As Muslims worldwide celebrate the culmination of the Hajj pilgrimage with Eid-Al Adha, Mariam Sheikh Hakim reflects on a core ‘Sacred Feminine’ lesson contained within the pilgrimage.
This is the story of a matriarch, who was once a slave girl. Abandoned and alone with her child Ismail, both deserted in the desert. Stranded in the sterile sands, she searched for signs of life. But God is ever-present, watching, waiting and working.
This is the story of a woman who God has ensured will never be forgotten, no matter how much patriarchy we lapse into. It is the story of Haajar, of life and death itself and the Sacred Feminine within our Hajj.
There are many who may be confused with the words ‘Sacred Feminine’, thinking it’s a recent innovation with layers of politics, but you need not be afraid. God has always been empowering women equally and raising their narratives alongside men, it is the nature of the divine. It is the nature of One. Look for the signs and you will see it clearly.
The Almighty is a balance and a unification of masculine and feminine principles, wisdom, and energy. But often it’s the masculine that’s emphasised through organised religion.
Appreciating the ‘Sacred feminine’ is an answer to this problem. The Sacred Feminine is about valuing the qualities of the Divine and of the Creator that are traditionally viewed as feminine. It is also about honouring female wisdom; truth and messages that are inspired by women’s faith in God.
If we don’t reflect on these lessons from an early age it will later sabotage us all as adults – either in our self-development, in our relations with one another or as a community. We will miss out on wisdom relevant to us all because divine truth is beyond gender or at least our understanding of gender. It is us humans that have limited our own concept of God’s truth.
We all know the Hajj pilgrimage is a pillar of the Islamic faith, and the rituals involved commemorate Prophet Ibrahim. However, there is a core part of the pilgrimage that is solely about the narrative of Haajar (his second wife) and their infant son Ismail. In Ibrahim’s absence, something extraordinary took place, something pivotal to the history of all believers.
Through Haajar we honour the unique feminine experience of a mother whose faith in God was resolute while being tested. We honour her story through the ritual and ceremony of Sa’ee. As pilgrims hurry in her footsteps, they keep alive a religious expression that remembers her for eternity.
Sa’ee (search, searching, quest)
Sa’ee is the part of Hajj where pilgrims hasten between the hills of Safa and Marwa, to emulate the narrative of Haajar. According to the Quran (14:37) we learn that Prophet Ibrahim takes Haajar and their infant son Ismail into the desert as part of a resettlement plan, but the details are missing.
Other sources tell us of Haajar’s back story(1)(2). Initially, Haajar was reluctant at being left alone in the desert, but after she learns it is divine instruction she accepts and puts her trust in Allah. Once there her food and water supplies run out and Haajar desperately searches to find signs of life. It is said that she ran seven times back and forth between the two hills searching, only to return exhausted to her screaming son and miraculously find him with water trickling beside him.
“This ritual of Sa’ee is keeping Haajar’s story alive”
The water rapidly multiplied and became a spring – today known as the Zam Zam well in Makkah. This was enough to sustain Haajar and her breastfed infant till the area soon attracted inhabitants and became the thriving holy city of Makkah. Through perseverance, faith and God’s blessing Haajar and Ismail literally made the desert bloom.
“Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for mankind was that at Makkah – blessed and a guidance for the worlds.” (Quran 3:96) The importance of this city to Islam cannot be overstated. It was through Haajar that the world has come to know of Makkah, and to reinstate it as a house of worship. Therefore, it is right some state Haajar is a “a role model for every pilgrim, for everyone”(3).
Sa’ee symbolises the ongoing struggle that we encounter throughout our lives, as Haajar had experienced. Through her unwavering Tawakkul (reliance on God), her supplications were answered and her needs were met(4).
Hasten in her footsteps
One can’t imagine how alone Haajar must have felt searching while she ran between those hills.
Nevertheless, thousands of years later, millions of people now hasten in her footsteps in the exact same spot. Her moment of struggle has been immortalised, frozen in time forever through Hajj. She will never be forgotten.
Each Muslim is made to reflect on and experience Haajar’s struggle in order to complete their Hajj pilgrimage. The re-enactment of her struggle every day, every single year, even outside of the Hajj season makes it an eternal remembrance of Haajar’s courage and faith in God. Her story is an exemplary symbol of faith through testing times.
It also evidences the importance placed on ‘experience’ in the Islamic faith. With the Sa’ee, pilgrims are not merely walking a route she took, they are living her experience. They’re living a moment in time that she lived, to understand about getting closer to God.
This feminine narrative has already been marked for us as a point of religious significance through Hajj and Umrah – it is our duty to consider it further and to promote it.
The Quran states; “Indeed, as-Safa and al-Marwah are among the symbols of Allah” (2:158) Haajar’s struggle between these mounds are literally a symbol of God.
“And whoever honours the symbols of Allah – indeed, it is from the piety of hearts” (Quran 22:32)
The entire ocean in one drop
The desert is a special place in Abrahamic religions, it’s a prophetic place, of revelation, of tribulation and transformation. It is a microcosm of the barrenness and wealth of this dunya (world). It is a symbolic place, that with your faith in the universal truth of one God, the impossible can flourish.
The desert is a special place in Abrahamic religions, it’s a prophetic place, of revelation, of tribulation and transformation.
This narrative is not just about a mother’s struggle who is alone in the desert without food or water. It is clear Haajar is fulfilling an important prophecy from God. What seemed like a close encounter with death in the desert actually became the beginning of life. It is the establishment not just of the holy city of Makkah, but of a new nation and of its matriarch.
The Sa’ee recollects a pivotal moment in the narrative of Haajar – previous to this her story was about being passed from one form of bondage to another. It’s at this moment that she’s no longer the ‘slave girl’ of other humans, but is free. But freedom is always precarious, and her ordeal signifies a difficult metamorphosis. Fearless in her faith and after braving the tests of the desert she begins a new chapter as Umm Ishmael from this moment onwards. And it’s this exact moment chosen to be re-enacted for Muslims during the pilgrimage.
It has been noted in a number of narrations that Haajar repeats to Ibrahim before he left “God will not abandon us”(5). This removes her dependence on Ibrahim, and affirms her individual relationship with God. It is a statement that confirms Allah is the best of planners. It re-centres the Creator to her own narrative.
“The Islamic faith has many stories of independent, exemplary women and the story of Haajar is merely one of them”
She takes control and finds her resolve in the face of absolute uncertainty. In this crucial moment she wasn’t so much ‘cast out’ into the desert dust, but more casting off her own figurative chains as a former slave, while she affirms the only authority she answers to is God. Her words can always be used as a mantra in times of hardship and can end battles with doubt (similar to the concept of Qadar).
Asma Lamrabet calls Haajar’s declaration an example of “true submission to the creator”(6)
This is a lesson for all humanity about faith. To channel the words of a famous Persian Islamic scholar and poet, here Haajar’s struggle is not a drop in the ocean of Islam, but instead ‘the entire ocean in a drop’ (Rumi)(7).
In the moment of emulating her struggle, we are all Haajar in the barren desert searching for water, to sustain and keep alive that which we love.
This ritual of Sa’ee is keeping her story alive, and is articulating the relevance of this Sacred Feminine to every generation.
The Islamic narrative of Haajar is unmistakeably one of strong faith and liberation. Western narratives, however, have traditionally been quite unkind to Haajar. The belief has been that she was ordered to be ‘cast out’ with Ismail, both were ‘driven to the desert’, banished and expelled by Ibrahim. This was a result of Sarah’s jealousy (Ibrahim’s first wife). Genesis 21:10
The only mention of this entire narrative in the Quran is Ibrahim’s prayer as he returns: “Lord, I have settled some of my descendants in an uncultivated valley near Your sacred House, our Lord, that they may establish prayer.” (Quran 14:37)
We know, therefore, that the Islamic narrative points to this being a resettlement of Haajar and Ismail for a greater purpose, rather than just a ‘banishment’ or the result of Sarah’s sentiments.
These women are not presented in the context of their emotions – rather it is a fulfilment of divine instruction for the common good of humanity. Allah was aspiring for more for all involved and is always working behind the scenes.
The Islamic faith has many stories of independent, exemplary women and the story of Haajar is merely one of them. Their trials and triumphs are often laid bare, where their faith in God has been confirmed but also challenged and changed for the better. Yet most patriarchal societies and cultures don’t tend to reflect on these narratives as much as they should.
And so we should ask ourselves: are women reflecting enough on these narratives? Are men reflecting on these women’s narratives?
How many of us know people that have more allegiance to religious looking men that churn out sexist and misogynistic tropes, rather than to God’s own (clearly ‘feminist’) messages in the faith?
Silencing the female narrative is actually undoing God’s work; this is lapsing yet again into patriarchy and misogyny – which is a form of idolatry of men. But by remembering the power in women’s narratives we can drive out inequality and injustice.
There are life lessons to be learned here with the Sa’ee. The moral of the story is for all. Some truths must eventually force their way to the fore no matter how much they’ve been pushed to the periphery.
So please, spread word of Haajar’s story. May we too be blessed to be so firm in our faith.
“What will explain to you what the steep path is [towards righteousness]? It is the freeing of a slave” (Quran 90:12-13)
By Mariam Hakim – follow her on Twitter
1 Through Nasir al-Din al-Rabghuzi V, the famous Turkish author of Qisas al-Anbiya (Stories of the Prophets), we get to know more about Haajars story.
3 Jeroen Schilder https://ilmfeed.com/a-forgotten-ode-to-hajar-beyond-the-hajj-rituals/
5 pg. 39, Women in the Quran, Asma Lamrabet
7 Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī’s full quote:
“You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the entire ocean in a drop”