Is Mary the real bridge between Christians and Muslims?
(This is a chapter from Bilal Muhammad’s book The Good Shepherd: Jesus Christ in Islam)
Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, is mentioned thirty-two times in the Quran and eighteen times in the Bible. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ included her among the Four Liege-ladies of Paradise, alongside Āsiya the wife of Pharaoh, Khadīja the wife of Muhammad, and Fāṭima the daughter of Muhammad. Unlike the other three Liege-ladies, Mary is mentioned explicitly and in great detail in the Quran. In fact, she is the only woman mentioned by name in the book. She is even given as a role model for the other wives of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in 66:12 of the Quran. Mary also gets a whole chapter named after her, and it is the only Quranic chapter named after a woman.
One can argue that Mary is the real bridge between Muslims and Christians (especially Catholics). While Jesus is a more primary figure in both traditions, the divinity and atonement of Jesus is not recognized by Muslims, even though these doctrines are most central to Christians. The unconditional love and godhood of Jesus are often foundation to one’s relationship with Christ, and without them, many struggle to understand what a Muslim Jesus could even be besides a mere prophet. We will discuss and possibly solve this dilemma later in the book. Mary, on the other hand, is uplifted and expounded upon in the Quran, to the point where many Christians and even secular people could draw lessons therefrom.
Mary and Jesus are considered one sign (Quran 21:91, 23:50), and they are usually mentioned together. Unlike anyone else in the Quran, Jesus is repeatedly called “Jesus the son of Mary” (ʿĪsā ibn Maryam). This also differs from his biblical titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man”; perhaps done to emphasize God’s lack of a child as well as the unique status of Mary.
Jesus’ family, called the “House of Amram (Āl ʿImrān)”, represent a new sacred clan in the Quran. Yes, they are still part of the greater House of Abraham, but their dispensation would include the likes of Joachim (ʿImrān), Anne (Hannah), Zechariah (Zakarīa), Elizabeth (Alayṣābāt) – all of whom are considered saints in the Catholic tradition – as well as John (Yaḥya) and Jesus. In no unclear terms, the Quran distinguishes the House of Amram, saying, “God chose Adam and Noah and the House of Abraham and the House of Amram above all beings.” (Quran 3:33) God selects families to bear forth His mighty messengers, perhaps to give them the best nature-nurture foundation that they could possibly have.
Like in the Protoevangelium of James, the Quran speaks of the birth of Mary, with some key areas of difference. In both accounts, Anne dedicates her child to the service of God (Quran 3:35, Protoevangelium 4), but in the Quran, it is implied that Anne was expecting a boy (Quran 3:36). Women were typically allowed to serve in the rectangular structure surrounding the Temple, with some restrictions. Mary was put under the care of Zechariah in the Temple. Zechariah was an ordained priest, and it is unclear if his prophetic status allowed him to take Mary into the Holy of Holies. Otherwise, it was strictly forbidden for anyone to enter the Holy of Holies except the priest during the Yom Kippur service. If Mary was, at any time, allowed to enter, then that would be truly extraordinary.
Even if she remained in the surrounding area, the young Mary would have found herself consecrated in a predominantly male institution. One can only imagine the stares of confusion a young girl like Mary would receive, but her upbringing in the Temple would guarantee that she would not be as other kids were. The Temple played an even bigger role for Jews than the Kaʿba does for Muslims, so one can picture this girl in a sacred, solemn environment, curtained away from worldly concerns and zeroed-in on worship and study. She was an ascetic being prepared to bring forth the supreme ascetic.
Zechariah would find heavenly sustenance with Mary (Quran 3:37) – which can either be spiritual or physical provision, or both. The Protoevangelium says more explicitly that Mary would receive “food from the hand of an angel” (Protoevangelium 8). Unlike any other Christian apocrypha, the Quran says that Mary would communicate with the angels even before she would conceive Jesus (Quran 3:42-43). Even in the mind of a Muslim, this is quite extraordinary, as Mary was not usually considered a prophetess, yet the angels would come to her, and she would produce miracles. She was purified and chosen by God and given instructions pertaining to prayer (Quran 3:42-3). All this was so problematic, that even a Sunni scholarly giant like Ibn Ḥazm would list Mary as a prophetess.
Miracles, however, don’t seem to be exclusive to prophets in the Islamic tradition, as the Quran attributes marvels to the Sleepers of the Cave (and their dog), Dhul Qarnayn, and Āṣif b. Barkhīyya, and premonitions to the Egyptian king and the prisoners in the story of Joseph. Perhaps revelation (waḥī) and inspiration (ilhām) are not so straightforward in Islam. Mary is called a saint (ṣiddīqqa) in 5:75, which appears to be a special rank that is distinguishable from the prophets and the righteous (Quran 4:69). Her being “chosen” by God (innallāha iṣtafākī) and likely protected from Satan (Quran 3:36) makes her anything but an ordinary believer.
Mary is an example of a woman that did not reach God through a man. Joseph the Carpenter is entirely absent, and Mary was holy before any earthly mention of Jesus. There is no iconic manger scene with the three Magi in Islamic literature. Instead, Mary is alone on a spiritual retreat (Quran 19:16) when the angel announces her pregnancy. When Mary asks how this is possible, the Gospel of Luke gives a somewhat graphic description, saying, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) The Quran, in its characteristic modesty, simply has the angel respond, “So will it be! Your Lord says, ‘it is easy for Me. We will make him a sign for humanity and a mercy from Us. It is an ordained matter.’” (Quran 19:21) Immediately after this, the verses have Mary withdrawing to a remote place and delivering her child. She is overwhelmed by the pangs of childbirth (unlike the painless delivery told in the infamous “Gospel of Barnabas” that is sometimes attributed to Muslims). As she cries out in pain, God provides dates and rivulets to soothe her. Till now, Muslim women that are pregnant or in labour eat dates, which may have significant medicinal value.   All of this is, too, unlike the Christian apocrypha that the Quran is so oft compared to. Would the dates imply a spring-summer Christmas?
After Jesus is born, Mary takes a vow of silence as the people are in shock to see her with the child. They cited her lineage as a descendant of Aaron and a child of a priestly household. She simply points to the child, who speaks from his cradle, declaring, “Surely, I am the Servant of God. He has given me the scripture and He has made me a prophet. He has made me blessed wherever I go. He has commissioned me to pray and give charity as long as I live and to be kind to my mother. He has not made me arrogant or defiant. Peace be unto me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I will be raised back to life.” (Quran 19:30-33) A similar account is recorded in the Syriac Infancy Gospel (also known as the Arabic Infancy Gospel); but the earliest extant manuscript of this gospel is from circa the fourteenth century AD, and it shows influence from the Quran. The reference could very well have been a Christian response to the Quranic birth story, as Jesus’ first words therein are “I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos”.
In the Quranic account, Mary stands as an example for every woman who has been falsely accused of sexual misconduct. Jesus’ words in the cradle presumably prevented her from undergoing any form of punishment in her lifetime. Afterwards, there were accusations made against Mary and Jesus recorded in the Talmud – that Mary committed adultery with a Roman soldier named Pandeira and that Jesus brought sorcery from Egypt. Such accusations may have been a reaction to Roman persecution of Jews. Nonetheless, God cursed those who pronounced these calumnies against Mary (Quran 4:156). In the Quran, if a person accuses a woman of fornication and does not produce four valid witnesses, the accuser is to be flogged eighty times, and the accuser’s testimony will be rejected forever (Quran 24:4). For men who are falsely accused of sexual misconduct, the Quran offers the example of Joseph and Zulaykha.
The main area of difference between the Muslim Mary and the Christian Mary is her status as “the mother of God (theotokos)”. The title was formally recognized in 431 AD at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, objected to giving Mary this title, leading to the Nestorian Schism. His followers in the “Church of the East” retained that Mary was only “the mother of Christ (Christotokos)” and not the mother of his divine nature. The Monophysite view succeeded by the sixth century AD when Nestorian patriarch Mar Aba the Great ratified the title theotokos. In Catholic liturgy, the most prominent usage of theotokos is in the “Hail Mary” rosary. Interestingly, the lines “holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” were only added to the Hail Mary in the sixteenth century AD. These phrases would really be the only ones that Muslims would take issue with in the Hail Mary, and they are barely five centuries old.
The Quran cites people that took Mary as a goddess in 5:116. It is unclear if this is referring to the Collyridians – an early Christian sect in Arabia that worshiped Mary as a goddess – or if it is laying a general criticism against the Christian exaltation of Mary. A hint may be in 5:75, where it is emphasized that both Jesus and Mary ate food, thus being flesh-and-blood humans with needs. Then there is the intercession of Mary, which, like in Christianity, is a disputed practice among Muslims.
What is clear is that Mary is the most highly venerated woman in the world. Billions of Christians and Muslims look to her example as a paragon of faith, perseverance, modesty, and the status of women. Yet, she was a simple woman, from a family of humble worshipers, living under a brutal occupation. She suffered the pangs of birth as women do, and God was there to assist her and defend her honour. She birthed Jesus, and her example birthed two great world civilizations.
 Seyyed Hossein Nasr et al, The Study Quran, Commentary of Ibn Kathir for 3:37.
 Maribel Fierro, “Women as prophets in Islam.”, Writing the feminine: Women in Arab sources, pp. 183- 198.
 Razali N et al, “Date fruit consumption at term: Effect on length of gestation, labour and delivery”, US National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28286995
 Masoumeh Kordi et al, “The Effect of Late Pregnancy Consumption of Date Fruit on Cervical Ripening in Nulliparous Women”, Journal of Midwifery and Reproductive Health, http://jmrh.mums.ac.ir/article_2772_0.html
 Al-Kuran et al, “The effect of late pregnancy consumption of date fruit on labour and delivery”, US National Library of Medicine, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21280989
 Gerd Wittka, “Die Weihnachtsverkündigung in den apokryphen Kindheitsevangelien”, https://www.grin.com/document/107479
 The Arabic Infancy Gospel of the Savor, http://gnosis.org/library/infarab.htm
 Talmud Shabbat 104b, Sanhedrin 67a.