It comes as a surprise to many who are not Muslim that Mary (Maryam in Arabic), the mother of Jesus, has a very special place in Islam.
In the Quran, for example, a whole Chapter is named after her. And in fact, she is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the whole of the New Testament.
Not only is Mary, then, an obvious point of contact between Muslims and Christians, but there is much from her life we can learn from.
The story of Maryam in the Quran is similar in many ways to the Christian version in Saint Luke’s Gospel, but it also differs in significant ways.
Imran, her father, was a priest dedicated to God’s service. Her mother, Hannah, was the sister of Elizabeth, who was the wife of Zachariah, the father of Prophet Yahya.
[Mention, O Muhammad], when the wife of ‘Imran said, “My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb, consecrated [for Your service], so accept this from me. Indeed, You are the Hearing, the Knowing. (3:35)
Imran died before the child was born so when, to Hannah’s surprise, the new baby was a girl she still fulfilled the words of her vow and the young Mary was dedicated to God from birth.
Trust in God
Having no father to act as her guardian, her uncle Zachariah looked after the young Maryam as she worked in God’s House, providing a small chamber for her. Every time he went to visit the young Maryam he found that she had plenty of food to eat and asked where the food had come from:
So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found with her provision. He said, “O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?” She said, “It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account. (3:37)
The words here leave it open for us to understand either that it means the food was provided miraculously by Allah or that the food was one of the constant blessings of Allah, as it is to all of us.
What it does show, though, is that even from an early age Mary was filled with trust in Allah and saw Him at work in all things. This is what we are all called to do as Muslims. Like Mary, we are called to trust in Allah and see His work in all creation.
Her true “submission” to the Will of God, though, was in her response to what He was to ask of her when the Angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic) appeared and spoke to her.
He said, ‘I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you news of a pure boy.’ She said, “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?” (19:19-20)
Do God’s Will
Just like the Christian version, Muslims believe that Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. This, by the way, is not to suggest that there is something wrong about sexual relations between a husband and wife, but its purpose is to show the miraculous nature of Jesus birth and the singular way in which his mother was chosen by Allah. Mary was very special.
Roman Catholics are renowned for their deep devotion to the mother of Jesus. But Muslims, too, believe that Mary was chosen above all women.
The Quran is very clear in insisting that she is chosen above all women, not just Muslims, but all women who have lived.
And [mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. (3:42)
In a sense, in Mary, all women are exalted. The rest of women give birth in a normal way, but nonetheless giving birth to a child is a truly wonderful thing and it is one of the gifts of Allah to His creation.
In the Quran there are no angels or shepherds present at Jesus’ birth, and he is not born in a stable with angels singing in the sky. Giving birth is not easy. Rooted in reality, the birth of Jesus more accurately reflects the situation in the Middle East and the situation and pain of many women giving birth.
So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place. And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm-tree: she cried (in her anguish): ‘Ah! Would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten.’ (19:22-3)
No, childbirth is not easy, and Mary is alone with her pain and there are no choirs of angels to accompany her.
The rest of the story of the birth of Jesus is simple. Mary is told to grasp the trunk of a palm tree and to shake it so that “fresh ripe dates fall upon thee.” Allah has also provided a stream nearby for her to quench her thirst.
And tongues would wag in those days in just the same way tongues might wag if an unmarried girl gives birth to a child. Mary did not respond to these comments, but instead her baby spoke out on her behalf.
But she pointed to the babe. They said, ‘How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?’ He said: ‘I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet.’ (19:29-30)
In our own lives we are called to do the Will of Allah no matter what others might be saying around us. Most of the time we won’t receive any thanks for what we are doing. Most of the time our goodness and kind actions will be known to Allah alone.
Yet, the trustworthiness and faithfulness of Mary to Allah is not only rewarded with the birth of a beautiful baby boy, but that child speaks out and vindicates her and goes on to become a great Prophet of Islam, foretelling the coming of the final Prophet, Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Allah knows all that we do. He is the one we should seek to please, not the people around us. And He is the one who will reward us, Insha’Allah.
The life of Mary teaches us to trust in Allah and do His will. What more could a Muslim want than that?
(From Discovering Islam’s archive.)