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Following Hajra in Mecca: Islam's Matriarchal Roots

10/03/2014 05:58 EDT | Updated 12/03/2014 05:59 EST

October 4 is Eid ul Adha, Islam's festival of the sacrifice. And right now more than two million pilgrims have converged upon Mecca to complete the pilgrimage called Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims are encouraged to make the Hajj once in a lifetime.

At Hajj, we Muslims must walk seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa and at some point many touch the water from the well of Zam-Zam.

Why? Because only in following the footsteps of Hajra do Muslims complete the Hajj.

Who was Hajra? She was the founder of Mecca. Yes -- a woman founded Mecca. Islam has a matriarch. And not only was she a woman. She was a slave.

As a slave, Hajra (known as Hagar in the Judeo-Christian tradition) was owned by another woman -- Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Hajra was also the younger wife of Abraham. Hajra and Abraham had a son, Ishmael, born before Sarah had a son. Angry, it is said that Sarah asked Abraham to remove Hajra and baby from the household and take them away.

Abraham prayed. The Bible says God replied: "Do not be so distressed...I will make the son of the slave into a nation because he is your offspring." (Genesis 21:11)

According to the Hadith, sayings of Muhammad, Abraham took Hajra and Ishmael on the journey from Palestine to Bacca, now known as Mecca.

Historians estimate the journey took about two months. At the time, Mecca was desolate. No one lived there and there was no water.

Despite this, once they reached, Abraham handed Hajra some remaining water and dates and literally deserted them.

Upon doing so, he prayed: "Our Lord, I have resided part of my progeny in an uncultivated valley near your Sacred Dwelling. My Lord, so that they may uphold the communion let the hearts of the people incline towards them and give provisions to them of the fruits so that they may give thanks." (Quran, 14:37)

When Hajra ran out of water and could no longer nurse Ismael he began to cry.

Frantic, Hajra searched for help. She ran to a nearby hill, now known as Safa, leaving Ismael on the valley floor. She climbed all the way to the top, hoping to find help. There was none so she descended all the way back down to the valley below. She ran through the valley to the base of another hill, now known as Marwa, almost 450 meters from Safa. She climbed up Marwa, searched again, found nothing and climbed down.

She ran back and forth, up and down the two hills until she had completed traveling between them seven times.

Exhausted, standing for the last time on the peak of Marwa, she heard a voice. It is said that the angel Gabriel told Hajra not to despair. The baby then dug his feet into the sand and out poured water.

Hajra climbed down, ran to Ismael, and to the water now known as Zam-Zam. Hajra formed a pit to collect the water and drank. Soon her milk returned.

The Hadith says Gabriel spoke to Hajra: "Don't be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Abraham in Mecca which will be built by this boy and his father, and God never neglects people."

The Bible says: "God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation." Genesis 21:17-19 (NIV)

Mother and son were able to survive in Mecca.

Eventually, some people came along, said to be descendants of Noah. Seeing that there now was water, they sought Hajra's permission to settle down there. The Hadith states: "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 Hadith says the Hajj is named for Hajra and means pilgrimage in Arabic. In Hebrew, Hagar (according to Rabbi Liz Bolton of the Ottawa Jewish Reconstructionist Community) may mean: "One who dwells within a community and one who is an outsider."

The same words could aptly define the many Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year far from their homes -- known as Hajjis.

What Hajra means to Islam and Muslims is that we are a faith born from a matriarchy.

Yet, if our matriarch were alive today and found herself in Mecca, without a male guardian, she would encounter great oppression.

The laws that exist today in Saudi Arabia and many parts of the Muslim world, supposedly created in the name of Islam, ignore the most basic lessons of our Islamic history.

It ignores that before Muhammad, it was a woman in Mecca who persevered, who received a communication and blessing from God and who was regarded as leader of the region by the people who sought her permission to settle there.

It ignores that it was a woman who decided wisely "you can stay if you do not possess the water" and secured the region's most precious resource to be shared.

As Muslims we are all taught this story from childhood. But we are not all shown what it means.

It means there is room for just interpretations of our scriptures.

It is the story of how Mecca was founded and Islam's matriarch.

Mecca was founded by a woman and on Hajj we follow HER footsteps.

Eid Mubarak.

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