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Mary and Muhammad: bearers of the word--their roles in divine revelation.


In the religious traditions of Christianity and Islam, the Absolute enters the relative in order to enlighten all men and women, guiding them on the straight path (as-sirat al-mustaqim in Arabic, signifying the path that most pleases God), or revealing to them "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" (Jn. 14:6). God reveals the Word, or Logos, to humanity by means of a Divine Revelation, which in Christianity became flesh in Jesus Christ and in Islam became an Arabic Qur'a. (1) In each case, God uses a human intermediary in order to send down the Word, using creation in order to convey God's will. (2)

These mediators hold a special, elevated ontological and theological significance in Islam and Christianity. The former reveres the Prophet Muhammad as the transmitter of the Divine Word (rasul Allah, literally "messenger of God"), and the latter the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Theotokos (God-bearer). Before continuing, it is helpful to recall the respective stories of when and how the Divine Word entered this world:
   Lk. 1:26-38: (3)

   ... God sent the angel Gabriel ... to a virgin pledged to be
   married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's
   name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who
   are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly
   troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might
   be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have
   found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a
   son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and
   will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him
   the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of
   Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." "How will this be,"
   Mary asked the angel, "since 1 am a virgin?" The angel answered,
   "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High
   will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the
   Son of God." ... "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it
   be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

   From the Sirah Rasul Allah: (4)

      Very often the Apostle preferred the solitude of the Cave Hira
   where he remained for as many days as the provisions with him
   sufficed, spending his nights in vigils and prayers, in the manner
   he thought resembling the way of Ibrahim.

      It was the 17th of Ramadan (6th August, 610 A.D.) of the year
   following the fortieth year of the Prophet. The Apostle of God was
   wide-awake and fully conscious when the Angel (Gabriel) came to him
   and said, "Read". The Apostle answered truthfully, "I cannot read."
   The Prophet relates that the Angel took and pressed him until he
   was distressed, after which he let him go and said again, "Read."
   The Prophet replied for the second time, "I cannot read." The Angel
   again pressed him tightly until he felt squeezed and then letting
   him go, said, "Read." When the Prophet replied once again, "I
   cannot read," he took him and pressed tightly a third time in the
   same manner. He then let the Prophet go and said: "Read: (O
   Muhammad) In the name of thy Lord who createth, Createth man from a
   clot. Read: and thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teacheth by the
   pen, Teacheth man that which he knew not."

Already, the miraculous nature of the revelation is explicit in the responses that each gave to Gabriel. Mary's "How will this be since I am a virgin?" is paralleled with Muhammad's "I cannot read." This is not an insignificant comparison but, rather, one of divine necessity, as will be shown in a following section,

At these precise moments in time, that is, the Annunciation for Christianity and the first revelation for Islam, the Divine Word, which is both Absolute and Infinite, entered this relative and finite world.
   John 1:1-2, 4, 14a:

   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the
   Word was God. He was with God in the beginning .... In him was
   life, and that life was the light of men.... The Word became flesh
   and made his dwelling among us.

   Surah 96, laylat al-qadr:

   Behold, We sent it down on the Night of Power; And what shall teach
   thee what is the Night of Power? The Night of Power is better than
   a thousand months; in it the angels and Spirit descend, by the
   leave of their Lord, upon every command. Peace it is, until the
   rising of dawn. (5)

As these two passages are parallel-read within the context of the traditions in their entirety, a fundamental fact is recalled: The Word of God became flesh in Christianity, while the Word of God in Islam became the Arabic Qur'an (most perfectly and sublimely in its recited format). In each case, the Word transcends time ("better than a thousand months") and space ("the Word was with God"), yet mysteriously is made a "dwelling among us." Comparing the Qur'an to the Bible will either relegate the Qur'an to something less than the Word of God, or it will elevate the status of the Bible to something more than a divinely inspired text written by individuals. A revelation is consubstantial with divinity, (6) while an inspired text--though remaining theologically vital in any tradition, especially that of Christianity--is not the revelation and is composed by humans under the influence of the Divine Spirit. (7) Continuing this transposition of theology from Islam to Christianity, the grounds for comparing Christ (the Word made flesh) with Muhammad (the Messenger of the Word) are equally theologically dubious at best and completely improper at worst. From the basis of just the few biblical and qur'anic quotations above, one can see that Mary and Muhammad, mutatis mutandis, are the mediatrix (mediator) and cooperatix (cooperator) through which the Word of God enters this world, and, as such, they play a critical role in the economy of salvation, clearly leading humanity away from the darkness of sin and toward the Light that is the Word of God. Mary transmits the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ, while Muhammad transmits the Word of God made Arabic Qur'an; Muhammad and Jesus do not have equivalent positions in this theology. In addition, the miraculous nature of each revelation implies that Mary's and Muhammad's ontological status as human beings transcends the status of "ordinary" human beings (transhistorically), because receiving the Word of God requires a mystical and elevated human being who has been preordained by God. While remaining fully human and like us historically, they are in a very real way extraordinary transhistorically.

Theologically, in what way can this comparison bear fruit? I admit that l am entering this comparison as a practicing Catholic who has studied Catholic theology and philosophy first, then entered into the study of Islamic intellectual thought (theology, philosophy, and mysticism). The immersion into the spirit of Islam has transformed and somewhat reshaped my Catholic theology, and l enter into this pairing with a "faith seeking understanding." However, this approach, while remaining confessional on a personal level, is intended to bring to light certain comparisons-academic, religious, theological, subjective--that will aid in Christian Muslim theological dialogue. The intent is theological, interreligious, and comparative all at once, with the goal being to bring certain "intersections of theology" to the attention of both Muslims (8) and Catholics. The hope is thus twofold: (1) How can one understand the position of Muhammad in Islamic thought through the lens of Mariology? (2) How can one come to appreciate better the significance of Mary in Catholic thought through the lens of the Islamic perception of Muhammad? These two sacred faiths will be dialoguing with each other using Muhammad and Mary as the foundation of the comparison. 1 will use seven points of departure in this interreligious learning: (1) The primordial positions of Muhammad and Mary; (2) the illiterate and virginal characters of each, respectively; (3) their sinless nature and extraordinary entrance into heaven; (4) their status as primary "mercy-deliverers"; (5) popular piety toward each; (6) their positions as quintessential mystics; and (7) imitation of their ways by the faithful.

Perceived Problems

It would be naive to ignore perceived problems while attempting this bold "pairing," and I hope to address some of them briefly before continuing. Any theologian comparing the lives of Mary and Muhammad will be struck by the dearth of primary sources that concern the historical Mary and the historical Muhammad. Nevertheless, what these sources do give me in this project is a "theologically accurate" portrait of both Mary and Muhammad from which I can draw parallels and theologically fruitful comparisons. For example, the sources available for the life of Muhammad come from the Qur'an, the ahadith, (9) and the sirah (the biographies of the Prophet, the earliest extant example of which is that of Ibn Ishaq's, d. 767). All of these sources, while surely containing some historical fact in them, offer a theological understanding of the Prophet. Likewise for Mary, we are left with a sparse number of sources concerning her life; short stories in the Gospels and the extracanonical Protoevangelium of James (10) are all we have, though these are compensated for by an extensive number of extant theological treatises by the early and medieval church Fathers. Thus, my purpose here will not be a historical comparison but a theological one that will focus on later, medieval conceptions of Mary and Muhammad; the question of historicity is not in the purview of this essay.

The Western and polemical view of Muhammad portrays him as a licentious and violent individual, bent on spreading his false message, subjugating women, and conquering land for his own selfish will. Even if one ignores polemics and looks at facts, there remains a potential incongruity: Why am I comparing a virgin woman with a man who had eleven, maybe thirteen, (11) wives? Explaining the cosmic significance of Muhammad's life choices is not the point of this essay, but a brief parley into it may help put these perceived problems into perspective.

What kind of man (and saint) Muhammad was (and is) must be considered by taking into account the type of religion that Islam is. It is a religion of this world, a religion in which the Prophet sanctified all potential vocations in life not only through his transmission of God's Word but also through his actions. He was son, orphan, merchant, arbiter, warrior, husband, father, and statesperson, and so he was able to incorporate "other-worldly" and spiritual attitudes into "this-worldly" actions. On his multiple marriages, Annemarie Schimmel appropriately commented, "The multiple marriages of the Prophet, far from pointing to his weakness towards 'the flesh,' symbolize his patriarchal nature and his function, not as a saint who withdraws from the world, but as one who sanctifies the very life of the world by living in it and accepting it with the aim of integrating it into a higher order of reality." (12) Muhammad himself is seen as purifying the sexual act: "As Ibn al-'Arabi [in his chapter on Muhammad in Bezels of Wisdom] points out, this total involvement in the complex and multiple demands of cosmic life, symbolized by absorption in sexual union, can be corrected and purged only by the purification of remembering and reintegration into the world of the Spirit, symbolized by the major ablution after such union." (13) Furthermore, the historical context of his marriages is also helpful. Muhammad was indeed monogamous during his marriage with his first wife Khadijah; it was only after she died that he married many women to foster alliances or offer widows protection. Much more could be said about the significance of Muhammad's life choices, but 1 hope that what has been briefly mentioned is sufficient for now, and that other aspects of his life will slowly be revealed as this comparison unfolds.

Mary, on the contrary, represents the highest rank among human vocations in early Christian thought: someone who is quiet, otherworldly, pure, humble, a virgin, and--most importantly--completely dedicated to the will of God and thus personifying pure, unbiased obedience. This latter attribute should help in allaying the perceived problems. Mary, in fact, submits to the will of God completely (responding to Gabriel's announcement with a "yes!"); as such, she is a muslim (lower-case "m," meaning "the one who submits/surrenders [to the will of God]"). Her life choices need to be seen in the context of a woman living in first-century Nazareth, while Muhammad's need to be seen in the context of a man living in seventhcentury Arabia. Each did the will of God according to the ways of the Word that was manifested in two unique fashions: Christianity (through a Judaic background), and Islam. I will further address this reality toward the end of this essay.

In addition, there has been much scholarship on the role of Mary in the Islamic tradition and on the use of Mary in Islamic-Christian interreligious dialogue as a figure who can often bridge the gap between these two traditions ("common ground," as they say). However, this essay is intentionally focused on an explicitly Christian (even Catholic) understanding of Mary and her role as found within the large corpus of both historical and contemporary texts on Marian doctrine. In other words, Mary is taken on Christian Marian terms, completely distinct from how Mary is viewed in Islam. Conflating the Christian view of Mary with that of the Islamic one would simply blur the line between religions, which must be avoided when doing comparative theology (though if done properly it can be fruitful for interreligious dialogue). Furthermore, much has been written on the role of Fatimah (14) in Islam as compared to the role of Mary in Christianity. Once again, since my purview here is intentionally limited to Mary and Muhammad, I leave that comparison to previous and future scholarship. In sum, this project is the comparison of Mary qua Christian Marian doctrine and Muhammad qua Islamic theology, mysticism, and intellectual tradition.

Logos-tokos: The Primordial Positions of Mary and Muhammad

I begin with a look at the primordial positions of Mary and Muhammad as the Logos-tokos, (15) or "Word-bearers," for their respective faiths. Such a position implies a special status, for no ordinary human being has the ability to receive the Word of God in such immediate and concrete ways as did Mary and Muhammad. They are so "special" that their essences are seen as existing (or, more conservatively, at least as preordained) before the creation of the world.

A hadith of the prophet speaks of this: "I was a prophet when Adam was still between clay and water." Another adds, "The first thing God created was my Light." This thought continued in medieval Islamic poetry:
   Adam was still dust and clay--
   Ahmad (16) was a prophet then,
   He had been selected by God--
      Utter blessings over him." (17)

A line from an Egyptian narrative ballad reads:
   Your name, O Prophet, is the one chosen in majesty
   Before the firmament, together with the highest heaven, was
      founded. (18)

A being who will bear the Word of God must have a unique cosmological significance, for, as the creation of the world unfolded, the presence of a Word-bearer had to transcend time in order that the events of the world would transpire in such a way as to prepare for the Word-bearer's creation in time.

This notion of the Word-bearer's existing before the creation of the world, while being found in certain Catholic thought, is not as explicit as it is in Islamic thought. However, I hope to transform certain dogma on original sin in light of Islamic thought concerning Muhammad's primordial existence. (19) The early church Fathers were keen to elaborate on the Eve-Mary parallel, thus inserting her into the economy of salvation. While Justin Martyr was most likely the first to elaborate upon the Eve-Mary symmetry, Irenaeus of Lyons was the first to do so in eloquent fashion: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience. What Eve bound through her unbelief, Mary loosed by her faith." (20) While it is true that this theology of original sin incorrectly places the blame of sin on the feminine (and this projected anti-feminine shockwaves into the history of Catholic theology), (21) one should not be too quick to do away with it, especially in light of Islamic thought on Muhammad. If Mary truly destroys the unbelief and disobedience of Eve through her faith and obedience, then she, too, just like Muhammad, must have a unique cosmological significance. Before creation, God knew of the sin of Adam and Eve, and as such the creation of Mary in time was "in God's mind," if I may be excused for using this anthropomorphism. One can push this further and claim that Mary existed, as it were, before the creation of the world. The Eve-Mary parallel is thus helpful in showing the primordial status of Mary in the economy of salvation.

In fact, this Mariology is not foreign to either ancient or modern Catholic thought, although it has remained rather hidden. Augustine of Hippo wrote, "Then [at the foot of the cross] he [Jesus] recognized her; yet, he had always known her. Even before he was born of her, he knew his Mother in her predestination. Before he, as God, created her from whom he would be created as man, he knew his Mother." (22) Francis Suarez (d. 1617) believed that "Mary was elected from all eternity to become the Mother of God, even--following Duns Scotus--before God foresaw the fall of men." (23) More recently, two Catholic documents speak of Mary in this fashion as well: "Predestined from eternity by that decree of divine providence which determined the incarnation of the Word to be the Mother of God, the Blessed Virgin was in this earth the virgin Mother of the Redeemer, and above all others and in a singular way the generous associate and humble handmaid of the Lord." (24) Finally, and most explicitly, in Redemptoris Mater one finds the cosmological status of Mary elevated to its highest: "In the mystery of Christ she [Mary] is present even 'before the creation of the world,' as the one whom the Father 'has chosen' as Mother of his Son in the Incarnation." (25)

The theology and cosmology of the transtemporal and eternal Word is intricately connected with the preordained holy man or woman who will bear the revelation in time. Not only must his or her cosmic reality be in the "thought of God," but precisely because of that the logical corollary is assumed: existence of the reality before time. In Islamic thought, the haqiqah muhammadiyah or "Muhammadan Reality" is present before the creation of the world and plays a significant role in mystical thought (which will be demonstrated below). However, this same reality can be transposed, carefully and with caution, to a sort of Marian Reality ("haqiqah Mariamiyah") that existed before the creation of the world.

Some final comments on this are necessary. One can see the danger in elevating the status of both Mary and Muhammad to such cosmic proportions. However, while the language used to convey this reality might appear to conflate the Message (Logos) with the Messenger (Logos-bearer), it is necessary to say that this is never intended. The problem with talking about a being who becomes one with the Word of God is that quotidian human language makes it difficult to communicate or express such esoteric and transcendent realities. The best one can do is to disavow oneself of any intent to equate the status of Mary with Jesus, or Muhammad with the Qur'an or the Logos. (26)

A Virgin Mother, an Illiterate Reciter: Prophetic Bearers of the Word

The previously cited Gospel passages concerning the Annunciation in the Gospel of Luke and the initial revelation to Muhammad in his sirah have already shed light on the transcendent connection between the two sacred faiths. Muhammad was ummi, or "illiterate"; (27) as such, the miracle of Islam is the eloquent and beautiful Arabic Qur'an. Schimmel, among other scholars, remarked on this comparison:
   The mystics have seen in this word ummi an expression of the
   mystery of Muhammad's extremely close relationship with God: he was
   not only the cupbearer who offered the world the wine of Divine
   wisdom and guidance, but rather he was, as Rumi says, the vessel
   through which this wine was offered to mankind. As in Christian
   dogmatics Mary must be a virgin so that she can immaculately bear
   the Divine Word to its incarnation, thus Muhammad must be ummi so
   that the "inlibration," the revelation of the Divine Word in the
   Book, can happen without his own intellectual activity, as an act
   of pure grace. (28)

Lumen gentium, again, parallels this theology in its Mariology: "The Virgin Mary ... at the message of the angel received the Word of God in her heart and in her body and gave Life to the world ... Because of this gift of sublime grace she far surpasses all creatures, both in heaven and on earth." (29) In each Word-bearer, the receiving of the Word of God was an act of pure and sublime grace of God; Muhammad and Mary played no part in meriting such a mission. For Muhammad, his intellectual activity was not involved in reciting the Qur'an, while, for Mary, her sexual activity was not involved in the bearing of Jesus. Augustine, once again, spoke of Mary in these terms, as "a pure grace of the Lord, given to the incarnate Word and to all humanity." (30)

In order to receive readily the Divine Revelation--the Word of God--the bearer had to be pure and clean so that nothing of his or her previous nature could comingle with the Word, thus risking modifying its purity. Furthermore, the inherent miracle is made obvious to humanity, for a virgin giving birth and an illiterate speaking such eloquent words as the Qur'an were impossible feats.

However, at this juncture Islam and Christianity part ways. In Islam no one chose to praise the Prophet's illiteracy as the highest and purest vocation in life, yet in Christianity Mary's virginity was indeed elevated to a state most worthy of imitation. In Catholicism in particular, there is a twofold imitation established in the tradition. Vowed virginity is considered objectively superior to the marital vocation, while "spiritual virginity" in the form of "receptivity to the Word" is desirable for all, regardless of vocation. While it is true that some are called to a life of celibacy and that indeed this calling is worthy of praise, it is so in light of total dedication to the service of God and others. Thus, at the level of "spiritual virginity" there is found a comparison with Muhammad's illiteracy: as being receptive to the Divine, to the Word in one's life. Individuals can all imitate Mary's virginity, celibate or not, by emptying themselves of their pretensions, of pride and self-delusions, in order to receive the Word of God readily in their lives. Just as Muhammad had no intellectual part in receiving the Word, neither did Mary; both were perfect vessels for the Divine Intellect, the Word. Individuals are not called to be illiterate, nor are all people chosen to be celibate, but humanity is called to imitate the transcendent nature of Muhammad's illiteracy and Mary's virginity as perfect receptacles for the pouring in of Divine Grace. When Catholics and Muslims admit that individuals are nothing without the Word and everything with the Word, their lives can truly be transformed into holy and sacred ones. Spiritually, humans are called to be virgins and illiterate so that the Word can fill individuals, unhindered by human finitude.

The Immaculate Conception and Assumption in Light of the Mi'raj

The Immaculate Conception, while becoming official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1854, was part of the Mariology of the early church Fathers, in one form or another, from the late fourth and early fifth centuries onward. Even though some believed her to have been cleansed of her sin at the moment of the Annunciation and others believed it to be at her conception, both sides agreed that she was free from sin. Interestingly enough, while in the West theologians were discussing and debating a doctrine that would eventually become formalized 1,400 years later, a hadith already mentions Mary's Immaculate Conception in Islam's own way: "There is none born among the off-spring of Adam, but Satan touches it. A child therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Mary and her child." (31) Likewise, the Assumption, declared infallibly in 1950, was also part of both popular understanding and theological reasoning well before this declaration. It is in these two Marian doctrines compared with similar events in Muhammad's life that a fascinating parallel can be found.

While Islam does not have a direct counterpart to Christianity's original sin, Muhammad still shares in this sublime doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in his own way. One of the distinctions of Muhammad is his 'isma, which is a protection or freedom from moral depravity, error, or sin. Furthermore, he was cleansed of impurities as well:
      Among the legends connected with Muhammad's career the Opening
   of the Breast became a central feature of all biographies. Sura 94
   begins with the Divine address to the Prophet: "'Did We not open
   [or, expand] your breast?" This was interpreted to mean God's
   special cleansing of Muhamroad's breast endowed the Prophet with a
   unique degree of purity, so that he could convey the divine message
   without defect." (32)

However, several other versions of the story place his cleansing of the heart directly before his heavenly ascent into the seven levels of heaven, known as the "Mi'raj." "While I [the Prophet] was lying down at al-Hatim.... someone came to me and made a split from here to here (meaning from the pit of his chest to the hair below his navel), then took out my heart. I was next brought a gold dish full of faith, and my heart was washed, then filled up and put back." (33) Immediately following this cleansing, Muhammad is taken to Jerusalem and then to the seven levels of heaven. Both his pure heart and his 'isma are connected with his Mi'raj. "[A]ccording to one widespread theory.... the Prophet's pure body could reach an immediate proximity to God that the normal believer, nay, even the greatest saint, can reach only in the spirit." (34)

In order to bear the Word of God, Mary had to be without sin, and thus she was immaculately conceived, the stain of original sin not being transmitted from her parents to her. The Divine Word of God requires a spotless vessel, and thus making Mary "full of grace" through no merit of her own was not only proper, but also divinely necessary. It is intriguing to read that the cleansing of Muhammad's heart directly preceded his ascent to and return from heaven, at least in some sources. Likewise, "These two privileges [Mary's Immaculate Conception and her Assumption] are most closely bound to one another .... [for] God does not will to grant to the just the full effect of the victory over death until the end of time has come." (35) Yet, Mary is a woman far beyond "the just." "Now God has willed that the Blessed Virgin Mary should be exempted from this general rule. She, by an entirely unique privilege, completely overcame sin by her Immaculate Conception.... and she did not have to wait until the end of time for the redemption of her body." (36) While Mary's Assumption is put into eschatological terms, one can see the unique privilege afforded both Muhammad and Mary: a bodily (37) ascent to heaven. One can imagine the angels lauding Mary as she enters heaven in similar fashion to this folksong of the Indus Valley:
   Muhammad, you traveled to heavens high,
   The angels addressed you with "Welcome!"
   The inhabitants of the heavens too
   Said: "Welcome, a hundred times welcome!" (38)

"We have not sent thee [Muhammad], save as a mercy unto all beings." (39) The Role of Intercessor

As previously stated, the Absolute Word requires a human intermediary in order to enter this relative world. In both popular piety and theological reasoning, it was concluded that if Mary and Muhammad are the vessels through which the Word descends upon the world, then the world can also ascend to the Word through the same vessels. Not only is it a possibility, but it also appears, according to Islamic and Catholic thought, to be much more efficient that way. As Surah 21 addresses, Muhammad is a mercy to all beings.

A hadith of the Prophet attests to this:
   I am the messenger of God, without boasting, I shall bear the
   banner of praise on the Day of Resurrection. I am the first to
   intercede and the first whose intercession will be granted. I am
   the first to move the knocker at the gate of Paradise. God will
   open it for me and will lead me into it, and with me the poor among
   the faithful. Thus I am the most honored one among the leaders of
   the earlier and the later [generations]. (40)

Human beings, in their weak state, do not feel worthy to converse directly with the Divine. Rather, they choose to ask the first among them for intercession, and thus Mary and Muhammad become primary intercessors and deliverers of God's mercy. One could almost interchange prayers to or commentary about Muhammad with those to or about Mary and barely know the difference. I select a few in order to show this transcendent connection between these two faiths:
"Sub Tuum Praesidium"
Under your mercy we take refuge, O
Mother of God. Do not reject our supplications
in necessity, but deliver us from
danger, [O you] alone pure and
alone blessed. (41)

Paul the Deacon (d. ca. 799) wrote:
Then let us rejoice and be glad in Mary,
for she is the faithful advocate of us all
in heaven. Her Son is the Mediator between
God and men; she is the Mediatrix
between her Son and men. And, as befits
the Mother of Mercy, she is most
mercifull. And she knows how to have
compassion on human weakness, because
she knows of what we are made. For this
reason, she never ceases to intercede
for us with her Son. (42)

Germanus of Constantinople (d. ca. 733) wrote:
No one is saved except through you, O
All-Holy. No one is delivered from evils
except through you. O All-Chaste. No
one obtains the grace of mercy except
through you, O All-Honorable. (43)

A Sindhi folk poet, wrote:
Save me from unbelief's darkness,
Help me, O Prophet of God!
You are the luminous light,
Friend, sweetest, of the Most High,
No second or third is like you--
Be merciful, Prophet of God ... (44)

A handbook for blessing the Prophet,
the Dala'il al-khairat, by Moroccan Sufi
al-Jazuli, includes this prayer formula:

O God, appoint our lord Muhammad
as the most trusted of speakers and the
most prevailing of requesters and the
first of intercessors, and the most
favoured of those whose intercession is
acceptable, and cause him to intercede
acceptably for his nation and his people,
with an intercession in which the
first and the last are included! (45)

A Turkish poem reads:

This is God's beloved,
The physician for all pains--
Look, this noble, one, unique,
In the midst of the field of intercession! (46)

The list of prayers, poems, and commentary could be protracted, and these are just a brief sample list. Seeing Mary as intercessor became a common practice among Christians, especially in the Middle Ages, and to this day remains on the lips of nearly every Catholic who was taught the prayer of the Rosary: "Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen." The same can be said for Muhammad, who is the deliverer of God's mercy to his community and to whoever calls for it. This leads us directly to the following two sections, which intimately interrelate with this subject.

Hail to Thee! Popular Piety

A natural corollary of Mary and Muhammad as deliverers of God's mercy is the popular piety and veneration that surrounded these holy figures. The status as the foremost--in fact, the matchless--among all creation meant that proper reverence and praise was due to them, while keeping in mind that their rank was but for God's grace. Suleiman Celebi wrote these famous lines, of which very few Turks have not heard:
   Hail to thee! O nightingale of Beauty's bower!
   Hail to thee! O Loved One of the Lord of Power!
   Hail to thee! O Mercy to the worlds, to all!
   Hail to thee! O Pleader for the folk who fall!
   Hail to thee! O Refuge of the rebel race!
   Hail to thee! O Helper of the portionless! (47)

Equally eloquent is the fifth/sixth century "Akathist" Hymn, a lengthy masterpiece of Greek liturgical poetry, from which I cite only a few lines:
   Hail! pillar of purity.
   Hail! gate of safety.
   Hail! beginning of spiritual new-making.
   Hail! leader of godly living.
   Hail! thou who didst bring to a new life those who in sin were
   Hail! thou who healest the minds of the mentally stricken.
   Hail! thou who castest down the corrupter of minds. (48)

One notices the lofty nature of these Word-bearers in the titles appointed to them, and I cite two other examples to shed additional light before proceeding to this discussion:

On the Virgin, Theodotus of Ancyra (d. before 446), wrote:
   Hail, our desirable gladness;
   Hail, O rejoicing of the
   Hail, O name that breathes
      our sweetness;
   Hail, face that radiates divini-
      ty and grace;
   Hail, most venerable
   Hail, O spiritual and saving
   Hail, O Mother of unsetting
      splendor, filled with
   Hail, unstained Mother of holiness;
   Hail, most limpid font of the
      lifegiving wave;
   Hail, new Mother, workshop
      of the birth.

   Hail, ineffable Mother of a
      mystery beyond understanding;
   Hail, new book of a new
   of which, as Isaiah tells,
   angels and men are faithful

   Hail, alabaster jar of sanctifying
   Hail, best trader of the coin of
   Hail, creature embracing your
   Hail, little container containing the
      Uncontainable. (49)

Concering Muhammad's birth, Suleiman Ceelebi wrote:
   Welcome, O high prince, we
      welcome you!
   Welcome, O mine of wisdom,
      we welcome you!
   Welcome, O secret of the
      Book, we welcome you!
   Welcome, O medicine for
      pain, we welcome you!
   Welcome, O sunlight and
      moonlight of God!
   Welcome, O you not separated
       from God!
   Welcome, O nightingale of
      the Garden of Beauty!
   Welcome, O friend of the
      Lord of Power!
   Welcome, O refuge of your
   Welcome, O helper of the
     poor and destitute!
   Welcome, O eternal soul, we
      welcome you!
   Welcome, O cupbearer of the
      lovers, we welcome you!
   Welcome, O darling of the
   Welcome, O much beloved of
      the Lord!
   Welcome, O Mercy for the
   Welcome, O intercessor for the sinner!
   Only for you were Time and
      Space created. (50)

Two main reasons come to mind as to why veneration of Mary and Muhammad developed so quickly and then spread so widely to the point that poems and prayers like those above became ubiquitous. One pertains to the metaphysical and cosmological realities that proceed from the transhistorical positions of Mary and Muhammad. The other concerns the "popular" nature of communicating with Mary and Muhammad.

I begin with the latter, which offers a more straightforward reason for such popular piety. One cannot ignore the fact that contemplating dogmatic theology as it relates to cosmology and metaphysics--and then incorporating speculative thought on Muhammad's nature into the fundamental Islamic principle of Divine Unity, or tawhid--is no easy task. We, as humans, are bound to make errors and occasionally even tire of such abstract thinking. That said, "many modern Muslims find it easier to revere Muhammad as a person than to ponder dogmatic statements or mystical speculations, not to mention complicated theological reasoning, about his nature." (51) To put it simply, praising and venerating Muhammad as a person comes much more naturally. The same can be said for Marian piety. Praising Mary's role as a person--albeit a nonpareil person--in the economy of salvation comes much more naturally to Christians than contemplating her ontological status in cosmology. Mary, to Christians, offers the comforting embrace of an understanding mother, a mother no doubt who quells the wrath of the Father by imploring God to show mercy to the creation. She is thus worthy of the highest lauds. One finds a similar situation in Islamic piety with respect to Muhammad, who is considered a wise father to his community. Schimmel referred to this "basis for the loving veneration of Muhammad, who appears often as a kind of paternal figure (he himself is quoted as saying, 'Verily I am like a father for you'), a father or a deeply respected elder in the family to whom one would turn in full trust because one was absolutely certain that he knew the right answer to all questions." (52) As guides for their communities, Mary and Muhammad merit the highest approbation, which has come naturally to the people.

What of their mystical, metaphysical, and cosmological aspects? As difficult as these may be to explain, they are still part and parcel to why popular piety developed. When one (human) among us (humanity) is worthy to bear the Word of God, then he or she is just as deserving of acclamation. Furthermore, one's worthiness to be a God-bearer directly affects one's very being, reality, and ontology as they relate to the rest of the universe. The nur Muhammad, or Light of Muhammad, is a fundamental aspect of Islamic thought concerning the Prophet. "One of the central themes (if not the central theme) of mystical prophetology is that of the Light of Muhammad, nur Muhammad. It is like the light of the sun around which everything revolves." (53) The Light of Muhammad is a direct reflection of God's own Light, and, as such, all revelation, enlightenment, and spiritual states come from God through the Light of Muhammad, whether these took place in the past, are taking place in the present, or will take place in the future. Muhammad remains the mirror from which God's Light reflects as it enters the world. "The Light of the prophets is from his, Muhammad's light and the light of the heavenly kingdom ... is from his light, and the light of this world and of the world to come is from his light." (54) Thus, if one wishes to find God's Light in the world, one seeks out Muhammad, praises him, and implores him to reflect God's Light toward creation. Muhammad, in other words, is the original light (-reflector) of creation, and so Muslims elevate him in every possible aspect, keeping in mind what Muhammad said to the mystic al-Kharraz, "He that loves God must have loved me!"

There are a significant number of theologians in both the early church and the Middle Ages who commented on the meaning of Mary's name as "The Star of the Sea," implying that it is her light that guides the world to the ultimate destiny that awaits in the world to come. One of her titles is "llluminatrix," implying that her role is to illuminate others through her natural generosity and God-given wisdom and grace. Many went so far as to say that the quickest and nearest way to God is through Mary, as Fulbert of Chartres (d. 1028) wrote: "Everyone who worships Christ, when rowing through the waves of this world, must keep his eyes fixed on this Star of the Sea; that is, on Mary. She is nearest to God, the highest pole of the universe, and they must steer the course of their life by contemplating her example." (55)

The language of God's Light's being reflected by the Word-bearer to the world is not foreign to Mariology. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) commented:
   [Mary], therefore, is that noble star risen from Jacob, whose ray
   gives light to the whole world, whose brightness both shines forth
   in the heavens and penetrates the depths. It lights up the earth
   and warms the spirit more than the body; it fosters virtues and
   dries up vices. Mary, I say, is the distinguished and bright
   shining star, necessarily lifted up above this great broad sea,
   gleaming with merits, giving light by her example.

      If you follow her, you will not go astray. If you pray to her,
   you will not despair. If you think of her, you will not be lost. If
   you cling to her, you will not fall. If she protects you, you will
   not fear; if she is your guide, you will not tire; if she is
   favorable to you, you will reach your goal. (56)

Bernardine of Siena (d. 1444) contemplated Mary as the one with the mandate to distribute God's grace, just as the Light of Muhammad signifies the method by which Muslims can be warmed and brightened by God's Light: "[Mary has] a certain jurisdiction and authority over all the temporal processions of the Holy Spirit, so that no creature receives any grace of virtue except through the distribution of that grace by the Virgin Mary." (57) Further, "all the gifts, virtues, and graces of the Holy Spirit are granted through her hands to whomever she wishes, when she wishes, and in the measure she wishes." (58)

Mary, just as Muhammad, plays a powerful role in salvation (perhaps I should say, "in guiding us on the sirat al-mustaqim," in the case of Islam), both by being a Light-reflector and a Grace-deliverer. While commonly viewed as a humble woman who simply obeys and does God's will (this being important, of course), her active capacity as Illuminatrix should complement her passive functions. Too often in Christian history has the passive role of Mary as humble and obedient subsumed (ironically) her active role as Illuminatrix. Unsurprisingly, the role of women as passive forces in the world was only encouraged by this interpretation, causing unjust subjugation at the hands of men. Catholics would do well to accept to be enlightened by the nur Muhammad in order to be reminded of Mary's active role, thus balancing her virtues and, likewise, ending a lopsided focus on her meekness.

Prototypical Mystic: Perfect Union with the Word

I have now arrived at what will be the culmination of this theological comparison between Mary and Muhammad, at a level to be considered by a superficial eye as a rather "high Mariology." The illuminated roles of Muhammad and Mary guide us directly to the topic of the mystical interpretations of their union with the Word. In fact, it is necessary to tie together much of what has been discussed above and synthesize it in order to address their roles as prototypical mystics. Admittedly, much more has been written in Islamic thought about Muhammad as the quintessential mystic than has been written on Mary in Mariology on a similar topic. Once again, an attempt will be made to view Mary through the lens of Muhammad in order both to shed light on what has been said about Mary in the past and to rethink how Christians can view Mary in the present.

It will be helpful to examine and define several terms common in Islamic mystical thought before continuing. The following three terms go hand-in-hand because each points to the other. The haqiqah muhammadiyah, as mentioned above, refers to the Muhammadan Reality that existed before the creation of the world (whether in the mind of God or otherwise), and I have already shown how a similar Marian Reality also seems to have existed before the creation of the world. This haqiqah muhammadiyah, in addition to being present pre-eternalty, is also present in the world today through al-insan al-kamil, or "the perfect human." Al-insan al-kamil is the prototypical perfect human being who actualizes everything a human being has the potential to become. In essence, this human being unites himself or herself with al-haqq, the "truth/reality" of God, by annihilating his or her ego and letting the Divine Ego consume him or her. However, al-insan al-kamil reaches al-haqq through al-haqiqah al-Muhammadiyah (Muhammad being "the perfect man") in the same way that Muhammad reflects the Divine Light toward humankind. Finally, "qutb" means "pole" or "axis" and refers to the saint around whom the Truth (al-haqq) revolves for a particular age. Ibn Arabi, the famous thirteenth-century Sufi, popularized his hierarchy of saints, making the qutb the highest level. The qutb, more importantly, tended to remain hidden and did not show off his or her power.
      In Ibn 'Arabi's system Muhammad appears as the comprehensive
   figure, "nourished by the most holy, supreme flux of grace,"
   al-faid al aqdas ala 'la. He is the Perfect Man, in whom the
   pleroma (59) of the Divine attributes and names is reflected. Hence
   arose the claim of those who reached union with the haqiqa
   muhammadiyya that they were endowed with the "totalizing" nature or
   distinguished by the epithet al-jami', the Comprehensive One ... In
   these theories, Muhammad assumes the position of the microcosm who
   represents, or reflects, in himself the macrocosm--he is indeed the
   mirror that God created to admire Himself. (60)

A cursory reading of the above definitions and explanations will immediately suggest the Marian implications for adopting some of these terms to describe Mary as the prototypical mystic. Already cited above, Fulbert's use of the word "pole" to describe Mary ("she is nearest to God, the pole of the universe") suggests her mystical aspects when united with the Islamic term "qutb." Her silent role in the Gospels and the history of the early church lends itself well to her role as qutb. It is necessary to recall how Mary, just like Muhammad, was a perfect receptacle of Divine Grace ("nourished by the most holy, supreme flux of grace"), able to unite with the Word in a very real way by bearing Christ, the Word made Flesh, in her womb, which is more than any mystic could ever achieve.

Muhammad as the prototypical al-insan al-kamil, implies that his intellect was divinely infused with mystical and transcendent knowledge. The twelfth-century handbook on Muhammad and his life, character, qualities, and miracles, composed by Qadi. 'Iyad, addresses this: "Know that the Prophet's tawhid, his knowledge of Allah and the attributes of Allah, his belief in Allah, and what was revealed to him is based on the greatest possible gnosis, clear knowledge and certainty. It is free from ignorance, doubt or suspicion. The Prophet is protected in respect of these things from everything incompatible with gnosis and certainty." (61) Qadi 'Iyad expressed, however, that the Prophet's knowledge of this world was in no way different from the knowledge of any other human. Whatever he knew or did not know of this world was based on normal methods of learning.

To think of Mary in this way, as al-insan al-kamil, will be for many akin to crossing the bounds of acceptable--much less orthodox--Mariology. Yet, theologians in the past have not refrained from using such elevated language to describe the Marian intellect. Francis Suarez, referred to above, appears to have described Mary in this fashion, her intellect being in perfect union with the Divine Intellect from the beginning of her life, according to Graef's analysis that
   Mary had a supernatural and directly infused "knowledge of the
   supernatural objects of faith, because many of her privileges, for
   example the Immaculate Conception, would seem to require it;
   [Suarez] also thinks that she had theological
   wisdom, by which the mysteries of faith as well as the
   truths of conclusions contained in them are known more distinctly;
   for she was the teacher of the Apostles. Moreover, he holds that
   from the beginning she had perfect knowledge of all things
   pertaining to the Divinity and the Trinity in particular, and from
   the moment of the Incarnation or at least from the birth of Christ
   she also knew all that belonged to the mystery of the Redemption
   ... for she sees in the Word all that God sees, excepting only what
   belongs to Christ and to the inner thoughts of his soul ... [citing
   Suarez, Disputatio 21, 3, 5] "Under Christ, the blessed Virgin is
   as it were the universal cause most intimately connected with him;
   hence it belongs to her position to comprehend in the Word the
   whole universe." (62)

The implications of this Mariology are breathtaking, especially when coupled with Islamic mystical thought on Muhammad. Mary is the quintessential mystic, a human like us who is given, through no merit of her own, a perfect union with the Word. Alain de Lille (d. ca. 1203) applied to Mary the metaphor of celia vinaria (Song of Songs 2:4, "wine garden") when she wrote, "The phrase 'cella vinaria' (Song 2:4) may be understood to signify the mental rapture, also called 'ecstasy', in which the Virgin was caught up to the contemplation of heavenly realities. This phenomenon is also called apotheosis, that is, deification or theophany or divine apparition, into which the Virgin was caught up and taken far away from the love of earthly things." (63)

She is the model for all mystics, both ordinary and extraordinary, the former being recognized mystics of the church, the latter being anyone wishing to experience the Word in his or her life (for all individuals can be extraordinary mystics). This latter group is why Mary has become the foremost intercessor in Catholic popular piety. It is precisely her human nature that appeals to humanity. Muhammad, as well, was "just" a human, as the Qur'an reminds us several times that he is "only a human being like you." However, Muslims the world over quickly clarified, "True, but like the ruby among the stones."
   The human aspect of the Prophet, and the possibility of a
   person-to-person encounter with him, who seemed more accessible
   than the eternal Divine Essence, filled them with happiness. And it
   is probably a logical corollary of the "Gnostic" tendency of later
   Islamic mysticism, in which the loving encounter between man and a
   personal God who is at once Creator, Sustainer, and Judge was no
   longer deemed possible, that the pious imagination turned to the
   veneration of the Prophet, who with all his mystical grandeur still
   remained a person to whom his fellow creatures could turn in love,
   hope, and admiration, which they then tried to express in ever new,
   ever more colorful and ecstatic words. (64)

Muhammad becomes the intermediate principle between humanity and God, the barzakh, or "isthmus" between the Absolute and the relative, the Infinite and the finite, the Eternal and the temporal. Mary plays no less a role as far as John Damascene (d. ca. 750) is concerned: "So you [Mary] have assumed the role of a mediatrix, having become the ladder by which God comes down to us, assuming the weakness of our nature, embracing it and united himself to it, and thus making man into a mind that can see God. Thus [O Mary] you have reunited what had been divided." (65) Ambrose Autpert (d. 781) even referred to her as the "stairway to heaven." Thus, one can see that Mary's role is critical in offering a taste of mysticism to all of the Catholic Church's members. By praying to her for God's mercy, hailing her in prayers, panegyrics, poems, and lauds, and contemplating her Marian Reality, individuals come closer to experiencing the Word in their own lives, just as Muhammad offers pious Muslims the opportunity for a similar path to God. Catholics never wish to elevate her status to that of Christ or the Godhead, just as Muslims never intend to associate Muhammad with divinity. The intent is to show that Mary goes beyond the woman who guarantees the humanity of Christ (a noble cause, to be sure) to (reversing the direction) the woman who was given perfect union with the Word and who guarantees humanity's access to the Word. The transtemporal event of the Annunciation, the in-breaking of the Word of God into this world, is eternally recurring, for Mary, residing in union with the Godhead (body and soul, no less), continues to deliver the Word to God's creation. She remains the transhistorical ladder on which the Word is descending in the eternal now.

Imitatio Mariae and the Sunnah: [Maid] Servants of God

If the previous section was the comparative zenith at which the Light of Mary and the Light of Muhammad intersect (the comparison at a transcendent and spiritual level), then this section concerns the enlightened implications on the human plane of such an interpretation (the comparison at an exoteric level). In Islam, the actions of the community are regulated by the sunnah of the Prophet. These are the ways and norms of Muhammad and his companions that Muslims attempt to emulate, for his actions are normative, and he is, due to his mystical and prophetic reality, infallible. It literally means "the trodden path," for the right way forward is "back" to the way of the Prophet. The highest title that any Muslim can achieve is 'abd Allah ("servant of God"), which is the epithet given to Muhammad. Imitating the actions of the Prophet will then lead the faithful toward achieving the divine virtues (66) made apparent in Muhammad. "God has elevated the dignity of His Prophet and granted him virtues, beautiful qualities and special prerogatives.... He places before our eyes his noble nature, perfected and sublime in every respect. He grants him perfect virtue, praiseworthy qualities, noble habits and numerous preferences." (67) Anyone who is able to achieve this status will be worthy not only of praise but also of imitation. Muhammad is the map that humanity uses to reach the heavenly abode, and thus Muslims look to him for guidance. "Moslems see in the Prophet the prototype and model of the virtues which make the theomorphism of man and the beauty and equilibrium of the universe and are so many keys or ways towards the Unity which delivers, so that they love him and imitate him even in the very smallest details of daily life." (68) As humanity strives in its state of decay and brokenness to reach God, looking to Muhammad as the harmonious totality of the attributes of God is an efficient way to remedy this situation.

The role of imitatio Mariae is just as explicit in Catholic thought, for she is a model of the virtues and the Christian moral life, and she embodies both the passive and active virtues that make for a balanced road to tread toward God: "the trodden path" of the Islamic sunnah mentioned above. Her humility and obedience are complemented by her courage and strength, only to be matched by her faith, love, and charity. Mary herself exclaims in the Magnificat of Luke's Gospel that she is "the maidservant of the Lord," mirroring the highest title in Islamic thought, '"abd Allah." As Anthony of Padua (d. 1231) wrote, "The soul of no other saint has gathered together such riches of virtues as has holy Mary," (69) and Albert the Great (d. 1280) added, "If being blessed is an act in conformity with perfect virtue of spirit, then Mary was most blessed, for she was full of virtues and grace." (70) Her virtues are a hope to sinners, for "[Our Lady] covers sinners with her virtuous shadow when they virtuously hope in her. And the same thing may be said of the other virtues," as Raymond Lull (d. 1315) commented. (70) These are just three from of a protracted list of potential theologians who have commented on the Marian virtues.

I would be accused of a theological sleight of hand if I were to ignore the fundamental Marian aspect that was most imitated in history: her virginity. Countless church Fathers praised Mary's virginity and used it as the motivating force to inspire the celibate and ordained class of Christians: monks, nuns, and priests. Her virginity, in fact, is by far one of the most praised aspects of her life that is found in the mariological works of the early church Fathers from the birth of the church into the Middle Ages and beyond. Once again, while never intending to relegate the necessary vocation of the celibate lifestyle, I hope that this comparison between Mary and Muhammad has proved helpful in appreciating Mary in a more holistic fashion. Her virginity was not her only praiseworthy trait, and it should not necessarily be the primary motivator for encouraging the vocation of celibacy. As previously stated, the illiteracy of Muhammad is not imitated but is viewed on a spiritual level as a divine necessity for receiving the Word of God. The same can be applied to Mary, mutatis mutandis, so that Christians view her virginity spiritually and see the rest of her virtues on a more immediate and comprehensive level as imitable and desirable characteristics in the lives of the faithful. Christians should indeed praise her virginity--but only inasmuch as it grants the Word of God a spotless vessel in which to inhere and by giving humanity an example of how individuals must spiritually be virginal in their openness and receptivity to Divine Grace and guidance by the Word.

I must not forgo another topic, lest I be accused of a dissimulation of a different kind. Muhammad, of course, was at times violent during the early spread of Islam; he did, indeed, kill in battle. What are Christians who seek to appreciate the virtues of Muhammad to make of this? Are these traits also supposed to be imitated? This is the standard reproach leveled against the prophet by those who understand only superficially the life and actions of Muhammad. Does not this pairing of Mary and Muhammad fall apart? I answer that Muhammad needs to be viewed within the purview of seventh-century Arabia and in connection with the theological, apostolic, and political spheres of any religion. (72) In Christianity, the theological and apostolic are directly connected, the political having had no influence while Christianity flourished under the pax romana. (73) It was only after Constantine that Christianity became consumed by the political institutions of the Roman Empire and, thus, for an extended period of history became a political religion. Islam, on the contrary, encountered the apostolic sphere intricately linked with the political, the theological sphere flourishing later. Muhammad found himself with a dilemma, for the tribal politics (and violence) of seventh-century Arabia were not conducive to manifesting Divine Mercy and Love absent of Justice without causing a premature end to the revelation of Islam. (74) Muhammad, being given the pleroma of the divine virtues, manifested Divine Justice as well; if the Prophet was to survive the first years of his preaching, a self-giving and pacifistic life was not in his purview, for only implacability against the attacks of his persecutors and the surrounding tribes would allow him to succeed. His violent actions are a function of the situation of seventh-century Arabia, in the same way that the situation of the pax romana allowed Christianity, in the beginning, to spread peacefully.

The situation is reversed, however, when the Christian Church was also implacable--in the name of Christ--during the period when it was the official religion of the Roman, Byzantine, and later the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne. In the end, it is the spirit of the virtues found in Muhammad (for whom there are stories that exemplify his hyper-generosity and hyper-serenity, thus balancing those of his hyper- justice) that are to be imitated, not necessarily his precise actions (unless they are equivalent to the spirit of his virtues). The same can be said for Mary, for Christians spiritually imitate her virginity, for instance, and understand her virtues within the context of a woman who lived in first-century Nazareth; leading soldiers into battle, much less killing, to be sure, were not in her purview.


Let me return to the two essential questions I initially endeavored to address: (1) How can one understand the position of Muhammad in Islamic thought through the lens of Mariology? (2) How can one come to better appreciate the significance of Mary in Catholic thought through the lens of Islamic thought on Muhammad? The former question was answered implicitly, I hope. Any Catholic who has a sincere understanding of and/or devotion to Mary should be able to understand better the significance of Muhammad in Islam through this comparison.

The latter question was answered explicitly. Some may argue that I have gone too far in comparing Mary with Muhammad, perhaps giving her a "high Mariology" with which many would be uncomfortable. However, I made it a point to reference theologians in the past and Vatican documents of the present in order to show that this level of Mariology has always been inherent in the Catholic and Apostolic Church. This comparison simply opened the floodgates of Mariology that tend to remain hidden, just as Mary herself remained hidden in Gospel and early-church sources. The Marian Reality is a very real one, a glorious light pointing to Mary's Son, Jesus the Christ, and a ladder on which the Word eternally descends. Catholics need never be bashful in proclaiming Mary as Mother, Mystic, Logos-tokos, Mercy-deliverer, Pure, Immaculate, and, above all, the mirror from which the Divine Light is reflected toward humanity. The theological comparison with the Prophet of Islam, furthermore, shows a sublime and transcendent connection between these two sacred faiths. To be sure, there exist many contradictions between these two faith traditions; even within the purview of this comparison, there are as many dissimilarities between Mary and Muhammad as there are similarities. However, the manifestations of the Divine Light in this world (the Absolute entering the relative) refract as a prism refracts light in every direction, creating a majestic, polychromatic matrix of the world's faiths, unique and distinct in and of themselves, and in contradistinction to each other. Yet, there is a thread that weaves in and out of these faiths, connecting them on certain levels, that providentially allows those searching for connections to encounter them. This is just one of those threads among a meshwork of possibilities.

While I have remained within the confines of Catholic-Muslim dialogue and theological comparison, there is much more to be discussed in the broader area of Christian-Muslim dialogue and theological comparison as well. I hope that this has been one template among many of how real theological dialogue and comparison can take place, without sacrificing fundamental beliefs.

(1) The Word of God in Islam is most perfectly the Qur'an (literally "the recitation") in its Arabic, recited format. A mushaf, which is the bound format, i.e., a book, of the Qur'an is not the Word of God in the same way, translated or otherwise.

(2) While the "straight path" for Muslims is obedience to God's commands as outlined by the human interpretations (fiqh) of the Divine shar 'iah, the cosmic law, so to speak, for Christians "the Way" is Christ himself who is the law. The sacramental worldview for Christians--Catholics in particular--is the way whereby a communion with the Divine is achieved. However, the same can be said for following the shar 'iah, whereby the one following it becomes "in sync," as it were, with the cosmic order established by God.

(3) All biblical citations are taken from the New International Version.

(4) S. Abul Hasan Ali, Muhammad Rasulullah: The Apostle of Mercy, tr. Mohiuddin Ahmad, 3rd ed., E.T. (Lucknow, India: Academy of Islamic Research and Publications, 2001), p. 106.

(5) Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, 2 vols. combined (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.; New York: Macmillan Co., 1955, 2nd printing, 1967), vol. 2, p. 344.

(6) This is particularly true for the Ash'arite Sunni view of the Qur'an, though not so much for the understanding of Mu'tazilites, who do not adhere to the "uncreatedness" of the Qur'an.

(7) The canonical Christian Bible, as explained in Dei verbum III:II (available at;s/ii-vatican-council/documents/vat-ii-const_19651118_dei-verbum_en.html), was written by human hands and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As such, the scriptures have God as their author, who made use of the abilities and powers of the individual human authors in order that, acting in and through them, God might reveal everything necessary for the salvation of the world. Thus, while on one level both the Qur'an and the Christian Bible are the Word of God, the "Word" in this case is equivocal and means something different for each tradition. This is because the Qur'an, at least for the Asha'rite, Sunni view, is considered uncreated and eternal (more similar to the Word as understood in Jesus--the Logos). Furthermore, for most Muslims (even beyond the Asha'rite view), Muhammad was given the actual words of the qur'anic Word directly and with no use of his powers or abilities, since he was illiterate, thus decisively different from how the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of the Bible. Finally, while Christ is certainly more than a revelation, he is the Incarnate Word in a similar way that the Qur'an is the Word. All of this brings up the complex understanding of the "Word" or "Logos" as interpreted by the Islamic and Christian traditions and how these understandings compare and contrast; however, this is too far outside the purview of this essay to go into a detailed discussion thereof.

(8) "Islam" is certainly not a monolithic faith tradition; consequently, any given Muslim may or may not be able to relate to certain texts from which I will draw in order to perform this comparison. Some of these texts may appeal to the Sunni, Ash'arite understanding of Muhammad, others to the strictly Sufi worldview, and still others to both. Nevertheless, these understandings of Muhammad are all part of what W. C. Smith called the cumulative tradition, which is made up of various transmissions by individuals based on his or her particular faith in a Transcendent through the lens of a certain religious tradition (or even religious traditions). Whether or not the texts 1 choose--many of which come from Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety, Studies in Religion (Chapel Hill, NC, and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1985)--are considered to be part of a certain Muslim's "Islam" is beside the point, then, as it is still part of the cumulative tradition.

(9) Plural for hadith; these are the sayings attributed to the prophet Muhammad

(10) I mention this because a significant number of early-church writings were based on this extracanonical source, treating its stories as historical fact.

(11) Depending on sources and traditions.

(12) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 51, quoting Seyyed Hoseyn Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islara (London: Allen & Unwin, 1966), p. 76.

(13) Ibn al 'Arabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, tr. and intro. R. W. J. Austin (London: SPCK; New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 270.

(14) Fatimah (d. 633) was the daughter of Muhammad and his first wife Khadijah. She was wife of Ali, and their sons were Hasan and Husain, from whom the Shi'ii line of imams stems. She later became the object of much veneration among Shi'ite Muslims for numerous reasons. The popular piety toward Fatimah has been compared often with the popular piety given to Mary in the Christian tradition.

(15) I choose this term carefully, and not intending to relegate Mary's status as true Theotokos, or God-bearer. Rather, I choose this term to work within the confines of acceptable Mariology and Christology, while being aware of exoteric and esoteric interpretations. In Christianity, the simple theological syllogism would go: Jesus is the Word. The Word is God. Ergo, Jesus is God, and thus Mary bore God. However, calling Mary the Word-bearer does not take away from her status as GodBearer, but it actually does help in working within the Islamic impossibility of a human's truly being God in the exoteric sense. Even in Christianity, Jesus is God, and God is not Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the Word, but the Word is not absolutely Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus is even called the Word of God in the Qur'an: "The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only the Messenger of God, and His Word that He committed to Mary, and a Spirit from Him" (Surah 4:168, in Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, vol. 1, p. 125).

(16) Another name formed by the same Arabic roots of the name Muhammad (h - m - d; ha, mim, dal).

(17) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 101, quoting Ananiasz Zajaqzkowski, Poezje stroficzne 'Asiq-pasa (Warsaw, 1967), p. 8.

(18) Ibid., p. 116, quoting Pierre Cachia, "The Prophet's Shirt: Three Versions of an Egyptian Narrative Ballad," Journal of Semitic Studies, vol. 26, no. 1 (1981), p. 83.

(19) Some may ask how a theology of original sin could ever be in dialogue with Islam, which does not have a similar theology, much less soteriology, as Catholicism. My response is that l wish to remain as true to traditional Catholic theology as possible, never forgoing certain dogmas out of sentimentality for better relations with the other. I am operating on the premise that the more orthodox one remains, the better the comparative theology.

(20) Adv. haereses, 3:22; quoted in Luigi Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Patristic Thought, tr. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1999 [orig.: Maria nelpensiero deipadre della Chiesa (Milan: Edizione Paoline, 1991)], p. 54.

(21) As a historical and theological aside, I mention that the Qur'an and other Islamic canonical sources tell the story of the disobedience of Adam but do not blame Eve for any sin or disobedience (in fact, she plays a minimal role in the story, if not left out in some versions). However, early Muslim authors commented on the story of original disobedience, placing the blame for the sin on Eve, just as the early-church authors did. Their misogynistic interpretations of the Genesis story were based on Christian sources not found in the orthodox canon of Islamic literature.

(22) In Joannem, tr. 8, 9. See Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, pp. 218-219.

(23) Hilda Graef, Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion, vol. 2, From the Reformation to the Present Day (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1965), pp. 21-22, quoting Disputatio, 1,3, 2 and 4.

(24) Pope Paul VI, Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen gentium (November 21, 1964), no. 61; available at const 19641121_lumen-gentium_en.html.

(25) John Paul II, Papal Encyclical, Redemptoris Mater (March 25, 1987), no. 8; available at ii_enc_25031987_ redemptoris-mater_en.html.

(26) Certain strains of Islamic thought have associated Muhammad directly with the Logos, though not in the same way as Christ is so identified in Christian theology. Christ is the revelation, while Muhammad is united with the revelation to such an extent that the Divine Ego, the Logos, has consumed his ego. This is compared with the status of Mary in the section below, "Prototypical Mystic: Union with the Word."

(27) Whether "ummi" means "illiterate" or "gentile/community" (i.e., Muhammad was sent to the gentiles or for his community) is a discussion outside the confines of this essay. The point is that, theologically, special emphasis was put on Muhammad's nature, the same way it was put on Mary's nature as a virgin, which has its own translation problems in the prophecy found in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Is. 7:14).

(28) Schimmel, And Muhammad, pp. 71-72.

(29) Lumen gentium, no. 53.

(30) Gambero, Maryandthe Fathers, p. 219.

(31) Muhammad Muhsin Khan, tr., The Translation of the Meanings of Sahih Bukhari, Arabic-English, vol. 4, bk. 55, chap. 39, no. 641 (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1979), p. 426.

(32) Schimmel, And Muhammad, pp. 67-68.

(33) Mishkat Al-Masabih, E. T. with explanatory notes James Robson, vol. 2 (Lahore, Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1999 repr.), p. 1264.

(34) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 162.

(35) Pius XII, Apostolic Constitution of the Church, Munificentissimus Deus, no. 4 (November 1, 1950); available at hf_p-xii_apc_19501101_munificeutissimus-deus_en.html.

(36) Ibid., no. 5.

(37) Ilslamic thought differs on whether or not Muhammad's Mi'raj was bodily, spiritual, or a vision. However, the sources give no hint that it was not bodily; disagreement focused around whether traditional, exoteric Islam could permit such a bodily journey or not.

(38) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p, 159, quoting Nabibakhsh A. Baloch, Jr., ed., Maulud (Hyderabad/Sind: Sindhi Adabi Board, 1961), p. 10, no. 18 ('Abdur Ra'uf Bhatti)

(39) Surah 21:107 in Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, vol. 2, p. 26.

(40) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 62, quoting Tor Andrae, Die person Muhammads in lehre und glaube seiner gemeinde (Stockholm: P. A. Vorstedt og soner, 1918), p. 246.

(41) Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, p. 79, from Rylands Library papyrus, text reconstructed by Gabriele Giamberardini, 11 culto mariano in Egitto.

(42) Luigi Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages; The Blessed Virgin Mary in the Thought of Medieval Latin Theologians, tr. Thomas Buffer (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005 [orig.: Maria nelpensiero dei teologi latini medievali (Milan: Edizioni San Paolo, 2000)]), p. 57, quoting PL 95, 1491 B, TMPM 3:752. (PL = J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina, 221 vols. [Paris, 1857-66]: TMPM = G. Gharib, E. Toniolo, L. Gambero, and G. DiNola,, eds., Testi mariani delprimo millenio, 4 vols. [Rome: Citta Nuova, 1988-91]).

(43) Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, p. 387, from Homily on the Cincture, PG 98, 380 B.

(44) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 90, quoting Nabibakhsh A. Baloch, Jr., ed., Madahun ain munajatuh (Karachi: Sindhi Adabi Board, 1959), p. 313.

(45) Ibid., p. 86, quoting Dala'il al-khairat wa shawariq al-anwar fi dhikr as-salat 'ala an-nabi al-mukhtar, tr. in Constance E. Padwick, Muslim Devotions (London: S.P.C.K., 1960), p. 42.

(46) Ibid., p. 89, quoting from Ananiasz Zajaqzkowski, "Poezje strofiezne (musvassah) mameluckiego sultan Qansuh (Qansauh) Gavri," Rocznic orientalistyczny, vol. 27 (1964), pp. 82-84.

(47) Tim Winter, "Jesus and Muhammad: New Convergences," Muslim World 99 (January, 2009): 32, quoting E. J. W. Gibb, A History of Ottoman Poetry (London: Luzac, 1900), vol. 1, p. 246.

(48) Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, p. 349.

(49) Ibid., pp. 267-268.

(50) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 155.

(51) Ibid., p. 232.

(52) Ibid., p, 31.

(53) Ibid., p. 123.

(54) Ibid., p. 126, quoting Gerhard Bowering, "The Prophet of Islam: The First and Last Prophet," in The Message of the Prophet (Islamabad: Government of Pakistan, 1979). p. 54, with reference to Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896).

(55) Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages, p. 84, quoting PL 141, 322AB; TMPM 3:850.

(56) Ibid., pp. 139-140, quoting Super missus est, 2,17; PL 183, 70-71.

(57) Ibid., p. 296, quoting De salutation angelica, sermons 52, a. 1, c. 2; Opera Omnia, 2:157.

(58) Ibid., quoting De gratia et Gloria beatae Virginis, sermon 61, a. 1, c. 8, Opera Omnia, 2:379.

(59) One must not confuse the way this term is used in Islamic thought to describe Muhammad with how it is used in Christian theology to describe the totality or fullness of the Godhead that dwells in Christ. For Muhammad, it is "the pleroma of the Divine attributes and names" that dwell in him, not the Godhead, which would be heretical to imply in Islam, a religion that cherishes and safeguards Divine Unity to the highest degree.

(60) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 134.

(61) Qadi Iyad Musa al-Yahsubi, Kitab Ash-shifa bi Ta 'rif Huquq al-Mustafa; seeE.T: Muhammad. Messenger of Allah, tr. Aisha Abdurrahman Bewley (Inverness, Scotland: Madinah Press Inverness, 2004), p. 28.

(62) Graef, Mary, p. 23.

(63) Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages, p. 187, quoting PL 210, 66C.

(64) Schimmel, And Muhammad, p. 143.

(65) Homily I on the Dormition; see Gambero, Mary and the Fathers, p. 405.

(66) The perfect man, al-insan al-kamil, is the one who manifests the 99 names of God in perfect equilibrium. Muhammad, of course, manifested the names of God in this way. The "divine virtues" can be considered, then, the 99 names of God.

(67) Schimmel, AndMuhammad, p. 46, quoting Andrae, Dieperson Muhammads, p. 261.

(68) Frithjof Schuon, Understanding Islam, tr. D. M. Matheson, Mandala Books (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1976), p. 95.

(69) Gambero, Mary in the Middle Ages, p. 203, quoting In ramis palmaram 3; 1:191.

(70) Ibid., p. 231, quoting In Lucam 1,45; ed Borgnet, 22:121-122.

(71) Ibid., p. 261, quoting sermo 7,2: Corpus Christianorum, continuatio mediaevalis (Turnhout, 1971-), 76, 102.

(72) The notion of the spheres of religion comes from Frithjof Schuon, Christianity--Islam: Essays on Esoteric Ecumenism, The Library of Traditional Wisdom (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Books, 1985 [orig.: Christianisme/Islam (Milan: Arche Milano, 1981), pp. 184-186.

(73) Leaving the coming of the Word made flesh during this time period--the pax romana--at the level of mere coincidence is inappropriate. The spread of early Christianity during the pax romana allowed the message of Christ to spread (apolitically) with relative ease, save occasional persecutions that comparatively do not reach the level of martyrdoms (e.g., the approximately 200 Christians killed by Nero in 64 C.E) found in either the time period immediately following the pax romana (e.g., post 180 C.E., when the borders of the Roman Empire began to deteriorate, or post 250 C.E., when Christians refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods, which Rome had ordered to do in order to gain favor with the gods in battle), or in the Church of the East, where between 340 and 448 C.E. nearly 360,000 Christians (and a handful of bishops) were martyred, mainly because Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the archenemy of the Sassanid Empire at the time.

(74) This is one of the many reasons why comparing Jesus' sacrificial and selfless act on Cavalry to the life of Muhammad is also improper, for an atoning death was not going to spread the revelation of Islam.

Axel Marc Takacs (Roman Catholic) is a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA. His interests are situated at the intersection of comparative theology, medieval Christian theology and mysticism, and the Islamic mysticophilosophical traditions of Ibn Arabi, his later Arabic and Persian interpreters, and the School of Isfahan. He earned an MTS. (2010) in Islamic studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as both a B.A. in theological studies and a B.S. in computer science from St. Louis (MO) University. He has studied Arabic and Persian in Iran, Morocco, Tunisia, and France. At Harvard Divinity School, he co-found the online "Journal of Comparative Theology" and is its current editor.
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Date:Mar 22, 2013
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