Legends of Old Testament Characters/Chapter 26

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XXVI.

OF ISHMAEL AND THE WELL ZEMZEM.

THE Arabs call Hagar, Hagiar Anaï, the mother in chief, because of Ishmael her son. They do not suppose that she was the bond-servant of Sarah, but that she was the legitimate wife of the patriarch; and she bore him Ishmael, who, as his eldest son, had the birthright, and obtained, as his double portion of Abraham's inheritance, the land of Arabia, whereas to Isaac was given the inferior land of Canaan.

They say that Hagar died at Mecca, and that she was buried in the exterior enclosure of the Kaaba, or square temple, built, say they, by Abraham.

Near the tomb is the well of Zemzem, which is the fountain which God revealed to her when she had been driven out of the house of Sarah, and had fled into Arabia.

As has been already mentioned, the Mussulmans say that it was Ishmael and not Isaac whom Abraham prepared to sacrifice. The story need not be related again, as all the particulars in the Jewish legends are absorbed into the Mussulman account.

One particular alone needs mention. Gabriel gave the ram to Abraham in the place where Mussulman pilgrims now cast stones; namely, on the mountain of Mina. But the ram escaped out of the hands of Abraham, and the patriarch threw seven stones after it. Then Ishmael went forward, and the ram halted. Ishmael went up to the ram and brought it to Abraham, and he took it, and slew it. Some say that this was the same ram that Abel had offered in sacrifice, and which had been preserved in Paradise.[1]

Then God said to Abraham, "Go to Mecca along with Ishmael, and build me the temple there."

At Mecca had been the "Visited-house," to which Adam went in pilgrimage, and round which he walked in procession every year. When the Flood came, this house had been caught up into heaven.

When Abraham went in obedience to the command of God to visit Ishmael, and to call him to build the temple, he found him on a mountain engaged in making arrows. He said to him, "O my son, God has ordered me to build a house along with thee."

Ishmael replied, "I am ready to obey, O my father."

Then they prepared to build. But Abraham knew nothing of architecture.

God sent a cloud of the size of the Kaaba, to show them, by its shadow on the ground, what were to be the dimensions of the house, and to give them shade in which to build.

But some say that the Serpent arrived and instructed Abraham in the proportions of the house. After that, Abraham and Ishmael began to dig the trenches which were to receive the foundations; and they gave them the depth of a man's stature. Then they raised them to the level of the soil; after that, they cut stones out of the neighbouring rocks for the walls of the edifice. Abraham built, and Ishmael handed the stones. Now, when the wall got above his reach, Abraham placed a stone on the ground, and stood upon that to build, and he left thereon the impression of his foot. The stone remains to this day, and is called Makam Ibrahîm.

And when the temple was built, God sent Gabriel to instruct Abraham in all the rites of pilgrimage, and how to visit Mina and Mount Arafat, and how to go processionally round the Kaaba, and to cast the stones, and to wear the pilgrim's dress, and to make sacrifice, and to shave the head, to visit the holy places, and all that concerns the pilgrimage.

That same year Abraham made the pilgrimage, and he confided the care of the temple to Ishmael, his son, and, he said to him, "This land belongs to thee and to thy children till the Judgment Day."

Then Abraham, turning him about, went at God's command to the top of a high mountain, and cried, "O men, God has built you a house, and He calls you to visit it."

And all men and women, and the children yet unborn, answered from every quarter of the world, "We will visit it."

Then Abraham returned into Syria.[2]

Now the well of Zemzem was formed when Hagar and Ishmael were in the desert. The angel Gabriel trod in the ground and the water bubbled up. At first it was sweet as honey, and as nourishing as milk. This well is one of the wonders of Mecca. We shall relate more of it presently.

And the stone that was white and shining, but now is black, that stone was an angel who wept over the sins of men till he has grown dark; that also is one of the wonders of Mecca.

Whilst Ishmael was engaged one day in building the Kaaba, there came to him Alexander the Two-horned, and asked him what he was doing.

Then Abraham answered, "We build a temple to the only God in whom we believe." And Alexander knew that he was a prophet of God; and he went on foot seven times round the temple.

About this Alexander, authorities differ. Some say that he was a Greek, and that he was lord of the whole earth as Nimrod was before him, and as Solomon was after him.

Alexander was lord of light and darkness; when he went forth with his hosts, he had light before him, and behind him was darkness: thus he could overtake his enemies, but could not be overtaken by them. He had also two banners, one white and the other black, and when he unfurled the white one, it was instantly broad day; and when he unfurled the black one, it was instantly midnight. Thus he could have day in the darkest night, and night in the brightest day.

He was also unconquerable; for he could, at will, make his army invisible, and fall upon his enemies and destroy them, without their being able to see who were opposed to them. He went through the whole world in quest of the Fountain of Immortality, of which, as he read in his sacred books, a descendant of Shem was pre-ordained to drink, and become immortal.

But his vizir Al Hidhr[3] lighted on the fountain before him and drank, not knowing what were the virtues of this spring; and when Alexander came afterwards, the water had sunk away, for by God's command only one man was destined to drink thereof.

Alexander was called the Two-horned, according to some, because he went through the world from one end to the other; according to others, because he wore two long locks of hair which stood up like horns; according to others, because he had two gold horns on his crown which symbolized the kingdoms of Grecia and Persia over which he reigned. But according to others, he once dreamed that he had got so near to the sun, that he caught it by its two ends, and therefore he was given his name.

Learned men are also equally disagreed as to the time in which he lived, and as to the place of his birth and residence.

Most think that there were two Alexanders. One was descended from Shem, and went with El Khoudr to the end of the world after the Fountain of Immortality, and who was ordered by God to build an indestructible wall against the incursions of the children of Gog and Magog. The other Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon, and was descended from Japheth, and was the pupil of Aristotle at Athens.[4]

And now let us return to the fountain or well of Zemzem, and relate what befel that.

Nabajoth, the eldest son of Ishmael, succeeded his father in the custody of the Kaaba, of the tombs of Adam and Eve, of the stone, and the well. But having left only very young children to succeed him, Madad-ben-Amron, their maternal grandfather, took charge of their education, and at the same time became the protector of the Kaaba and of the well of Zemzem.

The children of Nabajoth, when they grew old, would not contest with their foster-father the possession of the Holy places, therefore it remained to him and his sons till the time when the Giorhamides took them by violence.

Then the posterity of Ishmael having attacked them, defeated them, and recovered the city and temple of Mecca. But the stone, and the two gazelles of gold which a king of Arabia had given to the Kaaba, had been lost, for they had been thrown into the well of Zemzem, which had been filled up.

The well remained choked and unregarded till the times of Abd-el-Motalleb, grandfather of Mohammed, who one day heard a voice bid him dig the well of Zemzem.

Abd-el-Motalleb asked the voice what Zemzem was.

Then the voice replied: "It is the well that sprang up to nourish Ishmael in the desert, whereof he and his children drank."

Abd-el-Motalleb, not knowing whereabouts to dig, asked further, and the voice answered, "The well of Zemzem is near two idols of the Koraïschites named Assaf and Naïlah; dig on the spot where you shall see a magpie pecking in the ground and turning up a nest of ants."

Abd-el-Motalleb set about obeying the voice, in spite of the opposition of the Koraïschites, who objected to the overthrow of their idols. However, he dug, along with his ten sons, and he vowed that if God would show him the water, he would sacrifice one of his sons. And when he came to water, he found the gazelles of gold and the Black Stone.

Then he summoned his children before him and told them his vow. And he drew lots which of them should die, and the lot fell on Abd-Allah, the father of the prophet.

Then said Abd-el-Motalleb, "I am in a great strait; how shall I perform my vow?" For he loved Abd-Allah best of his ten sons. Now the mother of Abd-Allah belonged to the family of Benu-Zora, which is one of the chief in Mecca.

The Benu-Zora family assembled and said, "We will not suffer you to slay your son." But he said, "I must perform my vow." Then he consulted two Jewish astrologers, who said, "Go, and put on one side your child, and on the other your camel, and draw the lot; and if the lot fall on Abd-Allah, add a second camel to the first, and draw the lot again, and continue adding camels till the lot falls on them: then you will know how many camels will be accepted by God as an equivalent for your son."

He did so, and he put one camel, then two, then three, up to fifty. The lot fell on Abd-Allah up to the ninety-ninth camel; but when Abd-el-Motalleb had added the hundredth, then the lot fell on those animals, and he knew that they were accepted in place of his son, and he sacrificed them to the Lord; and this custom has continued among the Arabs, to redeem a man who is to be sacrificed by one hundred camels.[5]

Now when the Koraïschites saw what Abd-el-Motalleb had drawn from the well, they demanded a share of the treasure he had found. But he refused it, saying that all belonged to the temple that Abraham and Ishmael had built.

To decide this quarrel, they agreed to consult a dervish who dwelt on the confines of Syria, and passed for a prophet. It fell out that, on the way, Abd-el-Motalleb, exhausted with thirst, was obliged to ask water of the Koraïschites, but they, fearing that they would not have enough for themselves, were obliged to refuse.

Then, from the ground pressed by the foot of the camel of Abd-el-Motalleb, a fountain gushed forth, which quenched the thirst of himself and of those who had refused to give him water, and they, seeing the miracle, recognized him as a prophet sent from God, and they relinquished their pretensions to the well of Zemzem.

And when the well was cleared out, Abd-el-Motalleb gave to the temple of the Kaaba the two gazelles of gold, and all the silver, and the arms and precious things he found in the well. For long, Mecca was supplied with water from the well of Zemzem alone, till the concourse of pilgrims became so great, that the Khalifs were obliged to construct an aqueduct to bring abundance of water into the city.

Mohammed, to honour the town of Mecca, where he was born, gave great praise to the water of the well. It is believed among the Arabs that a draught of that water gives health, and that to drink much thereof washes away sin. It is related of a certain Mussulman teacher, who knew a great many traditions, that, having been interrogated on his memory, he replied, "Since I have drunk long draughts of the water of Zemzem, I have forgotten nothing that I learnt."

To conclude what we have to say of Ishmael.

He had a daughter named Basemath, whom he married to Esau, and many sons; two, Nabajoth and Kedar, were his sons who dwelt in Mecca. He was a hundred and thirty years old when he died, and he was buried at Mecca, after having appointed Isaac his executor.

  1. Tabari, i. c. liii.
  2. Tabari; Weil, Abulfeda, pp. 25-27, &c.
  3. Or El Khoudr; he is identified in Arab legend with S. George and Elias.
  4. Weil, pp. 94-6.
  5. Tabari, i. p. 181.