The Double Blessing: Obama, the Bible, and Outreach to Muslims

If President Obama wants to reach out to Muslims and Muslim states, he would do well to remember Hagar. No, I do not mean Hagar Roublev, the Israeli peace activist. I mean the biblical woman, the Egyptian slave, who was Abraham’s second wife, the mother of Ishmael, founding matriarch of Islam; the woman who Mohammed said was most blessed of all women.

When it comes to scripture, it is usually God’s promise to Abraham that both sides cite to support their claims of precedency in the Middle East. But the antagonists have forgotten what God said to the women; in this case, the pivotal woman in the story. “Your son will be free,” God told her, “He will build a great nation. His name will be God-hears, or Ishmael.”

This oversight has cost both sides bitterly. By focusing on the covenantal agreement between God and Abraham, both Muslims and Jews have lost sight of God’s inclusivity. As a result, for thousands of years the sons of Isaac have viewed the sons of Ishmael as potential enemies, and vice versa. Each side sees the other as the opponent in a battle for God’s single blessing.

Here’s the catch. God did not just bestow one blessing. “So what?” hard-liners will say, God said that Sarah’s child, Isaac, was the child of His covenant and this means that only the descendants of Isaac are entitled to the promised land. But the fallacy in this argument is that God also told Hagar that her son, Ishmael, would be blessed. He would be a free man, and he, too, would be the founder of a great nation.

How can both things be true? How can both sons be the recipient of “the blessing”? Welcome to the world of the Bible. The text is clear: both sons inherit God’s legacy through Abraham. It is not an exclusive or single inheritance. Why then does God tell Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away from the campsite? Because God wants the woman and the boy to have their own birthright, their own land that would be separate from Isaac’s. In other words, God invented the two-state solution in Genesis 21.

The interesting thing is that His invention works. In both the Bible and the Islamic hadith, the two peoples flourish side by side, intermarrying, trading, and cooperating. There is no record of warfare or contests over land. In fact, in case any Jew or Christian is worried about what really happens to Hagar after she leaves Abraham’s side, they need only read the Muslim version of the story. According to Islam, Abraham takes Hagar by the hand, leads her to Mecca, where, with the help of God, she discovers water and digs the famous well, the Zam Zam, with her own hands. She fights off marauding tribes in order to preserve the water and land rights of her son. When he grows up, she finds him a wife. Ishmael’s marriage is productive. He has twelve sons, all of whom go on to be the forefathers of the great nation of Islam.

Thus, Mr. Obama, the son of a Muslim and a Christian, should refer to both stories of Hagar, the Hagar of the hadith and the Hagar of the Bible. Combined, they represent hope. They represent redemption. Combined, they point the way toward two states and two equal peoples.