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How one black woman in Mecca can inspire millions to rise against misogyny and racism

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Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English

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The modern relevance of the Hajj today is reflected in the symbolic actions of one woman: Hagar, the African servant slave of Abraham and Sarah, who historians of Muslim and Jewish tradition estimate lived between 1930 BC and 1840 BC.

How does one black slave living in Biblical times transcend the particulars of a historic event and inspire principles of social justice and gender equality in society today? 

The answer lies in a simple exploration of Hajj rituals. One of the key -- and most widely photographed  -- rituals of the pilgrimage (which is incumbent on every able-bodied and financially secure Muslim) is the tawaf, a seven-time circumbulation of the Kaaba meant to denote the beauty of one God and one humanity. But the other obligatory ritual, the Saee, which involves a two mile run between two hills, is less recognized by Western observers -- and arguably less appreciated among Muslims themselves. 

In doing the Saee, each pilgrim -- man and woman -- are asked to step into the sacred footsteps of Hagar, who according to some traditions, was the daughter of an Egyptian king and an early follower of Abraham. 
According to monotheistic tradition, Hagar was asked to intervene when Sarah discovered she couldn't bear a child with Abraham.

Upon bearing a baby boy, Ishmael, Abraham is commanded by God to resettle Hagar and Ishmael alone in a desolate and barren valley on the plains of Mecca. Soon after her arrival, Hagar's food supply runs out and she becomes desperate, searching for water to nourish her baby. She places Ishmael down on a site adjacent to where the Kaaba sits today and runs frantically seven times between the two nearby hills of Safa and Marwa, only to find nothing. But upon her return to Ishmael, she finds a spring of water bursting forth from the sand where his foot lies. This water spring became known in Muslim tradition as the miracle of 'Zam Zam' and was pivotal in setting in motion the foundation of the future city of Mecca. 

It's a story that every born Muslim, and undoubtedly every pilgrim, has heard. But how much of it really resonates with today's (predominately) male political and religious leaders and their followers across the Muslim world? If men genuinely held her up as the shining example of piety, patience and resolve that she clearly holds in Islam -- why is there such a glaring discrepancy between Islam's demand for respect towards the way black women (indeed all women) and labour workers are treated in Muslim countries? 
In his book on Hajj, the famed Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati writes that Hagar is buried near the third pillar of the Kaaba and that "all of the Hajj is joined" to her memory. 

"He chose a black slave woman -- the most humiliated of his creatures -- to be the mother of great Prophets of God and manifestations of the most magnificent values which God creates...has placed her beside himself," Shariati says. 

The paradox is of course that women continue to be excluded and discriminated against at horrifyingly high rates in Muslim countries. Social indicators and gender statistics by the United Nations reveal that women in the Arab region are on average more disadvantaged economically, socially and politically than women from any other region in the world. Labour workers from some of the world's poorest countries are given residency and work visas to build the glittering high rises in Dubai and Abu Dubai in exchange for lax work safety standards and decrepit accommodation. And for all of the Quran's emphasis on racial equality, and its references to prophetic messengers of African origin, you would be hard pressed to find South Asian or Arab families -- living in the west or the east -- who are open to interracial marriages. Hagar's story is also relevant from the perspective of today's migrant crisis.

In a column in the Istanbul-based Daily Sabah newspaper, Hatem Bazian writes that today Hagar represents the refugee mothers streaming into western shores of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Yemen and countless other countries. Ishmael, carried in the arms of his distraught mother, represents all the children carried across borders and seas without functioning life jackets or enough food, water or blankets to survive.

But, just as in Hagar's time, there lies a silver lining. Bazian notes that the death of Alan Kurdi on the Mediterranean shoreline is today's symbolic bursting of Zam Zam water. The heart rendering image of Kurdi has stirred millions across the world to initiate a response -- best seen perhaps in the "majestic and prophetic" character of Western Europeans who are lining up to welcome the strangers and the refugees into their midst.

If only the misogynistic and racist tendencies of leaders across Muslim countries could find similar inspiration  in Hagar's actions -- and abide by Islam's true tenants of social justice. 

Image: Flickr/Al Jazeera English

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