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What "Mary" means to Muslims.

I was once teaching a course on world religions to a group of international students. The Christian students were surprised to learn of the reverence Muslims have toward Mary and even more surprised to learn that Muslims recognize Mary as the "Blessed Virgin." I asked a Muslim student to explain this. She said, "'Isa (Jesus) was born by a miracle of Allah. He has no human father." Another Muslim student added, "Allah appointed Mary to become the mother of His messenger." The first student was referring to Islam's belief that Mary is Jesus' biological mother and sole human parent. The second student was paying tribute to how the Qur'an teaches that God purified Mary, raising her above all women, as the mother of His "anointed one" (Q. 3:45). (1)

I. Muslim Devotion to Mary

The Qur'an provides ample evidence of a profound respect toward Mary (Arabic: Maryam) and establishes the grounds for Muslim devotion to her. The Qur'an states that Mary was chosen above all women: "Behold the angels say: O Mary! Lo! God hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and hath preferred thee above the women of all nations" (Q. 3:42). Clearly, no other woman is given more attention in the Qur'an than Mary. The Qur'an mentions her more times than the entire Second Testament, and she is the only woman referred to by name in the Qur'an. In fact, qur'anic verses on Mary are the foundation upon which are launched a detailed analysis of Islam's respect and devotion to her. Many authors even highlight the fact that the Qur'an teaches the doctrines of Mary's immaculate conception and perpetual virginity (see Surah 3: Al 'Imran). Moreover, Muhammad himself placed Mary above all women, even above his daughter Fatimah. He said that Fatimah would have been highest among women if it were not for Mary (see Musnad by Ibn Hanbal). These reasons substantiate the grounds for Muslim devotion to and respect for Mary.

II. Titles Applied to Mary

Various qur'anic verses pay tribute to Mary as a woman of purity, faith, holiness, obedience, and humility. She is, therefore, invoked by Muslims under a number of different titles.

A. Blessed Virgin

Surah 19 of the Qur'an, Suratu Maryam, begins with two narrations of "miraculous births," one of Yahya (John the Baptist) anal the other of 'Isa (Jesus). The second narrates the annunciation to Mary of Jesus' birth: "The angel said: "Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son'" (Q. 19:19). The details of the conception are not mentioned, however; when Mary asks, "How can I give birth to a son if no man has touched me?" the answer is given: "God creates what he wants: when he decides something, it is enough that be should say: let it be! and it is" (Q. 19:203). The dialogue ends when the angel informs Mary that this event was preordained by God's power anal will. However, another qur'anic passage indicates the manner in which Mary conceived Jesus. This took place when God, while guarding her chastity, breathed "His Spirit" into her womb (Q. 21:91 and 66:12). There is, therefore, within the heart of Islam evidence of an understanding of Mary as "the Virgin who is the Mother of Jesus."

B. Mother of the Messiah

One of the titles attributed to Jesus in the Qur'an is "Al-Masih" ("Messiah"). The terra "messiah" derives from the Hebrew "masiah," which means "anointed one." In Greek it is Christos, which becomes "Christ" when Anglicized. The annunciation account in Surah Al-i-Imran refers to Mary's son as "Christ Jesus" ("Al-Masih 'Isa") (see Q. 3:45-51). Given that the Qur'an refers to Mary as "umm 'Isa" ("mother of Jesus"), and since Jesus is "al-Masih" ("The Christ"), then Mary is for Muslims also the Mother of Christ, despite all contextual analysis on the meaning in which this term is used in the original qur'anic-Arabie sources. This is why Muslims venerate her as "Mother of Jesus the Messiah--"umm al-Masih 'Isa."

C. Mother of Jesus

In the Qur'an Mary is the mother of Jesus based on Jesus' being "ibn Maryam" (son of Mary). Mary is truly a mother; that is, she contributes everything to the formation of a human person that every mother contributes. Jesus is "the fruit of her womb." Based on qur'anic teaching it seems plausible, even meritorious, for a Muslim to recite the first movement of the Ave Maria: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee" (Lk. 1:29); "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb" (Lk. 1:42). These verses are renewed in the Qur'an: "O Mary! Verily, God gives you the glad tidings of a Word from Him, his name will be the Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honor in this world and in the hereafter" (Q. 3:45). This passage recalls the divine and human interaction taking place at the moment of Jesus' conception, which the Qur'an reports as pure (Q. 3:31, 37, 45).

D. Mother of God's Messenger

For Muslims Mary is the mother of Jesus, who is "razulu" (a messenger of God). Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God or that God, in any manner, took on human form; therefore, they do not admit Mary's motherhood of God. Consequently, in Islam, Mary is not designated as Theotokos ("Mother of God"). For Muslims she is anthropotokos (bearer of man) or christotokos (Mother of Christ). This is based on Jesus' appellative as "al-Masih." and on the Muslim understanding of God's absolute transcendence.

III. Qur'anic Titles of Mary

The aforementioned appellatives clearly link Mary to her son Jesus. Unlike the Jewish and Christian scriptures, however, the Qur'an establishes Mary's individuality and her own personhood. Mary even has an entire Surah dedicated to her in the Qur'an (chap. 19, Suratu Maryam), so it is appropriate to consider her separately from her son.

A. She Who Believes

In the Qur'an Mary is referred to as "siddiqah"--"She who has faith" and "She who confirms the truth" (Q. 5:73-75 and 66:12). These attributes are also interpreted as "She who believes sincerely, completely," since the Arabic word "siddiqa" implies more than merely speaking the truth. It means that one has achieved a very high level of righteousness. In Islam the act of faith has two components. First, it is an act of confidence in God that possesses an affective character: to make oneself secure in belief (amana or ittaqa); second, it is an act of intellectual adherence (tasdiq) to the truth. Based on qur'anic teaching, Musliras believe that God made Mary a witness to faith (Q. 23:50 and 21:91). She represents a person of faith insofar as she "takes the right path" (ihtada); she is specifically mentioned in the Qur'an as an exemplar for all righteous women (Q. 66:11-12), and she witnesses (shahada) to the Lord God.

B. She Who Submits

The term "islam" derives from the Arabic "'aslama," which means "to submit" or "resign oneself [to God]." In the Qur'an Mary is called "qanitah" (Q. 66:12). This Arabic terra not only implies constant submission to God but also absorption in prayer and invocation--meanings that coincide with the image of Mary's spending her childhood in the temple of prayer. In this way, she personifies prayer and contemplation in Islam. She is, therefore, the quintessence of islam--"submission (to God)" and a truly Muslim woman--"one who submits to God."

The Qur'an states: "O Maryam! Submit yourself with obedience to your Lord (Allah, by worshiping none but Him Alone) and Irka'i (bow down) along with Ar-Raki'un (those who bow down)" (Q. 3:42-43). Ruku' is the practice of bowing down during salah (ritual prayer). Mary is called raki'ah--"She who bows down to God in worship." This appellative is derived from her obedience. The Qur'an beseeches her: "O Mary! Bow down in prayer with those men, who bow down." This order was repeated by angels only to Mary.

C. She Who Prostrates

In Islam "sujud" (prostration) is an act to praise and glorify God. The Qur'an entreats: "O Mary! Worship your Lord devoutly: prostrate yourself" (Q. 3:43). Mary is, therefore, "sajidah"--"she who prostrates to God in worship." In fact, Muslims believe that sujud derives from Mary's sajidah--an act of sublime humility where the hands, knees, and forehead simultaneously touch the ground.

IV. Other Marian Titles

The Qur'an proclaims, "O Mary! God has chosen you and purified you and again he has chosen you above all women of all nations of the worlds" (Q. 3:42). Mary is, therefore, referred to as "mustafia"--"She who was chosen," and "tahirah"--"She who was purified." She is also reported to be "sa 'imah"--"She who fasts." Finally, Mary is predisposed to faith by her "reverent fear" (khashya) and "fear of God" (taqwa), which she displays upon receiving the angel's greeting: "I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah" (Q. 19:18). Furthermore, the Qur'an reveals how this reverential fear is gradually interiorized throughout her life.

In sum, for Muslims Mary is indisputably the "most excellent of all women." Muslims see her as a woman who fulfilled her covenant with God perfectly by worshiping God with full submission. They believe that Mary shows humility, purity, and holiness of life; that she was pious, chaste, and devout; and that God chose her and prepared her for a special task, "to provide the gift of a righteous son" (Q. 19:19), and for lifelong mission "to adore and pay homage devoutly to the Lord" (Q. 3:43). There is no doubt in the Muslim's mind that Mary has a special place in Islam; that she herself fulfills superlatively the role of a devout Muslim--"to surrender to God"--the very meaning of islam; and that that she was, besides the prominence of her own honor and righteousness, the loving Mother of Jesus the Messiah.

(1) Translations from the Qur'an are from Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Quran (Cairo: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Masri; Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Allubnani, 1922), with some transliterations of Pickthall's translation by the author.

Christopher Evan Longhurst

Pontificia Universitas Studiorum a Sancto Thoma Aquinate in Urbe

Rome, Italy
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Author:Longhurst, Christopher Evan
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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