I’m sure all Muslims know about Safa and Marwa, for these are the two mountains which pilgrims to Mecca traverse between seven times in what is called Sa’ee (سَعِي), but the truth is far more significant.
The Islamic Tradition
We read of this traditional Islamic ritual in the Qur’an, though it is quite vague, and one wonders what it really refers to. It says: ‘Indeed, Safa and Marwa, are of the symbols of God. So whoever made pilgrimage to the House, or visited, no blame is on him that walks between them’ (Arabic below).
إِنَّ ٱلصَّفَا وَٱلْمَرْوَةَ مِن شَعَآئِرِ ٱللَّهِ ۖ فَمَنْ حَجَّ ٱلْبَيْتَ أَوِ ٱعْتَمَرَ فَلَا جُنَاحَ عَلَيْهِ أَن يَطَّوَّفَ بِهِمَاSurah 2:158
When we turn to the Islamic traditions (hadith), written in the 9th century, we are told that these two places are mountains found in Mecca. On the top of these mountains had stood, in the days before Islam, two idols. The narrative states that those who had once been idolaters had traversed between the two mountains and their idols. Now that they were Muslims, they hesitated to make this ritual traversing between the two mountains, and this is the reason for this verse in the Qur’an. The religious justification then given for continuing this practice was that this is exactly what Hagar had done when she was looking for water having been sent away by Abraham. [Sahih al-Bukhari 4496 and Ibn Kathir al-Qur’an Tafsir]
A nice story, except that there are not two mountains in Mecca. Instead, pilgrims to Mecca traverse between large boulders now housed within the mosque complex (see picture below). And if these are said to be ‘symbols of God’, what exactly do they symbolise?
Neither was Hagar anywhere near Mecca. Turning to the Word of God revealed in the Torah, we read that Abraham was living in Beersheba when Hagar was sent away with her son Ishmael, and that she ‘wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.’ (Gen 21:14,15)
Let me ask you which account rings true. 1) The Bible’s assertion that Hagar remained close to Beersheba where she ran out of water (written down within 500 years of the events) or 2) the stories of Islamic hadith (written almost 3000 years later) where Hagar travels 970 deserted miles with Ishmael and just one bottle of water, then finally goes running around looking for water?
It seems clear that these stories of hadith were constructed by the later Abbasid rulers of the 8th century onwards to give themselves an important history thereby authenticating their rule. To do this, they borrowed from actual history, and as with Hagar, so with Safa and Marwa. They just moved everything south, assuming it all took place in the Hijaz around Mecca.
The True Safa and Marwa
So, while the boulders in Mecca are not the Safa and Marwa referred to in the Qur’an, if we look north we will find there are mountains that have historically been referred to as Safa and Marwa; mountains of great religious and spiritual significance – ‘symbols of God’ we might even say!
Safa is today known as Mount Scopus, the north-eastern peak of the Mount of Olives. To the Jews, however, it was known as Har HaTsofim – lookout mountain (Safa in Arabic). If we were Jews pilgriming to Jerusalem from the direction of Jericho for one of the three festivals (Deut 16), as was common, we would first come to Safa, from where we would see the House of God (the temple) in Jerusalem. Descending down Safa, we would follow the road down into the Kidron Valley and up the other side to where the Temple stood on Mount Moriah (Marwa in Arabic).
A Symbol of Substitutionary Atonement
Mount Moriah has been steeped in significance since the days of Abraham. It wasn’t that Hagar ended up here while searching for water, but this was the place where Abraham offered his own son, Isaac, upon the altar.
This was the climactic event in Abraham’s life of faith, a story that’s set out for us in Genesis 22. There we read that Abraham, with Isaac and a few servants took a three day journey, whereupon, Abraham left his servants with their donkey, and proceeded up to Mount Moriah with Isaac alone to worship the LORD, promising that they would both return again.
Looking on a map, we see the distance between Beer Sheba and Mount Moriah in Jerusalem is around 60 miles, which fits very nicely with the three day journey recorded in Genesis, a day’s journey estimated to be between 20-25 miles.
As Abraham and Isaac ascend into Mount Moriah, Isaac questions his father about the fact that they have no lamb; no sacrificial animal with them. It’s at this point that Abraham, inspired by the Spirit of God, makes a prophetic utterance.
“My son, God shall provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering.”Genesis 22:8
This was indeed a prophetic utterance, for while God did provide an animal as a substitute for Isaac, it wasn’t a lamb. We read that when the LORD told Abraham to refrain from killing his son, he ‘looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.’ (v.13)
Some 1300 years later, the prophet Isaiah took up this thought of the substitutionary lamb in the last of his ‘Servant Songs’. He tells us of the coming Messiah, the divine servant, who would die in our stead.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth … But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”Isaiah 53:7,5
That Messiah was none other than Jesus Christ, who was pointed out to the nation by the words of John the Baptist declaring that Christ had come to be the atoning sacrifice for the world: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
In the very next chapter, standing on Mount Moriah, the Lord Jesus identified Himself with the Temple, and made reference to His death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up … but He spake of the temple of His body” (John 2:19,21).
A few years later, again on Mount Moriah, the high priest, Caiaphas, prophesied that the death of Christ would be substitutionary in nature: “it is expedient … that one man should die for the people” (John 11:50), and it was here on Mount Moriah that Jesus Christ was taken out to be nailed to a cross, to bare the judgement of Holy God on our behalf.
Truly, Mount Moriah, or Marwa, is a symbol of God’s love and grace, whereby ‘God commendeth His love to us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5:8).
What does Marwa mean to you? I pray that you will make the spiritual journey from Safa to Marwa, not just to a boulder and nice stories, but to the true Marwa, the place of God’s provision, and to ‘the Lamb that was slain’ (Rev 5:12).