Mary, Blessed among Muslims
by Fr. David J. Endres
Editor’s note: This column, Outside Perspectives, addresses a religious topic and seeks to find a common element in another faith while emphasizing the Catholic Church’s teaching.
Christians on pilgrimage in the Holy Land may be shocked to see Muslim believers praying at some of Christianity’s holy sites, including the Church of the Nativity and a cave near the Church of the Nativity where tradition relates that Mary nursed the baby Jesus. One might presume that these locations are also significant to Muslims, but it is because of their connection to the Blessed Virgin Mary that they are sacred to both Christianity and Islam.
Islam, with its cradle in the Middle East in the early seventh century about 600 years after Christianity’s founding, shares some of the same holy figures with Christianity and Judaism, but Islam views the details of their lives, importance, and theological significance differently. The Quran includes mention of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, the angel Gabriel, and many Old Testament figures.
Mary, the “righteous one,” is spoken of in the Quran more instances in total than in the New Testament. She is the only woman referenced in the Quran by name. Others are mentioned according to their relationships with others — “wife of Abraham” and “wife of Noah,” for instance. Sura (chapter) 19 of the Quran, titled “Maryam,” is devoted to Mary, a significant designation since there are no chapters named for Adam, Moses, or Jesus.
What does Islam believe about the life and significance of Mary? For Muslims, Mary is significant as the mother of a prophet: Jesus. The Quran describes her as a virgin mother whose own birth was miraculous. The elderly Joachim and Anne prayed for a child. God answered their prayer and chose Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, as the caretaker of Mary.
Mary had a close relationship with God throughout her life, preparing her for a unique role. The Quran records the substance of the Annunciation — that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would bear a holy child. Instead of offering her “fiat” (“yes”), the Quran’s emphasis is on God’s sovereignty and not on Mary’s role in co-operating with the divine (which the Christian Scriptures highlight).
As the “righteous one,” Muslims recognize in Mary an exceptional degree of holiness. According to Islamic tradition, the touch of the devil did not affect Mary (a belief that some have likened to the Church’s understanding of the sinlessness of Mary or even as complementary to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which teaches that Mary was sinless from the first moment of her life in the womb of St. Anne).
Despite the many similarities, there are significant differences between Christian and Muslim beliefs about Mary. In Islamic tradition, she is not present at the foot of the cross, as Muslims do not believe Jesus suffered death by crucifixion. She is not the “mother of God” nor the “mother of the Church” since Jesus is not viewed as divine and he is not believed to be the founder of the Church, but rather a prophet.
Among Christians and Muslims, Mary can serve as a surprising source of harmony.
Most importantly, Christians relate to Mary in a very different way. She is a spiritual mother who in Catholic and Orthodox tradition is due a special reverence and to whom one can intercede through prayer. Mary, then, having a special relationship with God, takes our prayers to him.
Muslims, however, do not ask for Mary’s intercession. They do not acknowledge the communion of saints or allow for prayer to anyone but God, believing that it could deemphasize the oneness and power of the divine. Consequently, Catholic veneration of Mary surpasses Islamic practice. Christians depict Mary through paint, wood, and stone. Muslim tradition, on the other hand, does not allow the representation of Mary in art or statuary in continuity with their rejection of creating images of any living beings.
Among Christians and Muslims, Mary can serve as a surprising source of harmony. Though there is not unanimity of understanding about her life and significance, she is seen as a woman of uncommon virtue or holiness who was the mother of one chosen by God, Jesus. As Jesus’ appointed mother, she is closely connected to him; in honoring Jesus, Mary is honored. Muslims do not ask for the intercession of Mary nor depict her, but they do acknowledge her as one receptive to the will of God. And as she followed God, so can we.