Maryam, or Mary, is the only woman mentioned by name in the Holy Qur’an. She is mentioned in twelve chapters of the Qur’an, a total of thirty-four times. But even more important than the number of times her name is used is the fact that she was mentioned in verses of the Qur’an from different periods of the revelation. Interestingly, she is mentioned by name only nineteen times in the New Testament.
Mary was given her name by her mother. Her name has been said to mean “the one who does not want, one who departs” or “the servant,” but the opinion that the name Mary means “one who worships” in the Aramaic language1 seems more suitable.
Mary’s honorable family upbringing, the fact that she was a chosen person, and her many outstanding virtues are emphasized frequently in both the Qur’an and hadith. However, the verses of the Qur’an alone are more than sufficient to explain her superiority as a woman. Firstly, she came from an honorable family, a father as noble as Imran and a mother so memorable and devoted that her prayers were accepted by God. Mary was the fruit of a devoted mother’s prayer and because of her oath she was entrusted to a holy sanctuary at a very young age.
When her father Imran died,2 Mary was still only a young girl and many asked for the honorable duty of her guardianship, but this duty was bestowed upon Prophet Zachariah3 in an event that was revealed in the Holy Qur’an: “(O Messenger:) that is of the tidings of the things of the unseen (the things that took place in the past and have remained hidden from people with all their truth), which We reveal to you, for you were not present with them when they drew lots with their pens about who should have charge of Mary; nor were you present with them when they were disputing (about the matter)” (Al Imran 3:44). The Qur’anic verse which describes how Mary’s sustenance comes to her is immediately followed by a supplication from Zachariah that clearly indicates that he was growing old and was slowly becoming incapable of looking after Mary adequately. This is the most likely reason for the weak reports claiming that the person who was blessed with her guardianship was a priest called Juraich4 or a member of her family called Joseph,5 but these reports have no authority, for God revealed in the Qur’an that Mary was living under the education and care of Zachariah.6
Zachariah made Mary a sanctuary7 in the temple so she could be more occupied with daily worship.8 During the period that Mary lived at the temple under the guidance of Zachariah, she was exceptionally blessed with sustenance from God. The Qur’an informs us that every time Zachariah went to see Mary, there would be lovely fruits in her room: “Whenever Zachariah went in to her in the Sanctuary, he found her provided with food. ‘Mary,’ he asked, ‘how does this come to you?’ ‘From God,’ she answered. Truly God provides to whomever He wills without reckoning”(Al Imran 3:37).9 It is also known that after giving birth to baby Jesus, she was miraculously provided with the blessing of fresh dates and water. A similar event is reported for Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter.10
There is no information about Mary’s life before the angel came giving Mary the glad tidings of Jesus’s birth. But the books of Apocrypha (accounts rejected by the Church) convey the blessing of sustenance bestowed upon Mary. However, the Apocrypha give some information about the earlier period of Mary’s life, including predictions as to where she was born and even estimations regarding the date of her birth. The Protoevangelium, one of the books of Apocrypha, contains some additional information which is not found in the canonical scriptures (those accepted by the Church).
While she increased her worship with every day that passed, the period that Mary was under the care of Zachariah continued with God’s special protection and sustenance. This particular characteristic is mentioned in the Qur’an: “And (in due time came the moment) when the angels said: “Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure, and exalted you above all the women in the world. “Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord, prostrate and bow (in the Prayer and devotion to Him) with those who bow!”(Al Imran 3:42–43).11
The words of the Creator’s purification of Mary-“God’s purification”-have been interpreted in various ways as referring to spiritual, moral, or physical purification. Some said that this means “purification from disbelief and sin,” while others claim this means “purification from menses following birth, all kinds of physical defect and contact with males,” and most scholars say the words “chosen above women of all nations” refers to all the women of her era,12 and though the physical actions of worship are stressed in this verse, more important is the fact that Mary abided by both the command of worship, “be devoutly obedient to your Lord, prostrate and bow (in the Prayer and devotion to Him) with those who bow!” and the spirit of worship deep in her soul: “And also Mary, the daughter of ‘Imran, who kept herself chaste (body and soul), so We breathed into it out of Our Spirit, and who affirmed the truth of the words of her Lord, and His Books; and she was of those devoutly obedient to God” (At-Tahrim 66:12).
The Qur’an also bears witness to Mary being a woman of “truth”13 in many verses.
The verse in the Qur’an about Mary being superior to all other women (Al Imran 3:42–43) has been referred to in most commentaries as well as various reports of hadith found in the Tisa Qutubi. About the many virtues of Mary, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said:
1. “The best of the women in the world is Mary (in her lifetime),14 and the best of the women in the world is Khadijah (in her lifetime).” (Bukhari, Muslim)
2. “Many among men attained perfection, but among women none attained perfection except Mary the daughter of Imran, and Asiya the wife of Pharaoh; and the superiority of Aisha to other women is like the superiority of Tharid (an Arabic dish) to other meals.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
3. “There is no new-born except that (at the moment of birth) Satan disturbs him, so he begins to cry from Satan’s disturbance with the exception of the son of Mary and his mother.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
4. “Of all the women in the universe, four would suffice (as an example for others): Mary, Asiya, Khadija, and Fatima.” (Tirmidhi, Ahmad b. Hanbal)
5. “The best of the women of Paradise are Khadijah, Fatima, Asiya and Mary.” (Ahmad b. Hanbal)
6. “Fatima is the leader of the women of Paradise after Mary.” (Tirmidhi, Ahmad b. Hanbal)
7. “The best women among the camel riders, are the women of Quraish.” (Another narrator said) The Prophet said, “The righteous among the women of Quraish are those who are kind to their young ones and who look after their husband’s property,” (Bukhari, Muslim) and this hadith is followed up in many cases by a report from Abu Hurairah who said, “Mary the daughter of Imran never rode a camel,” stressing the virtues of Mary. According to Imam Nawawi and Ibn Hajar, Abu Hurairah’s aim was not actually to stress the fact that Mary never rode a camel but was just an expression of his praise of Mary’s virtues,15 or another explanation of these words could be, “It does not mean that a woman who rides a camel is righteous because Mary was a righteous woman even though she never rode a camel.”
As we see from these hadith the interpreters and scholars have varying opinions on the order of arrangement of the superiority of these women, but the most interesting aspect of these hadith is that although the other names may change, Mary is the only person who is mentioned in all the given examples of these hadith, and this should be sufficient to show her unmatched excellence.
The narrations stated above have led some scholars to believe that there is a possibility of the existence of female prophets. There has been various opinions supporting the idea that female prophets may have been sent and asking whether Mary the mother of Jesus was a Prophet or not. The opinion of scholars who believe Mary may have been a Prophet is based on the fact that Mary’s name is mentioned in the Qur’an among the Prophets: “Those were some of the Prophets on whom God did bestow his grace of the posterity of Adam and of those whom we carried (in the Ark) with Noah and of the posterity of Abraham and Israel-of those we guided and chose”(Mary 19:58), and also on the angel bringing the revelation of tidings and the benevolence provided to Mary from the creator, and the fact that she was a chosen person above all women purified through the grace of God as a “woman of perfection,” and “leader in Paradise”16 all led these scholars to believe that Mary could possibly be a messenger. However, the general opinion accepted by most scholars is that women were not sent to the world as prophets.17
There are some Christian theologians who claim that Mary was a prophet. The Christian opinion in general is that she was superior to other women and saints but not superior to Jesus. Mary has been widely praised in Christian literature for her obedience, patience, modesty, piety, faith, hope, compassion, dignity and many other virtues.
The Qur’an clearly explains in this verse how Mary conceived Jesus:
And (remember) when the angels said: “Mary, God gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him, to be called the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary" highly honored in the world and the Hereafter, and one of those near-stationed to God. He will speak to people in the cradle and in manhood, and he is of the righteous. "Lord," said Mary, “how shall I have a son seeing no mortal has ever touched me?” “That is how it is,” he (the Spirit who appeared before her) said, (quoting God): “God creates whatever He wills; when He decrees a thing, He does but say to it ‘Be!’ and it is.”(Al Imran 3:45–47)
The chapter Mary (19:16–33) of the Qur’an gives an extensive version of the conception, the birth and the events that followed the birth of baby Jesus. Furthermore, God the Almighty reveals how He located Mary and her son Jesus, whom He sent as an example to humans, in a prosperous place on high land with flowing streams and bestowed upon Jesus the divine benevolence He had bestowed upon his mother: “O Jesus son of Mary! O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favor upon you and upon your mother” (Al-Maeda 5:110).
There are various reports and comments specifically referring to Mary’s conception of Jesus and the miraculous birth in the interpretations and explanations of hadith which exceed the limits of this article. The embryologic phase of Mary’s pregnancy was just like any other pregnant woman: she conceived, the baby grew in her womb, and when the contractions began she made her way to the vicinity of the date tree behind a flowing stream and then gave birth. But how did the pregnancy and this embryological process actually begin? This question resembles a parcel holding the mysteries of this miraculous event.
So in brief, Mary was a true monument of chastity and, even though she was a virgin, conceived in a miraculous way. The fact that Mary guarded both her dignity and chastity is emphasized in the following verses of the Qur’an:
“And (mention) that blessed woman who set the best example in guarding her chastity. We breathed into her out of Our Spirit, and We made her and her son a miraculous sign (of Our Power and matchless way of doing things) for all the worlds.” (Al-Anbiya 21–91), “And also Mary, the daughter of Imran, who kept herself chaste (body and soul), so We breathed into it out of Our Spirit, and who affirmed the truth of the words of her Lord, and His Books; and she was of those devoutly obedient to God.” (At-Tahrim 66:12).
As a matter of fact, the Qur’an tells us that great disaster and punishment await those who speak unfavorably about Mary, for whatever they say against her chastity and dignity is slander, and their hearts are sealed to faith.
There is no account in the Qur’an or hadith of Mary’s death or burial, so details and information related to the topic are generally based on Christian sources or historical literature. Not included in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Mary’s attending the miracle of Cana (John 2:11) and the event of the crucifix (John 19:25–27) were only reported in the book of John; she prayed with Jesus and his disciples in the Acts (1:14) following his resurrection, but there is no mention of the remaining period of her life, her death, age, or appearance in any of the gospels.
It is estimated that Mary must have been around fifty years old at the time of Jesus’ passing and there are varying reports regarding her own death; some say she was fifty-six, while there are other reports of her being seventy or even seventy-two. The questions of where and how she died have been topics of discussion and dispute for centuries, but the fact that she carried on throughout her life in sincere devotion and worship of God is much more suitable for her general profile.
Although there is no information on Mary’s place of burial in Christian sources, there are different views. Some say she was buried in Jerusalem, whereas others say it could have been in Ephesus or Antioch. Although there is no specific grave associated with Mary in Ephesus, there are graves said to be that of Mary which are in churches, one in the Jehosaphat valley between the Mount of Olives and Mount Temple and another in Gethsemani. There are some claims that her grave is on the mountain of Sion, and a Syrian history writer claims that her grave is situated in Al-Faradis in Damascus.18
1. Zamahshari, I, 142; Bagawi, I, 295; Baydawi, II, 31.
2. Hakim, Mustadrak II, 646; Tabari, III, 235; Zamahshari, I, 142.
3. See Al Imran 3:37, 44. Also Ibn Hisham, III, 121; Tabari, III, 242-244.
4. Ibn Hisham, III, 121.
5. Ibn Kathir, Bidayah II, 68; Alusi, III, 165, XVI, 80.
6. See Al Imran 3:37. Also see: Tabari, III, 242-244; Qurtubi, IV, 71-86.
7. Mihrab is the original Qur’anic word. A bit different than its meaning today, mihrab in this context refers to a place “where one lives and prays, a most honorable place, where one strives against the carnal self.”
8. Tabari, III, 245; Wahidi, I, 208; Baydawi, II, 34.
9. See also Tabari, III, 244-246; Baqawi, I, 297; Fahruddin ar-Razi, VI, 283.
10. Zamahshari, I, 143; Ibn Kathir, I, 361.
11. See also New Testament, Luke 1:26–28; 41–42.
12. Tabari, III, 262-264; Vahidi, I, 210.
13. Al- Maidah 5:75. The word “Truth” means trustworthy, of truthful speech pious in faith and religion. Ibn Manzur, “s-d-k” (X, 193)
14. Scholars like Qadi Iyaz and Qurtubi understood the meaning of these words as “superior to all women on the earth.”
15. Navawi, XVI, 80; Ibn Hajar, VI, 473-474, IX, 125.
16. Navawi, XV, 198; Ayni, XV, 308.
17. Navawi, XV, 198; Baydawi, II, 38; Ibn Kathir, II, 82; Ayni, XV, 308. Those who support this view usually refer to this verse: “We did not send before you as Messengers any but men to whom We revealed, from amongst the people of the townships (where We raised them)” (Yusuf 12:109).
18. Ibn Asakir, Tarih al-Dimashk II, 337, 411.