zamzam: God will hear!
There used to be a little store tucked off the street in Santa Cruz with the most unusual name. It was called Zamzam. It was obviously a place the catered to Muslims especially Sufis because there were all kinds of Islamic items for sale there. They carried lots of prayer beads (sometimes called a tasbih), and it was the first place I ever saw a poster of the 99 Beautiful Names of God, in gorgeous Arabic script. There was a sweet elderly man working there the day I went in, obviously of Middle Eastern heritage, and I complimented him on the store. And then I said, “But this name is so strange! Zamzam? What does it mean?” And he told me the story of Hagar, almost the same story that we heard from the Book of Genesis today (21:5-20) but with a few extra details.
According to Muslim belief, he said, Hagar (Haajar, in Arabic) was the daughter of an Egyptian king and she was given to the prophet Abraham as a slave by the king of Egypt. Hagar subsequently bore a child, and named him Ishmā-el, a name which means “God will hear.” But after Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Sarah began to feel jealous, so she asked Abraham to send them away from her. God revealed to Abraham that he should take Hagar and the infant Ishmael to a far away desert in Arabia, to the place we know now as Mecca. So he traveled with them all the way to Mecca, and left Hagar and Ishmael in a bleak, isolated place where there was no water, while he went back to Palestine. Because of the scarcity of water in the desert, it was not long before both mother and son suffered immense thirst. But Hagar believed that Allah would provide and she started running between two hills called al-Safa and al-Marwah looking for water for her son. After the seventh run between the two hills, an angel appeared before her. He told her that God had heard Ishmael’s crying (after all his name means “God will hear”) and would provide them with water.
At that point, God caused a spring to burst forth from the spot where Ishmael’s heel touched the ground, and thereafter Mecca became known for its abundance of water, an oasis in the desert. And that spring that burst forth from the spot where Ishmael’s heel touched the ground was subsequently called Zamzam, the holy source of water.
Islamic tradition says that after that Abraham would travel back and forth between Palestine and Mecca to visit Hagar and Ishmael, and that Abraham and Ishmael would later construct the Kaa’ba together in Mecca, around which Muslims circumambulate during the hajj. And when Muslims go on their hajj, part of the pilgrimage entails running seven times between al-Safa and al-Marwah to remember Hagar’s courage and faith in Allah while searching for water in the desert. Some pilgrims also drink from the well that was built at Zamzam and take some of the water back home from pilgrimage. And Hagar is revered as an important matriarch of monotheism, since Muslims believe that it was through Ishmael’s bloodline that the Prophet
would come. Others believe that Hagar and Ishmael are buried beside the Kaa’ba.
Our responsorial psalm today is from Psalm 34 with the refrain, The Lord hears the cry of the poor. This is of course in honor of Hagar and Ishmael (whose name means “God will hear”). As we heard in the 17th verse of the reading from Genesis: God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Hagar, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift the boy up, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation.’ Even if we feel as if we have been cast out, we need to have the courage of Haajar, because, as every surah of the Qur’an affirms, God is ir-Rahman, ir-Rahim––All-Merciful, All-Compassionate––and especially hears the poor when they cry out.
Jesus too promises to lead poor thirsting souls to the stream of living water, the inner Zamzam that flows out of the believer’s heart.