This article was written by Issra Killawi, BA and Tariq Elsaid, MSW candidate. It was reviewed by Khalid Elzamzamy, MD, a Researcher at The FYI and a psychiatry fellow at the Institute of Living, Hartford, Connecticut.
Note: Honorifics for Prophet Ibrahim and his righteous family were used minimally for ease of reading but are implied in every mention.

What can someone stuck in the desert with a newborn and nothing else teach us about resilience?

As the story goes, Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) was guided by the angel Jibreel to a settlement that he, his family, and his later nation would inhabit. Each of us has our own version of a barren desert – a challenge or difficulty we’re struggling with or one we may face in the future. Let’s explore three things we can learn about resilience from the legacy of our mother Hajar.
Ibrahim was then instructed to leave Hajar and their newborn son, Ismael, in the middle of that barren desert.

​​1. Resilience is to put adversity into context.

When Ibrahim turned to leave his family, Hajar did what any person would do – she frantically asked if he was going to leave them in the desert. Prophet Ibrahim was so full of emotion that he could not answer. In that moment, knowing that her husband was a man of piety, Hajar asked, “Did Allah command you to do so?” Prophet Ibrahim responded with a yes.

“Then Allah is not going to abandon us, indeed He is with us,” said Hajar.

For many of us, Hajar’s level of trust in Allah seems out of reach. When adversity strikes – whether it be a flat tire, conflict at work, or something more serious – we’re likely to experience it with frustration, panic, sadness, or stress. These feelings are natural, but our task lies in managing our emotions so that we can emulate our mother Hajar’s resilience.  

It’s as though Hajar knew that instead of succumbing to hopelessness, she needed to step back and  put things into perspective:

Allah ﷻ is in control. Her husband, Ibrahim, was a pious, righteous man. Everything that Allah decrees is rooted in wisdom and purpose, even if it may not seem so.

She first questioned her situation, and – after grounding herself in what she knew to be true despite the circumstances – found the strength and space to accept it. We can internalize a similar thought process to hers when the panic or distress rises inside of us. We can take time to feel our emotions and process them (which could take minutes or days – and that’s okay). Then, we can internalize thoughts that help us stay focused on growing from the situation:

“This challenge has come my way for a reason - it’s not arbitrary. There is something for me to learn or gain here. Allah has decreed this for me, and He is with me every step of the way.”

By accepting the situation, we have more energy to do something about it – like making Duaa, calling a friend, or looking for a solution.

2. Resilience is to focus on what CAN be done.

Humans are hardwired to identify threats, risks, and deficits. In a stressful situation, we tend to focus on the disadvantages even more than usual. But research shows that if we are trying to practice resilience, a key piece of the puzzle is to focus on the opportunities when in a stressful situation. Practically speaking, this means taking the time to notice what we still have going for us and what we can do about our circumstances. 

Now alone in the desert, Hajar and Ismael begin to feel hunger, thirst, and the heat of the desert. Trusting that Allah will not abandon them, Hajar rises to look for help. She runs toward a nearby mountain to look for approaching travelers but finds no one. She runs towards another mountain to check for travelers there. Hajar continues her runs and climbs seven times, until she hears a voice coming from baby Ismael’s direction. She runs back to find Ismail splashing in a flowing spring beneath his feet.
As humans, we are limited to what we know or can experience with our senses. But what we believe to be “possible” can be expanded by trusting Allah ﷻ. This was the reality of our mother Hajar. Despite being alone in a barren desert with no help in sight and no clear way forward, she ran between Safa and Marwa seven times while maintaining that trust in Allah. 
Her actions bring to mind this verse from the Quran:

So, while our brains are calculating all the losses and difficulties, our path towards resilience is to:

We may think that any parent would have done what Hajar did for her child. But how many of us would do it while firmly trusting that Allah ﷻ will provide? Trusting in Allah takes time to build, but it happens one step at a time – and it always pays off. Allah ﷻ says, “Whoever comes to Me walking, I will come to him running.” (Sahih Muslim)

3. Resilience can be learned.

Hajar nourishes herself and her son. She thanks Allah for the miracle she has witnessed. A caravan comes to settle around the Zamzam spring. In the years to come, the family of Ibrahim and Hajar settle in Mecca and are tested in different ways. They continue to practice faithful resilience in every tribulation.

As you read this article, you might be thinking, “That’s not me, but I wish it were!” The good news is that resilience
isn’t a personality trait that we either have – or don’t. Resilience is like a muscle; the more we use it, the stronger it gets. Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that anyone can learn and develop. The ability to learn resilience shows that it is ordinary, not extraordinary. 

Just like we can learn to ride a bike or practice more gratitude every day, we can also strengthen our resilience muscles. We can even model resilience for our families and those around us. However we respond to life’s hardships, our families are watching and will be influenced by our responses and reactions. This was the reality of the family of Ibrahim – their son Ismael was nourished with not only love
but also resiliency, trust, and dependence on Allah thanks to the beautiful responses of his parents. Through their example, he became a man of Allah in his words and actions.

You don’t have to be stranded in the middle of the desert to appreciate the conviction of Hajar or to model your resilience after hers. To strengthen your resilience muscle, remember to:

May Allah ﷻ send His peace and blessings on Prophet Ibrahim and his family.
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