The National Catholic Review
Studying the Quran as a Catholic IV

Cambridge, MA. I began this series because of my sharp disagreement with Donald Trump’s call to close our borders to all Muslims, and distress at how others seem to approve of the idea. His call for this is in my judgment wrong, unworkable and also ignorant. I felt it timely to urge my readers to push back against this dangerous ignorance and literal exclusion of people of another faith tradition, in part by informing ourselves about each other’s religions. For those of us who are not Muslim, the recently released Study Quran presents a fine opportunity to make the case for study and learning, and so I have offered this short series, A Catholic Reads the Quran during Advent. This is the fourth of five posts before Christmas.

I appreciate the considerable interest among readers of these posts, many by personal email, and some posted at the America site. Excepting a few commenters who appear too eager to draw conclusions—about Islam, about me—I appreciate the posts, including those who want to read the Quran differently, with differing views on mercy or violence in the Quran. (I am also grateful to the reader who pointed out that the volume does contain an essay toward an Islamic theology of religions, Joseph Lumbard’s “The Quranic View of Sacred History and Other Religions,” a beautiful essay worthy of close reading.)

As I have said each time, my point is not that we agree, but that we who are not Muslim educate ourselves on these matters, resist caricatures of Muslims and be open, ideally, also entering into conversation with Muslim neighbors likewise open to studying the Bible. While such a community of readers will not push aside headlines dominated by the Trumps and the ISIS supporters of this world, we will in the long run make the greater difference.

Given that we are deep into Advent, I thought it fitting now to explore The Study Quran on the theme of Mary, Mother of Jesus. The ample index tells us that there are more than 50 references to Jesus in the Quran, and more than 15 to Mary. They are mentioned in the editors’ commentary many more times, as the index shows us. The editors point out that Mary is the only woman named in the Quran; while most such named figures are prophets, there is debate about Mary’s status, some listing her among the prophets, others preferring to say that she is “an exceptionally pious woman with the highest spiritual rank among women” (763).

They add that in a hadith (traditional saying), “the Prophet names Mary as one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world,” (763) who will “lead the soul of blessed women to Paradise” (143). In Sura 66 (Forbiddance), Mary is evoked again respectfully, “the daughter of Imran, who preserved her chastity. Then We breathed therein Our Spirit, and she confirmed the Words of her Lord and His Books; and she was among the devoutly obedient” (66:12). One commentator, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, takes this to mean that Mary “believed in all previous revelations.”

I need not deny that other passages diverge further from Christian faith, yet without disrespect for Mary and Jesus. In Sura 5 (The Table Spread), for example, we read, “The Messiah, son of Mary, was naught but a messenger—messengers have passed away before him. And his mother was truthful. Both of them ate food. Behold how We make the signs clear unto [the People of the Book]; yet behold how [those signs] are perverted.” The commentary notes that the Prophet Mohammed is described in the same way in Sura 3:144: “Mohammed is naught but a messenger; messengers have passed before him.”

The commentary adds, “The assertion in this verse that both Mary and Jesus ate food is meant to affirm their full humanity and refute those who see them as divine. Of course, Christian theology also sees Christ as ‘fully human’ and ‘fully divine,’ and the Quranic view of Jesus as fully human is consistent with certain verses of the New Testament, such as Luke 18:19 and Philippians 2:6-8, which stress Jesus’ humanity in relation to God.” That Mary was “truthful” places her in the company of the prophets; she is the one who testifies to “the truth of Jesus’ prophethood and message.”

In Sura 3 (The House of Imran), Mary is introduced as the daughter of Imran and his wife, who prays, “I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in Thee, and for her progeny, from Satan the outcast.” (3:36) Mary is then placed by the Lord under the care of Zachariah, father of John. This version of the Annunciation follows:

And (remember) when the angels said, “O Mary, truly God has chosen thee and purified thee, and has chosen thee above the women of the worlds. O Mary! Be devoutly obedient to thy Lord, prostrate, and bow with those who bow” (3:42-43).

She is twice chosen: as the pious girl dwelling in the Temple, and as the mother of Jesus. A few verses on, the angelic message is put this way,

O Mary, truly God gives thee glad tidings of a Word from Him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, high honored in this world and the Hereafter, and one of those brought nigh. He will speak to people in the cradle and in maturity, and will be among the righteous.” She said, “My Lord, how shall I have a child while no human being has touched me?” He said, “Thus does God create whatsoever He will.” When He decrees a thing, He only says to it, “Be!” and it is. And He will teach him the Book, Wisdom, the Torah, and the Gospel. And (he will be) a messenger to the Children of Israel (3:45-48). 

Finally, Sura 19 (Maryam) treats Zachariah and John at its start, Abraham and Moses later on, and in-between (19:16-36) recounts again the story of Mary and how she came to give birth to Jesus. Mary, exiled in the desert and alone, prays to a mysterious figure who comes to her: “I seek refuge from thee in the Compassionate, if you are reverent.” (19:18) He is an angel, a messenger, who tells her about the son she will bear. Mary consents, but after conceiving the child, she is again alone and bereft, and cries out in words that refugees worldwide may be tempted to use even today: “Would that I had died before this and was a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” (19:23) The angel shows her the running water and date palm tree that Lord has provided for her, and she survives. When confronted by her gossiping neighbors when she returns home with her newborn child (there is no Joseph, no Bethlehem, in this account), Mary chooses to be silent (as Zachariah was by force) and lets the child speak for itself:

He said, ‘Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wheresoever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and (has made me) dutiful toward my mother. And He has not made me domineering, wretched. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive! (19:30-33)

The commentary fills most of several pages on this account. It highlights Mary’s intial desperation: “She wished he could have died before the onset of the difficulties she now faced as a woman giving birth to a child alone, without a husband, including both the physical pain of labor the embarrassment about what people would think of her.” She almost prefers oblivion, though some traditional commentaries see her as “expressing the ultimate victory against the worldly ego,” to forget the world and be forgotten by it. That Jesus speaks, even as an infant, shows his resolve, as newborn prophet, “to absolve his mother of any blame or suspicion.” That is to say: to be a prophet (even today), is to speak up on behalf of the excluded, downtrodden, helpless.

The commentary reports how this Sura, on Mary and Jesus and other prophets, once helped save the lives of Muslim refugees under the protection of the Christian Negus (king) of Abyssinia. A Makkan delegation had come and demanded that the refugees be turned over for execution. The Negus asks that first a Sura of the Quran be recited. When part of this Sura is recited, “the Negus and the religious leaders of his court began to weep profusely and refused to hand over the Muslims, indicating that the religious teachings of the Quran were deeply related to those of the Christian faith.” Is it not so very right, that Scripture might inspire those in power to protect rather than abandon those in dire need, even if they are of another faith?

The commentary also points out the stylistic unity and harmony of this Sura; it is one that you may wish to listen to, if you have never heard Quranic recitation. I found this recitation pleasing to the ear, though I do not know Arabic. Or you may wish to go more slowly with a version that includes a translation.

That I highlight in this way some of the passages dealing with Mary in the Quran is by no means a novel idea. Readers interested in more on Mary, Jesus and other biblical figures in the Quran, can turn to John Kaltner’s Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (1999). That Mary can even today be a powerful protector and nurturer of Muslim and Christian unity was well expressed in 1996 by Cardinal William Keeler. Similarly, in 2014 Fr. Miguel Angel Ayuso, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, highlighted the great importance of Mary in Muslim-Christian dialogue.

Can we not imagine that in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Mary will help refugees across closed borders, and open the hearts of gatekeepers who would close the door on people who live by the holy Quran? As Pope Francis wrote when he declared the jubilee year of Mercy,

Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, Mary, from the outset, was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son Jesus. Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. This will be a source of comfort and strength to us as we cross the threshold of the Holy Year to experience the fruits of divine mercy (Misericordiae Vultus).

In the final post in this series, I will reflect further on what the Study Quran helps us to learn about Jesus himself—a difficult topic already at issue in the paragraphs above.

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Jacqueline Taylor Basker | 12/21/2015 - 8:07am

I recently returned from teaching Art History in an American university in Amman, Jordan for 7 years. Surveying the "canon" of western Art History and its mostly religious art, I learned much from my Muslim students who knew many of the bible stories in the art from the Koran, and I saw their respect and dedication to Mary. My Muslim friend even has a statue of Mary in his home. I realized that Christians and Muslims have more in common than what divides them, and I came to believe that Mary was the bridge. The columns in the Mosque in Damascus were taken from the Church of Mary in Antioch and it has a Minaret named Jesus, since Muslims believe this is where Jesus will appear at the Last Judgement. There is also a shrine in the Mosque with the head (and perhaps body) of John the Baptist, where I prayed with other Muslims. Living with Muslims who pray often during the day helped me practice the reading of the Daily Office more faithfully. Their bowing & stretching to pray - the Salat- was a good model for me to practice my yoga stretches as meditation (the Salat keeps a low percentage of arthritis of the joints in the population,) Their praying with beads encouraged both me and my daughter (who lived in Senegal with Muslims for years) to pray the Rosary. But most important was the example of their faith and their acceptance of all as the will of God. I never locked my door for years due to the low crime rate, until my cat learned how to jump on the handle to escape! I believe one of the reasons why there is so much hatred against Muslims by secular people is the distain for anyone who talks about God in the west - especially in academia. Some Christians are threatened by the example of their faith that makes them uncomfortable and/or feel guilty about their lack of it. I very much enjoyed living in a Muslim country where I could talk about God openly without fear of being perceived as a crazy.

PJ Johnston | 12/19/2015 - 3:05pm

For Mr. Rydberg:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these {all other} religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself. The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.

William Rydberg | 12/20/2015 - 12:03am

For PJ.Johnston: First off, I apologize in advance if you are not a co-religionist, because my comment is formulated using that paradigm!

To begin,

Remember that the complete document should be read, not only in selections. It is a highly technical document in my opinion aimed at Catholics doing specialist work and that it goes without saying that it requires prayer and discernment as well as the active engagement of the Magisterium in my opinion should consequential action be undertaken to ensure full compliance with the intent of the document. It is emphatically NOT a license for syncretism, which is the gist of what I am getting in reading some of your comments, at least, this in my opinion so far, but I could be wrong... I am by no means an expert myself though... :)


One of my favourite quotes from St Pope John Paul II on the subject is: "A facile syncretism would ultimately be a totalitarian gesture on the part of those who would ignore greater values of which they are not the masters. True openness involves remaining steadfast in one’s deepest convictions, clear and joyful in one’s own identity, while at the same time being “open to understanding those of the other party” and “knowing that dialogue can enrich each side'." (Refer: APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION EVANGELII GAUDIUM OF THE HOLY FATHER FRANCIS TO THE BISHOPS, CLERGY, CONSECRATED PERSONS AND THE LAY FAITHFULON THE PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL IN TODAY’S WORLD- a quote often referenced originating with St Pope John Paul II -Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio (7 December 1990), 56: AAS 83 (1991), 304)

Pax et bonum this Christmastime!

PJ Johnston | 12/20/2015 - 1:45am

Why on earth would you assume that reading the Qur'an for Christian purposes would be syncretism?

William Rydberg | 12/20/2015 - 9:55am

To PJ Johnston: Sorry again, but I assumed you would know what I mean when I employed the word "credo" as it is a direct reference to excerpt of The Vatican II document you had quoted me in your reply NOT the Study Quran. Apologies, sometimes I assume too much...

Pax et Bonum this Christmastime

Bruce Snowden | 12/19/2015 - 9:21am

St. Paul tells us that, "The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of men." When it comes to banishing Islamophobia from at least Catholic mindset, or better from all humanity, let's begin by acknowledging that, God's wisdom is wiser than the foolishness of men, meaning that Islamic reverence for "Maryam" the Mother of Jesus seems to be the bonding point established by Mary at Fatima, in the early 1900s. Fatima as we all know is now a town in Portugal and also the name of Mohammed's daughter, who married a local official, who in turn named where they lived "Fatima" honoring his new wife. I pray that Mohammed and his daughter Fatima, rubbing shoulders so to speak with Maryam, Mary, Jesus' Mother in the Land of the Living ,may be instrumental in bringing into harmonious friendship Islamic/Christian relationships under the patronage of Our Lady of Fatima. Yes, God is smarter than human foolishness!.

Richard Murray | 12/19/2015 - 12:56pm

Mr. Snowden, you make a fascinating point. Why indeed did Mary choose to appear at a town with the name of "Fatima?"
Mary loves all her children, including Muslims.

Bruce Snowden | 12/20/2015 - 1:40pm

Thanks Mr. Murray for commenting on my post. While it's true as Paul says, "Who has known the mind of God?" I think certain "signs and wonders" as John says, may give a glimpse. Perhaps Our Lady of Fatima for reason explained briefly in my post may be offering a glimpse. Then too, isn't the moon, especially the crescent moon for Islam associated with both Mary and Mohammed's faithful? At any rate, "may God be blessed in all his designs," as the Servant of God, American Capuchin priest VenerableFr. Solanus Casey liked to say.

(An addendum) This could have happened anywhere, but it happened this morning at Mass as I was thinking about the Islamic spelling of Mary which is "Maryam." It then dawned on me that, Islam's spelling links the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mother of God, to Sinai's "I AM Who I AM!" Appropriate from the Catholic point of view, but perhaps inadvertent to Islam? Interestingly, it is claimed that Albert Einstein once commented, "With God, there are no coincidences!

Steve Perzan | 12/18/2015 - 2:26pm

When I was in high school I remember that one of our religion teachers said that the Islamic Religion was a "religion without a theology".. not sure what he meant by that, but back in "those days" much wasn't questioned and "other religions" while shown respect were not studied. Now here is my present question: "Is The Quran a book of Revelation? i.e. from God like the Bible is revelation? I have heard that the Quran in the Islamic faith can be equated to the incarnation of Jesus (Word) in Mary (virginally conceived, ie without the aid of another) to someone who was pure and had to have complete faith -- Muhammad was pure i.e. he had no learning, no education, no knowledge -- so the Koran was a complete gift from God, the same way as Jesus is to Mary --. the Quran was conceived by God in Muhammed without the help of any human source. (virginally)

Richard Murray | 12/18/2015 - 5:01pm

Dear Mr. Perzan,

The New Testament, and the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), were brought into being by human authors who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. My understanding of this is that the authors of the Bible were holy people, with wide experience of life, and therefore, they knew much suffering, trial, and injustice.

Then, they knew the Holy Spirit—in a more direct, personal way. As if their previous suffering and experience was used by the Holy Spirit as a developed portal to communicate with these authors more directly.
The authors of the Scriptures wrote the Bible, with guidance from the Holy Spirit. This effort of writing may have been sometimes joyful for them, and at other times, difficult.
The Bible is a library of many such inspired compositions.

The formation of the Qur’an is different. The angel Jibreel (Gabriel) personally gave the verses of the Qur’an to Muhammad over many years, in the cities of Mecca and Medina. Muhammad, or those to whom he recited the verses, wrote the verses down exactly as they were received from Jibreel (Gabriel).

Perhaps this means that there is something important to be discovered in the structure and precise organization of the Qur’an.

The books of the Bible have multiple manuscripts that usually have many minor disagreements with each other. For example, some Greek manuscripts of the New Testament say that Jesus sent out 70 disciples, others say he sent 72. Sometimes there are more major differences.
I find that this celebrates a human process, and shows God’s respect for human effort, even where there is not textual uniformity. Perhaps God intended precisely this.

Yet there is almost zero argument about the authenticity of the text of the Qur’an. This is unusual among ancient texts. Almost everyone agrees that the Arabic Qur’an that we have today is exactly what the angel Gabriel gave Muhammad. Additionally, many say that the Qur’an is the most exquisitely beautiful literary work in the Arabic language, which is interesting.

The Qur’an, like the Bible, is chock-full of themes of human evolution.

Perhaps the manner of the transmission of the Qur’an to humanity is meant to tell us that if we make good decisions, we are capable of a more direct relationship with the Divine. The New Testament says this too, in various ways.

Steve Perzan | 12/19/2015 - 8:20pm

Do we really need religions made up of dogmas and revelations (scriptures)? Does any of what we proclaim about God, change God? If a Jew, Christian, and Moslem are all born on the same day, each living a life as perfectly as they can and all three die on the same day and go to their judgment, will it matter to God what religion they practiced on earth? Will their placement in heaven depend upon it? I think not. And since their religion on earth led to no “existential difference” in the perfection of life they lead, nor was there any “existential difference” of their place in heaven because of the “particular religion they followed, what is the purpose of all this “religion studying” other than to help us appreciate who the other is. In the “objective reality of truth” “Religion Does Not Matter,” only the relationship it affords you to God, your neighbor and yourself is ultimately what counts.

Richard Murray | 12/20/2015 - 12:23am

Dear Mr. Perzan,
Thank you for your wonderful questions.
Can things be simple and complex at the same time? With God, perhaps yes.
Two elements in your statement are, if I may paraphrase them, “living life virtuously and well,” and also, “the two parts of the one great idea: loving God and loving our neighbor as ourself.”
A teacher once said, “We all want to love, and we all want to be loved.” This is a highly complex truth, although it has its powerfully simple moments too.

God wants the best for us.
Therefore, God desires our growth, our evolution.
God did not create a simple mere village on earth where people all get along. However, something like this is in our future, and we experience moments and times of this (which in the remote past were shorter than they are today). God wants us to achieve this, to make this a reality.

Shifting gears, please let me quote John 1:1
“In the beginning

1) was the Word, [Jesus, and each person, is an independent being]

2) and the Word was with God, [each of us stands in a relationship with God]

3) and the Word was God.” [each of us is called to achieve nonduality with God, i.e., total unity]

What if we are to achieve all three of these states, following Jesus, at the same time?
If heaven is like this, it is both simple and complex.
(Remember that in John 10, Jesus quotes Psalm 82 and tells us that we are meant to become more Divine. See John 10:34-35.)
Our life is not merely about being nice or “attaining heaven.” Rather, our life is about growing in friendship with God, and all the awesome Simplicity and Complexity that that entails.
The Scriptures are at once Simple and Complex revelations that help us in this wonderful process of Growth in Love.

William Rydberg | 12/18/2015 - 2:14pm

Don't you think equating the Divine Person Jesus-God come in the flesh who is fully God and fully man with a reference in the Study Quran of his eating food, thus proving he is human and not God a lot of a stretch.

In my opinion, you politicize this series of articles on this important subject too much remember, you are a priest first...

Francis X. Clooney | 12/18/2015 - 7:52pm

Reply: Mr. Rydberg, I write these pieces because I am a priest, not because I am a Harvard professor. Fr Clooney

William Rydberg | 12/19/2015 - 6:38am

We are Catholics discussing Jesus-God come in the flesh and his mother the Theotokos. Absolute Truth. it matters little that you are a Harvard Professor.. It matters a lot when a Catholic priest gets political opinions confused with the obligation to convey Catholic Truth.

I don't want to hurt you here but, the "because" statement rings hollow to me in that it suggests that we all should be grateful that you might just possibly be doing a book review as a favour under the guise of a mitzvah on behalf of fellow Jesuit colleagues at the College of the Holy Cross (refer another commentator). In my opinion this series of articles should be under the general heading of a book review, perhaps in the "Books" section, especially given the volume of qualifiers you have thrown up over time.

Recently by Francis X. Clooney, SJ