By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown
Part two of two
This is the second post of a two-part series on what the Quran and hadith teach about Sayyidah Maryam (Mary) (as), the mother of the prophet Isa (Jesus). You can read the first post here, but you do not have to do so to understand this post.
Whether you are a Muslim or a Christian, the thoughts in this mini-series on Maryam will encourage and inspire you Insha Allah. You do not have to be able to read Arabic.
Maryam, a vulnerable pregnant woman and new mother
Muslims and Christians alike believe that Maryam (as) lived and died in Quds (Jerusalem). She would likely have been born about 640 years before the Hijra, or the migration of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his Companions from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE.
As discussed in the first post of this series, Maryam spent much of her life as a devotee and scholar within the walls of the Bayt al-Maqdis (Masjid al-Aqsa). This way of living was highly unusual for a woman at the time. However, it reflected the desire of her mother, Hannah, to dedicate her only child to worship of Allah SWT. And it prepared her for the unprecedented role Allah SWT would give to Maryam when He sent His Word and spirit upon her to conceive her son Isa.
…Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a messenger of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His messengers... (The Noble Quran, 4:171)
Maryam’s childbirth: a solitary journey with Divine help
Up until she conceives Isa, Maryam (as) appears uniquely fortunate and blessed to those who read the Quran: set apart from birth to worship Allah (SWT) despite her being female; chosen to give birth to a prophet without losing her chastity; and sustained by her human family (guided by Allah SWT) through everything.
But Maryam’s life takes what seems to modern eyes to be a stark turn after she conceives Isa. Her pregnancy is a solitary affair in Surah Maryam: Joseph as Maryam’s spouse is not mentioned at all in the Quran, and, after Jibril’s visit, Zakariya and Hannah both vanish from the narrative of the Surah.
When the time comes for her to bear Isa, she goes off on her own to a secluded spot outdoors.
So she conceived him and withdrew with him to a remote place. (19:22)
It is very unlikely that she did this without reflection or diligent prayer. Everything that the Quran has said of her up to this point reflects a gift of prudence. Even so, to human minds this would have seemed truly dangerous 2,000 years ago, not to mention today.
The Revelation of Allah (SWT) to the Prophet (pbuh) in the Quran does not brush past the extraordinary demands that her solitary journey and painful labor makes of her:
Then the pains of labour drove her to the trunk of a palm tree.
She cried, “Alas! I wish I had died before this, and was a thing long forgotten!” (19:23)
It is here that Allah SWT intervenes in no uncertain terms to come to her aid. A voice “from below” instructs Maryam to shake the palm tree for dates that will sustain her, and to be refreshed by the stream at her feet.
So a voice reassured her from below her, “Do not grieve! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet. And shake the trunk of this palm tree towards you, it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon you. So eat and drink, and put your heart at ease. (19:24-26)
The tafsir differ as to whose voice spoke: some attribute it to Jibril, others to the as-yet-unborn Isa. But ultimately it is Allah SWT who is the source of the counsel to Maryam.
Any reader who has borne a child or witnessed a birth knows how important it is that the mother has the sustenance she needs during labor. For most of us, that comes from human hands (prompted of course by Allah SWT). But at times women go into labor when there is no other human being around, and some of those women have never given birth before. These women are often guided by small promptings, “bright ideas” seemingly from out of the blue or sometimes voices that are actually heard. So it is with Maryam here. And she delivers a healthy child in safety.
Maryam’s return to Quds: the benefit of following Divine instruction
Even with a healthy baby in her arms and her own needs taken care of, the danger is not yet over. Maryam (as) has to re-enter society with Isa, and human eyes, without knowledge of the Divine nature of the conception, will see her as a woman who has just borne an illegitimate child. Without the protection of Allah SWT, her reputation will be destroyed and it is not unlikely that her community will take her child away from her.
Fortunately, before she leaves the isolated area where she just gave birth to Isa, Allah SWT (through Jibril or Isa) instructs her to fast from speech for a while. And what Allah SWT will do with the fact of her silence is extraordinary.
But if you see any of the people, say, “I have vowed silence to the Most Compassionate, so I am not talking to anyone today.” (19:24-26)
It’s important to note here that the instruction to refrain from speech for a while is NOT unique to Maryam as a woman. In fact, something very similar happened to Zakariya after Allah SWT delivered the good news of his wife’s conception — except that Allah SWT deprived him completely of the power of speech for a few days! Unlike Zakariya, Maryam has a choice, and she chooses to act in accordance with the instruction.
Sure enough, the people of Quds do not react well to Maryam’s return with her infant son, especially given her lineage.
Then she returned to her people, carrying him. They said in shock, “O Mary! You have certainly done a horrible thing! O sister of Aaron! Your father was not an indecent man, nor was your mother unchaste.” (19:27-28)
But Allah SWT knows best and has prepared mother and son for this moment:
So she pointed to the baby. They exclaimed, “How can we talk to someone who is an infant in the cradle?” (19:29)
Jesus declared, “I am truly a servant of Allah. He has destined me to be given the Scripture and to be a prophet. He has made me a blessing wherever I go, and bid me to establish prayer and give alms-tax as long as I live, and to be kind to my mother. He has not made me arrogant or defiant. Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I will be raised back to life!” (19:30-33)
Thus it is Allah (SWT), via a babe in arms, who has the stunning last word. The Surah says no more of people opposing Maryam’s return with her son to their home of Bayt al-Maqdis. But all of what Allah (SWT) said through baby Isa came to pass.
Surah Maryam: sustenance for the first Muslim refugees
According to the Hadith of Ja’far bin Abi Talib, Musnad Ahmad, number 1740, Surah Maryam was revealed in the fifth year of the Revelation of Allah SWT to the Prophet (pbuh). At that time, the Quraysh were persecuting Muslims viciously, and so the Prophet (pbuh) advised a group of Muslims to flee Mecca for Habash in what is now Ethiopia or Eritrea. There, the king, or Negus, would give them refuge.
However, the Negus and his subjects were Christian, and Christians believed then (as they do now) that Isa was the Son of God. The Revelation of Surah Maryam reiterates that Allah SWT has no children and no partners. The ayahs admonish the fleeing Muslims to avoid shirk (polytheism) and to maintain publicly and privately that Isa, while he was very much a prophet in his own right, was fully human, not divine.
That is Jesus, son of Mary. And this is a word of truth, about which they dispute. (19:34)
It is not for Allah to take a son! Glory be to Him. When He decrees a matter, He simply tells it, “Be!” And it is! (19:35)
Jesus also declared, “Surely Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him alone. This is the Straight Path.” (19:36)
And the Muslims in Habash soon learned that, while it might seem dangerous to reveal or profess publicly what they believed about Isa, they would be protected and provided for by Allah SWT.
The Quraysh pursued the Muslim refugees to Habash and attempted to persuade the Negus to oust them from his kingdom, to the point of trying to bribe him and his courtiers with luxurious gifts. However, the Negus admired the Muslims, and Allah SWT had put it in his heart to listen to and reflect upon what they said. And so he put off the demands of the Quraysh and instead gave the Muslims’ case a proper hearing.
The Negus called to his court a group of the refugees, including the Companion of the Prophet (pbuh) Ja’far bin Abi Talib. There, Hadrat Ja’far recited Ayahs 1 through 40 of Surah Maryam. And when Jafar had completed his recitation, the Negus, overwhelmed by the power and beauty of the ayahs, wept openly.
The Quraysh, undeterred, took up a new tack the next day, telling the Negus that the Muslims were saying horrible things about Isa. But again the Negus took a reasoned approach. He called the Muslims back to his court and questioned them about the origin and nature of Jesus. Hadrat Ja’far replied,
“[Isa] was a Servant of Allah and His Messenger, He was a Spirit and a Word of Allah which [was] sent to virgin Mary.”
Upon hearing those words, the Negus said:
“By God, Jesus was not worth this straw more than what you have said about him… You are allowed to stay here in perfect peace.”
Reading Surah Maryam today
Modern readers will likely be shocked at times by the Quran’s account of Maryam’s childbirth journey, especially readers raised as Christians. During some of the most dangerous moments of her life, Maryam (as) had no human being around on whom to rely.
But her seeming isolation perfectly illuminates the continual sustenance and mercy that Allah SWT provides to her. This sustenance comes in many forms: sometimes through voices she hears, or visitations from angels, or at times through direct human intervention inspired by Allah SWT (for example, the du’a made by her mother Hannah that Maryam’s life be dedicated to Allah).
Other readers, especially those coming to Islam from a place of little or no faith, will be taken aback by the image of the infant Isa speaking the words of Allah SWT. It is not possible for this blog post, on its own, to assure readers definitively of the truth of that account. The Quran says that Allah SWT will lead some, but not all, people to greater faith in Him by many different means.
You surely cannot guide whoever you like, O Prophet, but it is Allah Who guides whoever He wills, and He knows best who is fit to be guided. (28:56)
A “rational” explanation of how an infant could speak might hold that the account is metaphorical only or that there was some kind of group illusion at work. Rationalism itself, tied to the scientific method, is simply one cognitive tool that we can use to understand something. But all too often, the tool winds up using us! To ascribe belief in only what can be “proved” via scientific research, as many do today, is fatally reductionist.
“[T]he limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, empirical and analytical study of facts which are attached to no principle…has given this civilization a purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.” René Guénon (Abdel Wahed Yahya), tr. Arthur Osborne, The Crisis of the Modern World, Luzac & Co., London, 1942, p. 24.
What’s more, the scientific method itself is revealing flaws in our most basic “rational” assumptions! For example: the theory of relativity, whose principles have been confirmed through experimentation time and again, indicates that what we think we know for sure, right down to our physical location, is far from a given. (For a fascinating philosophical discussion of the implications of “non-locality,” see “Philosophy and the Mirror of Technology: Beyond Space and Time” by Charlie Taben.)
Letting go of the scientific method as the sole and final arbiter of what is “true” has served this writer well, and it may do the same for those reading this piece.
Watch this space for more posts on women whose stories are told in the Quran as well as a discussion of what Islam teaches about human minds, bodies, and spirits.
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