What Islam really teaches about the Virgin Mary
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.
Mary is the only woman named in the Quran.
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).
“The Prophet names Mary as one of the four spiritually perfected women of the world.”
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.”
Mary is twice chosen: as the pious girl dwelling in the Temple, and as the mother of Jesus.
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 initial 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.
Mary and Jesus and other prophets once helped save the lives of Muslim refugees under the protection of the Christian Negus (king) of Abyssinia.
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.
Reply: Mr. Rydberg, I write these pieces because I am a priest, not because I am a Harvard professor. Fr Clooney