Hagar and the Well of Zamzam: how a woman discovered one of the holiest sites in Islam



Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert by François Joseph Navez (Belgian, 1787–1869)


The Well of Zamzam is located near the Kaaba (Cube), the holiest place in Islam. Both the Kaaba and the Zamzam Well are inside the Holy Mosque (Masjid al-Haram) in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is the Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaaba. During the Hajj, pilgrims drink from the Zamzam well. To understand why Zamzam water is so important to Muslims, a bit of religious history is in order.

It begins with the story of the biblical patriarch, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah. Slightly differing versions of the story appear in the Bible and the Koran (Quran). But the essentials are:

God promises Abraham that Sarah (who is barren and past menopause) will give him an heir. But 10 years later, Abraham and Sarah remain childless. So in accordance with custom, Sarah gives her servant Hagar to Abraham to take as a second wife.

Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Under Jewish law, Ishmael is considered Abraham and Sarah’s child. Thus he is Abraham’s heir.

But when Ishmael turns 13, God tells the 100-year old Abraham that Sarah (who is in her 90s) will give birth to a son, Isaac, who will be Abraham’s heir. He promises that Ishmael will not be forgotten – he will sire twelve princes and found a great nation.

Sarah,in the meantime, has begun to have her doubts about Ishmael, whom the Bible says will be a “wild ass of a man.”  After Isaac’s first birthday, she asks Abraham to send Ishmael away. Abraham hesitates to comply, but God tells him to do as Sarah asks.

This is where things get a little tricky. For one thing, Ishmael is now portrayed in both the Bible and the Koran as an infant.

More importantly, the Bible says that Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Beersheba (in modern-day Israel). He leaves them there with some water and food for their journey. Archaeological evidence shows that Beersheba had an abundance of wells in biblical times. The name Beersheba itself means “seven wells” or “the place of many wells.” So Abraham would have felt certain that Hagar and Ishmael would have no trouble finding water.

According to Muslim tradition, however, Abraham left Hagar and Ishmael in Bakkah (the ancient name for Mecca). Mecca is in the middle of a searing desert, some 750 miles from Beersheba.


Under both versions of the story, Hagar and Ishmael become lost. They run out of water and Hagar can no longer nurse Ishmael. In the Bible, she places him under a bush so that she doesn’t have to watch him die. But God hears Ishmael cry. He tells Hagar to open her eyes. She does so and sees a spring.

The Koran, on the other hand, says that Hagar places Ishmael under the bush for shade. She then runs back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times, desperately looking for water. Ishmael kicks the ground (or in some versions, the archangel Gabriel appears and kicks it). This causes water to gush forth. Eventually Hagar cries zomë zomë (“stop flowing”) in an attempt to contain the spring. From this phrase comes the well’s name, Zamzam.

Ishamel continued to live on the outskirts of the desert and became a great archer. He married and had many children, who became known as the Ishmaelites (Arabs), the people of the desert.

Isaac’s heirs went on to become the Israelites. And ever since, the Ishmaelites and the Israelites have fought and loved like brothers.


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