Abraham: Persecution, refuge and renewal

The hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca,-the Hajj, an ancient ritual traced all the way back to Abraham, is just around the corner and it is the perfect occasion to contextualize this year’s gathering with an eye on the unfolding refugee crisis. By no means is this the first time the world has witnessed a human catastrophe with countless responses spanning the spectrum from the extremely xenophobic to the inspiring and downright prophetic hospitality from people in Germany, Sweden, Iceland and elsewhere.

Precisely the prophetic character is what is needed today more than ever and a reflection on Abraham’s narrative directly speaks to the ongoing human catastrophe and how to begin to address it. Abraham’s narrative provides a picture of the importance of youthful courage in speaking and confronting society’s misguidance, corruption and erroneous beliefs. Fearing the consequences of change, society’s response, including Abraham’s father, was a quick resort to violence, persecution and a swift death penalty by public burning. The punishment was handed down for no other reason than speaking truth to power and pointing to the contradictions present in society.

Indeed, God intervened to save Abraham from the fire that was followed by flight and refuge in the land of Canaan, or present day Palestine. The flight and escape from Mesopotamia, which includes present day Iraq, parts of southeast Turkey, eastern Syria and southern Iran, to Canaan is akin to the current refugees’ flight to safety to get away from war and conflict. What was remarkable then and should provide guidance and inspiration today, is that the Canaanites welcomed and allowed Abraham to live in their midst.

Yet the story does not stop in Canaan, it continues with a visit to Egypt and a challenging encounter with Pharaoh and a return to Canaan, but this time also with Hagar entering into the narrative. The complexity intensifies as Abraham cohabitates with Hagar resulting in the birth of his first child, Ismail. Sarah’s infertility and Hagar’s giving birth to a child develops into tension that results in another migration for part of the family. The Quranic reference speaks of God commanding Abraham to place Hagar and Ismail in the desolate and barren Valley of Mecca.

Muslims who are heading to perform the pilgrimage are following in the footsteps of Hagar and Ismail. One is struck by Hagar’s narrative that has her running distraught between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, searching for a drop of water for her son Ismail after provisions have expired and both are alone in the valley. Zam Zam, the water spring, was God’s intervention in rescuing Ismail and his mother and setting in motion the foundation of the future city of Mecca. More importantly, Hagar agrees to share the Zam Zam spring with an Arab tribe that was searching for a place to dismount and find a drinking source. It is a narrative of struggle, agony and flight, but is also about trust in God, perseverance and patience in facing adversity beyond one’s control.

Today, Hagar represents the Syrian mothers, daughters, and sisters of families torn apart, homes, demolished, cities in ruin and a world numbed to suffering. Today, Hagar is the refugee mothers streaming from Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Palestine, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Myanmar Nigeria and Yemen to name the obvious and the known, but many more can be included. Ismail in the hands of his distraught mother represents all the children carried across borders and water without having enough to eat, drink, a comfortable bed to sleep in or a blanket to cover them from the night’s cold.

Today, Ismail represents the little boys and girls that are waiting for the gentle touch of a father, brother or cousin who are kept away in prison cells, locked up for no other reason than desiring a dignified living, justice and dignity, being the foundation of the society. Indeed, some children will never see their parents for the death machines have already claimed and extinguished their possible human potential and an emptiness that will always be lurking in their hearts with the trust that they will be meeting in paradise.

Hagar and Ismail shared their water and provisions with the strangers that came searching for a drop to quench their thirst. At the moment, across Europe, people of majestic and prophetic character are lining up to welcome the strangers and the refugees into their midst by opening their homes, kitchens, lands and farms to share. Fear and hope are meeting on the roads, trains and borders of Europe and new chapters of Abraham’s narrative are being written in small and large ways. The death of Aylan Kurdi on the Mediterranean shore is today’s symbolic bursting of the Zam Zam, which irrigated human hearts that have been encrusted with indifference, fear and hopelessness in the sight of the unfolding calamity. Kurdi’s death has given possibilities of life for many and his little lifeless body has initiated a transformation in the global response to the refugee crisis, and in this he will always be alive and present.