Many Catholics engaged in evangelization with Muslims point to Islam’s reverence for Mary as a possible bridge between the two religions. What exactly do Muslims believe about our Blessed Mother?
Let us look at what the Quran has to say in the two main sections where it mentions Mary, and examine areas of commonality with Catholic teaching. I’ll also point out some areas where you can ask questions to lead to interesting discussions.
Mary is a big deal in Islam. Only one surah (or chapter) in the entire Quran is named after a woman—Surah 19—and it is named after Mary. In fact, Mary is the only woman who is named at all in the Quran! This has impressed some Islamic authorities (though admittedly a small minority) to consider Mary a nabiyya or prophetess. The majority of Muslims consider her to be exceptionally pious and of the highest spiritual rank among women.
Quran 3:42 says, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds.” One Hadith (the Book of Virtuous Qualities 5837) records that neither Jesus nor Mary was “pricked by Satan” at birth— something that happens to everyone else. Needless to say, in Muslim eyes she is exceptional.
Surah 3: The House of Imran
Narrowing our discussion to the Quran, we begin in Surah 3. The treatment begins in verses 33-49 with an explanation that the line from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Imran (the Quranic name for Mary’s father) was chosen by God in a special way. Imran is said to have died before Mary’s birth, and her mother, Hannah (Anna) dedicated her to service in the temple, where Zechariah takes care of her.
A number of angels appear to Zechariah and announce the coming of John, and then, in a scene like the Annunciation, they turn to Mary and tell her that God has chosen her above all women and purified her. The angels then speak of Jesus, describing him as, “A Word from [God],” named the Messiah. The segment wraps up with Mary wondering how this could happen and a statement that God can do whatever he wills whenever he wills.
The Quran exalts Mary because God chose her and because of her purity. She was chosen to serve in the temple, a job seen as more suitable for men. Moreover, her purity is a purity of intention and service, but also a preservation from defilement by others. There is a lot with which Catholic can agree here.
Some other points for discussion in this Surah:
- It seems likely that some of the traditions recorded in the (apocryphal) Protoevangelium of James have made it into this segment.
- The parallel between Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, and Hannah, the mother of Mary, is intriguing.
- There are a number of times in the Quran where names and relations are not accurate—the most obvious in this case is Imran, which is closer to Amram (the father of Miriam, Aaron, and Abraham) than Joachim. Although this can be explained to a degree by typology, it can also be simply confusing two people of the same name. So it bears asking: if the Quran is the perfect word of God, why would there be a number of errors with regard to names and relations? Shouldn’t it be accurate and clear?
- What does it mean for Jesus to be called a Messiah in the Quran?
Surah 19: Maryam
Surah Maryam 19:16-36 overlaps slightly with Surah Al Imran, jumping in at the Annunciation. Here, Mary has withdrawn from her family when the angel Gabriel comes upon her in the form of a perfect man and announces that God will bestow a perfect boy unto her. She conceives a son and retreats to a palm tree when it is time to give birth.
While giving birth, she cries out, “Would that I had died before this and were a thing forgotten, utterly forgotten!” From below her, either Jesus or the angel (it’s unclear) explains that God has given her water and food from the dates of the palm tree and a rivulet from the base of the tree. Then she swears a vow of silence and returns to her family.
When her family sees her and Jesus, they question why she has a baby without a husband. Mary points to the infant Jesus, who is able to respond,
“Truly I am a servant of God. He has given me the Book and made me a prophet. He has made me blessed where so ever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer and almsgiving so long as I live, and [has made me] dutiful toward my mother. And he has not made me domineering, wretched. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised alive!”
Purity again comes up as an important theme in this segment. Mary not only comes from the pure Davidic line, but she is also preserved in purity by God as a result of her mother’s prayerful petitions. Mary retreats for solitude so she can worship, emphasizing the necessity of extracting oneself from the world and worldly things in order to spend time in solitude to encounter God.
In the birth scene, God miraculously provides food and water to Mary and she expresses a desire for her own death. Christians agree that God is the author of miracles and that he provides for his people. Moreover, some Muslim commentators use Mary as an example of how we should die to ourselves. This sense of “death to self” is very important within Catholic spirituality as well.
In this chapter is much that is questionable. For Muslims, despite the Virgin Birth, there is no sense of divine paternity. On the contrary, 3:59 says, “In God’s eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created him from dust, said to him, ‘Be’, and he was.” We should object to this expression of God’s power at the expense of reason. How can it be that Jesus was created from dust if he was born of a woman? If by God’s direct miraculous action a child was conceived without a father, wouldn’t he in some sense be the Father?
Concerning the birth scene, you might ask, what happened to Bethlehem, the shepherds and the Magi? Why are there segments in the Quran that are confusing and deviate so drastically from commonly accepted and established historical facts? The scene where Mary takes a vow of silence and the infant Jesus speaks from the cradle parallels a similar segment in the (apocryphal) Syriac Infancy Gospel, where Jesus likewise speaks about his mission from the cradle in the presence of Mary. If the Quran is God’s unadulterated word, why does it contain information from apocryphal Christian texts like the Syriac Infancy Gospel and the Protoevangelium of James?
Containing much that is false and/or of questionable origin, the Quran’s teachings about Mary are far from a perfect “bridge” between Islam and Christianity. Nonetheless, they give us a broad platform of agreement from which we can attempt to build commonality—and ask probing questions that may point Muslims to the truth of the gospel.