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Revisiting the Story of Mary as a New Muslim

When I first encountered Islam, like many from a Christian background I was drawn to the story of Mary the mother of Jesus (PBUH), known to Muslims as Mariam.

Alongside Asiya, the wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Mary is considered one of the most important women in history. The Prophet Muhammad Himself (PBUH) even cited her as having reached “perfection” in faith.

I remember thinking: “How can a religion that denies the divinity of Jesus Christ hold his mother in such high regard?” This was one of the elements of the Quran and the Islamic faith that drew me to question.

Eventually, a new perspective and love for the Virgin Mary helped me see Islam as the true faith and become the Muslim that I am today.

Many devout Christians throughout history have found their way to Islam through a new vision of Mary. How the Quran presents her in comparison with the narrative of the Gospels is, therefore, the focus of this article.

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Continuity with Previous Scriptures

The goal of the Quranic story of Mary is not to tell every detail of the story from scratch, nor is God ignorant of the Gospel narrative. Indeed, this is how the entire Quran works. At the very beginning of Chapter 2 (Surat al-Baqarah), you are told that the Quran is for those:

…who believe in what has been revealed to you, and what was revealed before you; and of the Hereafter they are certain. (Quran 2:4)

The refrain of continuity is repeated at the beginning of the next Chapter (Al Imran); and it can be found in numerous places throughout the Quran.

The entire chapter that contains the story of Mary (Surat Mariam) is based on the idea of the recollection of previous revelations, with God commanding the believers to “recall” (adhkur) Zechariah, Mary, Abraham, Moses, Ishmael, and Idris.

All of these figures (except Mary) are Prophets of the Biblical tradition. The Quran is not denying any of them, rather confirming what was revealed before: that there have been previous Prophets; and the person in front of you now (Muhammad) is from that same tradition.

Shifting the Focus from Prophet to Mother

The most interesting aspect of the story of Mary in the Quran is that, unlike its Biblical counterpart, the focus of the narrative is Mary herself and not Jesus. The Prophet Jesus (PBUH) only appears at the very end of the Quranic story, speaking miraculously as an infant to inform the people around Mary that his birth is legitimate and that he is a Prophet.

Rather, the focus is on Mary herself, beginning with her reaction to the Angel Gabriel visiting her in the night. The Quran describes the announcement of Gabriel as:

…giving you the gift (li ahaba laki) of a pure boy;” one whom will be made “a sign to the people and a mercy from God (Quran 19:19, 21).

In the Bible, Gabriel is reported to have said:

Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:28, 30 & 32)

Putting these two pronouncements together, it is clear in both narratives that Mary is elevated amongst all other women. She is to give birth to a Prophet (Quran) or the Son of God (Bible).

However, the Quran’s use of the word “gift” strikes an important difference in tone. The Prophet Jesus is not only to be a gift for the world, as in the Bible, but for Mary.

Mary’s position is also not one of servitude to the Son of God. The Quran rather elevates her higher, giving her the “gift” of a son. This is a blessing for her – and a clear acknowledgement of her stature – just as much as it is a blessing and mercy from God for the world.

The Quran further exalts Mary by focusing on her sacrifice in the path of God. In the midst of labor pains with no one else to help her, she calls out to God asking for death. Her answer came from either God or Jesus himself (the Quran only describes the voice as coming from underneath her) and told not to fall into despair. She is given water and the power to shake a tree and find her sustenance (Quran 19:23-26).

Again, the focus here is on Mary. It is her pain, her suffering, and the response given to her, that is the centerpiece of this story. This is similar to the story of the mother of Moses who is also the center of the Quranic narrative (Quran 28:7).

Finally, in the Bible Mary’s husband, Joseph, at one point seeks to quietly divorce her. He is rebuked by God and stays with her, hinting at the societal problems her virgin pregnancy will cause (Matthew 1:18-25).

This is similar to the Quran, however here it is Mary who is accused of infidelity (Quran 19:27-28). In the Quran it is the stigma that will befall Mary, not her husband, that needs to be clarified.

In conclusion, the Quranic view of Mary, the mother of Prophet Jesus (PBUH), elevates her beyond the Biblical narrative.

While reminding Muslims to recall the stories told of the past, the Quran makes an important corrective, shifting the focus of these miraculous Prophets to the mothers that carried them and brought them into the world.

As a Muslim convert, when speaking about the Prophet Jesus it is always important to remember this and affirm the position of all of the mothers of the Prophets (Peace be Upon Them All).

(From Discovering Islam archive)

About Brian Wright
Brian Wright is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi. He holds a PhD from the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. His dissertation was on Islamic criminal law in Egypt, India, and Ottoman Turkey during the 19th century. He has studied fiqh with a number of traditional scholars in Egypt and India.