The Virgin Mary in the Koran

Author: Giancarlo Finazzo


Giancarlo Finazzo

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.

This atmosphere, so charged with expectation and wonder, certainly does not disappear at the moment of the annunciation—a moment that for Mary is the highest and most mysterious one in her earthly life, and that reveals to her at last the significance of her function in the history of men. The Koran does not indicate the place in which this mystery was carried but (XIX, 16). It asserts, on the contrary, (III, 42 FF: XIX, 17) that God sent his Spirit under the semblance of a handsome young man who, similarly to what is narrated inthe Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, was the Archangel Gabriel, often identified in ancient time with the Spirit of truth or with times divine Spirit (ruh ul-amin and ruh Allah, XVI, 102;XIX, 17; XXVI, 193). It. should be pointed out that in the Koran version Mary does not utter the fiat which expresses her responsible acceptance of the divine will. Here she merely asks: "How can I give birth to a son if no man has touched me?"; receiving the answer; "Just so! God creates what he wants: when he decides something, it is enough that he should say: let it be! and it is" (III, 147; XIX, 203). A version that confirms the typically Islamic sense of the absolute authority and power of God, and the complete submission of man to his will.

The Koran then narrates that Mary, feeling the moment approach in which she would give birth, withdrew to a lonely place in the East. Moslem exegetics is not unanimous in recognizing Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah's birth nor does it seem to have attached much importance to the question. It lingered, on the contrary, on the episode of Mary who, tired and sad, invokes death (XIX, 22-26). The Spirit of truth answers her once more, bringing to her both spiritual and material comfort. Here, in fact, is inserted the well-known and delightful story of the Virgin who quenches her thirst with the water of a stream that suddenly gushes out under her feet, and who feeds on the dates of a palm tree.

The Koran gives no details about the birth of Jesus. It at once presents Mary who, returning among her people and showing them the Child, becomes the object of terrible slanders. The episode, brief but dramatic, is suddenly solved when the Infant, speaking unexpectedly from the cradle, takes his Mother's defence and exonerates her from all blame (XIX, 30-33). This miracle, to which the Koran refers more than once (e.g. III, 46; V, 113), is among those that have made most impression on the imagination of Moslem believers and that are still alive in their conscience. The episode, however, has also a kerigmatic importance for Islamic theology , since the fact that the Child speaks from the cradle is a violation of natural laws and therefore bears witness to the greatness of the Spirit that is in him.

The Koran does not give us any other information on the Virgin's life, while tradition recalls various and partly conflicting versions of the last years of her earthly presence and of her ascension to heaven. But neither the Koran nor tradition give the story of the Transitus Mariae.

Mahomet defended Mary's virginity

Those who do not know the Islamic religion may be surprised to learn that Mahomet defended Mary's virginity, or that he recognized her as the woman chosen by God for a function that was to be unique in history. Mahomet's commitment to defend her and exalt her, also explains his harsh condemnation of the Jews (e.g. V, 156), guilty of persisting in the slander and in refusing to admit Mary's unique role. It is necessary to clarify, however, that, also for Mahomet, Mary is unimaginable if dissociated from her Son: the divine election and the purity of the Mother are directly proportioned to the qualities of the Son; the moment of their interdependence is greatly felt, therefore, since the historical greatness of Mary is conditioned by that of her Son, and the Son in his turn depends on his Mother, who constitutes the indispensable promise for his presence on earth. In the Koran Christ is called repeatedly Issa ibn Maryam—"Jesus son of Mary" (V, 19, 75, 81, 113; XIX, 34)—a name which if it will become perhaps the best known one in the Islamic world, will also be the one that characterizes most the figure of Christ. This correlation, which has led Moslem religious thought to affirm the indissolubility of the dual concept Mary-Jesus and to base its refutation of Christian doctrine on it, seems to have its foundation in the principle of necessity. The negation of Christ's divinity finds its reason, in fact, precisely in Mary's human nature; that is, in the genetic relationship which, entailing the transmission of properties, would exclude a leap of quality from Mother to Son.

This conception, in which there is also inherent the idea of the primacy of the female line over the male line (in the Koran narration of Mary's life, while the person of Zacharias, the Virgin's uncle and guardian, is thwarted by the constant presence of the Angel of the Lord, that of Joseph is completely ignored), is due, in our opinion, more than to the influence of the apocrypha, to an ancient way of feeling that is characteristic of the Semites of Arabia. It is a way of feeling which, is also alive in Mahomet and which leads to mental operations of the analogical type, to a thought geared less to speculation than to the pursuit of parallelisms, to the concordance of diverse but congruent elements, and therefore to the vision of a firm reality, because it is founded on perfect and therefore immutable relationships, which seem to exclude the possibility of gradual evolution. What Mahomet and his commentators failed to grasp intellectually, is the concept that the presence of God can come about in different ways, realizing itself as a circumstantial and determined presence, without causing for this reason any alternation in God himself. This presence, furthermore, may have the character of a gradual and growing manifestation; and may mark a new temporal effect at the very moment in which God sets up a new relationship with his creatures. That Islamic theology should find it so difficult to grasp this concept, seems almost incomprehensible when it is remembered that Mahomet himself, in addition to affirming with unusual forcefulness the omnipotence of God, also perceived a certain development God's manifestation of himself through his "messengers", and recognized Moses, and particularly Jesus and himself, as having a role which, though not well defined theoretically, seems superior to that of the other prophets.

In this case, too, mention should be made, for the sake of equity, of the doctrinal difficulties connected with the Arab social and religious environment in the sixth and seventh centuries, which Mahomet had to cope with and by which he was conditioned to no small degree. Also the historical figure of Mary raised problems for him. At the end of the century, in fact, precisely some Christians of Arabia had introduced the Marian cult which, in the time of Mahomet, had already degenerated into worship of the Virgin as the third person of the Holy Trinity. The inevitable disapproval and condemnation by the prophet of Islam, thus involved the historical person of Mary in new polemics.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 April 1978, page 4

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