Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hagar's Rite

WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world.  As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.

The only sounds breaking the silence were of their feet grinding against the rough sand, an occasional gurgle from the baby at her breast, and the faint tinkling of her leisso. As her husband led them deep into the Paran wilderness, she removed her girdle -- a colourful, woven cloth secured tightly to support her core as she recovered from the birth of her son. But tied loosely around her waist, dragging behind her, the leisso's decorative beads bounced and chimed against the ground, covering their footprints. "If that barren woman wants me out of her home, then I'm surely not showing her where we've gone."

After some time crossing a plain between two rocky hills, her husband stopped near a gathering of shrubbery and a lonely sarha tree. He unloaded a sack of dates from his back and untied her leather skin water jug from his waist. He set them down neatly at the tree's base and turned to kiss her forehead. Before she could say anything he walked away.

At first she thought he was going to go meditate and wanted her to rest. So she removed the baby from his sling and held him while she sat down on the rough ground, took a sip of water and surveyed her surroundings. A tree. The two rocky hills. No people. No settlements. Nothing. There was nothing here.

The nothing stretched out in every direction meeting the horizon wherever she looked. In the distance two dust devils danced in a light wind -- their dance made languid by shimmering heat waves rising from the ground. The oppressive silence surrounded her. Panic settled in when she glanced back at her husband disappearing in the distance and realized he was walking home. She untied the leisso and made a quick nest for the baby.

Running after her husband she shouted frantically, "where are you going? There is nothing in this forsaken valley! Stop!" Then, as realization of her situation set in, "To whom are you leaving us?" He slowed, and then stopped. His shoulders were slumped as if in pain. When he turned his head to reply, she thought she heard his voice break. "To God."Days later she still had not seen another person. No caravan would pass through here. No lizards or scorpions. There wasn't even a bird of prey. And no one would witness their passing. The water was gone and her milk was dry. There was some respite beneath the shade of the tree, but her baby had long since stopped fussing at her breast. He no longer hit her chest or jiggled the breast trying to shake free one more drop. He only lay on the ground quietly mewling.

And she was growing delirious. Despite her resolve to survive and her strong will, there was a constant gnawing terror threatening to consume her. Were they sent here to die? Out of jealousy? As a test? Her thoughts turned to memory and she smiled remembering friends and family. Of how the tyrant freed her from slavery and gave her away as a maidservant. Of having tender nights with her husband after he turned to her when it was shown that his first wife was barren.

The baby's mewling turned into a sudden shriek and he tossed and turned on the ground, his arms shaking, shivering and his legs kicking, pounding. "My baby is dying." And the terror engulfed her.

Desperate for water, for any sign of life, the woman ran to the hills and searched wildly. She climbed up, slipping and stumbling, cutting her hands and knees on the sharp rocks. From the top she could still only see the vast nothingness of the desert. Again and again she ran between the hills, pleading in her heart for a sign, a miracle. Four times. Five times. She checked on the baby. More terror. Six times. Seven times. "Oh God, save us!"

Then, with burning lungs she stopped at the top of the second hill. Dots floated in front of her eyes as she caught her breath. She looked down at her baby. She saw something. A flash of light. Someone? Something was leaning over her baby and striking the ground. She ran back down to the valley shouting incoherently -- but as she got closer, the apparition vanished. Out of the ground next to the baby's feet flowed fresh water.


The first thing that comes to mind when people think of the Hajj, is of a million Muslims circumambulating the black structure housed in the Haram Mosque in Mecca. This Sunday more than two million Muslims will participate in the annual Hajj pilgrimage -- and reenact Hagar's desperate search for water in the desert by running back and forth between the two hills, al-Safa and al-Marwah.

This is the only prescribed religious rite in Islam performed to commemorate a woman.

The Hajj is a momentous five or six day religious duty requiring pilgrims to eschew all earthly possessions, status and ethnicity and wear two simple white sheets, vow to not argue or harm any living creature (including insects), abstain from sexual relations, and enter into a series of symbolic rites intended to illustrate one's total submission to God.

Some of the rites include visiting the Ka'bah, metaphorically stoning the devil, and slaughtering an animal in commemoration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son.

While every Muslim is aware that the second rite of the pilgrimage honours Hagar's struggle and sacrifice, I wonder just how many truly reflect on the impact that she had on Islam (if indeed you believe in the stories of these ancient characters and in miracles).

Once the water gushed from the ground, she took the fresh mud and fashioned a lip to the well, securing the water source. Only after the well was established did she drink from it and then nurse her son. Without her foresight and ingenuity, the water would have spilled over the land and the water source lost.

A few days later a passing caravan came to investigate the appearance of birds circling in the wasteland. They found a single woman and her baby next to the well, but instead of taking the well by force, Hagar's strong nature and good character humbled the people and they asked her permission to stay. She was a slave, a second wife, kicked out of her home by her best friend, abandoned by her husband and survived alone in the desert. This was not a woman to mess with.

Eventually, she became a matriarch of this new settlement and under her guidance the oasis grew. About 13 years later, Abraham returned to find the valley prospering and together with the now youthful Ishmael, they built the Ka'bah. Mecca grew in this valley out of the desperation, ingenuity, hard work and strength of one woman. The one woman who is only mentioned in passing in the Qur'an, but who should be revered as the ultimate symbol of motherhood and female empowerment.

Normally the story of Hagar, in relation to the Hajj, is often told from the viewpoint that Abraham left them with provisions and supplicated to God for their protection.  Religious sources never mention that the water miracle was due to Abraham's prayer. It's always due to Hagar's efforts and pure trust in her creator.  And yet, as a symbol of feminine strength, Hagar is often overlooked. And even though it was the Prophet who reverently and respectfully decided to include Hagar's rite in the Hajj, it's his wives who get more play as prime examples of Muslim feminists.

Unfortunately, the matriarchal significance, the sheer magnitude of what she faced in the desert and what she overcame in her lifetime is lost in favour of the patriarchal rites of the Hajj.  So why is her Hajj rite consistently downplayed?

The glaring reason of course is that things are never equal between the sexes when it comes to religion. And it comes as no surprise that the founder of the now sacred well of Zam-Zam is only remembered once a year. Another reason is that the Hajj is very personal. You don't perform the Hajj in memory of religious inheritance. A pilgrim is stripped of everything and must answer the divine call. The motions and historic names are only symbolic. And a lesser reason is that while the Hajj cannot be completed without running in-between the two hills (now conveniently housed within the very large mosque), it is difficult to channel desperation, terror and matriarchal strength with air conditioning, lights and TV monitors, marble flooring and an accessible fast-lane.

So as this Hajj season approaches and you see articles on how Hajj reduces your carbon footprint, travelblogs by journalists "speed walking between the hills," or the latest in Hajj health measures, keep an eye out for how many people actually acknowledge Hagar and her legacy.

Perhaps it's because I'm a new mother that I'm suddenly identifying with her -- but there is something to be said about a single mother who conjures up a miracle to provide for herself and her son, who works hard to maintain her assets, and who turns a wasteland desert into, well, a Mecca.

The above story is for illustration purposes only and are based upon Hagar's story in the Islamic tradition, which can be found in the Hadith Traditions of Bukhari 4.583-4