The Qur'an informs us of former Prophets and religious figures sent by God to proclaim His Oneness. Islam requires Muslims to acknowledge and respect these people, one of whom is Mary (Maryam), the mother of Prophet Jesus. She has a unique place in the Qur'an and the hearts of Muslims, and is remembered as a highly devout woman.
Mary is depicted in the Qur'an as an individual in her own right. The Qur'an usually mentions her and Jesus separately, and deals more with her life before Jesus and her own merits as a woman chosen, purified, and protected by God. Most Biblical figures who appear in the Qur'an are from the Old Testament. Mary is one of the few New Testament figures, along with Zachariah, John the Baptist, and Jesus.(1)
Both holy books refer to women by their relationship to a man or a place. For example: the wives of Noah, Abraham, and Pharaoh, and the Queen of Sheba.
Only Moses, Abraham, and Noah are mentioned more often. The Qur'an's nineteenth chapter”Surah Maryam”is named after her, and its third chapter”Surat Al-Imran (Imran's Family)”is devoted primarily to her and her family.
While the Bible calls her the Mother of Jesus, the Qur'an calls Jesus the Son of Mary. Islam values mothers, and Muslims revere pious, devoted mothers. Mary is considered one of the greatest examples of female perfection, a person who reached one of the highest of positions.
The Qur'an, which lacks any mention of Joseph, moves in the other direction by identifying Jesus in relation to his maternal family tree. In the Qur'an, therefore, the spotlight is on Mary as a single parent who establishes Jesus' lineage. This is quite different from the New Testament, where her family history is unknown and her primary role is to conceive and give birth to Jesus, not give him a bloodline he can be proud of.(3)
Her Early Life
God chose Mary and placed her in Imran's blessed household. Hanne (or Anna), Imran's wife and Mary's mother,(4) prayed for a child despite her barrenness. Upon learning of her pregnancy, she devoted her child to God: My Lord, I have vowed to You that what is in my womb will be dedicated to Your service. Accept it from me, for You are the One Who hears, the One Who knows. When she brought forth the child, she said: My Lord, I have brought forth a female,”but God knew what she had brought forth, for the male is not like the female”and I have named her Mary. I place her and her offspring under Your protection from Satan, the cursed one (3:35-36).
Her piety was obvious. She dedicated her unborn child to God's service, and then, after discovering it is a girl, placed the child and the child's offspring, including Jesus, under God's protection. God prepared a virtuous lineage for Jesus by protecting Mary, the mother-to-be of a Prophet, from all evil and impurity, so that she would be a pure source for the miraculous birth.
As boys were more likely to be given to priests to be raised and educated, girls were rarely dedicated to temples. Hanne, probably not expecting a daughter, gave Mary to the priest Zachariah so that she would be raised in the purest place. Her gender, as well as the traditions and social conceptions of her time, should not prevent her from attaining closeness to God. She was a special person, one being prepared for a life of utmost belief and devotion, and to witness God's miracle. Her unique story started with a prayer while she was still an embryo. The prayer was accepted, and a life of faith and surrender to the Divine Will began...
God accepted her, caused her to grow up well, and had Zachariah take care of her. The exact nature of their relationship is unknown. The Bible notes that she was a relative of Zachariah's wife. Zachariah had a special tie to Mary, seeing that Mary's mother had placed her in his custody. Whenever he visited her, he found her with provisions. When he asked where they came from, she said: It is from God. Truly, God provides for whomever He wishes without measure (3:37).
Mary lived in a mihrab, literally a chamber, a place of honor, a sanctuary protected from impurity. The text says that Zachariah had to go there to see Mary, implying that she was confined therein and totally protected from the world. That he was always surprised to find her with food supports this interpretation. God was her true Provider, although she appeared to be in Zachariah's custody.
Her answer to Zachariah was notable. She stated that God is the true Provider and provides for whomever He wishes without measure. Immediately after Mary's suggestion, Zachariah prayed: My Lord, grant me offspring from Yourself. Truly, You hear all prayers (3:38). Thus she implied that God could grant any wish, regardless of its impossibility. Zachariah was old and his wife was barren, and yet he asked God for a child. The angels called to him while he was praying, saying that he would be given a son named John, who would be a Prophet. We could say that the Qur'an is hinting about the miraculous birth to come.
This scene shows Mary in all her wisdom and deepness of faith: The miraculous gift of food serves a double function in the story. In the first place, it is a tangible expression of the divine protection Mary receives of her dedication and devotion to God. Second, it functions as Zachariah's springboard to deeper faith and trust in the deity. In the process, there has been an interesting reversal of roles between Zachariah and Mary. What he provides for her, the superfluous food and drink he brings to the mihrab, is unnecessary for her survival. But what she provides him, a much-needed lesson about the power of God, is indispensable for his. Sequestered in the solitude of the mihrab, she has become his caretaker.(5)
Two Qur'anic passages mention Mary during her pregnancy, as follows:
The angels said: Oh Mary, God has chosen and purified you. He has chosen you above all other women. Oh Mary, be obedient to your Lord. Prostrate yourself and be among those who bow down. This is part of the hidden news We reveal to you. You were not with them when they cast lots to see who would take care of Mary, nor were you with them when they disputed among themselves. The angels said: Oh Mary, God gives you the good news of a word from Him. His name will be Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, who will be eminent in this world and the next, and will be one of those brought near (to God). He shall speak to people from the cradle and in his later years, and will be one of the righteous. She said: My Lord, how can I have a child when no man has touched me? He said: Thus it is. God creates what He wills. If He decrees something, He only need say: Be!' and it is. (3:42-47)
Mary is called chosen and purified, one kept from sin by God. She was raised in the purest family and had the utmost dedication to God. Her mother prayed that she and her offspring would be protected from Satan, and her prayers were answered. In addition, she was advised to prostrate herself and be among those who bow down. The Qur'an often advises believers to perform these acts of faith in their prayers: Mary is being exhorted to do the same. The intention behind this, as we have seen with other biblical figures found in the Qur'an, is to remind the reader that the attitude of submission at the heart of Islam is not something that came into existence only with the arrival of Muhammad. Many virtuous people, like Mary, fully submitted themselves to the divine will centuries prior to the emergence of Islam.(6)
The Qur'an reminds Prophet Muhammad and its readers that part of the hidden news is being related. As only God knows all of the hidden news, Muslims are cautious not to add to what the Qur'an has revealed. For example, the place in the east mentioned in the following verse is not precise. It could be a chamber on the eastern side of Zachariah's house or the city of Nazareth. As the Qur'an does not diverge from its main point, in this case Mary's self-imposed seclusion even before the annunciation, such irrelevant details are not given. Her decision, made before she knew of this event, cannot be seen as an act of escape from social pressure. It is highly likely that it was an attempt to draw closer to God.
Remember Mary in the Book. When she withdrew from her family to a place in the east and took cover from them, We sent to her Our spirit which appeared to her in the form of a normal person. She said: I take refuge in the Merciful One from you if you fear Him. He said: I am only a messenger from your Lord, to give you a righteous son. She said: How can I have a son when no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste? He said: Thus it is. Your Lord said: It is easy for Me. We will make him a sign for people and mercy from Us. It is an accomplished fact.' (19:16-21)
One may imagine her distress at such an awkward situation. Raised in the purest household and living a life of chastity and virtue, she now must confront terribly degrading accusations and humiliation. Not comprehending, she said she cannot have a son because she is a chaste virgin. Although the angel confirmed this and said he was sent by her Lord, she still did not comprehend how the pregnancy can occur. Yet her upbringing and faith gave her the strength of heart to submit fully to the Divine Will and bear the result patiently.
She is a young virgin, all alone in a patriarchal society. The Qur'an does not mention Joseph, and Biblical sources only give him a minor role. Mary does not rely on her relatives or her appointed guardian for support. Her lifestyle seems to demonstrate the fact that God is the only one to rely on and turn to for help.
The Birth of Jesus
She conceived him and withdrew with him to a distant place. The birth pangs led her to the trunk of a palm tree, where she cried: Oh, if only I had died before this and had been forgotten, unremembered! Then (a voice) called out to her from below her: Do not grieve. Your Lord has placed a stream beneath you. Shake the trunk of the palm tree and it will drop fresh ripe dates upon you. Eat, drink, and be consoled. If you see another person, say: I have vowed a fast to the Merciful One and will not speak to anyone today.' (19:22-27)
Mary went to an unknown distant place. Muslim commentators have proposed Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Egypt, and other places.(7) Wherever the place, she was far from civilization and in distress.
Her cry in verse 23, a heartfelt complaint in which she laments her situation, raises some interesting questions about her character. Most of the explanations of the cause of her anguish extend beyond herself, like her concern that others might mistakenly call Jesus the son of God, rather than understand it as due to lack of belief or some other personal flaw on her part. Whatever its precise cause, there is an ironic element to her prayer that can be easily overlooked. The image of Mary praying that she be unremembered and obliterated from history strikes the reader as incompatible with the high profile and exalted status she has come to hold within both Islam and Christianity. Against her wishes, she certainly was not forgotten! In this sense, Mary's prayer was not answered.(8)
She carried him (Jesus) to her people, who said: Oh Mary, you have done something strange! Oh sister of Aaron, your father was not wicked nor was your mother unchaste. She pointed to him. They said: How can we talk to a child in the cradle? (19:27-29)
As her son was to be a sign for people and a mercy from God, Mary brought him to her people. God did not desert her. According to Jewish law, an adulteress had to be stoned to death. From his cradle, Jesus defended his mother: I am God's servant. He has given me the Book, made me a Prophet, blessed me wherever I am, and charged me with prayer and almsgiving as long as I live. [He has made me] dutiful toward my mother, nor has He made me a tyrant, wretched (19:31-32).
One of Jesus' miracles is to speak in the cradle to refute the calumnies against his mother. This idea has had a profound effect on the Muslim mentality, and to slander a virtuous Muslim woman is still considered one of the greatest sins. The text has certainly contributed to the preservation of the sense of woman's honor in Muslim society.(9)
Mary's story is an example of courage and trust. Her deep faith and devotion caused her unique life to flourish. In addition, her life shows that religion, when understood correctly, does not pacify or restrict believers but rather frees them from the chains of earthly worries and fears. This freedom allows them to fulfill their purpose in life.
Understanding that submission to the Divine Will is the ultimate source of relief in this world and the Hereafter, Mary submitted herself and found peace. Her example lives on in the hearts of all believers and continues to inspire all who seek to live up to their full spiritual potential.
- Heribert Busse, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity: Theological and Historical Affiliations, trans. Allison Brown (Princeton: 1998), 113.
- Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (New York: 1965), 60.
- The Bible states that Joseph was Mary's husband. John Kaltner, Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur'an for Bible Readers (Minnesota: 1999), 231.
- Suat Yildirim, Mevcud Kaynaklara Gore Hiristiyanlik (Izmir: 1996), 3.
- Kaltner, Ishmael, 212.
- Ibid., 215.
- Ibid., 224.
- Ibid., 225.
- Jacques Jomier, The Great Themes of the Qur'an, trans. Zoe Hersov (London: 1997), 87.