The Story of Abraham and Hajar: Radical Hope in God and Our Responsibilities to Each Other

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at a special interfaith Shabbat service at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills. A video of Maha’s speech is available here.

Shalom, Salam, and peace be with you.

I am honored to be here with you tonight on the day of Eid ul-Adha, a major holiday in Islam that commemorates the story of Abraham’s family, his wife, Hajar, and Abraham’s sacrifice of his son. This holiday celebrates both the fruits of repentance and hope found in reliance on God, and the myriad blessings of God that we often take for granted.  It celebrates rebirth and new beginnings, something not that different from what our country is going through right now.

However you voted, I think we all can agree that our nation is undergoing rapid changes.

Charlottesville is but one example–a wake-up call, exposing an undercurrent of white supremacist bigotry that has been with us for a long time that we have failed to see in the recent past.

As a person of color, and minority religion in the U.S., I have to admit that Charlottesville didn’t shock me.

Being an American Muslim wearing hijab, and doing the work I do in education about Muslims, evidence of racism and xenophobia confronts me daily. If I don’t encounter it from the audiences I speak to, I find it in reports from organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that tracks hate groups, or the Government Accountability Office, which pointed out earlier this year that “Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001, far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 73 percent, while radical Muslim extremists were responsible for 27 percent.”

Now, it’s tempting to regard people who embrace and act on hateful ideologies as not fully human. Yet my faith calls me to recognize them as human beings still, just like myself.

I feel that what we saw in Charlottesville held up a mirror to ourselves.

Which of us can honestly say that she is totally free from sentiments of superiority, sometimes, from desires to dominate others weaker than ourselves, from fear of losing whatever position we think we have gained in the world?

My faith teaches me constantly to pursue the purification of my character, to strive always to be conscious of God and to revere God in my daily prayers as ar-rahman ar-rahim, “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

It is my faith and that of others that have the ultimate response to bigotry, whether white supremacy or any other claims of the superiority of one race or culture, or religion over another.

The Qur’an repeatedly urges us to respect those of all cultures and religions; certainly, the Quran sees diversity, including religious diversity, as part of God’s Will and plan.

God declares in the Qur’an, “For each of them We have established a law, and a revealed way. And if God wished, God would have made you a single nation; but the intent is to test you in what God has given you.” (49:13)

As another verse teaches, God made us different tribes and nations, not to war with or hold ourselves superior to one another, but “to get to know one another” (5:48), to learn from one another and come together to build a world of peace.

The Prophet Muhammad lived this teaching; his constitution for the first Muslim state in Medina provided that people of all religions had equal rights, and he made a point of treating Jews and Christians with respect even when he was challenged for doing so.

And so, events like Charlottesville call us to reconnect with our faith traditions and with the Source of all being, however we may understand It.

Any action we take must come from self-grounding in the deepest truth, otherwise we risk becoming what we’re trying to overcome.

Which brings me back to today’s Muslim holiday that celebrates Hajar’s and Abraham’s radical hope in God in what looked like a hopeless situation. The Hebrew Bible in Genesis says that when God called, Abraham replied, “Here I am.” Hope like Abraham’s can be ours, if we are ready to say “Here I am” to the source of forgiveness and compassion in our deepest selves, and if we re-commit ourselves to God from a renewed sense of God-consciousness and self-awareness.