Mary, the mother of Jesus is highly venerated both in Christianity and in Islam. She can be a point of unity and reconciliation between these two great religions.
The Mela Interfaith Association (MIA) seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony.
Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts; and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Qur’an. Our procedure is to discuss the text, and produce audiotapes as well as written summaries which will be available on the Mela Interfaith Association website (http://www.melainterfaith.org)
Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; member of the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission; President, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Stewart Sharlow (Public officer and Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Dr Herman Roborgh (Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association); Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre; Board Member, Mela Interfaith Association);
In preparation for this discussion we read verses about Mary from Wahiddudin Khan The Qur’an. New Delhi, India: Goodword Books, 2011, which is available at
The discussion was wide ranging and what follows does not summarize all that was said.
One of our members pointed out a valuable historical context of this surah. When Muhammad (pbuh) was being attacked in Mecca by the Quraysh tribe of which he was member, some of his followers went to Abyssinia whose Christian king asked why they did not accept Christianity. The followers then recited this surah 19 on Maryam, at which point the king was so overcome at the closeness of their faith to his that he gave them his protection.
Surah Maryam (19) has 98 verses. It shows how Jesus and John the Baptist are mentioned among the other prophets. The order is John the Baptist (vv.2-15), Mary and Jesus (16-35), Abraham (vv.41-50) Moses (vv. 51-53) and many other prophets such as Ishmael, Noah, Adam, Israel (vv.54-59). The verses that follow deal with other topics. Jesus is placed at the centre of vv.2-53.
‘Mothers of the Believers’ is an honorific title granted by a late Medinan verse (33.6) to the wives of the Prophet Muhammad. Clearly, Maryam does not belong to this group of women.
The question arises, from a redaction criticism perspective, what is the significance of mentioning Maryam in the Qur’an alongside so many Prophets of history? Is there any lesson for us today?
One of our members noted that all Muslim countries have great reverence for Maryam. An aside was made at this point. The story of the origins of the town of Fatima in Portugal goes like this: a young nobleman married a Muslim woman named Fatima, and out of love for her he named a village in her honour. The fact that Mary, in Catholic tradition, chose to appear at this village is surely significant since she could have appeared in any other place.
Surah Al-‘Imran’ (3), recounts the birth of Mary in ways that resonate with the Proto-Evangelium of St James (ca. A.D. 125), which contains interesting stories.. There also seems to be some connection between Surah Al-‘Imran (3), 49:
He will say: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will make the shape of a bird out of clay for you and then breathe into it and, by God’s leave, it will become a living bird.”
and Apocrypha, such as the story concerning the clay birds.
[Jesus] will say: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I will make the shape of a bird out of clay for you and then breathe into it and, by God’s leave, it will become a living bird. (Surah Al-‘Imran (3), 49)
This raises the question as to how much the Qur’an has been influenced by the Apocrypha. This does not detract from the revelatory nature of the Qur’an. We considered for example the stories of Genesis 1-11, which are clearly based on Babylonian myths. Their revelatory moment occurs by the light of divine revelation in their adaptation by the Hebrew writers. So too the revelatory moment occurs when the light of the Qur’an shines on the Apocrypha. Muslims see some of these earlier texts as revelatory such as the Torah, the Psalms, and the Gospel (though the revealed text of the Gospel [Injil] has been lost)..
The birth of Maryam:
“When she gave birth, she said, ‘My Lord, I have given birth to a girl’—God knew very well what she had given birth to: a male is not like a female—‘I have named her Mary and placed her and her children in Your protection from the rejected Satan.’ (Surah Al-‘Imran (3), 36)
Mary’s mother, who is not named, dedicates what is in her womb to God. She expects to have a boy child in line with all the other prophets, but she gives birth to a girl child and in her surprise says, “My lord I have given birth to a girl!” This already hints that something exceptional is going to happen. The reader is to some extent prepared.
The childhood of Maryam
16 Recount in the Book how Mary withdrew from her people to an eastern place 17 and kept herself in seclusion from them. (Surah Maryam (19), 16-17)
According to the Qur’an, Mary is in an ‘eastern’ place in seclusion. In the Proto-Evangelium, she is in the Temple. There are other parallels. For instance, the role of Zechariah, the Baptist’s father, in the Qur’an, is to provide food for the growing young girl. But when he enters her room he finds that she is already provided with food by an angel, as in the Proto-Evangelium.)
“Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness and entrusted her to the care of Zachariah. Every time Zachariah visited her in her chamber he found some provision with her. He asked, ‘Mary, where did this provision come from?’ She replied, ‘This is from God. God provides for whoever He wills without measure.’ (Surah Al-‘Imran (3), 37)
In the Blue Mosque in Istanbul the mihrab has the wording, “God provides for whoever He wills without measure”. These words link the mihrab with Maryam’s chamber. The implication is that the provision given her by God will also be given to those who pray in the direction of Mecca. Our group felt that there is a sense in which the worshippers are praying through Maryam, or at least in association with Maryam.
Although Mary is officially in the care of Zechariah, she is really in the care of Allah. What is the significance of her being fed always by Allah through the ministry of His angel? Our group understood this to mean that, in the final analysis, it is always Allah who feeds.
But it also shows that Mary is special in a way no one else is, and special in an on-going way. There is a wide-ranging Mariology in the Qur’an.
A member of our group noted that a significant Marian centred devotion is developing among some Sufi groups.. In the Hadith,‘Mary’is highly praised. For example, At-Tirmidhi recorded that `Ali bin Abi Talib said,
“I heard the Messenger of Allah say,
“The best woman (in her time) was Maryam, daughter of `Imran, and the best woman (of the Prophet’s time) was Khadijah (his wife), daughter of Khuwaylid.)”
Birthing of Jesus
“So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a distant place. 23 The pains of labour drove her to the trunk of a date- palm. She said, ‘Oh, if only I had died before this and passed into oblivion!’” (Surah Maryam (19), 22ff)
One of our members noted that this also happens in Papua New Guinea where a woman holds on to a bough to assist in delivering her child. Are we just hearing something about methods of childbirth in Arabia? Is there a deeper meaning as well? Mary has been sheltered and protected during her childhood and conception, but now she experiences what all women know. Like so many women before and after her, she ‘wishes she were dead’, not only because of the pain but also, in her case, because of what people will think and may do to her. Does she fear to be stoned when she returns to her community? In her younger days, she seemed abstracted from human reality and in a style influenced by docetism but now her humanity comes through strongly.
People are horrified at her giving birth. Since she has taken a vow of silence, the newborn baby Jesus speaks in her defense.
The great miracle is that she is the virgin mother. The many other wonderful stories about her are provided in order to prepare the reader for the very special quality she has as virgin mother.
Devotion to Mary in Islam
The question was asked why does Mary occupy such a large place in the mind of Muslims, especially of Muslim women who express their devotion to Mary so ardently? Though she is not a prophet, she is the mother of a prophet. But there seems to be something more. Muslims show a devotion to her, which does not compare to the devotion they have to Jesus. It is true that there is more about Jesus in the Qur’an than about Mary but in the piety of Muslims she occupies a larger place. Is the lesser place given to Jesus a note of caution against Christians who claim he is divine? Can Mary be revered because she is acknowledged as only human?
The devotion to Mary is something more than an intellectual exercise. The idea of the virginal mother teaches us something very profound. Women sense this perhaps better than men. Although the glory of God is seen in the heavens and the earth, something more wonderful and mysterious is found in the virgin mother with her child. The episode says something about God’s power to create. This point is also stressed in the Qur’an:
“‘Lord,’ she said, ‘how can I have a child when no man has touched me?’ [The angel] replied, ‘Thus it is: God creates what He wills: when He wills a thing He need only say, “Be,” and it is.” (3.47)
The life of Mary teaches us that God continually ‘gives birth’, that He creates the world virginally so to speak. It shows that God is supremely free and can do as He wishes. The virgin birth shows the greatness of God more powerfully than in His creating the heavens and the earth. Because the virgin birth is more marvelous, it follows that the human condition is more marvelous than the creation of the sun, moon and stars.
In the Gospel of St Matthew, the magi enter the house and see only the mother and the child and fall down in worship. There is something so primal about this. One of us noted the proposal made by Bishop Fulton Sheen, that Muslims may come to understand Jesus through Mary.
Titles of Maryam
There are many descriptions given of Mary in the Qur’an and the Hadith. For example: ‘purified’, chosen’, ‘mother of light’. These things are not said of other women. Given the possibilities of Arabic grammar, these descriptions were transformed by Sufis into titles. These titles read so much better than the titles given to Mary, which are based only on places: ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’, ‘Our Lady of Fatima’, ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’ etc., or based on images such as Mystical Rose, Tower of David, Tower of Ivory, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, which are found in the Litany of Loreto. These titles are the result of pietism. But there is no Marian pietism in the Qur’an.
It was noted, however, that one could draw up a significant list of titles for Mary from episodes in the gospels. It would also be instructive to compare Mary with other women in the Bible.
Exegesis and Lectio Divina
A long discussion occurred about the value of our approach. Some said we should simply bow down before the mystery of the divine text; others said that there has been great value in opening up the sacred text by means of biblical criticism. Another noted that Muslims study the text in great detail and yet remain true to it. Exegesis helps us to understand what God intends by his Word. Furthermore, modern Qur’anic scholars are using the techniques of biblical criticism more extensively now. Someone said that Lectio Divina does not use this method. But is Lectio Divina not richer if the preparatory work of analysis has been done? Another member said that such study is a distraction to contemplation. Another retorted that such a comment was in fact a plea in favour of fundamentalism. The Qur’an itself says this it is a Book for those who think and reflect. In fact the work of listing the titles of Mary is a work of exegesis. Our reflection deepens our understanding of the mystery of Mary and of God.
‘Son of Mary’ rather than ‘Son of God’
“They say, ‘The Gracious One has begotten a son.’ 89 Assuredly, you have uttered a monstrous falsehood: 90 the heavens might well nigh burst thereat, and the earth break asunder, and the mountains fall down in pieces, 91 because they ascribe a son to the Gracious One. 92 It does not become the majesty of the Compassionate God to take to Himself a son.” (19.88-92)
Up to this point, the story of Mary and her son would be perfectly acceptable to Christians of all complexions: Nestorians, Monophysites and Byzantines. Are verses 88 – 92 related to the anti-Trinitarian debate or do they simply refer to hierarchies of the pagan Arabian tribes?
Some basic points in conclusion:
- The teaching on Maryam shows the greatness of God.
- In comparison with the Gospel accounts, the Qur’anic text is more descriptive and dynamic.
- An intense Mariology is present in the Qur’an.
- The value of the titles;
- We could do a study comparing the titles of various women in the Qur’an;
- We could do a comparison of the titles of Mary in the Qur’an and in the Gospels.
- The significance of Mary for Muslim-Christian relations.
- The contrast between companion and apostle;