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What Does the Quran Say About Mary? Part 2

b2ap3_large_What-Does-The-Quran-Say-About-Mary-Part-2-1 What Does the Quran Say About Mary? Part 2 - Blog

Despite being very much a religion unto itself, Islam can lay exclusive claim to only a handful of prophets and individuals. The vast majority of the characters which appear in the Quran are also mentioned in other sacred texts and worshipped in other religions to some degree or another. Jesus is perhaps the most famous example of this. However, Muslims also have their own interpretations of Moses, Noah, Abraham, and even Mary. It is the last of these names which we have been concerned with as of late here at Studio Arabiya.

In a previous article, we examined much of Mary's role within Islam. We discussed her lineage, her upbringing, and the Annunciation, during which she learned she was with child despite never having had sexual intercourse. In this article, we will continue our study of the Islamic Mary. We will examine, among other things, the birth of her child, the immediate backlash she experienced as a single mother, and the challenges she faced as she tried to raise a son destined for prophethood. Let's get started!

The Virgin Birth

Although Islam does not recognize the Immaculate Conception in the way Christianity - and particularly Catholicism does - it does teach that Mary conceived Jesus without ever having been unchaste. Similarly, it does not teach that Jesus was the Son of God, but rather one of his most favored prophets. Another major difference between the Jesus and Mary of the Quran and the Jesus and Mary of the Bible comes in the form of the location of Jesus' birth.

The birth of the Christian Jesus is, perhaps, the single most famous story of all time. According to the Bible, Mary was traveling with Joseph, her husband, when it came time to give birth to Jesus. The pair went looking for an inn in which Mary could give birth, but were unable to find anywhere with a vacancy. Ultimately, Mary was forced to give birth to Jesus in a manger. There, she and her husband welcomed numerous visitors and well-wishers who had come from near and far to witness the glorious child whose coming had long been foretold.

The Islamic telling of Jesus' birth is markedly different to the Christian story outlined above. While the Mary of Christianity was surrounded by her husband, wise men, and various forms of barnyard animals as she gave birth, the Mary of Islam was forced to endure the pangs of childbirth in total isolation. As we discussed in the previous installment of this series, Mary had a tendency to seek solitude when spiritual matters were involved. Over time, this solitude evolved from simply being alone in her room in Zechariah's house to being in the desert, with nobody around for miles. When the time came for her to give birth, she sought physical and spiritual refuge in the wilderness. Surah Maryam, named for her sake, recalls her struggle giving birth in isolation:

"So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, 'Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.' But He called her from below her, 'Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say, 'Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful abstention, so I will not speak today to [any] man.''"

  • Quran, 19:22 - 26


The above Quranic extract is important for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it reminds us that Mary, despite having been chosen by Allah for a glorious task, was human. The

pain of childbirth too much to bear, she momentarily loses her faith in Allah and wishes that she had died before having ever conceived her son. Before she entirely loses faith, however, Allah instructs her to shake the trunk of a palm tree, which He assures her will produce dates for her to eat. He also points out a stream of water, which has miraculously appeared in the wilderness so that she may have water to cure her thirst. This is important not only because it saved Mary's life, but also because it reminds us that Allah is always watching over us. Even when we are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Allah makes a way for us so that we may fulfill His vision on this earth.

Finally, the passage above ends with Allah giving Mary a command. He tells her not to speak to any man after she has given birth to her son. At first, this is a difficult command for us to understand. Why would Allah command somebody not to speak when they are in the wilderness, far removed from any civilization? Even if she were permitted to speak, it seems very unlikely that Mary would be in a situation where she would have to do so. Of course, Allah knows all and He knew when He gave this command that Mary would, indeed, encounter a large group of people later that day.

This leads us to wonder why Allah would forbid Mary from defending herself when she met this group of people He knew she was destined to encounter. At the time of Mary, giving birth to a child out of wedlock was considered to be one of the most heinous sins imaginable. Taking away her ability to speak was taking away her ability to offer an explanation when confronted by the angry mob. Why would Allah put Mary in danger like this, especially after all she had endured in giving birth to His prophet? Again, we must remember that Allah knows all and has a plan for everything. As we will discover in the next section, He provided a path for Mary to explain herself without breaking His commandment to remain silent, just as He provided a path for her to secure nourishment in the barren desert.

Jesus Protects Mary

Like all prophets, Jesus was sent by Allah to spread the word of the heavens and save all men and women from eternal damnation. His first task, however, was to save his mother from those who sought to punish her for giving birth to a child out of wedlock. According to the Quran, after Mary had delivered Jesus, she returned to society. There, she was mocked and taunted by her peers, who demanded an explanation as to how she had come to be with child without having sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Although she was unsure how she would be delivered from their aggression, Mary kept the covenant she had made with Allah and refused to speak. It was at this moment that Jesus performed his first miracle. The Quran tells us:

"Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, 'O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste.' So she pointed to him. They said, 'How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?' [Jesus] said, 'Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive. And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.' That is Jesus, the son of Mary - the word of truth about which they are in dispute."

  • Quran, 19:27 - 34


In an earlier article examining the role of Jesus within Islam, we discussed the above verse and what it can tell us about the Muslim Jesus at length. Today, let's take a moment to discuss what it can tell us about the Muslim Mary. For starters, it reminds us of Mary's immense faith in Allah. Although she exhibited some doubt during the initial pain of childbirth, her faith was restored stronger than ever by the miraculous dates and water with which Allah provided her. In the aftermath of this restoration of faith, she was so confident that Allah wouldprotect her that she obeyed His commandment to remain silent in the face of criticism. Following His directions, she simply pointed to her infant son when questioned about his origins.

Mary's aggressors mocked her and wondered how a newborn child could speak for her. One can only assume that she wondered this as well, but such was her faith in Allah that she went along with His plan. As always, Allah remained true to His word and gave the infant Jesus the power to speak in defense of his mother. During Jesus' speech to the angry mob, he identified himself as a prophet of Allah, sent by the heavens to spread His message on Earth. However, Jesus also made sure to declare his dedication to his mother, telling his audience that he would remain dutiful to her throughout his life. This is noteworthy as it tells us Jesus viewed Mary almost as highly as he viewed Allah. Therefore, as followers of Jesus and all other prophets, we should hold Mary in similarly high regard. We should remain dutiful to her, just as we are dutiful to her son and to Allah.

Mary As A Mother

More than any other religion, Islam strives to present its prophets and leaders as humans. Believing that only Allah is capable of total divinity, Islam does not shy away from the faults and shortcomings of even its most revered figures. In fact, there is a recurring theme throughout the Quran and other Islamic scripture of prophets struggling to come to terms with their role as a messenger of Allah. Even Muhammad suffered a well-documented period of stressful adjustment in the wake of his first revelations. Mary, though not a prophet, also experienced great difficulties adjusting to her role as an essential figure in Allah's divine plan. As many of our female readers will be aware, being a mother is incredibly difficult under any set of circumstances. One can only imagine, then, how challenging it must have been for Mary to be tasked with raising one of Allah's greatest prophets into adulthood. There are several stories in Islamic tradition detailing the obstacles Mary faced as Jesus' mother. One such story is related in Bihar al-Anwar, a collection of largely Shia Hadith, and reads as follows:

"Abu 'Abd Allah ('a) said, 'Verily, Jesus the son of Mary, used to cry intensely, so that Mary was at wits end regarding his profuse crying. He said to her, 'Get some of the bark of that tree, make a tonic from it and feed me with it.' When he drank it, he cried intensely. Mary said, 'What sort of prescription did you give me?' He said, 'O my mother! Knowledge of prophethood and weakness of childhood.'"

Bihar al-Anwar, 14, 254, 47


Mary In Hadith

While the above extract from Bihar al-Anwar paints a very vivid and sympathetic picture of Mary's struggles as a young mother, it is important to remember that Bihar al-Anwar is primarily Shia scripture. Only a very small percentage of the world's Muslims adhere to Shia Islam. As we have mentioned in previous articles examining Shia Hadith, the comparatively small number of Shia Muslims means we cannot take scripture which is exclusively Shia as an authority on Islam's perception of a certain figure. Thankfully, there is no shortage of Hadith relating to Mary that is accepted in both Sunni and Shia Islam. In this section, we'll be discussing some of the most noteworthy widely recognized Hadith on the mother of Jesus.


Although the following Hadith is accepted as authentic among the vast majority of Muslims, it has caused significant debate as to its meaning. It reads:

"Abu Musa reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 'There were many men who achieved perfection, and none were perfect among women but Asiyah, the wife of Pharaoh, and Mary, the daughter of 'Imran. Verily, the virtue of Aisha over other women is like the virtue of a fine stew over all other foods.'"

  • Sahih al-Bukhari


At first, this Hadith seems pretty straightforward. It praises Mary and it praises Asiyah. Where could the controversy come from? Although nobody is disputing the fact that Mary and Asiyah were dedicated followers of Allah, some scholars have suggested that this Hadith presents the pair as prophets. Many Islamic scholars are of the belief that a person cannot be perfect unless they are a prophet, so the designation of Mary and Asiyah as having achieved perfection would suggest that they are indeed messengers of Allah. Those who disagree, however, have been quick to point out that Mary was not a public preacher. Unlike virtually all prophets of Islam, she performed the bulk of her worship in total solitude. She did not speak to large crowds, nor did she seek to defy the authority of the day and bring people on to her religion. Ultimately, whether Mary was a prophet or not may come down to a matter of personal opinion and what you believe the duties of a prophet to be. Regardless, there is no denying that she was one of the greatest women of all time and a credit to the human race as a whole.

Musnad Ahmad contains a similar Hadith praising Mary. It also praises three other women, describing them as being the four greatest women in the eyes of Allah. It reads as follows:

"Ibn Abbas reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, 'The best of women among the people of Paradise are Khadija bint Khuwaylid, Fatimah bint Muhammad, Maryam bint 'Imran, and 'Asiyah bint Muzahim, the wife of Pharaoh.'"

  • Musnad Ahmad


Mary is known by a number of names within Islam. One of the more confusing of these names is Sister of Aaron. The following Hadith, found in Sahih Muslim offers an explanation as to why Mary may be labeled as the sister of somebody who lived long before her:

"Mughira ibn Shu'ba reported: When I came to Najran, the Christian monks asked me, 'You recite the verse, 'O sister of Aaron,' (19:28) but Moses was born long before Jesus by many years.' When I came back to the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, I asked him about it and he said, 'Verily, they would name people with the names of prophets and righteous people who had passed before them.'"

  • Sahih Muslim


Conclusion

In Islam, so much focus is placed on Muhammad and Jesus that it can be easy to overlook the importance of Mary. However, Mary's role in the religion cannot be understated. Throughout the Quran, we are reminded that she is the "greatest of all women". By maintaining total spiritual and physical purity into adulthood, she proved herself worthy of bearing one of Allah's greatest prophets. Through the trials and tribulations of parenthood, she stayed true to Allah and raised that prophet into maturity. This would be a magnificent feat for anybody, let alone a single mother. Mary stayed dedicated to Jesus throughout his prophethood and defended him during his most challenging period, just as he defended her when he was an infant and she was threatened by a mob of aggressive non-believers. Today, it is the duty of all Muslims to continue to defend Mary. We must ensure her status as one of Allah's favored few is not forgotten. Similarly, we must be mindful of the special role Mary plays within both Islam and Christianity, allowing us to bridge the gap between the two religions and ensure useful and peaceful theological discourse with our brothers and sisters of the Christian faith. 

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