Christian panelist critiqued the negative images attached by patriarchy to certain biblical women. As the panelist detailed the negative image of Hagar, the audience was nodding in recognition. I was astounded. Hagar? Was she not the righteous wife of Abraham?

I came across the negative image again on various occasions in academic circles. In some conversations, I detected classist snobbery. She was Sarah’s maid, I was told, who was later banished by Sarah. In others I detected a classist defense. She was an Egyptian princess given by the Pharaoh to Abraham. It then occurred to me that I never had a conversation about Hagar with other Muslims. So, I turned to Islamic history books. There they were, the same two classist stereotypes, the maid/slave and the free woman/princess. I found the same in Hebrew sources.

I really do not care whether Hagar was Sarah’s maid or an Egyptian princess or both. Emotionally and historically she is my foremother, and I am concerned not about class status but about her being uprooted from her homeland Egypt and given by order of the Pharaoh to Abraham. What kind of a heart-wrenching experience is that, I ask myself. Did she cry herself to sleep every night in a foreign land with no friends, the way I did when I first came to this country? How did she feel when all her social privileges were suddenly stripped away and she was reduced to waiting on another, her liberty denied, her hopes smothered, her life appropriated? If this is her whole story what lessons must I take from it? Is this displacement—billed as a transaction between Abraham and the Pharaoh—the only legacy I receive from Hagar?

Abraham himself was an exalted prophet who discovered God’s truth on his own and paid dearly for his discovery by leaving his people. Could it be that Hagar, like Abraham, did not fit among her own people? That she liked the truth that Abraham was teaching? That she convinced the Pharaoh to let her go, in order to follow Abraham’s God? Ibn Kathir’s account allows for that possibility. He simply says that she was an Egyptian Copt who accompanied Abraham and his people upon their return from Egypt. Am I overreaching in reconstructing the story of my ancestor in a less patriarchal way, by picturing Hagar as instrumental in shaping her own life?

Consider also this. According to various sources, including the Tafsir of al-Tabari and Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah of Ibn Kathir, when Abraham took Hagar away Ishmael was still a nursing baby. Abraham travelled with them until he reached a barren land, then he prepared to leave them there. Alarmed, Hagar asked her husband repeatedly: “O Abraham, where are you going, leaving us in this valley which has no humans, nothing?” Each time, Abraham avoided looking at her. Finally, Hagar asked: “Did God order you to do this?” Abraham said: “Yes.” Hagar answered: “Then God will not abandon us.” Abraham left, and as soon as his family could no longer see him, he raised his hands to God in a prayer mentioned in the Qur’an (14:37). He said: “O God, I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by your Sacred House, in order O God that they may establish regular prayer. So fill the hearts of some people with love towards them and feed them of fruits, so that they may give thanks.”

The sun got hotter and the baby and Hagar got thirstier. Finally, Hagar’s milk dried up. Like a loving mother she agonized looking at her baby suffer. But she was an active woman, a solution-oriented woman. So she ran around looking for food and water. Seven times, in the heat of the desert, did she run up and down between two hills looking for a solution, asking God for one. None was in sight. And the baby cried. Imagine that moment. Close your eyes and feel the heat, the tears, the infant’s suffering. Then Ishmael kicked the ground with his two little feet (some say an angel hearing Ishmael cry touched the ground with his wing) and a spring of water burst under them. They drank, they survived, as God had promised.

To this day, Muslims on pilgrimage in Mecca relive Hagar’s ordeal. Male and female they repeat Hagar’s seven trips between the two hills of Safa and Marwah. When done, they drink from Zamzam, the spring that little Ishmael’s foot set free. They also circle the Ka’bah, the first house of God built on this earth by Abraham and Ishmael.

And what about Sarah? If Hagar was willing to be abandoned for the sake of God, is it too much to believe that Sarah too was an active participant in this righteous family and did her own share of submitting to God’s will? Can we also acquit her of the sins of jealousy and vengeance that the Abrahamic traditions have long attached to her because of how she is described as having treated Hagar? After all, we know that she was a righteous woman. She was not only Abraham’s wife, she shared his beliefs. So, how could this good woman be guilty of jealousy and injustice?

Of course a traditional male theologian will quickly answer that regardless of her virtues, a woman is jealous by nature, and Sarah (despite her righteousness) is no exception to the rule. This patriarchal response suffocates me. There is nothing in the Qur’an to bind me to this view. I’d rather think that in a family of righteous people, Sarah is no exception. The separation of the brothers Ishmael and Isaac was God’s will. It gave rise to two different lines of Abraham, both blessed, one mostly from within his tribe, the other from the very start so ethnically diverse as to bring his message to the world as a whole. This is God’s wisdom still unfolding. Why not just accept it, rather than impose our stereotypes on it? After all, the Qur’an (16:74) does tell us that God knows what we do not know.


The Opinion of Hagar

by Alicia Suskin Ostriker

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the
Egyptian, which she had born unto
Abraham, mocking. Wherefore she said
unto Abraham, Cast out this
bondwoman and
her son: for the son of this bondwoman
shall not be
heir with my son, even Isaac.  -[Genesis 21:9-10]

I have no opinion

I am an Egyptian woman

They sold me and made me her slave

Like everyone else I was in love

With her beauty

She pretended to care for me

Forget about our nationalities, forget

About social rank, she would say

We are women together

That is what matters, Hagar. . .


Female Genital Mutilation: Was Hagar the First? 

by Azizah Y. Al-Hibri

Some Islamic sources tell us that Sarah became very jealous of Hagar because of her youth and her fertility, and decided to disfigure her in order to make her less feminine. That is how, we are told, female circumcision originated—as an act of aggression by one woman against another.

At this point, I take a deep breath. I feel myself drowning in an ocean of patriarchal nonsense. The Qur’an, which briefly refers to Sarah, does not present a negative image of her. Furthermore, many of the same historians who accused her of being a jealous woman gone out of control also point out that Sarah was not only extremely beautiful but righteous as well. In fact, according to Ibn Kathir, some Muslim scholars attributed the status of “prophet” to Sarah, one of only three women so designated. So why should it be imagined that Sarah would commit such an act?

The commentaries suggest that, although both Sarah and Hagar were good women, women are jealous by nature and so Sarah disfigured Hagar. When this myth is recounted, genital mutilation is always judged as a horrendous deed, the result of one otherwise good woman’s jealousy of another. So when some Muslim men argue today that genital mutilation is desirable, I wonder if they would also argue that Sarah did a service to Hagar!