For six years I took several 14-passenger busloads of girls from my religion class to visit a mosque – The Islamic Center in Washington, DC. If time allowed after the always wonderful conversation with Sheikh Abbas we would allow the girls time in the Center’s gift shop. In the gift shop there are bottles of something called Zamzam Water. This water purports to be from the well that God/Allah revealed to Hagar when she and her son Ishmael were in danger of dying from thirst (Genesis 21:8-21). Legend says that Hagar ran between two hills seven times before coming upon the well that saved her life and that of Ishmael who is recognized in the Quran as having assisted his father Abraham in establishing the first monotheistic worship site, the Kaaba, in what is today Mecca, the religious and geographical center of Islam. Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael are revered as ancestors of the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.
Thus the importance of reading these stories in Genesis. Hagar is believed to have been acquired as a maidservant to Sarah while she and Abraham were in Egypt to escape a famine in the land of Canaan. We may recall (Genesis 12) that Abraham had Sarah pretend to be his sister, not his wife, “so that it may go well with me.” Indeed, Pharaoh himself takes Sarah as his wife and it goes well with Abraham who acquires sheep, oxen, donkeys, and male and female slaves from Pharaoh. The Lord is not happy with the ruse, however, and brings plagues upon the land of Egypt until Pharaoh also discovers the ruse and sends Abraham and Sarah and “all that he had” out of Egypt. Hagar is believed to be among the servants.
As Sarah has so far not conceived a child let alone a male heir for Abraham, it is she who suggests that Abraham take Hagar as a second wife, which he does and Hagar becomes pregnant. (Genesis 16) At this point Hagar begins to “look with contempt” upon her mistress who in turn treats Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away and is resting by a well when an angel of the Lord appears to her commanding her to return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel of the Lord commands Hagar to name the child Ishmael, or God Hears because “the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” The angel further announces that the offspring of Ishmael shall be numerous beyond measure, the same promise made to Sarah and Abraham! Hagar, we are told, submits to the Lord’s instructions (which is a root meaning of the word Islam – submission to God), returns and bears a son and names him Ishmael as the Angel of the Lord had commanded.
Abraham’s first son grows up and is among those males both slave and free who are commanded by the Lord to be circumcised as people of the covenant. Abraham is 99 and Ishmael is 13. A year later Sarah is promised a son, and despite the hilarious impossibility of it all, Isaac is born – Laughter, or He Who Laughs! Sarah sees the now teenage Ishmael “playing with” or “mocking” her now toddler son Isaac. She orders Abraham to dismiss them both. Abraham is distressed “because of his son,” but the Lord commands him to “do whatever Sarah tells you to do,” good advice for all husbands always and everywhere!
Abraham gives them some bread and a skin of water and sends her away. She and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, but soon the water is gone and the boy becomes faint. Hagar lies him beneath a bush and goes off at a distance so as “not to look on the death of the child. She lifted up her voice and wept.” Yet, God hears the voice of the boy and an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar saying, “What troubles you? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand for I will make a great nation of him.” And as God opens her eyes she sees a well nearby, fills the skin, and gives the boy a drink from the Zamzam well. He goes on to be lauded in pre-Islamic poetry and is, nearly 2,500 years later, mentioned ten times in the Quran as revealed to the prophet Muhammed, pbuh.
Hagar, as Jewish sages picture her, was a woman of humility and piety. Indeed, few others were privileged to have an angel of the Lord speak to them twice, and produce miracles for them! She is a woman of strength and perseverance. She is obedient and submits unto the Lord.
Unfortunately, she does not fare as well in Christian literature. Saint Paul in his letter to the Galatians chapter 4 draws an odd allegory depicting the children of Hagar as “children of the flesh” and slaves unto the Law given at Sinai, while Sarah is depicted as having children of “the promise” who serve not in Jerusalem under the law, but in the “heavenly Jerusalem…now you, my friends, are children of the promise like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also.” Ishmael’s “playing” with his little half-brother is characterized by Paul as “persecution.”
Such theologizing is only compounded and made worse by Saint Augustine who depicts Hagar as mother of the Earthly City of Sin, and the medieval scholar and reformer John Wycliffe who declares that the children of Sarah are redeemed, those of Hagar are unredeemed, “carnal by nature and mere exiles.” One can readily see that such characterizations of a woman who faithfully submitted to the will of the God of Abraham can be read by Muslims as at the least unhelpful, and realistically problematic and blasphemous in today’s world.
It is interesting to note that although neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned in the Quran, Islam is largely a religion of practices, not philosophical ideas, and that to this day during the Hajj (one of the five pillars of Islam), pilgrims still run back and forth between two hills outside Mecca to recall Hagar’s attempts to save her son, and the miracle of discovery of the Zamzam well that ultimately revives Ishmael and saves the patriarch of an important religious tradition. And, as the Biblical texts in Genesis proclaim, Ishmael has become a great nation of people devoted to the One God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Muhammed.
A lot of ink is spilled with little close investigation or analysis over things in the Quran that are easily misunderstood out of context – the context of the poetry itself, and the context of the culture in which it arose. It is safe to say the same is true of our Bible. Few of us have ever spent much time reflecting on these stories. Yet, we live in a daily world of generalizations like “the West,” “the Islamic World,” “the War on Terror” and other fictions and lazy catchall phrases that are the fodder for headline writers and zealots. The truth is always more nuanced and tied to context – context that is often stated in poetry, allegory and metaphor.
It is no wonder that when Pilate asks the soon to be crucified Jesus, “What is truth?” that Jesus has nothing to say. What can be said to the Pilates of this world who want to see all of life in black and white when we live in a world of a thousand shades of gray? How ironic it is that the stories in our Bible ought to make us more understanding of Muslim faith, history and culture. It is, in fact, subsequent theological metaphors in Christian tradition that ought to be seen in part as the source of our own misconceptions of the world’s fastest growing religious tradition. Islam is not the problem. Not knowing our own stories is.