Surah 19: Mary, Part 1

Christian Advent is upon us! For those of us who observe the rituals of advent, it is a season of reading the messianic prophecies and the stories of Jesus’ birth. The season mostly draws from Luke’s version of the Nativity, which focuses on Elizabeth/Zechariah and Mary. How perfect could the timing be that just as I’m celebrating the Christian Advent season, I’m also reading Ṣurat Maryam? We have met the Quran’s versions of Zechariah and Mary before in Surah 3: Family of Imran. That surah covered the origin story of Mary and John the Baptist, but jumped clear over all parts of the Nativity by skipping from the annunciation to Jesus’ assumption. Today’s surah will cover, amongst other things, the Nativity.

File:García del Barco - Triptych of the Nativity - Google Art Project.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
…but not this.

Ayat 2-15: Zechariah and John

The one thing that the Quran’s nativity story shares with Luke’s is that it begins with the conception of John the Baptist. When Zechariah prays to God for a child, we learn it is because he fears his heirs (ayah 5) who can inherit from himself and from the family of Jacob. The callback to patriarch Jacob does suggest that Zechariah is concerned about religious leadership. Anyone who would be an heir to Zechariah would be a biological heir to Jacob –that’s part and parcel of Judaism– so it must be Jacob’s religious legacy and not biological heritage that is being referenced. Zechariah leads the community prayers, demonstrating that he is a religious leader, but we don’t know the scope or relevance of Zechariah’s ministry. And just as we don’t know Zechariah’s importance, so we neither know what significance John will hold in the Quran, as there has been no description of his ministry’s nature or function. Indeed, would Muslims even call him John “the Baptist”? What does baptism mean to Muslims?

God announces that Zechariah’s boy shall be named Yaḥyaa. We can tell from the story that this is intended to be John the Baptist, and the name is approximate to the Hellenized Hebrew name Yoḥanan from which we derive English’s “John.” The reason I take note of John’s name is that God declares that He has never before named anyone John (ayah 7). Now, historically this origin story for the name is untrue, as Yoḥanan was already an old and popular name by John the Baptist’s time. One way to avoid this clash with history is to understand that the last clause of ayah 7 refers to John being a unique individual. In Arabic, the word ism means both “name” and “noun” and the concepts are rather blended. That God “assigned” to John an unprecedented ism, “noun/identity” fits within the predestination theology of Islam. That conclusion is not the simplest interpretation of this verse, but it is feasible.

Ayat 16-40: The Nativity

The story of John the Baptist’s conception is different than in Luke’s account –Zechariah’s three trimesters of silence is reduced to three days– but all the details are present and recognizable. This makes it more than a little mystifying that the story of Jesus’s conception and birth in ayat 16-40 is so different. The annunciation to Mary is recognizable, the conception is still a virgin one, but all other circumstances are so different that it’s difficult to imagine how one story could diverge from the other. They can’t even be harmonized together. I could find no extra-Biblical material that resembles the Quran’s account. The Quran is completely rewriting the Nativity, and it’s the first such telling of the story in all of our current historical records. Even though Matthew and Luke linked their nativities with historical events and places, we have never been able to confirm those events, so there is no outside evidence to support either the nativity sequence of the Quran or the Bible. Each religion just has to rely on their own scriptures.

From a Muslim’s standpoint, this is not an issue, as the Quran has declared its intent to correct the scriptures of Jews and Christians. From a skeptic’s point of view there still is the question as to why Muhammad would preserve the Zechariah’s story in a recognizable form, and yet completely rehaul Mary’s. Familiarity with the one surely means that Muhammad would not have been so ignorant of the other. As I said before in The Traditions, Part 2, I think many of the Quran’s retellings of the Biblical stories are intentional retcons. Anti-Christian polemicists sometimes chose to attack Mary and speculate shameful liaisons generating Jesus. The Quran has already reacted in 4:156 to such insinuations and comes to Mary’s defence. If there was an intent for changing Mary’s story, I would suggest that Mary’s virginity is the key issue. Islamic scholars don’t know how to account for why Luke and Matthew’s gospels –which have a vested interest in Jesus’s miraculous paternity– would include such a jeopardizing feature as her having a fiance/husband. After all, who would take seriously a woman’s claim to virginity when she had a fiance/husband taking care of her and her child? And so the story had to be completely changed to defend her virginity.

I think what strikes me most about this surah’s nativity is just how isolated Mary is. In ali ‘Imran we learned that Mary grew up in Zechariah’s custody, but in this surah her story is completely disconnected from Zechariah’s. She leaves her family and hides herself somewhere easternly. Ayah 17 says that she took a screen. While this screen might be metaphorical, it could mean that any contact she had with other humans –say, when someone dropped provisions off for her– was moderated through a screen. She does not interact with anyone except the Angel. Her isolation is so complete that her community is surprised to learn she had been pregnant. Not only has the Quran removed the problematic St. Joseph from the picture, but all human contact. Mary is not just virginal, she’s hyper-virginal in being kept pure from all society.

Now Jesus as a talking infant is recognizable from certain non-Biblical texts, particularly the Syriac Infancy Gospel. One thing that perplexes Christians about Jesus is what he was like before his ministry (which is traditionally speculated as having started some time in his thirties). What was it like for Jesus to learn? To go through puberty? Did he get angry? How much power and knowledge did he have as a child? How did that power and knowledge combine with youthful haplessness? There are a number of non-canonical texts that try to fill in these gaps (I’d recommend Andrew Henry’s video on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas for your curiosity) and a number of them feature baby Jesus being divinely intelligent and powerful. To imagine God incarnated as an ignorant, finite child who has to learn emotional control and body functions is still a little embarrassing to Christians; even if we insist upon it you’ll notice that we don’t really explore it too much. The idea of an already articulate, divinely educated baby is kind of appealing to avoid that embarrassment and I am not surprised that it should appear in fringe Christian literature. That the Quran should commit to such is surprising, since it has no vested interest in saving Jesus from being awkwardly human. I would have expected the Quran to depict that Jesus pooped, burped, and fussed loudly when he wanted to breastfeed. Again, from the skeptic’s point of view, that the Quran leans into the idea of a divinely knowledgeable baby Jesus perhaps indicates an attempted appeal to Christian culture of the time. Either that, or maybe Muhammad didn’t know the difference between fringe Christianity and mainstream Christianity.

In the narrative of the story, there are two points where I found it textually unclear what was happening, but deduced an answer. One spot is in ayah 24. After Mary has lamented the pain of labor, a voice cries out from beneath her to direct her to eat dates from the tree she has leaned against and to drink from a spring that has appeared beneath her. Who is speaking to Mary “from beneath her”? Some tafsir take it to be the angel, but others take it to be Jesus; the Arabic text does not specify. That the voice comes from beneath her makes a pretty strong case for Jesus, particularly since what the voice says indicates that Mary’s labor has just finished. The Arabic text does not actually name Jesus until the end of the story, so that the voice’s only source is a “he” would be consistent with that storytelling. The next unclear spot is just after in ayat 26-29. The voice from beneath Mary calls her into a vow not to speak for the rest of the day, except to inform people of her vow. Why the vow? Then when Mary later appears before the people and is confronted with their shock that she had a child out of wedlock, she responds with a gesture rather than words. Why does Mary not speak for herself? What I would interpret from these two questions is that the events have all taken place on the same day. Mary has been called into a vow of silence in order to clear the air for Jesus to demonstrate his speech, and Mary doesn’t speak in response to her accusers because she has taken this vow.

[Tangent: Some polemicists want to make a big deal out of the people calling Mary a “sister of Aaron.” They think this moniker demonstrates that Muhammad thought Mary was “Miriam,” the sister of Moses and Aaron (Mary, Maryam, Miriam –same name, different languages). While there are scattered pieces of evidence that some Muslims have been confused by the existence of two Mary’s in the Bible (particularly since Biblical Miriam’s father was named Amram and Quranic Maryam’s father was named Imran), I find no basis for assuming that Muhammad made that mistake. The Quran does include prophets between the eras of Moses and Jesus –most notably David. While the Quran hasn’t yet mentioned many events between Moses’ time and Jesus’, I think it very obviously recognizes an expanse of time between the two. The moniker “sister of Aaron” is probably meant to communicate that the Quran’s Mary was of a priestly tribe and thus held to higher moral expectations.]

This Mary to Christians

Surah Maryam is saddled with a heavy burden in Islamic culture: it is often used as an ambassador to Christians. In all truth, this was actually the first surah of the Quran I ever read. A Muslim sent me a link to this surah way back when I was just picking up Arabic, before I took on this project. I think this Muslim thought this surah was a good starting point for us to talk about religion since it featured characters from Christian history and because it portrayed them positively. Unfortunately, this Muslim was a contact I had made on iTalki and we never got into a pattern of meeting, so I never got to follow up this surah with her and talk it through. It makes a pretty rough ambassador, however, in large part because it is so alien to Christian scripture and in part because in its differences it misses some points that many Christians hold dear.

The surah’s story also lacks some of the warmth that Christians appreciate in the Nativity. Just compare the triptych above with the nativity image below.

Image result for maryam isa
That’s the fire of prophecy around baby Jesus, by the way, not literal flames.

In the New Testament, Jesus’ birth comes at an inconvenient time, in an inconvenient place, but he is generally greeted with goodwill. Joseph protects Mary and agrees to take care of the child who is not his. The innkeeper doesn’t have room for Mary, but tries to provide for her needs as best he can. Angels proclaim his birth and the shepherds abandon their work in order to come greet the child. The magi locate Jesus, give him gifts, and protect him from Herod. While the surah’s nativity comes with plenty of humility, the only warmth comes in the form of the date palm and the spring God provides for Mary. Jesus is said to be a sign and a source of God’s mercy, but the people greet Jesus with antipathy and the narrative ends with a threatening sermon. There is much less of the joy and goodwill that makes Christmas warm and fuzzy for Christian celebrants.

I find it odd that the Quran should also put emphasis on Mary’s perpetual chastity because it has yet to show any concern over virginity. Divorced women are allowed to remarry, and no comment has been made on their value changing for their lack of virginity. Muhammad only married one virgin (Aisha), and so you can see in his life that virginity was not a particular concern. Granted, fasting from sex is part of Ramadan and pilgrimage, and sexual activity is considered a thing that makes one ritually unclean and unable to pray. Ritual uncleanliness is not the same thing as sinfulness, however, for many of the things that make you unclean are life necessities –like reproduction and burying the dead. That the Quran should sum up Mary’s virtue by her virginity strikes me as an appeal to the Christian culture of the time which made virginity/celibacy a paramount virtue. Many of the gnostic forms of Christianity really doubled down on the celibacy issue, not only elevating it but condemning all carnality in all situations (looking at you, Acts of Thomas with your Jesus-crashes-the-honeymoon-and-calls-sex-an-act-of-demon-making scene), and these groups are often the sources of extra-Biblical texts like the infancy gospels which the Quran’s accounts resemble. I’m fighting really hard against getting on my soapbox on tangents around this topic, so let’s wrap this point up quickly: The Quran has no narrative of celibacy as a virtue, Christianity and pseudo-Christianity of that time did. Also, Mary had retreated to the east when she encountered the angel, and East is a direction towards which Christians have historically directed their prayers (Jews pray towards the Temple, be that east or west). So from my viewpoint this story is one that is meant for Christians, catering to them to some degree by reassuring them that the perpetual virginity of Mary that they held so dear was true and good, even if the child she bore was not God Incarnate.

This Mary to Feminism

Islamic Mary is also under a lot of pressure to be ambassador to feminism. The Quran has so far provided very few examples of women. As the only named woman of the Quran, Mary has to bear the lion’s burden of proving to feminism that the Quran sees value in the lives, experiences, and roles of women. And there are positives to look at. God provides for Mary and shows preference for her, expressing His favor to her in the Quran and taking issue with those who mock her claim of virginity. Mary is consecrated for religious service, an explicit break from expected gender roles (remember that her mother pauses as to whether she can consecrate a girl, but then does so with God’s blessing). A few minority scholars in Islam categorize Mary as a prophet, since God sends to her an angel to communicate as he does with other prophets. Back in ali ‘Imran her close connection with God inspires Zechariah to take his needs before God and results in John the Baptist. The Quran portrays Mary’s labor as this heroic event, so painful and difficult that she wishes for death, but full of purpose and reward. This puts a positive value on the quintessentially female experience of childbearing. Her lack of need for a husband denies that a woman must live for marriage. The Muslim community respects Mary enough that they named this surah after her when it could’ve easily been called after Zechariah. Standing alone, Mary is a positive character in the Quran and her presence is a net plus.

However, elements of her story are lessened or become problematic when combined with broader contexts. I said the Quran has [thus far in my reading] given us few examples of women, so let’s consider those examples: Mary, ‘Imran’s wife, Abraham’s wife, and the Egyptian women which includes Al-Aziz’s wife. Three of those women’s stories are centered around birthing babies. Mary’s story is diminished by being surrounded by other women whose only contribution to the Quran’s narratives is in giving birth to children, so that her story instead reinforces a meta-narrative of women’s central place in history being their role in childbearing. Mary’s pregnancy furthermore comes without her consent being displayed, with God disrupting her expectations for her own life drastically and without forewarning. Her pregnancy gets framed as a reward for her virtue, and this has sad accidental implications for other childless women who feel like they aren’t fulfilling their purpose as set up in their religious models.

Mary’s righteousness in the Quran is represented almost exclusively by her virginity. Mary’s social isolation is problematic in combination with cultures that want women to hide from public view. That she is kept separate from society and conceals herself behind a screen reinforces that the perfectly pious woman should be an exclusively private being. This is where that hyper-virginity comes into play, for in places where virginity is held at premium value, Mary’s model of being sexually and socially chaste becomes a dangerous standard to push women into. The Quran naturally respects marriage and doesn’t advocate celibacy, but that Mary is the most praised female example of virtue and that such praise is tied in mostly with her protection of her chastity still builds a message. Not only does her model set the standard for female virtue to an extreme, but then the gossipy and insanely lustful Egyptian women stand as the only non-believing women and form the other extreme. These examples inadvertently make a binary way of looking at women where they are either sexually/socially withdrawn and thus virtuous, or lecherous/gossipy and thus evil. Hopefully the Quran will provide more examples to dilute these extremes.

Then there is that vow of silence. When standing before her accusers, Mary is bound by a vow –by a command, really– not to speak for the day. She is, whether the Quran intended to set this precedent or not, forced to depend on a male to communicate for her to the masses. Having given birth to a talking baby is implicitly supposed to vindicate her character before the community, but it is significant that Mary never gets to defend her own character. Other prophets have each had a time to stand before their accusers, defend their own character, direct their opponents to true faith in The God, and express their own trust in God. (Granted, Lot fails to do that.) Mary has quite a story to tell. In what should be her moment of prophethood, she is mandated into silence. This undercuts her potential placement in the community of prophets despite her other credentials.

Also, it bothers me that Jesus doesn’t defend his mother’s character either, and talks about himself instead.

And Moving On

Okay, thank you for sitting through and reading my reactions to the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary. I feel like I spent much more time being critical of Mary’s story here then I have of other stories. You could speculate that this is in part because the Quran is pitching a product based on a Christian sentiment that I do not agree with. I do not revere Mary as eternally virgin and do not think that her virtue is defined by her lack of sexuality. However, most of my thoughts on the topic are irrelevant when there is no St. Joseph in the picture. That the Quran should remove Joseph from the picture left me with many, many thoughts as I observed the Quran had repackaged the Nativity by hyperbolizing the elements of Mariology that I agree with the least and drop-kicking the elements I find most compelling. Have you ever been targeted specifically with a product that completely fails to understand your perspective and values? That was this section of the Quran to me.

Next week we’ll finish out the surah’s more standard fare concerning patriarchs, opponents, and damnation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.