By Anisa Mehdi
By walking around the Ka’aba seven times pilgrims follow the footsteps of Abraham/Ibrahim, the acclaimed prophet of monotheism. Ibrahim built up this symbolic house of the One God with his son Ishmael/Ismail according to scripture. And God told Abraham to call people to come and worship at this “mother” of all shrines. “They will come to thee on foot and mounted on every kind of camel — lean, on account of journeys through deep and distant mountain highways – that they may witness the benefits provided for them and celebrate the name of God through the Days Appointed, over the cattle which He has provided for them for sacrifice. Then eat ye thereof and feed the distressed ones in want.” (Qur’an, Surah Al Hajj, 22: 26-29)
Although pilgrimage to Mecca happens every day of the year, the Hajj happens only once a year during the final month of the Islamic calendar, Dhul Hijjah, or the Month of Hajj. Still, no matter what time of year a person comes to Mecca, he or she performs two specific acts of worship unique to this locus: tawaf and sayee. Together these two rituals are called umrah, the small pilgrimage.
Muslims come on foot and by air, in every which way to worship by circling the symbolic house of God, showing unity as only a circle can. In Ibrahim’s time the circling would have been less chaotic I presume; no crowd of millions completing a pillar of faith. Yet success is sweeter when preceded by struggle — so says my Scottish Ferguson clan motto: Dulcius ex Asperis, sweeter after difficulties.
Tawaf is the first act of the pilgrimage.
The second act of this pilgrimage is woman’s work.
In the sayee, the ritual following tawaf, pilgrims re-enact an episode in the life of Hagar, a woman and former slave from Egypt. Abraham’s second wife. The mother of Ismail.
The story goes that Abraham’s wife Sarah wasn’t able to conceive she suggested Abraham marry Hagar and try and produce an heir (Genesis 16:3). Voi la! Ismail is born. In the Biblical telling Sarah later asks Abraham to banish Hagar and her son (Genesis 21:14); in the Islamic narrative God tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ismail to what is now Mecca and leave them in God’s protection. Hagar knows they need water and she runs from hill to hill searching (Genesis 21:15-19). On the seventh round between the hills of Safa and Marwa she finds it: water gurgles up from the ground. This zamzam water still quenches the thirst of pilgrims today.
The ritual of sayee dramatizes and revives the faith Hagar showed in God’s mercy and compassion. Would he leave her son and her in a desert to die of thirst? No — of this she is certain. Should she sit and simply wait for water to show up? No. She does everything in her capacity to produce results. This is the lesson of sayee, the lesson of a woman who won’t surrender hope and who, with hard work, patience, persistence, and faith gets what she needs.
All pilgrims — on umrah and on hajj — walk this long course from hill to hill, both of which are now encased within the massive structure of the great sanctuary. Seven times they trek back and forth, clocking several miles in total. Imitating, channeling Hagar.
Women performing this act of pilgrimage should take heart. Sayee is an unapologetic homage to a woman’s strength, resourcefulness, and stature.
Some men performing this act of worship are fully cognizant of the story, its symbolism and relevance today. Others would do well to remember in whose footsteps they walk during the sayee, and who’s example they emulate. They should remember this woman’s faith and courage long after they’ve completed their rituals. Sayee could change many lives forever — and improve the lives of the women with whom they live.