Mariology and Prayer to the Saints

Theotokos Praying for the People, Vladimir Church (Vologda)

Theotokos Praying for the People, Vladimir Church (Vologda)

Prayer to the saints is one of the areas where most Protestants  differ with the Catholic Church. Actually, this is not fully accurate; as it turns out, non-Protestant Christians — whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Coptic Christians — all have no problem praying to the saints, of whom the blessed Virgin Mary is the paradigmatic example, being the greatest of all the saints.

Perhaps the most clear argument against prayer to Mary, to the saints, and to angels is found in the Smalcald Articles, part of the Lutheran’s Book of Concord. Here Martin Luther draws from and expands upon Philip Melanchthon’s arguments from the Augsburg Confession, and from the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

The invocation of saints is also one of the abuses of Antichrist conflicting with the chief article, and destroys the knowledge of Christ. Neither is it commanded nor counseled, nor has it any example [or testimony] in Scripture, and even though it were a precious thing, as it is not [while, on the contrary, it is a most harmful thing], in Christ we have everything a thousandfold better [and surer, so that we are not in need of calling upon the saints]. And although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God. For as a Christian and saint upon earth you can pray for me, not only in one, but in many necessities. But for this reason I am not obliged to adore and invoke you, and celebrate festivals, fast, make oblations, hold masses for your honor [and worship], and put my faith in you for my salvation. I can in other ways indeed honor, love, and thank you in Christ. If now such idolatrous honor were withdrawn from angels and departed saints, the remaining honor would be without harm and would quickly be forgotten. For when advantage and assistance, both bodily and spiritual, are no more to be expected, the saints will not be troubled [the worship of the saints will soon vanish], neither in their graves nor in heaven. For without a reward or out of pure love no one will much remember, or esteem, or honor them [bestow on them divine honor]. (Dau and Bente 1921, SA II, 26-28)

In the passage, Martin Luther argues not from scripture. Instead, his argument is that prayer to the saints is against the chief article of faith — Justification, as defined by Lutheran dogma. This is a highly curious stance, as it can be argued that prayer to the saints and to angels is supported in scripture, even in the Protestant’s truncated canon.

The Scriptural Witness

The book of Zechariah is important for a number of reasons, but for our purposes we will focus on the importance of Zechariah for its development in the theology of angels. In particular, God communicates to Zechariah through angels, and Zechariah questions them as to the meaning of the visions he has been seeing. In the first chapter of Zechariah receives a series of visions, after which is recorded an extensive conversation with an angel, beginning as follows:

Then said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be. … And the LORD answered the angel that talked with me with good words and comfortable words.  So the angel that communed with me said unto me, Cry thou, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy. … Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns. And I said unto the angel that talked with me, What be these? And he answered me, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem (Zec 1:9, 13-14, 18-19).

The careful reader will notice that Zechariah inquired of the angel what these things meant; the angel asked the Lord, the Lord replied to the angel, and the angel told Zechariah. For our purposes, this demonstrates that prayer (which may be described as a conversation) may be made to angels. In Zechariah there seems to be little difference between asking an angel for an interpretation, and asking the Lord himself. Moreover, Zechariah treats the  answer from the angel as though it came directly from the Lord. This same back and forth between the Zechariah and the angel continues throughout the book. This idea is also found in the book of Daniel, where Daniel prays to God for the interpretation of his vision, and then discusses the interpretation with an angel. And of course Mary herself had a conversation with an angel, a non-corporeal, spiritual being, a conversation we know of as the Annunciation, and which is discussed more fully in Part V: Mariology in Sacred Scripture (from my book, “Why Mary Matters”). Not only did Mary converse with the angel, but treated the angel’s words as being those of God Himself.

Another Old Testament passage from 2nd Maccabees clearly indicates that prayer to the saints is not only heard, but answered.

And this was his vision: That Onias, who had been high priest, a virtuous and a good man, reverend in conversation, gentle in condition, well spoken also, and exercised from a child in all points of virtue, holding up his hands prayed for the whole body of the Jews. This done, in like manner there appeared a man with gray hairs, and exceeding glorious, who was of a wonderful and excellent majesty. Then Onias answered, saying, This is a lover of the brethren, who prayeth much for the people, and for the holy city, to wit, Jeremias the prophet of God. Whereupon Jeremias holding forth his right hand gave to Judas a sword of gold, and in giving it spake thus, Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with the which thou shalt wound the adversaries (2 Mac 15:12-15).

You may argue that 2 Maccabees is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, and you would be correct. It is, however, in the scriptural canon used by every other Christian body (not just the Roman Catholics). Moreover, 2 Maccabees was in Martin Luther’s German translation of the Holy Bible, and in the original 1611 King James Bible (although in both were separated from those books that make up the current canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.) This is not the place to discuss canonical issues, other than to state that there are good and valid arguments to make for its being part of the Christian canon. But what we can say is that it is clear that the Jews of the diaspora 1) believed the saints were alive, 2) believed the saints were able to hear their prayers, and 3) believed the saints were able to respond. Therefore, it is not much of a stretch to understand how the early Christian church, being comprised mainly of Jews, did not have a problem with intercessory prayer to the saints.

Historical Witness

A belief in prayer to the Virgin Mary appears to be a quite early development. The John Rylands Papyrus 470 is a fragment dated to around 250 A.D., and containing the following prayer to the Theotokos:

Under your
we take refuge,
Mother of God! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from the danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed. (Tribe and Villiers 2011)

Notice, if you will, the dating of this fragment — well before the time of the edict of Milan in 313 A.D.; this papyrus dates to the time of Emperor Decius, under whose reign there was a persecution of Christian laity across the empire. This prayer, dating from a time of great persecution, is still contained in the Greek Orthodox “Book of Hours”, where it is one of the concluding prayers of the evening services; also, the Orthodox sing this hymn as the last dismissal hymn of daily Vespers during Great Lent. (Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia 2011) The prayer is also used in the Roman Catholic Church, where it is known as the Sub tuum praesidium. (Mathewes-Green 2007, 85-86)

Shawn Tribe and Henri de Villiers provide us with the following theological analysis of this prayer.

Three fundamental theological truths are admirably synthesized:

  1. The special election of Mary by God (“only blessed”).
  2. The perpetual Virginity of Mary (“only pure”).
  3. The Divine Motherhood (“Mother of God”; “Mother” may be considered as a poor translation of Genitrix). (Tribe and Villiers 2011)

We should also add the idea that Mary hears our prayers and, in some sense, answers them. Thus prayer to the Theotokos, along with a belief in her remaining ever-virgin, is an expression of ante-Nicene Christianity, rather than (as some suggest) a syncretic grafting of paganism onto Christianity by a post-Constantine, apostate church.

Witness of the Fathers (and others)

St. John of Kronstadt waxes lyrical on this topic.

Pray, my brethren, to the Mother of God when the storm of enmity and malice bursts forth in your house. She, Who is all-merciful and all-powerful, can easily pacify the hearts of men. Peace and love proceed from the one God, as from their Source, and Our Lady–in God, as the Mother of Christ the Peace, is zealous, and prays for the peace of the whole world, and above all–of all Christians. She has the all-merciful power of driving away from us at Her sign the sub-celestial spirits of evil — those ever-vigilant and ardent sowers of enmity and malice amongst men, whilst to all who have recourse with faith and love to Her powerful protection, She soon speedily gives both peace and love. Be zealous yourselves also in preserving faith and love in your hearts; for if you do not care for this, then you will be unworthy of the intercession for you–of the Mother of God; be also most fervent and most reverent worshippers[i] of the Mother of the Almighty Lord; for it is truly meet to bless Her–the ever-blessed; the entirely spotless Mother of our God, the highest of all creatures, the Mediatrix for the whole race of mankind. Strive to train yourself in the spirit of humility, for She Herself was more humble than any mortal, and only looks lovingly upon the humble.” He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden” (said She to Elisabeth), of “God, Her Saviour.” (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Kindle Locations 3050-3059)

I must admit that this troubled me for some time. Even as I write this, after being chrismated into the Orthodox Church, I am still not entirely comfortable with prayer to the saints. Yet I consider this more a matter of my sloppy prayer habits rather than conviction, for I have become convinced that prayer to the saints is the most natural thing in the world.

One of the best places to start is with the words of Jesus: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mat 22:32). The context of this passage has to do with the Sadducees and their disbelief in the resurrection from the dead. Jesus responded not with a defense of resurrection per se, but instead with the statement that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living. In other words, the mortal bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may have died, but they were still very much alive. Jesus made much the same claim in his story of Lazarus and the rich man. This is likely not a parable, because Lazarus is named in the story; therefore he is a real person, despite his having suffered bodily death. Even after death, the rich man recognizes both Abraham and Lazarus, and actually converses with father Abraham (Luke 16:19-31).

St. John of Krondstat writes:

The saints of God live even after their death. Thus, I often hear in church the Mother of God singing her wonderful, heart-penetrating song which she said in the house of her cousin Elizabeth, after the Annunciation of the Archangel. At times, I hear the song of Moses; the song of Zacharias–the father of the Forerunner; that of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; that of the three children; and that of Miriam. And how many holy singers of the New Testament delight until now the ear of the whole Church of God! And the Divine service itself–the sacraments, the rites? Whose spirit is there, moving and touching our hearts? That of God and of His saints. Here is a proof for you of the immortality of men’s souls. How is it that all these men have died, and yet are governing our lives after their death–they are dead and they still speak, instruct and touch us? (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Location 63-68)

Thus the souls of those asleep in Jesus, while disembodied, are kept conscious and alive, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies (1 Thes 4:13-18). Jesus describes one conversation in particular, a conversation in which the rich man seems aware of the spiritual condition of his brothers. This would seem to allow for the possibility that those asleep in Jesus are aware of us. Moreover, at the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, both of whom seemed aware of Jesus’ upcoming death (Mat 17:1-9).

Peter Gillquist writes:

If Saint Paul instructs us as a holy priesthood to pray “always …for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18), is it so outrageous to confess with the Church that holy Mary (along with all the saints who have passed from death to life and continually stand in the presence of Christ) intercedes before her Son on behalf of all men? For Mary is the prototype of what we are all called to be. (Gillquist 2009, 101)

It is with all this in mind that we read the roll call of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Despite the Lutheran confessions arguing against intercessory prayer to the saints, Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén notes:

The koinonia of the church is not limited to the church as it exists now in the present. Death does not constitute a boundary. The fellowship of the church includes the witnesses to the faith in all ages. When the Letter to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter has enumerated a long line of witnesses from the time of the old covenant, it continues in chapter twelve to stress the significance of the fact that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and especially that we look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). In these words the author of the letter has disclosed the true perspective of the relationship between the many and the one. Just as the old covenant has its heroes of faith, so the new has “so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Aulén 1960, 310)

Lutheran pastor Berthold Von Schenk writes in “The Presence” regarding the presence of our dear departed, worshiping with us around the altar:

As we seek and find our Risen Lord, we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints are a part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the Altar. At the Communion we are linked with heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the Altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the Altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping; The Altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord. It therefore, must also be the trysting place where we meet our loved ones, for they are with, the Lord. 

How pathetic it is to see ‘men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays’ of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else. How hopeless they look! Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up the nave to the very Altar itself; and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar!

Oh, God the King of Saints, we praise and magnify Thy holy Name for all Thy servants, who have finished their course in Thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs, for all Thy other righteous servants; and we beseech Thee that, encouraged by their example and strengthened by their fellowship, we may attain to everlasting life, through the merits of Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Von Schenk 1945)

The saints are living, are aware of us (as seen in the conversations between Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ), fellowship with us, worship with us at the heavenly altar (of which the earthly altar is but a shadow), and are able to speak with Jesus. The author of Hebrews charges us to keep in mind the saints in heaven, the great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) — of whom constant mindfulness in some way helps us avoid sin and keep us on the path towards salvation.

Many Protestant churches are aware of the saint’s perpetual involvement in the life of the church, even if they do not fully comprehend it. Why is it that many Protestant churches have graveyards on the church grounds? If you ask some of them, the more theologically sophisticated will say that the departed are still members of the church. Some sacramental Protestants (such as Lutherans) will go so far as to say that every time they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the departed dead are celebrating it with them in heaven.[ii] If this is true, then why would we not ask the saints to intercede for us, just as we might ask the pastor or a trusted friend?


Aulén, Gustaf. The Faith of the Christian Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960.

Dau, William H. T., and Gerhard F. Bente, . Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

Gillquist, Peter. Becoming Orthodox: A Journy to the Ancient Christian Faith. Third. Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 2009.

Mathewes-Green, Frederica. The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Theotokos in Three Ancient Texts. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007.

Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. “The Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos.” OMHKSEA. August 10, 2011. (accessed February 12, 2012).

St John of Kronstadt. My Life in Christ, or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest SelfAmendment, and of Peace in God. Edited by John Iliytch Sergieff. Translated by E. E. Goulaeff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010.

Tribe, Shawn, and Henri de Villiers. “The Sub Tuum Praesidium.” New Liturgical Movement. February 3, 2011. (accessed February 12, 2012).

Von Schenk, Berthold. The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion. New York: E. Kaufmann, Incorporated, 1945.

[i] This is an excerpt from the diary of St. John of Kronstadt. As such it lacks the theological precision one might otherwise expect. Theologically, we honor or venerate Mary and the saints, but reserve worship for God alone.

[ii] Scandinavian Lutheran churches often have a semi-circular altar rail; the other half of the circle is in heaven, and reserved for the departed saints who celebrate their heavenly liturgy with us.

Worship, Veneration, and the Axion Estin (It is Truly Meet)

The following is slightly modified from my book “Why Mary Matters”.


Icon of the Theotokos, "All of Creation Rejoices in Thee."

Icon of the Theotokos, “All of Creation Rejoices in Thee.”

The theotokian (or hymn to Mary) known as Axion Estin (or It is Truly Meet), is sung in the Orthodox liturgy, and is part of the daily prayers in most Orthodox prayer books. It reads as follows:

It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos,
Ever blessed and most pure and the Mother of our God!
More honorable than the cherubim,
and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.
Without corruption you gave birth to God the Word.
True Theotokos, we magnify you!

Protestants would likely be uncomfortable with this hymn; I know I was. Yet as Robert Arakaki demonstrates, the expressions of this hymn are entirely biblical.


Blessed — “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (Luke 1:42)

Theotokos (God-bearer) — “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43; see also Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:6-7, Revelation 12:5)

Ever-blessed — “From now on all generations will call me blessed….” (Luke 1:48)

All-holy — “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (I Peter 1:15-16)

Utterly pure — “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8).  “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.” (I John 3:3)

Mother of God — “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel– which means, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:23, cf. Isaiah 7:14)

More honorable than — “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings the Cherubim  and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5)  “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ.” (Ephesians 2:6) (Arakaki, Why Evangelicals Need Mary 2012)

If we can accept that the various phrases of the Axion estin hymn are biblical, what then is the problem? Why would a Protestant find this hymn so troubling? Robert Arakaki provides us with an  answer.

Many Protestants are afraid that venerating Mary will eventually lead to worshiping her. Protestants’ confusion when Orthodoxy claims that it venerates Mary but does not worship her arises from differences in their understanding of worship. Where the sermon is central to Protestant worship, the center of Orthodox worship is the Eucharist. (Arakaki, Why Evangelicals Need Mary 2012)

The evangelical converts to Catholicism, Scott and Kimberly Hahn, describe their difficulties with these different definitions of worship.

I could not figure out why it was that it seemed to be that Catholics worshiped Mary, even though I knew worship of Mary was clearly condemned by the Church.  Then I got an insight: Protestants defined worship as songs, prayers and a sermon.  So when Catholics sang songs to Mary, petitioned Mary in prayer and preached about her, Protestants concluded she was being worshiped.  But Catholics defined worship as the sacrifice of the body and Blood of Jesus, and Catholics would never have offered a sacrifice of Mary nor to Mary on the altar. (Hahn and Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism. 1993, 145)

We can all agree that worship is due to God alone. Yet we honor the hero and the celebrity; why then would we not honor the heroes of the faith? Why not show the Blessed Virgin greater honor than that which we offer a singer, a soldier, or a sports hero?

Islam and the Virgin Mary

Maryam (The Blessed Saint Mary)

Maryam (The Blessed Saint Mary)

The discovery that Islam maintains a special place for the Virgin Mary may come as a surprise. Sally Cunneen describes the Pope’s use of the Virgin Mary to lead the crusades as a “tragic misunderstanding”, for Mary “is deeply honored in the Qu’ran, in Islamic exegesis, and in Muslim Piety. She is the only female identified by name in the Qu’ran; her name appears there (thirty-four times) far more often than in the whole New Testament. (Cunneen 1996, 155-156) Following Cunneen’s lead reveals a wealth of information on the subject. Of Mary’s role in Islam, Juan Galvin writes:

An authentic Haddith states that the Prophet said, “The superiority of ‘Aisha to other ladies is like the superiority of Tharid (i.e. meat and bread dish) to other meals. Many men reached the level of perfection, but no woman reached such a level except Mary, the daughter of Imran and Asia, the wife of Pharaoh.” (Bukhari 4.643). Indeed, both Mary and Pharaoh’s wife are an example (Quran 66:11-12). The Virgin Mary plays a very significant role in Islam. She is an example and a sign for all people. (Galvan n.d.)

There is a possibility that Juan Galvin is overstating the importance of Mary in Islam. Timothy J. Winter (a.k.a. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, a Cambridge lecturer and British Muslim researcher, writer and columnist) notes that there are at least four women who are similarly honored in Islam, and there are legitimate questions as to which of these four women is the ideal model of perfection for women.

For Christians, Mary is unrivalled as the model of female perfection. Islam, however, has debated the merits of several women. A hadīth which has come down to us in more than one version suggests that there have been four ‘Perfect Women’ in history. One is Āsiya, the wife of the Pharoah who challenged Moses, revered by the Muslim chroniclers as a saint who endured the rages of her husband. A hadīth tells us that a woman who suffers maltreatment from her husband will be rewarded as was Āsiya; and she hence becomes a model and a source of hope for women caught [in] abusive relationships. Another ‘Perfect Women’ is Khadīja, the first to believe in the message of the Prophet, and who, as a successful businesswoman who took the prophet into her employ, provides a traditional model for Muslim women who have sought a living in the world. Thirdly, there is Mary. And fourthly, there is the Prophet’s daughter Fātima. …

But although Mary is a spiritual inspiration, it is Fātima who has more usually supplied the role model for Muslim women in their search for practical perfection. Mary’s virginity is revered as her greatest miracle, but Islam’s positive view of sexuality, and the value Muslim piety has traditionally attached to the married state as the preferred matrix for spiritual life, have rendered a true imitatio mariae impossible. Fātima’s spiritual exaltation, proclaimed by the Prophet himself, far from appearing compromised by her biological fulfillment, was sustained and vindicated by it. She is, in the Muslim memory, the fountainhead of the Prophet’s descendants, the ancestress of saints, the mother of tragic heroes. Through her non-virginal but no less immaculate example, Muslim women have found their assurance that the approach to God can be enhanced rather than impeded by the normal functions of womanhood. (Schleifer 2008, 12)

While there appear to be legitimate and long-standing discussions within Islam regarding the position of the Virgin Mary, as evidenced by the disparity between Juan Galvin, who quotes Haddiths; and Timothy J. Winter, who describes Islamic tradition. However, we would do well to listen to voice of the Sufi mystic and Waliullah (or intimate friend of Allah, as Islamic saints are known), Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Al-Jerrahi. Sheik Mazaffer Oxak begins his book “Blessed Virgin Mary” in this manner:

The Virgin Mary, blessed Mother of Jesus, may peace be upon them both, is described in the Glorious Quran, and therefore in all Islamic teaching, as the most sanctified of women. In the following verses, the Holy Quran proclaims her as the paragon of virtue and purity, surpassed by none before her as the supreme expression of womanhood. “And the angels said: ‘O Mary, Allah has selected you and purified you. He has chosen you above all womankind. O Mary, be devoted to your Lord. Prostrate yourself and bow with those who bow in worship.’ (Q.3:42-43)

Allah offers the blessed Mary as an example for all those who believe: ‘Mary, Imrān’s daughter, guarded her virginity, so We breathed Our Holy Spirit into her, and she confirmed the truth of the words of her Lord, and she was one of those who are devoted.’ (Q.66:12) (Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Al-Jerrahi 1991, 1)

With these quotations from the Quran, and his commentary on them, Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak makes it clear that calling Mary “the most sanctified of women” does not mean that she is an example for women alone, but a model for all. It is not for me, as a Christian, to comment upon which takes precedence: the Holy Quran, the Haddith, or Islamic tradition. It is important to note, however, that all of them support the sanctity of the Virgin Mary; all of them support the veneration of the Virgin Mary; and all of describe the importance of the Virgin Mary as an example for those who believe.

There are important similarities between the way Islam and (non-Protestant) Christianity treats the Virgin Mary, but there are important differences. One interesting difference is the manner in which Islam and Christianity use typology. One of the earliest and most important typologies of the Virgin Mary in Christianity is the Eve/Mary typology. Where Eve was deceived, Mary was not; where Eve was disobedient, Mary was not; where Eve is the mother of all sinners, Mary is the mother of all who believe. Juroslav Pelikan notes that for Islam, it is Hagar, the mother of Ishmael (rather than Eve), who is typologically related to the Virgin Mary.

Hagar went “to a distant place,” the first time when her pregnancy aroused the jealousy of Sarah and the second time after the birth of Isaac. Her despairing cry was answered by a miraculous intervention of God. Because the Qur’ān was, by definition, a new revelation that came all at once in a blinding series of moments of divine authority, we can only speculate about the earlier stages of this typology between Hagar and Mary. But it does not seem to stretch historical and literary probability to dray an analogy with the typology between Eve and Mary discussed earlier. For Hagar, too, was a founding mother, as Eve was; and Ishmael was the eponymous beginning of the people known as Ishmaelites. This entire construct, therefore, may be seen to have been an Islamic way of celebrating the special place of the Virgin Mary in the history of the dealings of “allah, most benevolent, ever-merciful,” with the world. (Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture 1996, 73)

Islamic and Historic Christian Understandings of the Virgin Mary

In his forward to Dr. Aliah Schleifer’s book “Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam”, Timothy J. Winter writes: “[T]he Qur’ān has somewhat more to say about her than has the Bible, and credits her with an active and even prophetic role.” (Schleifer 2008, 9) As to the active and even prophetic role, both Islam and (non-Protestant) Christian understandings of the Virgin Mary agree. But while there are similarities, there are distinct differences. Islam, being strictly monotheist, cannot acknowledge the triune mystery: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.” Thus while Islam confesses the sinlessness of both Jesus and Mary, Islam cannot confess Jesus to be the Son of God. Therefore, Islam does not acknowledge Mary to be the Theotokos, the Mother of God.  Timothy J. Winter writes: “For most Christians, Mary is the Mother of God, yet for Muslims, although she is a perfected saint and a focus of intercessory hopes, she exercises no indispensable role in the economy of salvation. For while Islam and Christianity concur in affirming a perfect Creator God, they differ, as their rival Marys show, on how that God touches individual souls and brings them to perfection.” (Schleifer 2008, 10-11)

The Jesus of Islam has more in common with “revisionist New Testament scholarship” than with the historic Christian understanding of Jesus; yet Islam shows both Jesus and Mary more honor than a revisionist New Testament scholar would be comfortable with. (Schleifer 2008, 10) The basis for this honor would be familiar to the Eastern Orthodox (along with the Oriental Orthodox, Coptic Christians, and others) than it would be for both Roman Catholics and Protestants. Timothy J. Winter writes:

Christians discern liberation in a God who descended into history out of infinite love, and gave himself to ransom us from sin. Muslims, whose narrative of the Fall excludes any understanding of original sin, must respectfully dissent from this view. The divine love, duly conjoined with justice, ensures that a full and liberative forgiveness is available to all who freely turn to God in penitence, in the way that has been so amply witnessed by great saints today and in the Muslim past. For Muslims, the Blessed Virgin is not theotokos, the woman that bore God Himself and gazed in love upon Him as He lay in straw. Instead, she bears witness to the presence of the God who need not ‘come’ into the world, because He has never been ‘absent’ from it. (Schleifer 2008, 11)

Interestingly, both the Islamic and Eastern Orthodox view of the Fall exclude the idea of original sin, the idea that the guilt of Adam is passed from parents to their children. Thus neither faith has any need for the idea of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. And both the Eastern Orthodox and Islam do not conceive of a God who needed to come down from heaven to be with us; both faiths accept the transcendence and immanence of God; that God is entirely different and wholly other than we are, and yet is, in the words of the Quran, “nearer to us than the jugular vein.” (Schleifer 2008, 11)

Islamic and Protestant Understandings of the Virgin Mary

Herein is a curios truth: Islam and the churches of the Reformation may differ as to their belief in the incarnation, but they are alike in their view of Mary as an example and sign. Juan Galvin, in an essay entitled “Jesus and The Virgin Mary in Islam”, writes:

An authentic Haddith states that the Prophet said, “The superiority of ‘Aisha to other ladies is like the superiority of Tharid (i.e. meat and bread dish) to other meals. Many men reached the level of perfection, but no woman reached such a level except Mary, the daughter of Imran and Asia, the wife of Pharaoh.” (Bukhari 4.643). Indeed, both Mary and Pharoah’s wife are an example (Quran 66:11-12). The Virgin Mary plays a very significant role in Islam. She is an example and a sign for all people. (Galvin n.d.)

Kreitzer points out that in the preaching of the 2nd generation of Lutheran pastors, Mary was an example and sign for all Christians to follow; she was used as a means of moral instruction, but most especially as a model for women. (Kreitzer 2004, 138-140)

In order to preserve her reputation and her chastity, a girl should attend only pious functions such as church services, but otherwise remain safely at home. When the angel came to Mary to tell her of the incarnation, she was found at home, probably praying, according to many sermons. Mary also regularly serves as a special model for females. …The image of Mary most popular among Lutheran preachers seems to be of the pious and chaste girl, happy to serve her relatives, but otherwise gladly remaining and working at home. Mary did not leave her family to join a convent, but instead shows all girls how they should be happy in their domestic and familial vocations. The domesticating ideology often found in these sermons gains particular weight when it is declared that Mary, the blessed Mother of God, acted in just these recommended ways. (Kreitzer 2004, 140)

There is a fascinating distinction to make between these two positions. While both Protestants and Muslims believe in the virgin birth, Muslims actually assign God’s choice of Mary to the perfection of her character. In other words, the Muslims have a higher view of Mary than do the Protestants. However, because of what Juroslav Pelikan calls the “single-minded concentration of the religion of the Qūran on the unequivocal oneness of God”, Jesus was simply the “good son” of Mary, and not the Son of God. (Pelikan, Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture 1996, 71) In other words, by denying Mary the title of Mother of God, Muslims deny the incarnation. Protestants who deny Mary the same title are ultimately denying the doctrine of the person of Christ having two natures and two wills — the one divine, the other human.

Islam and the Immaculate Conception

Certain general similarities exist between the Protestant and the Islamic view of Mary, but there are important differences. In particular, the both Catholics and Muslims hold to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. This peculiarity is found as we dig deeper into what the Koran and the Hadith (or the sayings of Mohammed) have to say about the Virgin Mary. For this purpose I chose to use Giancarlo Finazzo’s 1978 article for L’Osservatore Romano, entitled “The Virgin Mary in the Koran”.

Among the persons of Sacred History mentioned in the Koran, the Virgin Mary occupies an important position on the historical and dogmatic plane. In addition to being the object of as many as thirty-four direct or indirect references, Mary also gives Sura XIX its name and is its central figure as the mother of Jesus. The characteristic note of references to the Virgin in the Koran and, to an even greater extent, in Islamic tradition, can be seen both in the information about her genealogy and her childhood — a part of which is more detailed than in the four Gospels — and in the language and way of narration which are seen to be particularly significant. Without going deeply into the question of the validity of the information and of the vast Islamic exegetics or “Mariology” to which it has given rise, we will limit ourself here to recalling that the sources of Moslem tradition are, in this connection, the Arab Gospel of Childhood, the Protogospel of James, the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, the traditions of judaizing Christians and the Hadith.

To confirm the extraordinary value of the person of Mary, the fact that to her, alone among creatures, and to her Son, is attributed a nature exempt from all sin, is sufficient. We know that the Islamic religion ignores the concept of original sin; it attributes to man, however, a natural defectibility which makes him impure and imperfect from birth. Nevertheless, in a famous Hadith attributed to the Prophet, it is affirmed that: “Every child is touched by the devil as soon as he is born and this contact makes him cry. Excepted are Mary and her Son”. From this Hadith and from verses 35-37 of Sura III, Moslem commentators have deduced and affirmed the principle of Mary’s original purity. God, in fact, according to the Koranic text, granted the wish of Anna who consecrated to him Mary, about to be born, and the One to whom she would give birth (III, 37). God predestined Mary and purified her, raising her above all women (III, 45).

After this premise it is not surprising that the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, though only implicitly contained in verses III, 31, 37, is univocally recognized by the Islamic religion. The recognition arises without difficulty also from the repeated and always unanimous evaluation of the extraordinary person of Mary and of her pure life (III, 42; XXI 91; LXVI, 12) which set her, with her Son, above every other created being.

Mary’s childhood, as seen through the Koran narration and Islamic tradition, is entirely a miracle. Mary grows under direct divine protection, she is nourished daily by angels (III, 32) and has visions of God every day. Everything contributes to making her and her Son a signum for mankind (V, 79; XXI, 91; XXIII, 50). But if the detailed narration of Mary’s childhood confirms the exceptional value of her person, it is necessary to stress that the greatness of Mary is completely related to the extraordinary event constituted by the birth of her son Jesus. The fearful and sweet vicissitudes that precede and accompany the birth and the childhood of her whom God chose above all women, are, in fact; nothing but the prelude to the coming of the Messiah (III, 40). Therefore, in the intentions of Mahomet and the whole Islamic tradition, the advent of the Man generated by the Word (III, 45) finds in the history of the little Mary the mysterious preceding fact that prepares the believer, even more than the Gospels themselves do, for an expectation full of awe and hope. (Finazzo 1978)

For Roman Catholicism, with its dogma of Original Sin, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary is necessary if Jesus is to be born without bearing the guilt of Adam’s sin. But the rationale for the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary in Islam is much different. The Islamic understanding of the Immaculate Conception seems more as a sign and symbol of the “extraordinary person of Mary and of her pure life”, whose person and life served as “the prelude to the coming of the Messiah.” Therefore in the Islamic understanding, the Immaculate Conception was a miracle demonstrating both the power of the God who predestined her for such great things, and the power of Mary as the preparation for the coming of the Messiah.

Islam and the New Testament Apocryphal Writings

Finazzo notes that there is more information about Mary’s genealogy and childhood than exists in the four Gospels. The apparent source for this information is the apocrypha, the traditions of Judaizing Christians, and the Hadith. While the early church rejected the Protogospel (or Protoevangelium) of James, Mohammed seems to have had at least a passing familiarity with it. It was only later that the Roman Catholic church appears to have made use of the Protogospel of James as a source for the development of its own Marian cult.

Summary of Islamic Views Compared to Various Christian Communions

Islam, like the majority of Christian confessions, accepts the purity or sinlessness of the Virgin Mary. It should be noted that like the Eastern Orthodox, Islam has no doctrine of original sin. Therefore, there is no need in Islam, or in Eastern Orthodoxy, for the idea of the Immaculate Conception as an explanation for her sinlessness. Thus it is curious that Islam should appear to have held this view long before it became Roman Catholic dogma.

The Holy Koran’s description of Mary’s childhood is remarkably similar to that portrayed in the apocryphal Protogospel (Protoevangelium) of James, especially in its description of the angel’s feeding Mary. The supernatural angelic provision for her is a sign of the advent, of the coming of the Messiah. This is quite different from the four Gospels, which make no mention Mary’s childhood, nor of any special preparation or provision for her task. Indeed, the Gospels focus little on Jesus’ own childhood. For the gospel writers, the proof of Jesus’ messiahship is the Virgin Birth itself, along with Jesus’ own ministry — culminating in his death, burial, and resurrection.

Finazzo rightly notes that the Koranic account of the Annunciation does not contain a mention of Mary’s fiat (or choice), which is “her responsible acceptance of the divine will.” (Finazzo 1978) Mary’s fiat — “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” — plays a major part in both Orthodox and Catholic Christian theology, a part that has no part in the theology of Islam. Thus, according to Finazzo, the absence of Mary’s voluntary and necessary acceptance “confirms the typically Islamic sense of the absolute authority and power of God, and the complete submission of man to his will.” (Finazzo 1978) It is altogether remarkable that Protestant commentators lessen the impact of Mary’s fiat, reducing it also to a simple act of submission to God’s will (as mentioned in Part I).  In this manner the Calvinist insistence on the Sovereignty of God bears a remarkable resemblance to Islamic doctrine and practice.


Cunneen, Sally. In Search of Mary: The Woman and the Symbol. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Finazzo, Giancarlo. “The Virgin Mary in the Koran.” Eternal Word Television Network, Global Catholic Network. April 13, 1978. (accessed April 24, 2010).

Galvin, Juan. “Jesus and The Virgin Mary in Islam.” Islam for Today. n.d. (accessed August 18, 2011).

Kreitzer, Beth. Reforming Mary: Changing Images of the Virgin Mary in Lutheran Sermons of the Sixteengh Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Schleifer, Aliah. Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam. 3rd Edition. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2008.

Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak Al-Jerrahi. Blessed Virgin Mary. Translated by Muhtar Holland. Westpory: Pir Publications, 1991.