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

 

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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:

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Al-Buraq, the Steed that Took Muhammad to Heaven

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Muslims believe that in around 620 A.D., the prophet Muhammad journeyed to Heaven, where he was purified and given the command to pray five times a day.  This is known as the Miraj –a/k/a the Night Journey or the Ascension to Heaven – and it wouldn’t have been possible without a white, winged steed known as al-Buraq.

The image of an immortal, winged steed that could journey to Heaven didn’t originate with Islam.  Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek myth, dates from at least as far back as the 4th century BCE.

In the Muslim account, however, the Archangel Gabriel awakens Muhammad from a sound sleep outside the Ka’aba (sacred mosque) in Makkah and leads him to al-Buraq, who lets Muhammad mount him.   Al-Buraq and Gabriel take Muhammad to the “Farthest Mosque,” believed by Muslims to be the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

There Muhammad dismounts and prays with prior prophets – including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus — after which he is presented with a vessel of wine and a vessel of milk. When he chooses the milk, Gabriel says to him, “you have chosen the true religion.”  From Jerusalem Muhammad ascends to Heaven on al-Burqa, returning to Ka’ba that very night.