The name Hagar is found in Islamic literature, but not in the Arabic literature that preceded the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. This essay traces the origins of Hagar. However, before proceeding with the subject it is necessary that the reader becomes familiar with the literature where her name appears and the people who first recorded Hagar as the mother of the Ishmaelites or Arabs.
The Bible: The majority Tanakh scrolls (Old Testament) were edited and/or composed between the 6th and 2nd Centuries BCE during and after the Babylonian exile or between 540 – 130 BCE. The literature and location of Babylon greatly influenced this Biblical literature. Babylon, or Biblical Shinar, was located on the Eastern trade route which ran up the Arabian Gulf to Babylon. The ultimate source for the Babylonian literature was Sumer. The Masoretic version of the Tanakh or OT, which is in use today, was compiled and edited under the auspices of the Arab caliphates, especially the Abbassids, between the 7th and 11th centuries in Tiberias and Jerusalem in Palestine and in Babylonia or Iraq. The majority of the exiled Hebrews remained in Iraq until the middle of the 20th Century, when they left for Israel.
The Bible, then, is a compilation of Near Eastern literature that can be briefly summed up as an account of a people who were attempting to establish hegemony over the very lucrative trade routes that ran through Canaan later known as Palestine. These trade routes originated in the incense growing regions on the southern coast of Arabia and extended into Canaan, the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia and the horn of Africa. The Hebrew tribal confederations fought for control of these trade routes with regional rivals as Egypt, Assyria, Aram, Babylonia and various tribal federations from the Arabian Peninsula as the Midianites and the Ishmaelites etc. They also fought with local rival tribes (Jebusties, Edomites, Moabites, local Hittites, Philistines etc.) some of whom were settled in Canaan before the advent of the Hebrews. Many of these pre-Hebraic tribes (with the exception of the Philistines), also originated in the Arabian Peninsula.
The authors of the Biblical stories presented their particular deity, YHWH, as the source of their ‘right’ to control the land and the lucrative trade routes that ran through it. According to Isa 51:1 & Deuteronomy 32, Adam and his descendants, the Hebrews, were sired by ‘the Rock’, another name for YHWH. It was just fortunate that the trade routes ran through the very land upon which the Hebrews believed themselves to be sired by YHWH. The Biblical authors further explained that the Hebrews suffered constant defeat at the hands of their enemies because of the Hebrew’s failure to devote themselves exclusively to YHWH and to follow His laws.
Caravaneers/Origin of the Hebrews: Caravaneers were incense merchants trading in myrrh and frankincense which were grown on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula as well as in ancient Abyssinia. There were two prominent trade routes; the Western trade route which ran from Yemen (Ophir/Havilah in the Bible) along the inner coast of the Red Sea through Bekka (Psalm 84:6 & Quran 3:96) or modern day Mecca and into Canaan. The Eastern trade route ran from Oman along the coast of the Arabian Gulf through Dilmun/Hagar (modern Bahrain) into Mesopotamia. This trade can be traced to at least 4000 BCE. These caravaneers settled along these trade routes which included all of the Levant, Mesopotamia and Egypt. The caravaneers transported their goods by camels, asses and ships. According to Genesis, Abraham and his offspring from his 3 wives were owners of herds of these pack animals. (Gen 12, 24, 31, 32, 37, 42, 43 etc.) Another method of transportation of these goods was by ship. 2 of the sons of Jacob were associated with ships, Zebulun (Gen 49:13) and Dan (Jdgs 5:17). Genesis has Abraham wandering in Egypt and Paran (ancient Arabian Peninsula) and Jacob’s sons trading with the Egyptians (Gen 42 & 43). Isaiah 30:6 especially mentions this trade with Egypt. Ezekiel 27 enumerates the various nations with whom the Hebrews traded, including Egypt, Persia, Lybia, Aram, Tyre, Sidon and various tribes from the Arabian Peninsula as the Minaeans. In addition, DNA tests of modern Cohanim (Jewish priests) has resulted in the identification of the origin of the Hebrews. DNA haplotypes, CMH J1m267 and J1C3, have identified Yemen as the original homeland of the Hebrews. 76% of Yemenese bear the J1m267 hapolotype and 67% bear the J1C3 haplotype. It is evident the Hebrew origins began with the incense caravaneers from the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. Also of interest is haplogroup J1C3d, which accounts for the majority of the J1 in Yemen, Cohen Jews (Jewish priestsly lineage), Ethiopia, the Quraysh (the tribe of the Prophet Mohammed), and Sayyid. Sayyid is an honorific title, that denotes males accepted as descendants of the Islamic prophet, Mohammed, through his grandsons, Hasan ibn Ali and Hussain ibn Ali, sons of the prophet’s daughter Fatima Zahara and his son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. Currently the J1c3d haplotype has been re-labeled as J-L147.1, but the links to Yemen, Sephardi Cohen Jews, Ethiopia, the Quraysh and the descendants of Mohammed remain in tact.
According to the Bible, Hagar was the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah, and mother of Ishmael. According to one narrative, Sarah, having no children, requested Abraham to take Hagar as concubine, so that she might adopt her children. When Hagar had conceived she became domineering, and Sarah, with the consent of Abraham, drove her into the wilderness. There, as she sat by a fountain, the Lord talked to her and showed himself to her in the same manner that he would appear later to Moses. According to Genesis 16:13: “Thereafter Hagar used another name to refer to the LORD, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me. Have I truly seen the achowr (back parts) of (the one) who sees me.” This quote compares to Moses’ experience in Exodus, when YHWH says: Ex: 33:23: “And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts (achowry): but my face shall not be seen.”
God commanded Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her. He promised that she should bear a son who would be called “Ishmael” (“he whom the Lord will hear”), and that he would be a strong fighter (“a wild ass among men”), and would be respected by his brethren (Gen. 16). Another narrative tells that when Isaac had been weaned Ishmael “played” with him or “mocked” him” (the Hebrew is ambiguous), and that Sarah demanded of Abraham that he cast out Hagar and her son, that the latter might not inherit with Isaac. Abraham was unwilling to do so, but upon God’s command he yielded. Hagar fled again into the wilderness, where Ishmael came near dying of thirst. In the moment of her greatest despair God appeared to her and showed her a well, promising her that Ishmael would found a great nation. She dwelt with her son in the wilderness of Paran, where he became an archer, and Hagar took a wife for him from Egypt (Gen. 21: 9-21).
The Jerusalem Targum also mentions Hagar. In this book, which is still read in the synagogues of Yemen, Hagar was a princess of two lands, Egypt and Sumer. She was the daughter of the Pharaoh whose capital city was located at Zoan or Tanis and the granddaughter of Nimrod, a Sumerian King of Urek. According to this story, Pharaoh gave his daughter, Hagar, to Sara as a slave. The entire episode is highly unlikely as Nimrod (Ur Nammu-2100 BCE) lived approximately one thousand years prior to the 21st Dynasty Pharaohs of Zoan (1200 BCE) mentioned in this tale.
Hagar or Hajar means ’flight’ in Hebrew. However, the original meaning in Sayhadic (Old South Arabian) is town/city. (Robert Hetzron, The Semitic Languages, p.227). Biblical authors often named their characters after geographic locations. One example of this literary device is found in the Biblical book 1 Chronicles: 1:32: “Now the sons of Keturah, Abraham’s concubine, she bare Zimran, and Jokshan and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak and Shuah. And the sons of Jokshan; Sheba and Dedan.” Zimran, Midian, Sheba and Dedan are locations in the Arabian Peninsula.
The name Hagar also refers to a wealthy province in ancient Eastern Arabia, Al Ahsa province, which included Bahrain. This province was known by the name ‘Hagar’ in Sayhadic (Old South Arabic), in the Arabian Peninsula as Hajar, and in Greek as Gerrha. The area was designated as Dilmun by the Sumerians who preceded the Babylonians and the Hebrew captivity in Babylon. The city, Hagar, was personified in the Bible as Abraham’s wife and mother of his first son, Ishmael. The Biblical authors describe her descendants, who are named as both Ishmaelites (Judges 8:24) and Hagarites (I Chronicles 5), as hailing from the east of Gilead or East of the East bank of the Jordan River as well as from Ophir/Havilah (Gen 10:29 & Gen 25:12-18) or modern Yemen and Oman. According to Strong’s Hebrew & Greek Dictionary: “Hagiry (Hagarite in English) is perhaps patronymically from ‘Hagar’, (the mother of Ishmael); a Hagrite or member of a certain Arabian clan:– Hagarene, Hagarite, Haggeri.”
So, the Biblical authors describe the Ishmaelites as Arabs originating from Hagar, which was a city-state located on the Eastern trade route; a route with which they were familiar because they were in Babylon when they wrote and/or edited this tale. However, the Arabian tradition places the descendants of Ishmael as originating from Mecca, a town on the Western trade route. Mecca, or Baka, was known to the Hebrews and is mentioned in Psalm 84:6 as a valley of blessings and wells. A similar description can be found in the Quran 3:96 where Baka (Mecca) is described as a blessed place.
Hagar is described as Sarah’s slave in Genesis 16:1. Hagar (Hajar in Arabic) as an historical person is not attested to before the Babylonian exile or the 6th Century BCE and she is nowhere mentioned in the pre-Islamic tales of the Peninsula. However, both Abraham and Ishmael are mentioned by pre-Islamic poets as Umayyah Ibn Abi As-Salt, and other pre Islamic figures as Zayd Ibn Amr. Also, the names Abraham and Ishmael are mentioned in the Eblaite tablets which date as early as 2500 BCE.
Ishmael’s mother’s name does not seem to have been Hagar or Hajar and she was definitely not an Egyptian or a slave. The hadiths which link the hajj rituals to Ishmael’s mother refer to an ancient tradition associated with Ishmael’s mother, but that does not mean that these hadiths are entirely accurate. Written traditions proceeded from oral traditions, which were greatly embellished to capture the attention and imagination of the listening audience. This Semitic cultural trait of enhancing a story was carried over into writing. It was also a custom to attribute one’s own ideas to a more famous person, which is called pseudepigrapha. The embellishment of a story and the attribution of the story to a more renowned person was a common practice, which one can trace in the variations in the hadith narratives as well as in the Bible stories.
The name Hagar means flight in Hebrew. The Hebrew authors were unaware that the origin of the word Hagar was from the Sayhadic word which meant ‘city’, so they equated her name to their word for ‘flight’ and then authored a fantasy which explained Hagar’s name; Hagar’s flight from a jealous Sarah. Throughout the Biblical narratives, the Hebrew authors used this method of inventing a biographical event to explain a foreign name which made no sense in Hebrew. Examples of this inventive etymology can be found in the Biblical stories of YHWH, Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Moses, Jacob, Esau, Leah, and Levi to name a few.
Sarah whose original name was Sarai according to the Genesis narrative, was portrayed as Hagar’s mistress and Abraham’s first wife. Her name, Sarai, means ‘my princess’ in Hebrew and both ’a purchased female/slave’ (shara) and ’concubine’ (syrh) in Arabic. The Arabic words, shara and syrh, meaning slave and concubine, derive from the Akkadian word ‘sherretu’ which means both captive and concubine.The Hebrew meaning is untenable as the Israelites bore no royal titles until Samuel made Saul a king. Saul established the first Israelite monarchy around 1000 BCE. According to Hebrew scholars, Sarai would have lived around 2000 BCE or 1000 years before Israel had a monarch and royal titles. (According to Islamic calculations, Sarai would have lived around 2800 BCE.).
The Arabic meaning, ‘concubine’ is consistent with the Biblical narratives. The Hebrew word for concubine is ‘pelegesh’; a loanword from the Greek word ’pillakis’ while ‘syrh’ is an ancient Semitic word meaning concubine. According to Genesis, Chapters 12 & 20, Sarai was traded to 2 royals (Pharaoh & Abimelech) as a guarantee of security for Abraham. This trade could only happen with a concubine, but never with a wife. A wife would have incurred the death penalty for adultery, while a concubine was excused from punishment for having sexual relations with males other than her master.
The Biblical stories regarding these 2 women were authored by Hebrew scribes who wished to portray their matriarch as superior to their rival’s matriarch. Ophir/Havilah (Yemen) and Hagar (Bahrain and Al Ahsa) were wealthy and powerful Arab city-states, which participated in the incense, gold, copper and exotic goods trade. Except for a brief period under Solomon, the Hebrews were lacking the wealth and political power associated with the incense trade as they suffered occupation under the dominating regional powers of Egypt, Assyria, Aram, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The northern city-state of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE. The Israelites, who were not deported by the Assyrians, fled to Judea or southern Canaan. The Babylonians destroyed the southern city-state of Judea in 580 BCE and deported the literate class of Judeans into Babylon as slaves.
The Hebrew authors, who were slaves during the Babylonian exile, thus edited their history by manufacturing a role reversal to make themselves descendants of royalty. The chief wife, Ishmael’s mother, became a slave and the concubine, Sarai, whose name was changed to Sarah, which means princess, was elevated to first wife position. This role reversal is expanded upon in Arabian hadiths whose present collection dates to 250 years after the Prophet’s death. These hadiths were written during the period the Hebrew scholars known as Masoretes were ‘standardizing’ their Biblical texts under the auspices of the Arab caliphs. The Arab caliphs, especially the Abbasids, were known to employ these Hebrews as consultants and administrators. However, such stories as that of Hajar, are nowhere mentioned in pre-Islamic literature of the Peninsula. Therefore, it must be concluded that the Biblical names of Abraham’s wives and their relationship to one another were unknown in pre-Islamic Arabia. They were not a part of the Arabian tradition, so they were not mentioned in the Quran.
However, according to the Quran, Abraham headed into the Arabian Peninsula with his sons (Surat Ibrahim 14:35) where he and his son, Ishmael, built the Kaba (Surah Baqira 2:127) and where Ishmael fathered the many clans and tribes that trace their origin to Mecca or Bekka. One of these tribes was the Quraish, the tribe from which Muhammad originated as a Prophet, who would restore the religion of the prophets to their original mission of pleasing Allah by purification of both the soul and the society. This was to be accomplished through love of Allah and Islam, which means obedience or submission to Allah’s will. This love of Allah and submission to his will is encompassed in the word ‘Islam’. Ishmael’s mother’s role in the founding of Islam is still celebrated for her contribution to the spread and establishment of Allah’s mission for all of Adam’s descendants.