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Mary in the Qur’an

The Qur’an honours Mary with the title siddiqa (Q 5:75), ‘a woman of truth’, pointing to her sincerity as a true believer and a righteous woman. In Islamic tradition Sidq, or truthfulness, is a very exalted degree of sanctity, and even one of the distinctive qualities of prophethood. No wonder that in the eyes of a number of medieval Muslim theologians, Mary in fact did appear as a truthful prophet of God. Notable among these commentators were the Andalusian authors Qurtubi and Ibn Hazm, and also Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani of Palestine, one of the most distinguished figures of the Islamic middle ages. Still, the prevalent theological view has always regarded her as not quite a prophet, but as a saintly woman, waliyya, a close ‘friend’ of God. She is praised in the Qur’an for affirming the words of her Lord and His scriptures (Q 66:12). Her unwavering trust in God and her unreserved submission to His will and decree remain exemplary in the piety of Islam, since the very name of the religion signifies ‘submission to God’. It is remarkable that just like siddiqa, sadiq/a, ‘friend’ in Arabic, also has its root in s-d-q, implying that sincerity serves as the true catalyst for the bond of friendship. Not only does Mary uphold truth, but also, due to her sincere relationship and faithful devotion to her Lord, she merits His intimate friendship.

“Mary feeding Jesus” (miniature)

The third chapter of the Qur’an is called Al Imran, or ‘the family of Imran’, after the name of Mary’s father. It is in this chapter that Mary’s story makes its first appearance in the Qur’anic text. The infancy narrative of Mary opens with Imran’s wife praying and vowing to God that the child in her belly would be dedicated and consecrated to Him (Q 3:35). When the baby is born she names her Maryam and prays to God to protect her and her offspring from Satan (Q 3:36). The Qur’an then narrates that the Lord accepted Mary ‘with full acceptance and made her grow in goodness’, and that she experienced miracles of divine favour while growing up in the sanctuary under the guardianship of Zachariah (Q 3:37). The second part of the Marian story tells us of the Annunciation: angels inform her that God had chosen her, made her pure, and elected her above all the women of the world (Q 3:42). She is then guided by the angels to be devoutly obedient to her Lord, to prostrate and ‘bow with those who bow in worship’ (Q 3:43). She then receives the glad tidings of a child, who is to be held in high honour in this world and the Hereafter, ‘one of those brought near to God, and of the righteous’ (Q 3:45-46). She is amazed to learn that she will bear a child though no man has ever touched her, but the divine response comes with total clarity: ‘Thus shall it be; God creates what He will. If He decrees a thing, He says to it only: Be! and it is’ (Q 3:47).

The Qur’anic narrative of Mary is retold with a different emphasis in chapter 19, which is named after her, and is in fact the only sura in the Qur’an that bears a woman’s name. Moreover, Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an.

There are many female individuals whose stories feature in the Muslim scripture (e.g. the wives of Adam, Abraham, Lot and Muhammad, Moses’ mother and sister, Pharaoh’s wife, the Queen of Sheba and many others), but none of these is mentioned by name. Mary is the only exception. Interestingly, her name appears thirty-four times in the Qur’an, more than in the New Testament.

In this chapter the annunciation story appears for the second time, but now with a moving account of the pain and suffering Mary endured during her lonely labour in the wilderness as well as the social embarrassment she endured when returning to face her people with the infant in her arms (Q 19:16-29). The story of her childbirth is poignant and rich in detail; the young mother who has withdrawn from her family encounters the pangs of childbirth on her own in the wilderness; she is so distressed that at one point she cries out: ‘I wish I had been long dead and forgotten before all this!’ (Q 19:23); but there is good news to come, for food and drink come directly and miraculously from the Lord to comfort her in her distress (Q 19:24-26). The child she bore is divinely intended to be a sign or miracle (aya) for mankind and a mercy from God (Q 19:21). All the divine blessings she had encountered since her childhood are to be crowned with the great miracle of bearing a child, Jesus, one of God’s righteous prophets. This appears as an ultimate expression of God’s power and decree, for He is able to create a child without the agency of a human father, as an implicit challenge to a male-dominated patriarchal culture. No wonder that in popular Muslim piety, Mary stands as a symbol of fertility, maternal love and femininity, so that the Sura of Maryam is often recited by women for purposes of curing barrenness, seeking ease in pregnancy, lessening the pain at childbirth and for blessing the infant and the new mother.

In addition to the Qur’an, Islam’s second scripture known as the Hadith grants Mary a high spiritual rank. In a saying attributed to the Prophet, Mary is described as one of the four women of the world who have attained spiritual perfection, the other three being Khadija (wife of the Prophet), Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter), and Asiya (the oppressed wife of the Pharaoh of the Exodus), each one representing a specific type of saintly female life. A further prophetic tradition describes Fatima as ‘the chief lady (sayyida) of the people of Heaven, with the exception of Mary’. There is also an account (preserved by the historian Azraqi), which describes the Prophet’s and the early Muslim community’s respect for Mary, narrating that during the Muslim conquest of Mecca, the Prophet ordered all idols and images to be obliterated, except an image of the Virgin Mary and the child Jesus that had been inside the Kaaba from the pre-Islamic times.

Mary thus features as an immensely esteemed female type in Muslim scriptures, theology, spirituality and popular piety. Unlike Christianity, however, Islam does not call her Theotokos, the mother, or ‘bearer’, of God. She is saluted as a truthful servant of God, the mother of Jesus the Messiah whose righteousness and prophethood are also affirmed. Each time the name of Jesus is mentioned in the Qur’an it is accompanied by his mother’s name, so that he is identified as ‘Jesus son of Mary’. Furthermore, we find that the story of the Annunciation and the Nativity seem to be more about Mary and her agonies than about Jesus. She stands at the very centre of the Qur’anic narrative. Similarly, Jesus’ miraculous birth traditionally was not seen as a miracle of Jesus only, but also of Mary. In fact the medieval theologians who regarded Mary as a female prophet considered this to be a proof of her prophethood. Mary and Jesus are credited with the performing of miracles, but in their very existence they were also signs of God. Thus the Qur’an describes both Mary and Jesus as signs or miracles (aya) of God (Q 21:91; 23:50) who mirrored the creative power of God and His sovereignty.

To stress Jesus’ humanity and his servanthood to God, a comparison between Jesus and Adam often appears in theological writings by Muslims, inspired by the Qur’anic verse (3:59) that tells us that‘in God’s eyes Jesus is as the likeness of Adam: he created him from dust, and said to him, “Be”, and he was.’ A number of medieval theologians (Jahiz, Baqillani, Qurtubi, Ibn Taymiyya, Tufi and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya) compare Jesus’ creation also to that of Eve. This triad of Adam, Eve and Jesus is further developed into a typology of four types of human creation. There is Adam who had no mother or father, and then the rest of mankind who were brought into life through their parents, with only two exceptions: Eve, who was created from a man alone, and Jesus who was given life through a woman alone. In this model of creation, Adam and Mary stand on the same level. Adam serves as the basis for the creation of Eve, while Mary is the basis for the creation of Jesus. Theological parallels have been also drawn between Mary and Muhammad in their receptivity to the divine word. Mary’s virginity is sometimes compared to Muhammad’s illiteracy, as it was through their purity that they served as the medium of the divine word.

In her detachment from the world, her dedication to prayer, her absolute acceptance of God’s decree and her selflessness in fulfilling the divine will, Mary has always been a source of admiration and inspiration for Muslim mystics who find in her a spiritual model to follow. Mary’s withdrawal from her family (Q 19:16) is taken to signify her spiritual withdrawal from worldly pleasures and distractions so that her heart might become the recipient of divine inspiration. Mary’s experience of labour pains as well as the social humiliation she faced are taken by Sufis to epitomize the suffering endured by the seeker of God on the path of spiritual purification. The heart needs to be freed from worldly occupations and purified in order to reflect the divine attributes of beauty and majesty. It is this fascination with the Marian spiritual path that led Rumi to utter his famous words: ‘It was not until the pains of parturition manifested in her that Mary made for the tree. […] The body is like Mary. Every one of us has a Jesus within him, but until the pangs manifest in us our Jesus is not born. If the pangs never come, then Jesus rejoins his origin by the same secret path by which he came, leaving us bereft and without portion of him’.

Muslim piety continues to be deeply inspired by Marian spirituality, humility and self-giving. It comes as no surprise that the Iranian film Maryam-e moqaddas, ‘Holy Mary’, has become globally popular among Muslims today. She remains a source of inspiration not only for scholarly writing, but also for poetry and popular prose. One such publication (Patrick Ali Pahlavi, La Fille d’Imran, 1991) proposes, for instance, a form of ‘Liberation Mariology’, arguing that thanks to her autonomy, strength and spirituality, Mary should be regarded as the ‘prophet of the third millennium’. With her sincere devotion to God and persistence in prayer, Mary remains a living spiritual model for the followers of Islam.

Lejla Demiri
Professor, Islamic Theology Centre, Eberhard Karls Universität (Tubingen)

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