Broken hopes

I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dalia Mogahed in London last week. Ms Mogahed is a public figure in the United States: she is Director of Research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and the author/presenter of the TED talk ‘What it’s like to be Muslim in America’. She is also a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman, and noted for many right reasons – her vocal, and often brave stand for a correct narrative about Islam and Muslim women, often directly challenging rabid US media obsession with vilifying Islam through a skewed and often fabricated narrative – and some wrong reasons – she is a strong, educated Muslim woman in a time of a decidedly intolerant US administration and its supporters, and some people aren’t comfortable with that.

She gave a talk to hundreds of women last week about themes in the Quran which inspire her. What she spoke about was simple but profound, and it stayed with me; in fact, I have found myself actively using them since then. I wanted to share a couple of my favourite things here over the next couple of blog posts – my version of paying it forward 🙂 The words are my own, but the inspiration came from this wonderful talk by Ms Mogahed.


Islam makes mention of various women as examples to all believers. They are held up as exemplars of faith and courage: in the Qur’an, Maryam (AS), mother of Jesus (AS), is an example, as is the Pharoah’s wife.

Hajra¹ (AS) wife of the Prophet Ibrahim (AS) is also used as an exemplar of faith, and although she is not mentioned in the Qur’an, her story is told in detail in the Islamic Hadith². The legacy of her story and faith is so powerful that it is remembered today by Muslims in a physical act which forms one of the core components of Hajj or Umrah when visiting Mecca.
We are told that Ibrahim (AS) brings Hajra and her young son, Ishmael, to the middle of the desert and leaves her there at God’s Command – and that is all he can tell her. So if you place yourself in Hajra’s shoes, you are a woman with a young child, and your husband brings you to an isolated spot in the desert, leaves you with some dates and a water skin, and starts walking away. What do you do? Hajra follows Ibrahim (AS) and calls out to him: “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)?” He does not reply, but keeps on walking. She asks him many times, but still he does not reply. Then she asks him: ‘“Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.”‘

What does she say then?

‘She said, “Then He will not neglect us,”‘

She does not panic, she does not get distressed, she doesn’t beg Ibrahim (AS) to stay, or get angry with him. She submits herself entirely to God’s Will. If He has commanded this, she knows she is in His Care.

Hajra runs out of water for Ishmael, and, tormented by the sight of her dehydrated son, she decides to go and look for water. She does not want to be away from him for too long, so she runs to the top of the nearest hill – Safa – and then back down the valley (to him) and then across to the top of another hill – Marwa. She makes this journey seven times, running between Safa and Marwa in the search for water. Each journey is one of hope in God, that He will provide some relief for her and her son. It is on the seventh journey that her prayer is answered: an angel appears and strikes the ground, from where water starts flowing.

It is one thing to have hope in God, and hold on to it firmly until your prayers are answered. It is another, deeper level of faith to have your initial hope broken – Hajra initially runs from one hill to another in the hope that God would answer her prayer, but she finds no water or relief – but to still believe in God’s saving Grace, and hold on to faith as firmly as you did when your hope was intact. Hajra’s prayer was not answered on her first circuit between the two hills, nor the second, nor even the third, but the seventh – the seventh! Nevertheless, she ran with the same pace and determination in the seventh circuit as she did the first, because her faith in God did not waver. As she said to Abraham (AS) as he walked away, she knew God would not neglect her and Ishmael, and so even when her hope was broken her faith was not.

This is such a relatable lesson, because I doubt many people have not had their hopes broken at one point or another. I also suppose that many people have turned to God for help and comfort, and not found it as and when they expected it, and so have felt disappointed or abandoned. I have. To hear the story of Hajra (AS) and the example of her faith was a powerful reminder to me of the value of constant faith, one that trusts wholly in God and supersedes the human doubt which can creep in and weaken you. It also reminded me that hope and faith are not synonymous: the former can wax and wane, rise and fall with circumstances or our own state of mind, but the latter can be steady, iron-cast and true, because it is not about us, but about God.

On a personal note, I thought also of my mother, and I could see her in Hajra (AS): her selfless devotion to her children, and her relentless faith in God, which has always encouraged her to persevere. Hajra’s story honours the power of faith, and also maternal love, which in its very essence is second only to divine love from God to His Creation.

Hajra’s act of faith in God, and also maternal love, is commemorated by the sai, a core act of Islamic pilgrimage in Makkah, where Muslims run between points that symbolise Safa and Marwa. In doing so, they pay homage to Hajra (AS), who has become ‘an indestructible emblem not only of a mother’s love for her offspring but of a true believer’s faith in the saving power of God.’³


¹In the Bible, Abraham had two wives, or rather, a wife – Sarah – and a concubine, Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden offered by Sarah to Abraham so that they could conceive a child (Ishmael) (Genesis 16). The Biblical narrative also tells us that Hagar was cast out by Abraham with God’s permission because of Sarah’s jealousy; once cast out, she and Ishmael are left to God’s care to survive (Gen 21:9-21).
In the Islamic tradition, the Hadith (see below) tells us a different story, and moreover gives us more detail about Hagar, or Hajra.

²Sahih al-Bukhari Vol 4 Book 55 Number 583 – text below. A variant of the narrative is in Hadith Number 584.
‘Narrated by Ibn Abbas: The first lady to use a girdle was the mother of Ishmael [Hajra]. She used a girdle so that she might hide her tracks from Sarah. Abraham brought her and her son Ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka’ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishmael’s mother followed him saying, “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)?” She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, “Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then He will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka’ba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following prayers: ‘O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. So fill some hearts among men with love towards them, and (O Allah) provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ (14.37) Ishmael’s mother went on suckling Ishmael and drinking from the water (she had). When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e. Ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times.” The Prophet said, “This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, ‘O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?” And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it.” The Prophet added, “May Allah bestow Mercy on Ishmael’s mother! Had she let the Zam-zam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zam-zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth.” The Prophet further added, “Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.’ The House (i.e. Kaba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada’. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, ‘This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.’ They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water).” The Prophet added, “Ishmael’s mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, ‘Do you allow us to stay with you?” She replied, ‘Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.’ They agreed to that.” The Prophet further said, “Ishmael’s mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. Ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them. After Ishmael’s mother had died, Abraham came after Ishmael’s marriage in order to see his family that he had left before, but he did not find Ishmael there. When he asked Ishmael’s wife about him, she replied, ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Then he asked her about their way of living and their condition, and she replied, ‘We are living in misery; we are living in hardship and destitution,’ complaining to him. He said, ‘When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house).’ When Ishmael came, he seemed to have felt something unusual, so he asked his wife, ‘Has anyone visited you?’ She replied, ‘Yes, an old man of so-and-so description came and asked me about you and I informed him, and he asked about our state of living, and I told him that we were living in a hardship and poverty.’ On that Ishmael said, ‘Did he advise you anything?’ She replied, ‘Yes, he told me to convey his salutation to you and to tell you to change the threshold of your gate.’ Ishmael said, ‘It was my father, and he has ordered me to divorce you. Go back to your family.’ So, Ishmael divorced her and married another woman from amongst them (i.e. Jurhum). Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished and called on them again but did not find Ishmael. So he came to Ishmael’s wife and asked her about Ishmael. She said, ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Abraham asked her, ‘How are you getting on?’ asking her about their sustenance and living. She replied, ‘We are prosperous and well-off (i.e. we have everything in abundance).’ Then she thanked Allah’ Abraham said, ‘What kind of food do you eat?’ She said. ‘Meat.’ He said, ‘What do you drink?’ She said, ‘Water.” He said, “O Allah! Bless their meat and water.” The Prophet added, “At that time they did not have grain, and if they had grain, he would have also invoked Allah to bless it.” The Prophet added, “If somebody has only these two things as his sustenance, his health and disposition will be badly affected, unless he lives in Mecca.” The Prophet added,” Then Abraham said Ishmael’s wife, “When your husband comes, give my regards to him and tell him that he should keep firm the threshold of his gate.’ When Ishmael came back, he asked his wife, ‘Did anyone call on you?’ She replied, ‘Yes, a good-looking old man came to me,’ so she praised him and added. ‘He asked about you, and I informed him, and he asked about our livelihood and I told him that we were in a good condition.’ Ishmael asked her, ‘Did he give you any piece of advice?’ She said, ‘Yes, he told me to give his regards to you and ordered that you should keep firm the threshold of your gate.’ On that Ishmael said, ‘It was my father, and you are the threshold (of the gate). He has ordered me to keep you with me.’ Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw Ishmael under a tree near Zamzam, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he rose up to welcome him (and they greeted each other as a father does with his son or a son does with his father). Abraham said, ‘O Ishmael! Allah has given me an order.’ Ishmael said, ‘Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.’ Abraham asked, ‘Will you help me?’ Ishmael said, ‘I will help you.’ Abraham said, Allah has ordered me to build a house here,’ pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it.” The Prophet added, “Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e. the Ka’ba). Ishmael brought the stones and Abraham was building, and when the walls became high, Ishmael brought this stone and put it for Abraham who stood over it and carried on building, while Ishmael was handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, ‘O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ The Prophet added, “Then both of them went on building and going round the Ka’ba saying: O our Lord ! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (2.127)’

³From ‘Islamic Hagar and Her Family by Riffat Hassan

Source image credit: Islamic Information Cartoons for Children


One thought on “Broken hopes

  1. Pingback: Saul, an army, and God | The Quotidian Theologian

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