The Book of Genesis tells us that Abraham was childless, without hope of children, and that one night God summoned him out of his tent and said to him: “Look now towards heaven, and count the stars if thou art able to number them.” And as Abraham gazed up at the stars he heard the voice say: “So shall thy seed be.”1 Genesis 15:5
Abraham’s wife Sarah was then seventy six years old, he being eighty-five, and long past the age of child bearing so she gave him her handmaid Hagar, an Egyptian that he might take her as his second wife. But bitterness of feeling arose between the mistress and the handmaid, and Hagar fled from the anger of Sarah and cried out to God in her distress, And He sent to her an Angel with the message: “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly that it shall not be numbered for multitude” The Angel also said to her: “Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction."2 Genesis 16:10-11Then Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah and told them what the Angel had said; and when the birth took place, Abraham named his son Ishmael, which means “God shall hear”.
When Abraham had reached his hundredth year, and Sarah Was ninety years old, God spoke again to Abraham and promised him that Sarah also should bear him a son who must be called Isaac. Fearing that his elder son might thereby lose favor in the sight of God, Abraham prayed: “O that Ishmael might live before Thee!” And God said to him: “As for Ishmael, I have heard thee Behold! have blessed him,… and I will make him a great nation, But My covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.”3 Genesis 17:20-21.
Sarah gave birth to Isaac and it was she herself who suckled him; and when he was weaned she told Abraham that Hagar and her son must no longer remain in their household And Abraham was deeply grieved at this, On account of his love for Ishmael; but again God spoke to him, and told him to follow the counsel of Sarah, and not to grieve; and again He promised him that Ishmael should be blessed.
Not one but two great nations were to look back to Abraham as their Father-two great nations, that is, two guided powers, two instruments to work the Will of Heaven, for God does not promise as a blessing that which is profane, nor is there any greatness before God except greatness in the Spirit. Abraham was thus the fountainhead of two spiritual streams, which must not flow together, but each in its own course; and he entrusted Hagar and Ishmael to the blessing of God and the care of His Angels in the certainty that all would be well with them.
Two spiritual streams, two religions, two worlds for God; two circles, therefore two centers. A place is never holy through the choice of man, but because it has been chosen in Heaven. There were two holy centers within the orbit of Abraham: one of these was at hand, the other perhaps he did not yet know; and it was to the other that Hagar and Ishmael were guided, in a barren valley of Arabia, some forty camel days south of Canaan. The valley was named Becca, some say on account of its narrowness: hills surround it on all sides except for three passes, one to the north, one to the south, and one opening towards the Red Sea which is fifty miles to the west. The Books do not tell us how Hagar and her son reached Becca;4 perhaps some traveler’s took care of them, for the valley was on one of the great caravan routes, sometimes called “the incense route,” because perfumes and incense and such wares were brought that way from South Arabia to the Mediterranean; and no doubt Hagar was guided to leave the caravan, once the place was reached. It was not long before both mother and son were overcome by thirst, to the point that Hagar feared Ishmael was dying. According to the traditions of theft descendants, he cried out to God from where he lay in the sand, and his mother stood on a rock at the foot of a nearby eminence to see if any help was in sight. Seeing no one, she hastened to another point of vantage, but from there likewise not a soul was to be seen. Half distraught, she passed seven times in all between the two points, until at the end of her seventh course, as she sat for rest on the further rock, the Angel spoke to her. In the words of Genesis:
And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven and said to her: What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not, for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise and lift up the lad and hold him in thy hand, for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. 5 Genesis 21:17-20
The water was a spring which God caused to well up from the sand at the touch of Ishmael’s heel; and thereafter the valley soon became a halt for caravans by reason of the excellence and abundance of the water; and the well was named Zamzam.
As to Genesis, it is the book of Isaac and his descendants, not of Abraham’s other line. Of Ishmael it tells us: And God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness and became an archer 6 (Genesis 21:20) After that it scarcely mentions his name, except to inform us that the two brothers Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father in Hebron, and that some years later Esau married his cousin, the daughter of Ishmael. But there is indirect praise of Ishmael and his mother in the Psalm that opens How amiable are Thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts, and that tells of the miracle of Zamzam as having been caused by their passing through the valley: Blessed is the man whose strength is in Thee; in whose heart are the ways of them who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well.7 Psalm 84:5-6
When Hagar and Ishmael reached their destination Abraham had still seventy-five years to live, and he visited his son in the holy place to which Hagar had been guided. The Koran tells us that God showed him the exact site, near to the well of Zamzam, upon which he and Ishmael must build a sanctuary;8 and they were told how it must be built. Its name, Ka’bah, cube, is in virtue of its shape which is approximately cubic; its four corners are towards the four points of the compass. But the most holy object in that holy place is a celestial stone which, it is said, was brought by an Angel to Abraham from the nearby hill Abu Qubays, where it had been preserved ever since it had reached the earth. “It descended from Paradise whiter than milk, but the sins of the sons of Adam made it black.” 9 This black stone they built into the eastern corner of the Ka’bah; and when the sanctuary was completed, God spoke again to Abraham and bade him institute the rite of the Pilgrimage to Becca-or Mecca, as it later came to be called: Purify My House for those -who go the rounds of it and who stand beside it and bow and make prostration. And proclaim unto men the pilgrimage, that they may come unto thee on root and on every lean camel out of every deep ravine.10 Quran 22: 26-27
Now Hagar had told Abraham of her search for help, and he made it part of the rite of the Pilgrimage that the pilgrims should pass seven times between Safa and Marwah, for so the two eminences between which she had passed had come to be named.
And later Abraham prayed, perhaps in Canaan, looking around him at the rich pastures and fields of corn and wheat: Verily I have settled a line of mine offspring in a tilthless valley at Thy Holy House…Therefore incline unto them men’s hearts, and sustain them with fruits that they may be thankful. 11 Quran 14: 37
(Martin Lings was born in Lancashire in 1909. After a classical education he read English at Oxford where he was a pupil and later a close friend of C. S. Lewis. In 1935 he went to Lithuania where he lectured on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English and subsequently he went to Egypt and and lectured mainly on Shakespeare at Cairo University. In 1952 he returned to England and took a degree in Arabic and in 1955 he joined the staff of the British Museum where from 1970-73 he was Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts. For the following year he held the same post in the newly founded British Library. In addition to writing many books he is also the author of the chapter ‘Mystical Poetry’ in Abbasid Belles-Lettres, which is Volume 2 of The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, and the chapter on ‘The Nature and Origin of Sufism’ in Vol.19 of World Spirituality, as well as articles for Studies in Comparative Religion, Sophia, The New Encyclopedia of Islam and the Encyclopedia Britannica.)
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4.According to the traditions of the Arabs, accepted by most Muslims, Ishmael was still a babe in arms when Hagar brought him to the valley of Baca.
7 Psalm 84:5-6
8 Quran 22:26
9. Saying of the Prophet Muhammad by at-Tirmidhi 7,49
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