One of the five pillars of Islam is Hajj and one of its main rites center on the “striving” of Hagar, an Egyptian slave who gave birth to Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. Both Hagar and Ishmael were left alone in a desolate valley by Abraham with some dates and water. Soon, the water ran out. When her infant son was writhing with thirst, Hagar desperately began to search for water. She had asked the departing Abraham, “Has your lord instructed you to leave us here alone?” When Abraham answered affirmatively, she said, “Then God will not abandon us.” With this conviction, she ran between two hills, Safa and Marwa, looking for water, and indeed, God had not abandon them. Zam Zam water miraculously gushed forth, quenching the infant’s thirst.
During the Hajj, Muslim pilgrims reenact a sacrament called sa’ee or “striving,” in which they run back and forth seven times between two hills, which are a mile apart. People are supposed to rush, to speed walk, in honor of Hagar’s sacrifice, and this rushing symbolizes our own human striving.
As I learned more about Hagar, I began to admire her zeal and fortitude towards her journey. I found it reassuring that Islam recognizes the struggle of a woman. It is ironic that some men on the pilgrimage who ardently reenact Hagar’s fearlessness and courage consider women to be the weaker sex. I had heard that some women were forbidden by their husbands to walk fast because it seemed immodest. Those men who think women are incapable of making decisions and must always be accompanied by a man, who believe a woman has no role in shaping destiny—I wonder if they ever think about Hagar. Left behind with a child, all alone, without a man to protect her, nevertheless she shaped their destiny.
Do such people ever wonder why God chose a woman for this role? What if Hagar had not submitted to the will of God as conveyed by Abraham—would the town of Mecca have flourished? Would Prophet Muhammad have received a revelation? It was a woman’s belief and self-sacrifice that is ultimately behind Islam’s holiest shrine.
In 2007, a well-respected Saudi woman sent out a mass email with an urgent call for Muslim women. “Some Saudi clerics are pushing to remove women’s prayer space around the Kaaba,” she wrote. “History is being reversed. Women and men have prayed in this space called ‘haram’ [sanctuary] since the seventh century and now some clerics want to push us to the fringes. What would the Prophet say!!!”
I decided to circulate the email to my WISE network of women to request swift action: Thousands of women signed the petition to drop this movement. Alhumdullilah, our humble efforts and media scrutiny worked; and in that moment, I felt as if our foremothers, Hagar, Khadijah, Fatima, and Aisha, were applauding us for remaining steadfast in our courage and faith in God.
When I went for umrah, I felt it would be powerful to carry out a ritual that takes us back to the time of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I headed straight to Kaaba, which is situated within the bounds of a sanctuary called Masjid al-Haram. When I set my eyes on the cubical structure, I was transfixed by its simplicity. The striking cube is made of stone and encased in intricately woven black cloth decorated with gold calligraphy. For more than fourteen hundred years, the Kaaba has remained vacant, a stark reminder that humans should bow to nothing except their creator.
As I approached the Kaaba, I saw throngs of men draped in white cloth so there was no way to distinguish the rich from the poor, symbolizing the unity and equality of all humans. I felt transformed by the coming together of people from diverse cultures and ethnicities standing in sisterhood and brotherhood, all reconnecting to the one God. As I circumambulated the Kaaba seven times, I felt at one with the sea of humanity glorifying God individually and collectively. I thought of the rotations of planets orbiting the sun, feeling part of a larger order. Then, in the bustling flow of the crowd, I found myself thrust in front of the Kaaba; I reached my arm out and touched it. In that moment, I sensed a continuum of energy connecting the present to the past. I imagined Abraham standing here with his son Ismael, Hagar rushing between two hills to look for water, the angel Gabriel pronouncing Muhammad as Prophet. I was standing in the spot where Khadijah, a tradeswoman, offered marriage to a young Muhammad; where Bilal, a slave of African descent, was freed by Mohammed to exemplify human equality; where Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, and Ali, his son-in-law, endured hardships; and where Aisha spent years spreading the message of the Prophet. These, my spiritual ancestors, had walked this path, and while I stood where they had once walked, I realized that what unites us is our collective spiritual quest.
When the call to prayer sounded, I took my rightful place in full view of the Kaaba. Had we women not acted swiftly and prevented the clerics from having their way, I would not have been able to pray there. I looked at all the women behind me, beside me, and in front of me praying humbly to God, asking Him for favor. They came from all corners of the world and never imagined that the boundaries of the haram might be prohibited to them. I felt honored that our small efforts had restored our rightful place in full view of the house of God.
--Daisy Khan: Excerpt from “Born with Wings”