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. http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/marykran.htm (accessed April 24, 2010).
Galvin, Juan. “Jesus and The Virgin Mary in Islam.” Islam for Today. n.d. http://www.islamfortoday.com/galvan03.htm (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.