By: Heather Abraham
With the passing of the first decade of the 21st century the world is confronted with an ever increasing atmosphere of tension and discord between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Turn on the nightly news or pop into your favorite internet web-news site and you will be confronted with the news of yet another terrorist bombing, another radical Muslim cleric calling for the destruction of America, another ill informed Christian spouting hatred against “Islamicists” (whatever that means), or another report on the most recent casualties of our “war on terror.” We are living in an era of confusion and misinformation where the mere mention of Islam or Muslim often elicits comments founded on half-truths, anxiety, and fear.
In this atmosphere of tension, it may be prudent to attempt to find common ground between these two clashing Abrahamic traditions. Christianity and Islam are in some ways, intimately connected; sharing many sacred stories, devotion to one god, ethical standards, and scriptural figures. Illuminating commonalities between these two mega religions, whose adherents make up almost fifty percent of the world’s population, may be the first step in building an understanding and hopefully, a bridge between the two.
Although it is a common practice to begin this discussion with the familiar patriarchs whose stories are told in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an, this article will focus not on Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, or Jesus, but instead, illuminate the role of a lesser known common figure as embodied in the Virgin Mary. Many may be surprised to learn that Mary is a significant and highly revered figure in Islam. Although Mary plays an important but not extensive role in the New Testament, she has a much more prominent position in the sacred text of Islam. Mary is mentioned no fewer than thirty-four times in the Quran, and she is the only woman in the Quran to have her own chapter or sura. Mary, the title of the nineteenth sura of the Quran, includes detail about Mary’s life before, during, and after the Annunciation.
Many of the Quranic stories concerning Mary and Jesus are foreign to Christian ears and sensibilities. Even though there are many differing accounts, the Quran and New Testament also share similar stories about Mary. In the following Annunciation accounts from sura 19:14-21 and Luke 1:30-34, Mary’s reactions to the heavenly messenger are strikingly similar.
And when she saw him she said: ‘May the Merciful defend me from you! If you fear the Lord, leave me and go your way.’ ‘I am the messenger of your Lord,’ he replied, ‘and have come to give you a holy son.’ ‘How shall I bear a child,’ she answered, ‘when I am a virgin, untouched by man?’ ‘Such is the will of your lord,’ he replied. ‘That is no difficult thing for Him. He shall be a sign to mankind,’ says the Lord, ‘and a blessing from Ourself. This is Our decree.’
And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and be called the son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin.”
Although Mary has no salvific powers in Islam, she is one of the most revered women in the Islamic faith. In various hadiths, Mary is discussed as being one of the four ‘Perfect Women’ in history. Mary belongs in an exclusive group of women who are considered ‘Perfect’ because of their strength of faith and submission to God. In Mary the Blessed Mother of Islam, Aliah Schleifer argues that, unlike the traditional Orthodox Christian understanding of Mary, the Mary of Islam is an important figure in her own right.
Mary, in traditional Sunni Islam is an important figure in herself. Her position is not just that of the most exalted category of women, but she is ranked in the highest category of all human beings. In fact, from the perspective of those scholars who consider Mary to be a prophetess, she is considered equal to this aspect of her son Jesus. And to those who focus on Mary’s outstanding spiritual achievements, she is seen to have been blessed with stages of spiritual development that approach those of the Prophet Muhammad. In no case is Mary seen solely as the mother of Jesus. (95)
For Muslims, Mary is a paradigmatic servant of God and an example for all humanity to emulate.
Although there are many theological differences between Christianity and Islam, Mary’s shared importance in both religions can be understood as an opportunity for interfaith dialogue. The easing of political and religious tension between the Christian and Islamic worlds is an enormous undertaking yet because religious differences are often used to justify anger and distrust, maybe, just maybe, religious similarities may lessen the divide. This brings me to the question of the day: Why are the media (Western and Eastern) and religious clerics (Christian and Muslim) not focusing on the commonalities and unifying aspects of these two Abrahamic cousins?