By Rabi’a Elizabeth Brown
Part one of two
This two-part post is intended to give readers some insight into what the Quran and hadith teach about Sayyidah Maryam (Mary), the mother of the prophet Isa (Jesus). And Insha Allah it will be part of a longer series of women whose stories are told in the Quran.
The Quran abounds with detailed accounts of the life and role of Maryam according to the will of Allah. And even in surahs where she is not discussed at length, there are frequent brief references to her piety and willingness to submit to Allah. The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) himself singled out Mary as being one of the most praiseworthy women in Islam. al-Bukhari, 3432.
Whether you are a brand new revert to Islam or are engaged in reviving faith you’ve held for years, 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.
Where Maryam walked: Quds (Jerusalem) and Bayt al-Maqdis
Due to the reverence in which she is held by both Muslims and Christians, Sayyidah Maryam is one of the few people, man or woman, mentioned in the Quran whose life on Earth is celebrated with physical memorials. And while the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) has said that any place on earth can be a place of connection with Allah SWT, certain places, just by virtue of their proximity to exemplary Muslims like Maryam, can help today’s Muslims to open their hearts and minds to Allah al-Khaaliq, the Creator.
Maryam is said to have lived and died in Quds and, as a person much honored by Allah SWT, she is said to have spent much of her life within the walls of the Bayt al-Maqdis (Masjid al-Aqsa).
Bayt al-Maqdis was the original site of the Qibla, where Muslims everywhere turned their faces for prayer. Then it was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) in the second year of Hijra to turn toward Masjid al-Haram in Mecca (The Noble Quran 2:4). The close ties of Maryam to this holiest of places in Quds reflect the favor bestowed on her by Allah.
If you are fortunate enough to visit Quds, you can visit St Anne’s Church, where Sayyidah Hannah (Anne) bint Faqudh is said to have given birth to Maryam. Hannah and Maryam were of the line of the Prophet Dawood (David), whose son, the Prophet Suleiman (Solomon), is sometimes credited with the reconstruction of the Masjid al-Aqsa.
And if you then move on to the Bayt al-Maqdis, you can visit the chamber where Maryam is said to have made salat, received tidings from Jibril that she would conceive and give birth to the prophet Isa, and later, raised her son in this holiest of places.
Finally, you can stop at a small church near the Mount of Olives to visit the maqam (tomb) of Maryam. The church and the maqam within are a much-beloved pilgrimage stop for Muslims and Christians alike.
Sadly, Palestinian Muslims cannot visit these holy places. The Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) himself made frequent du’a for all of the ‘ummah, and remembering those Muslims who cannot practice their faith the way so many others can is especially important.
Maryam in the Quran: specially chosen by Allah
Allah shaped Maryam in the womb of Hannah for specific purposes which made her unique among women.
He is the One Who shapes you in the wombs of your mothers as He wills. There is no god [worthy of worship] except Him—the Almighty, All-Wise. [The Noble Quran, 3:6]
Surah al-Imran describes the consecrated lineage and conception of Maryam in detail.
Indeed, Allah chose Adam, Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of ’Imrân above all people [of their time]. (3:33)
Hannah, the wife of ’Imrân, conceived Mary late in life. She gave thanks to Allah for her conception by dedicating her unborn child, whose sex she did not yet know, to the service of Allah. Significantly, she made du’a, or supplicated, Allah to accept the dedication.
[Remember] when the wife of ’Imrân said, “My Lord! I dedicate what is in my womb entirely to Your service, so accept it from me. You [alone] are truly the All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” (3:35)
Hannah thought that she would bear a son and that at an early age he could enter service at the Bayt al-Maqdis without any obstacle.
However, she bore a daughter, whom she named Maryam. She was disappointed not at the fact that her child was female but that a girl would not be able to dedicate her life to worship at the masjid, since usual practice at the time forbade daughters from entering that type of service.
When she delivered, she said, “My Lord! I have given birth to a girl,”—and Allah fully knew what she had delivered—“and the male is not like the female. (3:36)
But Allah accepted the supplication of Hannah, who was then able to entrust her child to the care and guidance of the devout Muslims at the Bayt al-Maqdis.
The tafsir says that lots were cast as to which person would be specially entrusted with Maryam’s care, and that the duty fell to the delighted Zakariya, Maryam’s uncle by marriage.
So her Lord accepted her graciously and blessed her with a pleasant upbringing—entrusting her to the care of Zachariah. (3:37)
Allah had further plans for Maryam’s life, of course. But it is very important to note that Allah specifically accepted the prayer of Hannah with regard to the direction of her child’s early life.
Hannah also asked Allah that Maryam and any children she might have be protected from Shaitan. Hadith says that Allah granted this supplication as well: neither Maryam nor Isa cried at birth, because neither was touched by Shaitan. Muslim, 2366c.
Maryam in the Quran: the devout Muslim
Maryam began her life as a Muslim first in a house adjacent to the Bayt al-Maqdis (see the Maarif-ul Quran on Ayah 3:37) and then within its sheltering walls, in the care of her loving uncle Zakariya. The tafsir (commentary) of Ibn Kathir on Ayah 3:37 says that Allah
(made her grow in a good manner) meaning, made her conduct becoming, her mannerism delightful and He made her well liked among people. He also made her accompany the righteous people, so that she learned righteousness, knowledge and religion.– Ibn Kathir, commentary on 3:37
The tafsir on Ayah 3:42 goes on to say that
Allah states that the angels commanded Maryam to increase acts of worship, humbleness, submission, prostration, bowing, and so forth, so that she would acquire what Allah had decreed for her, as a test for her. Yet, this test also earned her a higher grade in this life and the Hereafter, for Allah demonstrated His might by creating a son inside her without male intervention. Allah said, “O Maryam! Submit yourself with obedience (Aqnuti) and prostrate yourself, and bow down along with Ar-Raki`in.”– Ibn Kathir, commentary on 3:42
The Quran and hadith reveal that during her lifetime, Maryam did everything she could as a pious Muslim to maintain her relationship with Allah. This proved, day after day, that she could be trusted to conceive and bear the prophet Isa. And while Maryam’s conception of Isa was predestined, the Quran and hadith indicate that her free consent to what would be asked of her was necessary.
In her book “Women in the Quran: An Emancipatory Reading,” translated by Myriam Francois-Cerrah, contemporary Muslim scholar Asma Lambrabet reminds us that the practice of Islam requires us to use independent judgment and discern the origins of what comes to us. (Lambrabet, page 132.) There are several moments of Maryam’s life as told in the Quran in which she clearly questions the source of what is happening to her. Of special importance here is her pointed response to Jibril’s appearance:
She appealed, “I truly seek refuge in the Most Compassionate from you! [So leave me alone] if you are God-fearing.” (19:18)
Allah, through Gibril, acknowledges Mary’s query and reassures her that all is well:
He responded, “I am only a messenger from your Lord, ˹sent˺ to bless you with a pure son.” (19:19)
One account, related in the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, relates that upon Mary’s mention of the Name of Allah the Most Beneficent, Jibril “fell apart” and returned to his true form as an angel!
Shortly after that, she questions Jibril as to how she could possibly conceive a child if she has been chaste all her life:
She wondered, “How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me, nor am I unchaste?” (19:20)
Again, Allah, through Gibril, acknowledges the importance of Mary’s query with a complete answer:
He replied, “So will it be! Your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me. And so will We make him a sign for humanity and a mercy from Us.’ It is a matter ˹already˺ decreed.” (19:21)
Ibn Kathir comments that this ayah indicates Allah’s intention to “make this boy a mercy from Allah and a Prophet from among the Prophets. He will call to the worship of Allah and monotheistic belief in Him.” And Jibril, at Allah’s command, points out to Mary that Allah has determined everything concerning Isa’s conception, birth, life, and death, so there is no stopping it.
Above everything else, Maryam is concerned with what she needs to do to serve Allah. As a limited human being, she can’t know that everything that comes to her is in fact from Allah. And so she takes action to discern and question how she should respond to this very unusual visitor. Practicing Muslims today may not ever knowingly encounter Jibril, but they can follow the example of Maryam in “trusting, but verifying.”
Read the second part of this essay on Maryam here, and watch this space for more posts on women whose stories are told in the Quran!
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