In this article I want to discuss the life of Hajar, peace be upon her, and what her life story means to me as a Muslim woman also of African heritage. Then I want to focus on what Hagar means to African American women as interpreted by womanist theologians, and ask what Muslim women learn from them.
Reflecting on Hajar (peace be upon her), her name says it all: migrant, foreigner, refugee, one who migrated (i.e. made hijra) for God twice; once when she joined Abraham and Sarah to become Sarah’s handmaid and disciple in tawhid (monotheism), and secondly when she and Ismail went into the wilderness of Bekka (i.e. later known as Makkah) and were left there by Abraham by the command of God to establish tawhid in that barren wasteland. The one who brought life to the barren household of the patriarch Abraham was the same woman who gave life and spiritual awakening to the barren desert in the valley of Bekka and chose God instead of spiritual meltdown. There was no life there in that valley, no creature to turn to for comfort or companionship. The desert is a cruel place but Hajar being who she was accepted the challenge with faith and trust in God, in spite of the fact that on the surface it seemed like a suicide mission. The first rule of the desert is to travel in kinship groups or to seek protection with one. Desert hospitality is essential to survival there, so when Abraham left her and Ismail in Bekka alone even he was distraught enough to plea with God, out of her view, straight after he left them there[ii].
Consequently, Hajar is a key player in the story of tawhid and the birth of Islam, and yet Muslims barely know anything about her from our religious teachings and our upbringing. One version of who she is in Islamic teachings is she originated from a royal family in Egypt and was gifted to Abraham and Sarah by her father the King, and yet in my view, Muslims and Islamic scholarship do not give her the credit or status she is clearly due. Instead, the main focus of the hajj story is on the sacrifice of Ismail by Abraham, but what about Hajar’s massive sacrifice to accept God’s mission that Abraham leave her and their only child, his first born son and heir, in the blazing desert heat homeless, penniless and facing certain death? It was her prayer and conviction that caused the zamzam to appear and saved her and her baby’s lives. Her faith got her through the worst scenario she probably ever had to face as a woman; watching her baby boy die right in front of her and being helpless to do anything about it. Yet was she apathetic? On the contrary, her faith did not falter, and she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa in the valley of Bekka hoping and praying for help and for life. She had agency. She had a choice to do something. So if we give her due credit, without Hajar there would be no zamzam, no Kaba, no Makkah, no Quraysh, no Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). It’s that simple.
Muslim women today are not encouraged to run between Safa and Marwa and men are encouraged during the pilgrimage. This is an insult to her memory and to the rights of Muslim women to commemorate her actions and celebrate her agency. Her flight (sa’y) was an act of faith, not fitna (sin), an act of desperation in fight/flight mode where she actually chose to do something instead of freeze or faint and dehydrate watching her baby die.
Now the next question I would ask is, why do Muslims have such a problem with giving her credit as a Black female believer and founder of Makkah and her contribution to the hajj rites? Is there cognitive dissonance between these facts which are widely known in the Qur’an and ahadith[iii], and how we have been taught our religion? Why can we not accept that a black believing woman of royal lineage and a former handmaid could be such a pioneer in tawhid? Why is she not recognised as the Prophet’s grandmother enough in Muslim scholarship? Although the ahadith of the Prophet venerate Hajar’s life and contributions, Muslim scholarship does not.
Whereas Christianity and Judaism see Hagar’s life as a side story to that of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, African-American Christian women, and subsequently black feminists and womanist theologians, place huge importance on Hagar for her strength and intelligence. I think the reason why Hajar is erased from Muslim scholarship and subsequently Islamic education is perhaps due to her being a woman and being black. Our Islamic history has been whitewashed and black figures have been erased or disparaged. We do not often hear stories of black Muslims from the early days of Islam, and the fact that early Prophets and believers were generally brown or black people. We just get the token story about Baraka or Bilal, Allah be pleased with them both. I think our Islamic history has been Arabized and whitened to make some Muslims appear more superior over others, and perhaps this is a hangover from slavery, colonialism and post-colonialism where the perpetrator needs to justify the subjugation or marginalisation of others by creating a myth of superiority.
Thus over time the subjugated learn to accept this myth of superiority and align themselves with the perpetrator to gain approval and some self worth, whilst at the same time valuing whiteness/Arabness, and all the privileges that come with it, over their own colour and identity. An example of this is the sharif system where Muslims from diverse ethnicities worldwide claim religious scholarly and genealogical ties to the Prophet’s family or those of his companions, thus gaining honorary “Arab” status even if they are not ethnically so.
Now we turn to how Hagar is seen in African-American culture. Womanist theology started in America and was born out of black feminism and the dissatisfaction with how black liberation theology and white feminism did not represent them. Womanists believe black liberation theology, although it teaches the Bible from the perspective of poor black people, does not represent their concerns enough as women because it is patriarchal. Womanists believe that white feminism is predominately interested in fighting the sexism faced by the (middle class) white female in patriarchal society, and not the struggle against racism and classism faced by poor women of colour[iv]. Womanist theology claims that when the concerns of poor women of colour are taken seriously, then the subsequent beneficial effects will be felt by all.
Womanist theologian Delores S. Williams in her seminal book, Sisters in the Wilderness :The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk [v], explains how Hagar’s position as a female black slave in the household of Abram and Sarai, and her low class make her vulnerable and at risk of becoming exploited as Sarai’s personal handmaid and surrogate mother for her and Abram. Williams equates this surrogacy with the surrogacy within the enslavement of Afro-Americans to bear children that would not be theirs and sold as commodities, and to act as the wife of the slave-master in sexual relations. Williams argues that just as Hagar gave birth to an heir for Abram who was apparently adopted by Sarai as was custom, but later rejected, Afro-American slave women gave birth to multiple children without raising them as their own. She proposes that just as God helped Hagar in the wilderness with her baby defeat death, God helped African-American women “make a way out of no way”[vi] during slavery and thereafter and survive, sometimes even with their children , the plight of living in white supremacist America. Thus, Afro-American women see Hagar as a source of strength and her story as one reflected in their own lives.
This is difficult to hear, coming from our womanist Christian sisters, but essential to listen to in order to understand how they interpret Hagar’s story to sustain and nourish them, and to give them the courage “to make a way out of no way” through womanist theology to challenge white supremacy and structural racism, sexism in the black church and racism and classism in the feminist movement. This combination of discrimination composed of racism, sexism and classism and other forms is what is now popularly known as intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw termed it this way in the late 80s, but black feminists such as Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks were already analysing discrimination in multi-layered ways from the perspective of working class women of colour in the 70s and 80s. I think Muslim women can learn so much from womanist theologians, since they also experience structural racism, patriarchal interpretations of Islamic law and theology that neither serve nor represent them or society at large. Muslim women also find it difficult to relate to white feminism, since it does not address the intersectional discrimination they encounter.
Consequently, could Muslim female theologians create a Muslim women’s liberation theology, as womanists have for African-American women, to serve Muslim women and overcome injustices they face daily and throughout their lives? By serving Muslim women in this way, could they establish a more just society for all? Islamic feminists, academics, writers, activists and Muslim female theologians have started to do this work and this gives me hope.
For Muslim women and Islamic feminists, Hajar’s story shows how she had agency in the most challenging moments of her life to choose God and accept the mission to establish Islam in Arabia and continue the legacy of monotheism. For black feminists and womanist theologians, Hagar’s story is one of intersectional discrimination and how she survived them, giving them the spiritual symbolism for how to survive in the wilderness of white supremacist America to this day. God-conscious Muslim and Christian women (and men!) can be strengthened by the life and trials of Hajar/Hagar. They can use their faith, creativity and courage by engaging with the wilderness of a troubled world in spite of the impossible obstacles they face, and survive the brutality of injustices and establish a more just world.
[i] This article conveys the views and opinions of the author alone and is adapted from a speech originally delivered at the event From the Desert to the Metropolis: The Story of Hajar/Black Muslim Women Speak Out, 14th October 2017, London, as part of Black History Month. The Muslim College, Ealing, kindly provided the venue.
[ii] Qur’an, Surat Ibrahim: Chapter 14:37.
[iii] Sayings and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
[iv] Thomas, Linda E., Womanist Theology, Epistemology, and a New Anthropological Paradigm, http://www.crosscurrents.org/thomas.htm, sourced online, 17/09/17.
[v] Williams, Delores S., 2013, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Orbis Books, New York.
[vi] Williams borrows this phrase from African-American writer, activist, womanist and academic Alice Walker whom she quotes saying, It is significant that Alice Walker dedicates her book ‘The Third life of Grange Copeland’ to her mother (an ordinary black woman) who, Walker claims, “made a way out of no way”. (Williams, 2013:213).
Zahrah is a Muslim feminist currently writing her memoir on womanhood and faith. She is a founding member of Still I Rise, a new feminist women's collective. She teaches yoga and meditation in her community and at UCLH NHS Foundation Trust where she also works as a chaplain. Zahrah is also a full-time mother of four children.