The story of Mary, the mother of Jesus (peace be upon them), in the Quran features prominently in two chapters. The most popular of these is that which bears her name, Surah Mariam (Chapter 19).
Set amongst the stories of a string of other Prophets including John and Abraham, the chapter covers the miraculous conception of the Prophet Jesus and tells the story of the suffering of Mary during her pregnancy.
The primary purpose of this chapter was to emphasize the continuity of Islam with previous divine revelations, namely that of Judaism and Christianity.
Islam and its foundational text were meant to be completing – or in the case of Jesus, correcting – the narrative of monotheism, returning Jesus to his rightful place as a Prophet of God and bearer of His message.
The third chapter of the Quran, Al ‘Imran, recalls the same story. According to the narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), this chapter was revealed much later than chapter Mariam, so the purpose of continuity was already achieved.
The question then poses itself: why would God reveal the same story once again? This article seeks to answer that question by presenting some of the core lessons derived from this story.
Equality of Humanity
In this telling, Mary is now identified as the daughter of ‘Imran. Her mother, in a desire to show her devotion to God, promised that her offspring would live a life of complete religious devotion. When she received a daughter, she was shocked. She was expecting a son and knew that in her society girls were viewed as weaker and not as valuable. “And the male is not like the female.” (Quran 3:36) She nevertheless follows through with her promise, dedicating Mary to serve God for her entire life. The next verse of the chapter gives us our first lesson:
So the 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 her with 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.’ (Quran 3:37)
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Speaking against the feelings of Mary’s mother, God confirms that the dedication and worth of a woman in the service of God is no less than that of a man. She is accepted well (hasan), put in the service of another, and given sustenance directly from God.
Within this narration is a powerful message of equality of human beings. Although stressed more directly in other passages in the Quran, the story of Mary gives a more personalized and direct example of that equality. Men are not the same as women, the Quran rightly states, but their religious practice they are both on an equal footing.
Dedication to Allah
Included in these previous verses is another important lesson of dedication and the idea of free will. At first glance, it seems quite unjust that a person would be forced to live a life of devotion to God without the option to choose.
Living a life entirely for God is not an easy one; and the story of any Prophet (think of Jesus and Muhammad) is clear evidence of the pain, suffering, and worldly poverty that often goes along with religious dedication. Such was the case of Mary who, before she was even born, had her life written off for her.
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Many of us feel the same way and experience similar issues. The country in which we are born, the nature of our upbringing and parents, and our financial status have put so many aspects of our lives out of our control. These elements bind us to the world we live in and are painstakingly difficult to change.
The lesson from the story of Mary is that the key to surviving these hardships is through dedication to God and following His message. That doesn’t mean stop striving to further your education, get a better job, or improve your overall lot in life. Rather, it means putting your ultimate trust in God, as “Allah provides for whom He wills without account.”
Developing Sincerity in Your Faith
The third lesson in chapter Al ‘Imran comes from putting the story of Mary within the wider context of the themes discussed in the chapter. An early verse contains the supplication:
Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower. (Quran 3:8)
This supplication is set amongst a narrative of God warning of the consequences of disbelief.
They denied Our signs, so Allah seized them for their sins. (Quran 3:11)
“Never will their wealth or their children avail them against Allah at all,” God warns, “And it is they who are fuel for the Fire.” (Quran 3:10)
Those who are saved from this predicament are those who are:
“…firm in knowledge,” and the “patient, the true, the obedient, those who spend [in the way of Allah], and those who seek forgiveness before dawn.” (Quran 3:17)
As is the tradition throughout the Quranic narrative, these general statements are never left alone. Rather, they are always followed with a practical example to show how the rule is achieved. Enter here the story of Mary. She is the example that all Muslims are to follow. Her dedication and the sincerity of her faith led to her reward in carrying the Messenger of God.
Through sincerity of faith, shown by acts of devotion and perseverance in hardship, she achieved the highest level of praise that any non-Prophet could imagine. We are all called to do the same, with the promise that our sincerity will be rewarded.
In conclusion, the repetition of the story of Mary in chapter Al ‘Imran provides an important application of the general principles reiterated throughout the Quran.
Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in the latter phase of his revelation, Mary acts as not only a confirmation of Islam’s continuity with the Judaeo-Christian past, but an example for all future Muslims (both men and women alike) to seek to emulate, and a goal for all of us to strive for.