By Bint Jobaida
My toddler squats her legs and does a little shimmy. She looks like she is doing a yoga pose and I can’t help but join the fun. My eight year old runs around like she’s on fire, looking for a pool of water to dive in. She says, “You’re the best mom” and “I love you” like she is saying hello. My eleven year old is a wise little owl who likes to write poetry at night. I look at her and wonder, What will she be when she grows up? I notice these things because I’m on leave from my full-time job at a small liberal arts college. I love tuning into my kids, especially as they, and I, get older, but the decision to stay home this year was not an easy one. I feel torn, like most of my peers, by the sa’i (a ritual passage or walking) between home and work.
When I was going back and forth between work and home last year, I turned to the story of Hajar for guidance on how to balance the demands of motherhood with the challenges of working to provide sustenance. At the core of Hajar’s story is a model of working hard, staying close to one’s child(ren) and trusting in God’s bounty. Hajar’s work of running between Safa and Marwa, or sa’i, is eventually rewarded with the spring of Zamzam appearing next to her son Ismail. Her story provides a hopeful narrative of motherhood leading to community and prophecy. Hajar shows us that the struggle of women who work and take care of their children is made possible by turning to God and asking Him for the resources that will sustain the mother, child and the community.
Hajar joined the household of Ibrahim and Sarah after they visited the King of Egypt. She was given as a gift to Sarah because God protected Sarah from the King’s sexual advances by freezing his hands, making him fearful of her power. Ibrahim and Sarah had difficulty conceiving a child so Sarah permitted Ibrahim to marry Hajar in the hopes that he might have an heir. This led to the birth of Ismail, whose progeny would be Muhammad (sws). Soon after, Ibrahim was given a revelation from God to take Hajar and Ismail away from the household of Sarah.
Ibrahim takes Hajar to a desert where there appears to be no one and leaves her there with Ismail. You might wonder, as did Hajar, why Ibrahim would leave Hajar in the middle of the desert when she had just given birth to his son? This brings a turning point and a spiritual trial for Hajar, who must figure out why she is alone and what she must do in this barren land. She is confused by Ibrahim’s decision to leave her and questions him, “Did Allah command you to do this?” to which he replies, “Yes.” She then says, “Then certainly, He will not abandon us.”
Ibrahim had a history of taking an unfamiliar path to illustrate his faith in Allah, even if it meant putting himself or his family in what appeared to be impossible circumstances. He repeatedly relies on Allah to fashion a protection between him and his loved ones and trusts that some divine providence will come forth from the uncertain circumstance. This is seen in the story of his struggle against the idol worshippers as well as later in his willingness to sacrifice Ismail. This also creates a similar pattern of faithfulness and willingness to submit in his wife and children. When Hajar hears that the command is from Allah for Ibrahim to leave her in this location, she feels at peace and accepts it.
Hajar’s faith in Allah plays an important role in helping her survive the desert environment with a baby. When their provisions run out, Hajar begins to run back and forth between Safa and Marwa until the seventh pass, when a spring of water appears next to the baby. Some narrations say that Ismail, with the help of Angel Jibreel, kicks at the earth to discover the spring. The water draws birds and the birds attract a nearby caravan that decides to settle down near the spring. Soon, Ibrahim returns as well to live with Hajar and Ismail and to build the Ka’ba. This happy ending came as a result of Hajar’s and Ibrahim’s faith in Allah (swt).
Lessons from Hajar’s Sa’i for Working Mothers
I would like to draw some lessons from Hajar’s sa’i and her trust in Allah for the contemporary working mother. Hajar’s story is compelling because she has to move away from her child in order to find sustenance for her child, but then is able to come and be with her child when the sustenance appears next to the child. Hajar's reality is the same as that of many working mothers today. Working mothers can go only so far as we feel comfortable leaving our children, but we find relief when we are with our children enjoying the provisions that Allah alone provides.
Hajar's story offers a lesson on how to move (apropos, since her name means migration) in this situation. First, she shows us that there will be times where the struggle for sustenance is borne by the mother alone and she can and will work hard to find sustenance for her children by making the sa’i between work and home. Second, Hajar reinforces the natural instincts of women to care for and be close to their children by performing the sa’i and then returning to the child. Third, Hajar's effort in running between Safa and Marwa were a necessary precursor to the wellspring eventually sprouting near the child. And maybe most importantly, the wellspring, which symbolizes Allah’s bounty, produces a community that supports the child and the mother.
The Sa’i of the Single Mother
I have seen the lessons of Hajar in the case of my own mother who was a widow at the age of 28 with two children. She found herself in the United States alone without her parents or her siblings. My mom ran between two places, the US and Bangladesh, after my father passed away. She was uncertain about what to do. Should she live off the charity of her family or stay in the US and make a life for herself and her children as her husband and she had dreamed?
After making several sa’is between the two countries, she chose the place she thought would bring resources for her children. And she was right. She found herself strengthened by faith in God and a beautiful community to help raise her children in. Her faith grounded her in a time of crisis and she found helpers and fellow immigrants who gave her rides, taught her how to drive and helped her get on her own two feet. My mom's chosen career of a home childcare provider also allowed her to keep an eye on us and provide for our family. Eventually, my cousin joined her and helped her financially and helped my brother and I become self-sufficient. Hajar's lesson of working when you need to, staying close to your children and having faith resulted in my mom's greatest wellspring, her children’s future success and the creation of a community.
The Sa’i of the New Mom
I also found comfort in Hajar's story when I had my third child in January 2016 and returned from maternity leave to work at a small college in a predominantly white, rural part of Northwest Pennsylvania. I had never been so far away from my family when I had my two previous children. I felt a bit like Hajar, left in the desert alone with my children. As a new mom, I felt a strong physical pull to be near my daughter and to nurse her and take care of her. Hajar’s sa’i symbolically represents the internal and external pressures new working moms face. Their bodies are transitioning into a new place of providing sustenance for a baby, but then they are met with the demands of the workplace where they must also produce.
When I started the sa’i between work and home again, I felt Hajar’s fear, distress and fatigue as I ran from work to home, stopping to nurse my baby in between sa’is from breasts that were not producing enough milk. So I decided to do the unthinkable, admit that I couldn’t work full time while nursing. I asked for a leave of absence from work and focused on nursing myself and my daughter. And similar to Hajar, I found the spring of Zamzam appear next to my child, a signal that I could now rest and tend to her needs and to my own needs. When I was with my daughter, I felt a sense of peace and rightness with the world and a feeling of rida, contentment.
What happened next was amazingly similar to Hajar’s story. My boss was very understanding and my colleagues stepped in to take care of my classes. I was able to negotiate returning to work half time in the next semester and a leave of absence the following school year. This would help me adjust to having a baby and make some important decisions about whether working full time was the best use of my time at this stage in my life. I was grateful to Hajar for modeling what it means to struggle with the difficulties of providing for one’s children, while also staying close to them and having faith that God alone provides.
Hajar’s Sa’i as a Lesson for Contemporary Mothers
I want it to be clear from these stories that all moms experience the sa’i, whether they stay home, work part-time or are the primary breadwinners of their families. This reflection is not about the question of whether to work or stay at home, but rather where your intention is when you choose to work. Is it to please your Creator and recognize that material and spiritual sustenance come from Allah alone? Or is it to make money and provide material comforts for you and your family? These are hard questions to ask ourselves, especially when we feel overburdened by the many demands placed on us.
Hajar’s sa’i allows us to reflect on these questions and to see what she did when placed in a position of being the sole provider for her family. She did the work of going between safa and marwa, all the while praying to Allah (swt) to send His mercy to them. She realized that she must teach her children lessons of how to work, while also recognizing our Creator as the source of all things. If you follow Hajar’s example, you transform your relationship to your Creator and to your children, which ultimately gives them a source of support that will never run dry.
I want to end with the reminder that Hajar is a model for both men and women, and the sa’i is a symbol of any struggle we face when we are looking for divine mercy. I hope that my reflections have helped in some way as you make your personal sa’i to be more connected to Allah (swt), the source of all sustenance. I pray that this Hajj and Eid are a source of reflection and learning for all of us as we experience, witness and remember the many sacrifices Ibrahim (s), Hajar (r) and Ismail (s) made for this ummah. Without their faith in what is possible when you rely on Allah (swt), Muhammad (sws) and his ummah would not be in existence today. May Allah (swt) make us among the followers of Hajar, Ibrahim and their descendants. Ameen.