Sarah and Hagar as kin

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf

Sarah, you massaged my sacrum
with a tennis ball when I was in labor.
Like a priestess of the body, you
wiped the newborn Ismail clean
of birthblood and whispered first
holy words into his ear. You are his mother
too. We are kin. No decrees
of man or God can make this truer
than it is, nor can it be cloven.

We did not begin with the husband we shared,
but in Egypt, with divine
intelligence arrowed from eye to eye
across a patio of pagan strangers,
when I was royalty and you were trembling
in the house. You knew exile and I
knew exile. You suffered and I suffered.

Like matter, kinship can be changed
but not destroyed. Cruelty tarnishes,
but cannot dissolve it. We are kin
from bread baked together,
salted, broken, eaten, sacred
as a challah braid at sunset on the Night of Power;
from the battering waters of the sea we crossed;
from the Tree of Life whose branches
we burned to stay alive. Kin
we are from knowledge of the Name;

you had the first letters, I had the last
and, putting them together, we
spelled out the Secret.

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf is from Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., acting on behalf of the publisher.

Mohja Kahf is a Syrian American poet, novelist, and scholar of Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, and Arab and Arab American feminism. Born in Damascus but moving to the Midwest as a child, she was raised in a devout Muslim household. In her creative work and scholarship, she both respects and interrogates her own faith tradition.

Her second poetry collection, Hagar Poems, gives voice to several female characters from the Qur’an and Islamic history, many of whom are also present in the biblical narrative. Part 1 focuses on Hajar (or Hagar, as she’s called in the Bible) and, to a lesser extent, Sarah, the ancient feuding matriarchs of Islam and Judaism, respectively. The remaining two parts spotlight Zuleikha (Potiphar’s wife); Asiya (Moses’s adoptive mother); Balqis (the queen of Sheba); Maryam (Mary); Khadija, Aisha, and Fatima (wives of Muhammad); Nusaiba (a disciple of Muhammad’s); and Hamamah (an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave known primarily as the mother of Bilal, a Muslim convert). The stories of these women are sometimes transposed into contemporary times. For example, Hajar goes to the moon, sees a therapist, participates in an AIDS march, and is visited by a caseworker responding to a report of domestic violence.

Like a few others in the volume, the poem I’ve selected here explores the relationship between Hagar and Sarah as a metonym for the relationships between modern-day adherents of the two religions they represent, on both personal and political scales (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict). But “Kin” is revisionist and aspirational, reimagining a more congenial, mutually supportive, compassionate sisterhood between the two matriarchs, and therefore also a brighter future for their descendants. It might be said that patriarchy made Hagar and Sarah rivals. Both suffered abuse within the system and at different points inflicted it as each gained privilege over the other and vulnerabilities and power dynamics shifted.

According to the biblical story (Gen. 12:10–20), a famine in Canaan drove Abraham and his wife Sarah to seek relief in Egypt. Fearful that his life would be endangered because of Sarah’s beauty (kings were, after all, known to go to extreme measures to get what they want), Abraham presents Sarah to the royal court as his sister, implying that she is sexually available. Pharaoh thus acquires her for his harem and, in gratitude for the giving over of his “sister,” lavishes Abraham with livestock and servants. But as judgment against Pharaoh’s act of (unwitting) adultery, God strikes him and his household with plagues, which is when Pharaoh realizes that he has been deceived. He orders Abraham and Sarah to leave Egypt.

It’s not until Genesis 16:1 that we meet Hagar, identified as “an Egyptian slave” (or, as some translations have it, a handmaid or servant) owned by Sarah. Presumably Sarah acquired—and yes, I use that disgusting term again, because women were treated as possessions in ancient Mesopotamia—Hagar during her time in Egypt.

When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she forces Hagar to have sex with Abraham to bear him an heir. But when Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah becomes jealous, and the abuse worsens to the point that Hagar runs away. But God visits Hagar in the wilderness with words of comfort and reassurance. She returns to Abraham’s household and gives birth to Ishmael. Sometime later, Sarah herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, after which she casts out Hagar and Ishmael, no longer having need of them. God again comes to Hagar and to her son, both of them weak from thirst and on the verge of death. He reveals to them a well and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation, just as he promised of Isaac. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar exults (Gen. 16:13).

According to Jewish midrash, before her enslavement to Sarah, Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess—that is, a daughter of Pharaoh’s. When Pharaoh witnessed the miracle that Sarah’s God performed for Sarah’s sake, he gave Hagar to her, saying, “Better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). In other retellings, Pharaoh gives her away reluctantly as penance, not wanting to incur any more of God’s wrath. And in yet another version, leaving Egypt with Sarah is Hagar’s idea, as she wishes to follow the one true God.

Islamic tradition also affirms Hagar’s royal birth, though according to the Qisas Al-Anbiya, she was the daughter of the king of Maghreb, whom Pharaoh killed, thus capturing her. Notably, neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an; they are only briefly alluded to in Surah Ibrahim 14:37, where Abraham says in prayer, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” Hagar is, however, mentioned amply in the hadith.

In “Kin,” Kahf is interested in what binds Sarah and Hagar—and Jews and Muslims—together. Both women were subjected to gendered oppression, including sexual abuse, and had no recourse against it. Both were, at different times, strangers in a strange land—first Sarah in Egypt, then Hagar in Canaan and later the wilderness of Paran. Both experienced miraculous interventions by God and even heard his voice. Both were mothers. They shared, at least initially, a husband and a home—they baked and broke bread together. Their family lines would diverge, but the two, Kahf writes, were as intertwined as the braids of a challah loaf. “Kin / we are from knowledge of the Name”—both knew and embraced the same God, as would their spiritual descendants.

The poem is written to Sarah from Hagar’s perspective. Hagar looks back with empathy to their first meeting, when “I was royalty” (as rabbinic tradition has it) “and you were trembling / in the house.” Kahf idealistically envisions an intimacy between the two, and a cooperative spirit—for example, Sarah giving Hagar a sacral massage while she’s in labor, afterward welcoming Ishmael into the world with love and devotion.

This picture is not what we get in the sacred texts, where Sarah regards Hagar with bitterness and hostility and mistreats her, and, if Sarah’s complaints can be trusted, Hagar lords it over Sarah when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s first son.

But what if the women had been friends? What if Ishmael and Isaac had been raised together as brothers? How might those strong familial ties and goodwill have impacted subsequent generations and influenced Jewish-Muslim relations in the present day?

(Related post: “Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter”)

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Like Kahf, Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin also explores gender and religious identity through her work, focusing especially on the biblical matriarchs. Also like Kahf, she is interested in the midrashic process by which exegetes, be they scholars or artists, approach the stories of scripture with a spirit of seeking and inquiry, responding with creative interpretations that read between the lines and ponder implications.

Benjamin, Siona_Beloved (Sarah and Hagar)
Siona Benjamin (Indian American, 1960–), Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), 2004. Gouache on paper, 20 × 16 in. From the Finding Home series.

In her painting Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), Sarah wears a kippah on her head and tefillin (small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside) on her arms, while Hagar wears a hijab and a misbaḥah (string of prayer beads). The two women are wound together in a tight embrace—“reflections of each other,” the artist says. They’re also wounded together, their bodies blown apart, blood dripping like tears from the rifts. To the side is a pair of amputee Israeli soldiers, whose surveillance camera has identified three Palestinian suicide bombers. Integrated into the foliate decoration around the border are guns and grenades.

Benjamin says this painting represents the eventual reuniting of Sarah and Hagar after Hagar’s banishment, an invented outcome but one that expresses hope for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. When we recognize the shared humanity of the “other,” and how they are just as beloved of God, it becomes impossible to view them as the enemy, to be occupied or killed.

Did Sarah and Hagar ever share the kind of closeness Benjamin envisions in Beloved? Probably not. But does that mean the two nations they founded must forever be at war? Let us pray for peace and pursue it.

Instead of finger-pointing or offering political solutions, these two artistic works—one by a Muslim, one by a Jew—serve as prayers of lament and hope. They probe beneath the surface of Sarah and Hagar’s story and imagine future possibilities.

Roundup: Christianity in Africa, Zwingli’s plague hymn, biblical art database, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “At the Whipping Post” by Victoria Emily Jones: Last year the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) ran a major retrospective on Djanira da Motta e Silva, “a central artist in Brazilian mid-century modernism” (Rodrigo Moura). ArtWay’s editor asked me to choose a painting of hers to write about—I chose the one she submitted to the 1955 “Christ of Color” contest, showing Jesus as an enslaved African being scourged in the historic center of Salvador de Bahia, the first colonial capital of Brazil.

Djanira_Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador
Djanira da Motta e Silva (Brazilian, 1914–1979), Largo do Pelourinho, Salvador, or Cristo na coluna (Christ at the Column), 1955. Oil on canvas, 81 × 115 cm. Private collection, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Jaime Acioli.

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LECTURE: “Is Christianity a White Man’s Religion?” by Dr. Vince L. Bantu: I first encountered Vince Bantu in a Conversing (Fuller Studio) podcast episode on African American identity and the church. (He joined the Fuller faculty last year as assistant professor of church history and Black church studies.) In this video from January 2018, he returns to his alma mater, Wheaton College, to discuss the history of Christianity in Africa—which some people are surprised to learn predates colonialism. “To study ancient African history is to study Christianity. They go together,” he says. “If you want to study Ethiopian literature, . . . you’re going to be reading a whole bunch of Christian literature. Same thing in Nubian. Same thing in Coptic.” While the Anglo-Saxons were still worshipping Odin and Thor, Bantu says, Black Africans were building churches, establishing seminaries, and writing Christian theological treatises!

The talk starts at 11:34 and really kicks into gear at around 24:00. Q&A starts at 52:40 and includes discussion of a three-point spectrum of approaches to culture, mission as “cultural sanctification,” and internalized theological racism. Take note of Bantu’s response, at 1:09:35, to the question “What do we do with this information?”

“Christianity is and always has been a global religion,” Bantu reminds us. Unfortunately, people tend to associate it most with western Europe. That’s because Rome, the dominant culture for some time, essentially said, “Christianity belongs to us,” instituting a theological hegemony. The West proclaimed itself the guardian of the Christian faith, declaring heretical churches in other regions that didn’t express theology the same way they did, with no regard for differences in language and philosophical frameworks.

I appreciate how Bantu teaches Christian history in part through art and architecture, which are material witnesses to the faith and sometimes even modes of theology. He shows photos of churches and monasteries and their interior decoration. Most fascinating to me is a tenth-century wall painting he photographed at the Great Monastery of Saint Anthony in Old Dongola (present-day Sudan), a Nativity scene that shows Africans wearing animal crest masks and worshipping Christ with traditional instruments. (You can view some photos here. See also The Wall Paintings from the Monastery on Kom H in Dongola by Malgorzata Martens-Czarnecka, or the freely accessible essay by the same author, “The Christian Nubia and the Arabs.”)

Bantu is the author of A Multitude of Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity from IVP Academic and the editor of Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity, both released this year.

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SONGS:

“Azim ast name To Isa”: Nora Kirkland from Iran performs this Christian praise song in Farsi, English, and Greek. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Great is your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Power to your name, Lord Jesus Christ
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus Christ

Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah
Praise to your name, exalted Jesus

“I Am Thine (Plague Hymn)”: Made especially timely by the current COVID-19 pandemic, this hymn text was written in 1519 by Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli while convalescing from the bubonic plague, having caught it ministering to others. This year Zac Hicks wrote a new melody for it, and it’s sung here by Leif Bondarenko. Released by Advent Birmingham.

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BIBLICAL ART DATABASE: Visual Midrash: “Visual Midrash is an online bilingual (Hebrew and English) collection of Bible art and commentary, sponsored by the TALI Education Fund in Israel. At present, the site contains more than 1100 art images relating to 33 different subjects from all three divisions of the Hebrew Bible – including such figures as Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the women of the Book of Judges, the scrolls of Ruth and Esther and much more. Among the images are objects from the Ancient Near East; frescoes from the ancient synagogue of Dura Europos; medieval illuminated manuscripts; paintings, sculptures, lithographs, and nearly 100 other art media from Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Chagall to contemporary artists.” I’ve had fun browsing! Below is just a small sampling of images from the site.

Blake, William_Behemoth and Leviathan
William Blake (British, 1757–1827), Behold Now Behemoth, Which I Made With Thee (The Book of Job) (Linnell set), 1821. Watercolor, black ink, and graphite on off-white antique laid paper, 27.5 × 20 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts. [HT]

Mordecai Ardon (Israeli, 1896–1992), Sarah, 1947. Oil on canvas, 138 × 108 cm. Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem.

The Finding of Moses (Dura-Europos Synagogue)
“The Finding of Moses,” wall painting made in 244 CE, from Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria. Preserved at the National Museum of Syria, Damascus. [HT]

Crossing the Red Sea (Alba Bible)
“Crossing of the Red Sea,” Spain, 1430. Illumination from the Alba Bible (fol. 68v–69r), Liria Palace, Madrid.

Jonah (Islamic)
“Jonah,” Iran, 1577. Illumination from the Qisas al Anbiya (Diez A Fol. 3, fol. 142v), Staatsbibliothek, Berlin. [HT]

Roundup: A sign of the times; multifaith art exhibit; Hildegard of Bingen musical; and more

After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)

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DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.

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FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.

“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”

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ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!

If you enjoyed this essay as much as I did, be sure to also check out “Cloud Shapes and Oak Trees,” also by Cording, from 2017.

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EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”

Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.

Hussein, Sinan_Living as a Pilgrim
Sinan Hussein (Iraqi, 1977–), Living as a Pilgrim, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 45 × 60 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.

Sindy, Qais Al_Welcoming the Stranger
Qais Al Sindy (Iraqi, 1967–), Welcoming the Stranger, 2019. Oil and collage on canvas, 60 × 45 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.

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MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean: Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.

Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]