Hagar, and the power of Nothingness…

By Dr Kamran Riaz

Originally published in October 2014

It is well known that the blessed days of Dhu’l Hijjah serve as a reminder for many magnificent things. In the preceding days and in those that are to come, one will undoubtedly be reminded of the history and lessons associated with these days. Foremost among these discussions is the connectedness with our forefather, Prophet Ibrahim (`alayhi ‘l- salām), but this is not the story for this particular post. Instead, perhaps what is even more fascinating is the story of our mother Hajar, for this is an undeniable chapter in a wondrous tale: a mother running between two nondescript mountains for the sake of her crying infant in an act that became a cornerstone for Islam’s greatest ritual act of worship.

The naẓam (interconnectedness) of the Qur’an is a wonderfully but woefully under-appreciated topic in our popular discussions. It is important to understand that the Qur’an is holistically sound because each verse is not only connected to every other verse, but the location of a given verse in relation to the verses around it is also of significance. The verb naẓama literally means “to string together pearls on a necklace”, suggesting that while there is beauty in a single pearl, there is a greater beauty when a pearl is joined with other pearls on a necklace, and that its beauty is enhanced not only by the entire necklace, but also by the pearls around it. The verses of the Qur’an are the same.

The interconnectedness of these verses is significant because Hajar’s seminal act is mentioned by name only once in the Qur’an (Surah al-Baqarah, verse 158), but comes immediately after a larger discussion regarding fear, safety, patience and a sense of establishing power (verses 153-157), which ends with a theme of willingness to sacrifice. This, of course, implies that one has something to give in the first place; we often assume that sacrifice involves giving up something tangible and real. The law of the cosmos dictates that everyone is tested and tried, regardless of religion, gender, status, etc., and different levels of sacrifice are required for different situations. If one doesn’t appreciate this, then one hasn’t understood the way the world works. For the Companions (may Allah be pleased with them) of the early Madinian days, this was a lesson to acknowledge this reality as it was the only way to become less anxious in an uncertain climate. And as for sacrifice, the example given to them–they who had already given much–is that of a seemingly unlikely type, but it was an example that was accepted and beloved to Allah above all else. This is the wisdom of why verse 158 comes at the end of this discussion on sacrifice, as if to say that if you don’t understand sacrifice, God will now relate an example of sacrifice of nothingness.

It is the nothingness of Hajar that makes this story even more amazing. It is this nothingness that should also be appreciated: a new mother finding herself in the middle of the desert with her newborn child left with nothing other than the promise that God will take care of them. When her meager provisions ran out, she did not look to the heavens with a sense of entitlement asking for the so-called promise of Divine Help. She did not lament her husband leaving her in this desolate valley. She did not despair that no one was there to help her in this abject state of absolute weakness. The brilliance of Hajar was not only that she didn’t panic, but she realized that when Divine Help was needed, human effort was necessary, a human struggle was required.

Marvel at the situation: this is not a Prophet or king asked to give something that he possessed. Instead, here is a woman, a mother who has just given birth, with her newborn child in the middle of a place so-named because it broke all those who entered. At this time and space, she is arguably the weakest of all human beings in the harshest of places. So when her supplies ran out and when she realizes that some effort is required, marvel further at her actions: she didn’t stand up in prayer or make dhikr or have a mawlid or even apply an intellectual logic to the situation. She realized that at the bare minimum, a show of effort and struggle was required to give the Divine an excuse to make good on His Promise.  And marvel further that this effort was completely illogical to the so-called educated mind: why not light a fire or shout from a mountain? Or if one must run, why not run in a circle to cover a greater distance? Why run back and forth between two points when the likelihood of finding water over ground one has already traversed is unlikely? And her running from one mountain to the other seven times implies that she ended up right where she started (read: in mathematical terms, her net distance traveled was actually zero), so what good did it do?

But the Divine appreciates the effort of even the most fragile being, and if done properly, it will be blessed with perpetual acceptance. Herein lay the epitome of struggling when one is powerless and has absolutely nothing—that in reality, when one has nothing but faith in the Divine Promise and puts forth whatever struggle one is capable of at the time, that even if one has nothing, one will get everything. Allah wants His servants to go through the motions, even if they seem illogical, He will take care of the details of what happens next. And what happened next? The result of that seemingly illogical struggle that was infused with a willingness to give everything when one has nothing was that He made good on His Promise:

He created an entire civilization nourished by a well that sprung forth from the heel of an infant whose mother demonstrated the power of nothingness.

Herein lies the lesson for the modern Muslim. We’ve built ourselves on secular models rather than understanding our grandmother’s model: with Divine Grace, even when one has physically nothing, one will receive everything if one is willing to give up everything including one’s sense of nothingness. The two distortions of Islam today demonstrated by the extremists and secularists are devoid of any understanding, appreciation or implementation of this model. Hence, true Islam is only represented by those that understand the lessons of verses 153-158: gratitude, patience and sacrifice. These three qualities were epitomized by that weak woman who demonstrated a strength that we still admire today.

For the Companions, this verse explained to them the significance of these two mountains. Divine Providence is indiscriminate because the act of a powerless woman became a cornerstone for Hajj and `Umrah–while ṭawāf can be done at any time, the sa`y can only be done within the confines of these two acts of worship–so do not feel low, guilty or powerless because of this. It is appropriate her struggle of running between the two hills of  Ṣafā’ and Marwah became known as the Sa`y, which literally means “struggle”. Whereas the sacrifice of Ibrahim (peace be upon him!) is celebrated because of his willingness to sacrifice all that he held dear; the sacrifice of his wife struggling in the face of seeming powerlessness became an act of worship and a Symbol of Allah Himself. “Indeed (the mountains) of Ṣafā’ and Marwāh are from the Symbols of Allah…”. The sacrifice of a Prophet and a woman both became Symbols of God.

We should appreciate that the roots of Muslim civilization lie in making effort, especially when one is seemingly powerless and has nothing to give. This is crucial because we find ourselves in a place in time where we are often physically and politically powerless to a degree never before seen in our 1400 year history. This has manifested itself with many faces: apathy, pessimism, desire for radical change, confusion, lamentation, anger, and in the worst of all cases, violent extremism. Those that appreciate the story of Hajar must shun each of these equally and understand her legacy of sacrifice. Sacrifice is about giving up everything and anything that we hold dear, but it is also to give up one’s sense of nothingness, which is often the last remaining possession of one who has nothing. To put it another way, it means to sacrifice your sense of being a victim and giving up even your feeling sorry for yourself.Sometimes, giving this up is more difficult that giving up everything in the world.

But perhaps this is why this sacrifice is required—to bring in the power of the Divine, the power of nothingness must be given up in return. Hajar understood this. So must we.