One of the most intriguing and touching stories of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, is the story of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary is a highly revered figure in the Qur’an, not just because she was the mother of Jesus, but also on her own right as a woman of great devotion.
She is auspiciously referred to as chosen, purified and truthful. Mary is depicted in terms that transcend the confines of natural law and as a manifestation of God’s blissful grace. Her story is vividly told in two chapters of the Qur’an; first chapter named after her family (Family of Imran) and the second named after Mary herself.
Her story begins with her mother, “the wife of Imran,” who made a vow after her pregnancy: “My Lord! I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to you; so accept this from me: You are the One who hears and knows all.” To her surprise however, she gave birth to a girl whom she felt might not be suitable for the vow she made. Nevertheless, her vow was accepted; the Qur’an notes: “Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness.”
Mary came under the guardianship of an esteemed man, Zachariah. Her life from the outset was unique. Zachariah noticed first-hand the grace surrounding Mary, when he found that she was always fully provided for and was in no need of his provisions. Zachariah intriguingly inquired: “O Mary! How is it that you have these provisions?” She said: “They are from God. God provides limitlessly for whomever He will.” This experience was an eye-opener for Zachariah, who was old and barren. He was prompted to raise his hand and supplicate to his lord: “O my Lord! From your grace grant me virtuous offspring: You hear every prayer!” His prayer was answered with the glad tiding of a son named John (Yahya).
Mary’s pure upbringing and devotion set the stage for her to be manifest of a mighty miracle. Early in her life she was divinely told: “Mary! God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women.”
She was instructed: “Mary! Be devout to your Lord, prostrate yourself in worship, bow down with those who pray.” The most compelling news came to Mary when the angels called upon her in a serene moment: “Mary! God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God.” To this, Mary responded intuitively, “My Lord, How can I have a son when no man has touched me?” The response came instantly: “This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says ‘Be’ and it is!”
The Qur’an gives a vivid description of Mary’s lonely moments, once she became pregnant; “She withdrew to a distant place and, when the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, “I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!” At this difficult moment, she heard a comforting voice calling from beneath: “Don’t worry, your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the palm tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, so eat, drink and be glad.”
After the birth of Jesus, Mary had to go through the agony of explaining to her people the newborn baby. The Qur’an says: She went back to her people carrying the child, and they said, “Mary! You have done something terrible! Sister of Aaron! Your father was not an evil man; your mother was not unchaste!” She pointed at the baby. They said, “How can we converse with an infant?” But this infant wasn’t an ordinary infant, he spoke assertively and said: “I am a servant of God. He has granted me the scripture; made me a Prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He didn’t make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.”
Mary’s fortitude, virtue and devotion are inspiringly told and her name echoed throughout the chapters of the Qur’an. She is set forth, along with the wife of Pharaoh (who defied her husband’s wrongdoing), as a model of righteousness for all believers. The story of Mary dispels the medieval notion of associating women with vice and low life and asserts that women can ascend to the ranks of the most spiritually noble and devout. Inspired by the Qur’anic reverence of Mary, Muslims hold her in the highest esteem and view her as an embodiment of spiritual and moral excellence. Her name Mary (Maryam) is one of the most commonly used female names among Muslim women.
Ismael Mukhtar is a freelance writer and Editor of Manitoba Muslim Magazine.