Hagar: The Complexity of Oppression Embodied

Wadud’s holistic approach to injustice is captured paradigmatically in the figure of Hagar. Indeed, Hagar has become a central, scriptural symbol for womanist theologians, who have discerned in the Black slave of Abraham a ‘woman who is rejected on the grounds of race, sex and class, yet at the same time is the recipient of a divine revelation.’[1] In particular, Wadud sees in Hagar’s abandonment in the desert and in her desperate efforts to locate water for her child the predicament of the ‘homeless, single parent’,256 forced to provide for herself and her family in a classist, patriarchal society. In so doing, Wadud forges a direct hermeneutical link between Hagar’s experiences and her own as a divorced, single mother.257 Her focus on Hagar, moreover, is significant in terms of interpretive methodology. For while she privileges the Qur’an over other Islamic texts, Wadud’s writings on Hagar reveal her interest in engaging the shari’a. A key problem with Islamic law, she argues, is that it is ‘premised upon an ideal of an extended family network’,[2] thereby ignoring the lived realities of a growing number of Muslim women in general and of African American Muslim women in particular. The shari’a, then, needs to be reinterpreted in order to address the Hagar paradigm, to speak to situations in which women are the sole, financial providers of their families.[3] But Wadud’s interest in Hagar not only reflects her willingness to engage the shari’a, but also the Qur’anic exegetical tradition. Whereas Hagar is discussed in the Old Testament (Genesis 16), she is actually never mentioned by name in the Qur’an. Rather, she is implicitly referred to in a supplication that Abraham makes shortly after leaving Hagar and Ishmael in the desert.260 The prayer reads:

When Abraham said, ‘My Sustainer! Make this city [Mecca] a sanctuary, and save me and my children from worshipping idols. My Sus- tainer! Indeed they have misled many people. So whoever follows me indeed belongs to me, and as for someone who disobeys me, surely You are All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. Our Sustainer! I have settled part of my descendants in a barren valley by Your sacred house, our Sustainer, that they may maintain the prayer. So make the hearts of the people fond of them, and provide them with fruits, that they may give thanks. Our Sustainer! Indeed you know whatever we hide and whatever we disclose, and nothing in the earth or in the sky is hidden from God. All praise belongs to God, who, despite my old age, gave me Ishmael and Isaac. Indeed, my Sustainer hears all supplications. My Sustainer! Make me a maintainer of the prayer, and my descendents. Our Sustainer, accept my supplication. Our Sustainer! Forgive me, my parents and all the faithful on the day when the reckoning is done.’ (Q. 14:35-41)

Hagar has made her way into Muslim memory, therefore, not through the Qur’an itself but rather through Qur’anic commentaries, which drew upon a number of unauthenticated prophetic reports and biblical traditions (isra’iliyat) in order to flesh out her story.261 The following passage from the medieval commentator Isma‘il ibn Kathir (d. 1373) is an illustrative example, depicting Hagar’s deep, abiding faith in God:

When he [Abraham] left the two of them there and turned his back on them, Hagar clung to his robes and said: ‘Abraham, where are you going, leaving us here without means to stay alive?’ He did not answer. When she insisted, he would still not answer. So she said: ‘Did God command you to do this?’ He said: ‘Yes.’ Then Hagar said: ‘He will not let us perish.’[4]

So despite Wadud’s critique of the Qur’anic exegetical tradition, her usage of the Hagar paradigm shows that she is prepared to draw upon this body of knowledge when doing so can further gender egalitarian understandings of Islam.

  • [1] 257 Wadud, Interview 2009.
  • [2] Wadud, Inside the Gender Jihad, 144.
  • [3] Ibid, 144-5 . 260 Abugideiri, 83. 261 Ibid.
  • [4] Isma‘il ibn Kathir, as cited in Stowasser, 47.
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