Thought for the Day - Abdal Hakim Murad - 26/10/2012

Good morning.
Today sees the climax of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj. Some three million people have converged on the Great Mosque in Mecca, a vast amphitheatre which surrounds the Ka’ba, the black square building which, Muslims believe, was built by Abraham millennia ago.

Like all the basic duties of the faith, the Hajj is for women as well as men. That seems appropriate, since, Muslims believe, women as well as men were at the heart of the city’s founding story.

In particular, we like the story about Hagar, Abraham’s second spouse. She had been an Egyptian slave-girl, who bore Abraham’s first-born son. According to a tale that appears in the Book of Genesis as well as in Muslim tradition, she was sent out into the desert by Abraham’s older wife, Sarah, with the infant Ishmael.

Curious things then occur. The banishment must have seemed like a death-sentence: a teenage girl with a child, wandering alone in the desert, surely had little chance of survival. A great painting by the 19th century artist Corot shows Hagar and her child dying of thirst, the contrast between their anguish, and the peaceful majesty of the landscape, gives the image a tragic power.

In the Muslim account, the young mother runs desperately between two small hills, looking for any sign of water. And then, by a miracle, water bubbles up beneath the feet of the child. They survive, and in consequence, the dry valley becomes known and visited by the desert tribes, and as the years go by, the city of Mecca is born, the Hajj begins, and her son Ishmael becomes the ancestor of the Arab people. Ishmael’s well continues to flow copiously to this day.

This symbolic story is interpreted by Muslims as a sign of the value of trust in Divine providence, even in an apparently hopeless situation. But the lesson goes further than that. Hagar seems to be an improbable matriarch by conventional standards. She is not even from Abraham’s tribal lands – she comes from Egypt, which they had traditionally viewed as hostile territory. Of slave origin, she has no family to support her.

So the matriarch of Islam, whose grave is beside the Ka’ba itself, at the very heart of the pilgrimage, is something of a surprise. She’s ethnically from a rival place. She’s a single mother. She’s alone. And yet, from such apparent vulnerability, God brings a whole new people, and ultimately, the vast family of Islam, and the Hajj itself, in which one of the great rituals commemorates her search for water.

So the moral is not just: never say die. The founding story of Islam is saying: don’t underestimate what God can do through society’s outcasts: the homeless, the single mother, the ethnically marginal. Here, as so often, an ancient story bears a truly timeless force.

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