Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Mary, Ever Virgin . . . In Islam

by Penelope Johnstone

Descriptive Title

Mary, Ever Virgin In Islam


In this article Penelope Johnstone, a British Catholic scholar of Islam, examines the role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, according to the Koran. She also includes parallel passages from the Bible and the Qur'an recounting the Annunciation.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


44 - 47

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, April 2005

A recent issue of a journal published in Syria was devoted to the Virgin Mary — an event described by L'Osservatore Romano (November 2-3, 2004) as "senza precedenti" ("without precedent"). The journal al-Ma'arej, ("The Stairs"), L'Osservatore Romano tells us, has been in publication for some 14 years. This particular issue contains articles by both Christians and Muslims.

This event may be "unprecedented," but it has a respectable and lengthy background. The Circle "al-Ma'arej," dedicated to dialogue between religions, contains Christians and Muslims, and is under Shiite direction, with its headquarters in Beirut, capital of a country where the two religions have lived in a certain harmony. The Shi'a have over the years shown themselves open to collaboration with Christians (as is true of Sunnis, but in different ways).

It brought to my mind a summer in Iran, in the late 1960s, when four of us students were invited into a family home. There were just two small pictures on the wall, reproductions of little artistic merit: one of 'Ali, for the Shi'a second only to Muhammad, the other of the Virgin and Child. We did not enquire as to any theological or devotional significance, but the memory of those two pictures side by side has remained with me.

Within the Christian tradition, we can see the figure of Mary as having been a source of division and also a symbol of unity. Her titles within the Catholic Church echo biblical phrases: she has been likened to the Spouse in the Canticle of Canticles, and to the Woman clothed with the sun in Revelation. To the Orthodox she has been Theotokos, the God-Bearer, and ikons from Vladimir to Kazan show her holding her Child. We see in the restored shrine of Walsingham in Norfolk, England, and in the activity of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that she can be a symbol of reconciliation. At the other end of the scale, she has been merely "the mother of Jesus," the Catholic veneration being seen as misguided exaggeration.

This devotion to Mary is based on rather scanty material within the Gospels. So is some of it, as many claim, a kind of back-projection? What of the Nativity stories? The One who comes from the Most High, the Chosen, the Desired of Nations, surely his birth must have been accompanied by miraculous signs?

If we look for this phenomenon in Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, we find the same conviction that a mother was chosen and that the birth of her son was, to say the least, out of the ordinary. In these cases the child — respectively the Boddhisattva, Zoroaster, and Krishna — predates Christianity. The stories are much stranger than any Gospel, or apocryphal, account of Mary and Jesus.

There is of course one major religion which post-dates Christianity: Islam, with its origins in the 7th century AD. Its scripture, the Qur'an, in 34 places mentions Maryam, the mother of 'Isa; these two persons correspond in certain respects to Mary and Jesus.

There are, however, some very basic differences, so I'll refer to the Qur'anic characters in their Arabic form, using English for any Gospel references or comparisons.

Although the Qur'an mentions Maryam with respect, she would not be seen as central, and 'Isa is merely a prophet in Islamic belief, one of many preceding Muhammad.

References to Maryam contain some material which is familiar to Christians, and other material which is hardly recognizable unless one searches in the apocryphal gospels, such as the Protevangelium of James, for stories which, with good reason, were not included in the canonical text of the Gospels.

Two main features of the Qur'an's Maryam are of particular interest to us.

First; the annunciation and the birth of her son, narrated at some length in the Qur'an in the Suras 19 (named "Maryam") and 3, the "Family of Imran."

Second, and less specifically, we find what could be seen as echoing the ancient tradition of her preservation from sin, although the idea of original sin does not feature in Islam. This is mostly in the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad, transmitted orally for about 100 years before being compiled in written form, and second in status only to the Qur'an).

In the Qur'an

The Qur'anic account of the Annunciation in Sura 19:16-21 is as follows:

"Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to an eastern place.

She veiled herself from them; then We sent to her Our angel, and he appeared to her as a man in all respects.

She said: "I take refuge from thee to (God) Most Gracious; (come not near) if thou dost fear God."

He said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a pure son."

She said: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"

He said: "So (it will be): thy Lord saith, 'That is easy for Me; and (We wish) to appoint him as a sign unto mankind and a mercy from Us'; it is a matter (so) decreed."

Here, 'Isa is appointed as a "sign" and a "mercy" for all people.

In another Sura, 21:91, both 'Isa and Maryam are made "a sign for all peoples"; and in 23:50 again a "sign." The word aya, "sign," is also used for a verse of the Qur'an.

The account in Sura 3 is very similar, but the message is given by "angels" in the plural. Additionally, it says that God has preferred her "above all women of creation."

Later in the Sura, the birth of 'Isa is said to have taken place beneath a palm tree; and when Maryam brings the child to her people, who consider that he must be illegitimate, she points to him. To their astonishment, the child speaks from the cradle, justifying his mother and defining his role. "I am indeed a servant of God: He hath given me the Book and made me a prophet" (19:30).

A little further on, 19:34-35, the Qur'an remarks that 'Isa the son of Maryam is a "word of truth," and about this sign "they dispute." In verse 35 the Qur'an is even more definite, saying it is not "befitting" that God should have a son. For, when God decrees, he merely says "Be!" and it is; in fact, as the angel said in verse 21, it is "easy" for the Lord.

The phrase "'Isa son of Maryam" occurs frequently in the Qur'an; both as an affirmation of his miraculous birth, and a reminder that 'Isa is son of a woman, not of God.

Moreover, in Qur'an 5:116, 'Isa is said to deny an accusation that he asked Christians to "take me and my mother as two gods besides Allah." This clearly would not be a Christian belief; but a scholar of Islam, W.M. Watt, considers that there were "extraordinary ideas, derived from apocryphal gospels and the like, that seem to have been floating about Arabia."

The misunderstanding of the persons of the Trinity he views as "doubtless a criticism of some nominally Christian Arabs who held this view" (Muhammad at Mecca, 28).

While one has to be sensitive and not imply that Muhammad took his material from those around him, it is recognised by Muslims that many Qur'anic verses reflect the contemporary situation.

Arguments about the nature of Christ and the Trinity, although internal to the Church, would have been noticed by others outside, and the Christians are seen as squabbling among themselves, which alas was probably true.

In the Hadith

Within the hadith, there are several references to Maryam. One of these calls to mind the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, defined for the Catholic Church 150 years ago — and commemorated in Inside the Vatican, December 2004.

"Every son of Adam is touched by Satan at birth, and cries out at this touch, except for Maryam and her son." The narrator of this tradition refers to Qur'an 3:36, where Maryam's mother, at her birth, commends her and her offspring to God, to be protected from Satan. Thus it is held that neither of them committed any sin. (They have the quality of 'isma, sinlessness, also held at a different level by other prophets and in particular Muhammad.)

Another hadith is reported on the authority of 'Ali, who heard Muhammad say: "The best of women (of her time) is Maryam daughter of 'Imran, and the best (of her time) is Khadija" (Muhammad's first wife).

Another hadith gives four women who are above all others: Maryam, Asiya (the wife of Pharaoh), Khadija, and Fatima — daughter of Muhammad and wife to 'Ali, particularly significant to the Shi'a.

So is Maryam counted as a prophet? The Islamic classification does not correspond with the Judeo-Christian, for it considers there were many hundreds, mostly not known by name; and orthodox Islam would say she is not, following Qur'an 12:109: "We have sent none before thee but men!"

Nevertheless, Maryam is acknowledged as a very special human being, with extraordinary privileges.

Islamic Custom

While it would not really be possible to conclude from the Islamic references that all Muslims pay great attention to Maryam, she has her place in the Qur'an and in Islamic tradition. Folklore and local custom often combine Christian and Islamic elements, whether approved officially or not. The veneration of saints and their shrines, or final resting places, is deep-rooted in Islam (and in human nature perhaps), and where there is an existing Christian shrine to Mary, local Muslims may well adopt it.

At Matariyya near Cairo is the tree where the Holy Family are said to have rested; Hammam Sitti Maryam (Bath of the Lady Maryam) is situated near St. Stephen's Gate in Jerusalem, and for many years was visited especially by women. Probably they are the most likely to visit shrines, as the motive is often a request for children. Our Lady of Africa in Algiers has been honored by Muslims.

Two plants with a traditional medicinal use in the Middle East are named after Maryam. A member of the sage family, Salvia triloba, is known as Maryamiya, and much used as an infusion in cases of coughs, colds, or stomachache.

The Kaff Maryam, or Kaff 'al-'Adhra' (hand of the Virgin), Anastatica hierochuntia, was once said to aid in childbirth, through "sympathetic magic" (it has a dried seed-head, which opens up when put in water), though that use seems to have died out.

There is even a possible earlier example of respect paid to Christian tradition, though we do not know its precise nature. When Muhammad returned victorious to Mecca in 630 AD, the central shrine of the Ka'ba had to be cleansed of its idols — 360 in all, according to tradition — but, it is reported, he put his hands over pictures of Jesus and Mary on the interior wall, saying that all should be wiped out "except what is beneath my hands." The number may be taken as symbolic, but indicates that while anything considered an idol was removed, the Christian reproductions were allowed to remain, although they must have vanished soon after.

We have to admit that there is little scope for reconciling our respective scriptures or core beliefs, for Christians hold firmly to their faith in Christ, while Muslims believe that 'Isa was none but a prophet and the Qur'anic text is inerrant and eternal, the final correction of previous messages from God.

Even so, there is much possibility of meeting at a human level, as happens everywhere that people of different religions live side by side. There is much that we share with Muslims and the positive aspects need to be encouraged.

The Jesuit author of a small book Mary in Islam ends on a hopeful note: "May the respect and veneration which both Muslims and Christians have for the Mother of Jesus bring them closer together at her feet where they may discover that they are in truth brothers."

One might add that it is the sisters who are sometimes the first to recognise their closeness.

Some books for further reference:

Numerous Qur'an translations, e.g. by A. J. Arberry; N. J. Dawood; M. Fakhry; Yusuf Ali.

Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edn., articles '"Isa," "Ka'ba," "Maryam."

W. M. Watt, Muhammad at Mecca, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1953.

W. M. Watt, Muhammad, Prophet and Statesman, Oxford University Press 1961, & later edns.

V. Courtois, Mary in Islam, Calcutta, 1954, 63.

G. Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an, Sheldon Press, 1965.

The Annunciation

Parallel Passages: The Bible and Qur'an

"The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.'" Luke 1:28

"Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah has chosen you and purified you — chosen you above the women of all nations." Qur'an 3:42

"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.'" Luke 1:29-31

"Behold! the angels said: 'O Mary! Allah gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.'" Qur'an 3:45

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." Luke 1:34-5

"She said: 'O my Lord! how shall I have a son when no man has touched me?' He said: "Even so: Allah creates what He wills: when He has decreed a Plan, He but says to it, 'Be,' and it is!" Qur'an 3:47

"Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God." Luke 1:36-7

Praying: "O my Lord! Infirm indeed are my bones, and the hair of my head glistens with grey: but never am I unblest, O my Lord, in my prayer to You! . . . My wife is barren: so give me an heir as from Yourself," (one that) will (truly) represent me, and represent the posterity of Jacob; and make him, O my Lord! one with whom You are well-pleased!" (His prayer was answered): "O Zakariya! We give you good news of a son: his name shall be Yahya (John the Baptist) . . ." He said: "O my Lord! how shall I have a son, when my wife is barren and I have grown quite decrepit from old age?" He said: "So (it will be): your Lord says, 'That is easy for Me: I indeed created you before, when you had been nothing!" Qur'an 19:4-9

Penelope Johnstone is a British Catholic scholar of Islam.

© Dr. Robert Moynihan

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