Hajira (Hagar): An Example Of Leadership With A Special Name For God – OpEd


Aslam Abdullah, in an insightful article on the June 7, 2023 issue of web site IslamiCity, points out that Hajira, the young wife of Prophet Ibrahim, the mother of Prophet Ismael and the matriarch who created an entire civilization, remains a forgotten figure in the annals of religious history. Her description in the Old Testament projects her as a servant who could not show gratitude to her elderly mistress Sarah, the first wife of Prophet Ibrahim. The Old Testament gave her the status of Ibrahim’s concubine; with her son Ismail always jealous of Sarah’s son Prophet Isaac.

“Muslim scholarship has also not focused on her actual contributions to humanity, especially in building an international community of monotheists single-handedly. Although the Quran preserves her sacrifices and her role in the institution of Hajj, Muslim scholarship in general has ignored the essence of Hajira’s life and the lessons one should draw from that.

“Hajira was young and had a suckling infant. No woman could ever imagine that her husband, who in his old age miraculously fathered his heir, would leave his wife and child in a barren land with few resources to sustain them. Regardless of the explanations given by others, the act would appear too many as an irresponsible one. Yet Prophet Ibrahim, known as the friend of Allah and one of the role models for humanity, did that. Why?

“Let us turn to the prayer that Prophet Ibrahim made while leaving his young wife and infant in the desert of Arabia. “O our Sustainer! Behold, I have settled some of my offspring in a valley in which there is no arable land, close to Thy sanctified Temple, so that, O our Sustainer, they might devote themselves to prayer: cause Thou, therefore, people’s hearts to incline towards them and grant them fruitful sustenance, so that they might have cause to be grateful.”- (Qur’an 14:37) The prayer is not just a plea to God but a plan given to Hajira.

“The plan had four objectives:

1. People should establish a community centered around monotheism through praying to only one (imageless) God. 
2. People should always invite others to the idea of the oneness of the creator and convince them of its viability and validity.
3. People should work hard to create means of sustenance in the barren land.
4. People should express their gratitude to God by using his resources correctly and in a balanced manner with no misuse.

“The task was to lead those settled near the well of Zamzam water on the divine path, and nurture her son for future leadership.

“God inspired Prophet Ibrahim to leave her in the barren land. She proved through her dedication, perseverance, struggle, commitment, and faith in God that women can lead community building. Given the opportunity, she can create a whole civilization and community by herself. Prophet Ibrahim was aware that such a leadership role cannot be demonstrated in male-dominated societies for centuries and had little worth for women. However, in Hajira, God found the strength, integrity, and tenacity of a woman to play that role.

“The idea was to demolish gender-based discrimination and the notion that a woman cannot play a significant role in community life. So precious were her experiences in the barren land that God preserved them in the rituals associated with Hajj. The staying in Mina and spending the night in Muzdalifa, the running between Safa and Marwa, that God describes as divine mountains, drinking water of Zamzam, and making rounds of Kaaba and the sacrifice are all associated with her and her son.

“Hajira is not an ordinary woman in the history of monotheism. Her leadership created the corridor of unity in Makkah among believers coming from different parts of the world. God preserved Hajj’s institution to remind people of his oneness and the integration of humanity and teach that women can also be the leaders in every sense of the term.

“Hajira is the only woman in the history of monotheism who created a monotheistic civilization and demolished the false idols of gender discrimination. She showed that even in the loneliness and in the most vulnerable situations, a woman could protect her honor and dignity and play the leadership without compromising them. She proved that leadership came from dedication and commitment to the right ideas and had nothing to do with gender divisions. 

“Furthermore, she established the principle that women are no less than men in seeking the welfare of society. She proved that a woman could be positive even in the worst adversarial conditions. She demonstrated beyond doubt that if she can raise a child all by herself without ill feelings towards his father, who had left them alone, she can also build a nation and a civilization. So, Hajira is Hajira because God honored her by institutionalizing her leadership in the form of Hajj.”

I, as a Reform Rabbi, would like to add that Hajira Abraham’s Egyptian wife, had a special name for God that she alone used when the God of Prophet Abraham responded to her needs: El-Ro’ee. El Ro’ee means A Self-reflecting God or A God Who Sees (literally mirrors) Me. “Then she (Hagar) called the name of YHVH, who spoke to her, ‘El Ro’ee’, ‘You are a God who sees me’; for she said, ‘Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-laHai-roee; the well of the Living One (Al-Hayy in Arabic) who sees me.” (Torah, Genesis 16:13-14) 

Neither Sarah nor Hagar/Ha-jar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but the story of Hagar’s exile from Prophet Abraham’s home is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Prophet Ibrāhīm’s prayer in the Qur’an (14:37): “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” 

Muslim tradition relates that when Hā-jar ran out of water, and Ismā’īl, a small child at that time, began to die; Hā-jar panicked and ran between two nearby hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah repeatedly searching for water. After her seventh run, Ismā’īl hit the ground with his heel and caused a miraculous well to spring out of the ground called the Zamzum Well. It is located a few meters from the Kaaba in Mecca.

Perhaps this previously unique Torah name of God, El Ro’ee or Hai Ro’ee; which are Hagar’s names for God, meaning A Self-reflecting God or A God Who Sees Me, and the name for the well ‘Beer-laHai-ro’ee’ the well of the Self-reflecting God; can help bring Christians, Jews and Muslims to see themselves in the eyes of each other better, and thus come closer together in the future. 

The most holy of the 70 names of God in Jewish tradition is YHVH, which replaced a much older name of God: El Shaddai. Exodus (6:2-3) relates: God also said to Moses, “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I did not make myself fully known to them.” 

In the whole Hebrew Bible the full appellation ‘El Shaddai’ is used only in connection with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Shaddai by itself appears 31 times in the ancient book of Job, who was not Jewish, and in a few other poetic passages. 

In the Greek translation of the Torah, El Shaddai was erroneously translated Pantokrator, all powerful or omnipotent, instead of  ‘The God who is sufficient”. The Greek philosophical idea of omnipotence leads to the false contradiction between God’s power and human free will. 

But God is indeed, more than sufficient. God is and will always be YHVH, the God who enables human hopes of future possibilities of improvement to become realized.

El Shaddai con also be translated as the Nourishing or Nursing God because in Hebrew Shaddaim means female breasts. This feminine image may help many women today replace the ancient image of God as an old man with a long beard; with something more representative of God’s classical attribute of loving concern for His/Her children. 

One name of God that few Christians and Jews know or use today, is the name that Hagar used to call upon God when the life of Ha-jar’s son Ishmael was in danger. This name I believe will become more important in the future as Christians, Jews and Muslims learn more about each other’s religions. This name, El Ro’ee, only appears twice in the Hebrew Bible and is not used at all in the Talmud.

El’roee would be an excellent example of the power of just one of the many names of the One God to make all of those who worship the God of Prophet Abraham better believers. As the Qur’an states, “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure faith.” (3:95) 

Sarah’s son Isaac and Ha-jar’s son Ishmael were rivals for a long time; but they eventually were able to reconcile prior to their father’s death. Then Isaac and Ishmael joined together (Genesis 25:9) at the funeral of their father Abraham. 

Islamic and Jewish tradition both agree that Prophet Abraham visited Prophet Ishmael’s distant home on at least two different occasions to make sure that his family relationships were suitable. These pre and post funeral reconciliations would be why the Torah describes Abraham as ‘contented’ in his old age. 

Can we see this as a very good model for family reconciliations [today by] forgiving old hurts? And can it also become a model for the descendants of Prophet Ishmael and Prophet Isaac, contemporary Arabs and Israeli Jews, to find the grounds to attain post military funerals, forgiveness and reconciliation?

Everyone knows how important fasting during Ramadan, and daily worship and prayer are in Islam; but few know that Islam considers reconciling people better than many acts of worship. 

Prophet Muhammad said: “Should I not tell you what is better in degree than prayer, fasting, and charity.” They (the companions) said: “Yes.” He said: “Reconciling people, because grudges and disputes are a razor (that shaves off faith).” (Ahmad, Abu Dawood, and At-Tirmithi)

Also Prophet Muhammad said: “The one who reconciles people is not considered a liar if he exaggerates what is good or says what is good.” [Ahmad] This is an excellent guide to dealing with the three-generation old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather than focusing mostly on what the other side did to us, we all should focus on how the conflict has hurt all of us, and how much better our future would be if we could live next door to each other in peace. 

If the descendants of Prophet Isaac and Prophet Ishmael negotiate a settlement that reflects the religious policy of compromise: “…there is no sin upon them if they make terms of settlement between them – and settlement [reconciliation] is best.” (Quran 4: 128)  

God sets the standard of Prophet Muhammad’s statement because when Sarah was told that she and her husband Prophet Abraham would be blessed by God with a son, Sarah expressed surprise that she and Abraham would be able to have a child at their advanced age: ” So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my husband is old, will I now have this pleasure?” Then God said to Prophet Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ (Torah Genesis 18:12-13)

In relaying Sarah’s sentiments to Prophet Abraham, God omitted the “and my husband is old” portion of her response. From this episode the rabbis derive that there are times when one can even alter the substance of a person’s words in order to increase the possibility of family peace. (Talmud Yevamot 65b and Midrash Vayikra Rabba 9:9).

If both sides truly seek to reconcile then the words of Prophet Isaiah will come true: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt, and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will join a three-party alliance with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing upon the heart. The LORD of Hosts will bless them saying, “Blessed be Egypt My people, Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inh

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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