Did you know that Hagar, Sarah’s servant in the Hebrew text, was from Egypt and is considered to be Abraham’s second wife for Muslims?
Did you know the religion that was born from God’s revelation to Mohammed is called Islam and those who claim Islam as their faith are called Muslims?
Did you know that Muslims believe that the story of Abraham sacrificing his son did not include Isaac, but was instead Ishmael?
Did you know that the Koran and the Old Testament share the same Creation stories, Flood stories, and Abraham stories up until Sarah sends Hagar out into the desert?
Did you know that for Muslims, Muhammad is seen as the final prophet, equal to the prophet Abraham and the prophet Moses and the prophet Jesus? All these prophets professed the word of god; it’s just that Mohammed is simply seen as the final prophet.
It is the very small twists in Abraham’s plot that create a whole new way of understanding. Let’s look at this not from a historical perspective, but from a theological perspective. What do these differences mean about how God is involved in our lives? Where do we see God? Whom does God save? Where is God in the midst of conflict and how should we, as people who believe God, obey and live out our lives? These are all questions that the story of Hagar, Abraham and Sarah address for the three Semitic faiths.
I am going to focus on Abraham again, this time exploring why this character is THE central figure for Muslims. Muhammad, an illiterate Arab living in Mecca the 5th century, received a revelation from God. His regional and cultural environment was identical to the environment of Abraham 2500 years earlier. The dessert in which Islam was born was filled with nomadic Bedouin tribes who all worshipped different deities. The Jewish community did not make the attempt to teach these desert Bedouins about monotheism because Jewish tradition stayed with Jewish tradition. The Christians had not yet made it out to the desert to do their converting, or maybe they did but they failed. Never-the-less, at the time Mohammed arrived on the scene, the region was filled with primitiveness as old as Abraham himself.
It is in this world of conflict and unrest that Mohammed brought the good news that there is only one God and Allah is that God. Allah, in fact translates as THE God, not a God, but THE God. Mohammed never believed nor intended to create a new religion, (as we pointed out last week that that was not Paul’s intent either), but Mohammed was interested in a Reformation of Monotheism. There was a small sect of believers of a God called Yahweh who lived in Mecca and it was this God who revealed Godself to Mohammed in a cave near Mecca. This reformation was meant to restore the primordial faith in one God and Mohammed believed that by bringing this true faith to Arabs, peace would and could be lived out among the people of the desert.
Abraham, known as Ibrahim in the Koran, is central to Mohammed’s message. So, what is it about Abraham that was so central to Mohammed? Abraham obeyed the one and only God. The term “Muslim,” translates to “one who obeys.” Therefore, to be a Muslim, one must obey Allah, THE one and only God. A Muslim’s purpose is to serve God in all things, and it is the belief that through this devotion to serving God we are freed from other forms of slavery, such as greed, anxiety, desire for personal status.
Really, Mohammed is quite Pauline in his theology. Like Paul, Mohammed teaches that TOTAL commitment is needed and this is why the protagonist Abraham is so central. For Muslims, it is Ibrahim who first commits his life entirely to the one true God, hence it is Ibrahim, not Mohammad, who initiates the beginning of Islam.
But let’s move away from Abraham and talk about Hagar. She was Egyptian, and although our text calls her a slave, Muslims understand her to be Ibrahim’s second wife. She is a HUGE figure in both the Hebrew Text as well as the Koran, and is one of the most overlooked characters in Scripture. As an abused servant girl, Hagar runs to the desert and receives her own revelation from God.
Several chapters later in Genesis, Sarah kicks her out of the Family community all together, both her and her son Ishmael are banished to the desert and left to die. So how did God look after Hagar? She certainly wasn’t protected from Sarah, in fact, God encouraged her to go back to Abraham’s tent and birth a child who would be named Ishmael, meaning “God Hears”.
Not only that, but after Sarah kicks Hagar out of the community all together, that is the last we hear of her in the Hebrew Text. But, that is where the Koran continues her story…and it’s a good one.
You see, when Hagar ran away in Chapter 16 of Genesis, she is weeping and distraught. But a messenger of God comes to her, comforts her and sends her back to Abraham, but not without a gift. This messenger was Gabriel, the same Messenger who came to Mary, Jesus’ mother. And the angel of the Lord said to Hagar, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” This is in effect an equal blessing to the blessing Abraham received. No longer is she fighting for an equal status with Sarah, all of a sudden, Hagar is on equal playing ground to Abraham! While Sarah laugh’s at God’s promises, Hagar embraces them, chooses to obey God and returns to the camp of Abraham. Carol Newsome, a leading interpreter of women in the Bible, points out that Hagar is the only woman to receive personally the divine blessing of descendants, making her in effect a female patriarch. What’s even more astonishing is that Hagar is the ONLY person, male or female, to name God. “You are El-roi” meaning God of my vision. She saw God when Moses could not. She is the only human to see God in the Old Testament and live to tell about it! How is it that we continue to look past this monumental detail?
When I read this story, I’m caught up in the morality of these people who “follow God.” How can one who claims to obey God be so cruel? Surely, Sarah’s behavior is not of God. For most of us, our moral sympathy is with Hagar and Ishmael, even though the author knows that our primary identification has to be with Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. One of the things I was repeatedly told in my Preaching course is “where is god’s grace in the text?” So with every sermon I write, I look for God’s grace. In this story, it is not with those individual’s whom my faith depends. For me, God’s grace is ever present in the ones who are outcast, in the ones who are rejected, unloved, uncared for. God’s grace is ever present in the lives of Hagar and Ishmael. It is Hagar, a lowly servant girl and her bastard son who become the ones who God comforts.
Hagar, in fact has been used repeatedly in the arts as the character that best represents the under-dog. She has become the symbol of the black woman’s struggle for justice. She has been the matriarch that promises that those who are oppressed by other humans are loved by God and will be the recipient of many blessings. Hagar, not Sarah, is my hero.
Mohammed claimed it was Hagar who represented a forgotten people left in the desert to wander and make their own way. Mohammed reminded his followers that it is Hagar who is the matriarch of a nation, a nation under one God. The story in the Koran refers to Hagar’s destitution and anxiety as she and her child are left to die in the desert. Hopelessly and helplessly, the story explains that Hagar ran seven times through a valley looking for water.
When she returned to her son, without a drop, the angel Gabriel visits once again, scores the earth with a stick and a well of fresh clean water emerges. Her thirst is quenched and her son’s life is saved. That well still exists today in Mecca and is one of the most holy places for Muslims. It is Hagar whose faith leads her to settle in Mecca, raise Ishmael, find him an Egyptian wife to continue the faith of one true God she calls Ell-roi – or God of my vision.
The Abraham of Islam is a man who was a nomadic Bedouin, a man who had many lives, a man who loved his sons, both Ishmael as well as Isaac. He was a man who built the Kabul in Mecca with his eldest son Ishmael, and this temple was meant to symbolize the empty human heart, reminding his descendents that with an empty heart, free from serving the ideas of this world, we might be able to serve God.
It is the empty heart that Allah enters, transforms, and brings peace to the world. You know what Muslim translates to? “one who submits”. Do you know what Islam translates to? “The peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God.”
A quote from The Koran describes this one and only God as
“the Holy, the peaceful, the Faithful, the Guardian over His servants, the Shelterer of the orphan, the Guide of the erring, the Deliver from every affliction, the friend of the bereaved, the consoler of the afflicted; in His hand is good, and He is the generous Lord, the gracious, the Hearer, the Near-at-Hand, the compassionate, the Merciful, the Very-forgiving, whose love for mankind is more tender than that of the mother-bird for her young.”
This is the God of Islam. This is also the God of Christianity. And to be sure, this is the God of Judaism.
Legend has it that Abraham’s tent was open on all four sides. It was meant to be open to all strangers from whatever direction they came. The open tent symbolized a welcoming spirit, inviting all people into relationship with one another. It’s a lovely symbol: a symbol of universalism, hospitality, and compassion. A symbol of what it is to be human.