Mark McIntyre explores how the Mother of Our Lord is also central in Islam
For those of us who live and minister in diverse communities, it can be a hugely enriching experience. During the pandemic there were many examples of faith communities coming together to bring relief to those who were housebound or isolated. It brought opportunities of prayer for one another and for practical help and support. Often this coming together was based on foundations and collaboration which existed long before the terrible events of the last two years. For example, in the urban areas of ministry, other faith communities form a significant part of our school communities. It is a great joy for us at St Gabriel’s in Walsall, to welcome our local nursery school into church each year to perform their traditional nativity play. As well as expected characters, there are sometimes the occasional snowman or Santa, for every child has an important part to play.
Perhaps more significant is that among the children acting out the traditional nativity story are those of other faiths, especially Islam. Families attend willingly and joyfully to see their children participate in a story about Jesus, who is familiar to them from their own tradition and faith context. Also, it has struck me when visiting our friends at the local mosque just how familiar some of the names of the prophets listed in the Quran are to Christians. Though important to acknowledge the richness of our diversity and differing beliefs, it is also important to find our common ground.
Mary is one of those identified in that common ground between Christianity and Islam. She is held in high regard and honour by Christians of a Catholic and Orthodox tradition and within the Muslim tradition too. For example, Surah 19 of the Quran bears her name, and she is the only woman in the Quran to be known by her first name. Mary also appears in the third Surah of the Quran entitled ‘The family of Imran’. Scholars outside the Islamic tradition have reflected on the origins of the parallels within the sacred texts of Islam and Christianity. As well as the canonical books of the Christian Bible, it is thought that the stories relating to Jesus and Mary in the Quran may have been influenced by apocryphal writings such as the Protoevangelium of James.
Some of the most interesting parallels between Mary in the Islamic and Christian traditions can be found around accounts of the Annunciation. Luke begins the announcement of the birth of Jesus with ‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God… to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph’ (Luke 1.26-27a). And again, Mary says, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin.’ (Luke 1.34). The Quran gives a similar conversation, ‘She (Mary) said, “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me, and I have not been unchaste?” He said, “Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me…” (Quran 19.20-21). And again, we read, ‘When the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. (Quran 3.42).
In both Luke’s Gospel and in the Quran, we see testimony to the virgin birth of Jesus and the encounter between Mary and the angels. There is a clear parallel as to how God is at work in the birth of Jesus and in whom he is at work – the specially chosen one, Mary.
Matthew’s Gospel gives us the annunciation account from Joseph’s perspective, with the initial possibility of gossip and scandal, that accusation of infidelity, ‘being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her privately’ (Matt 1.19). The Quran offers again the possibility that Mary was falsely accused of infidelity when it reads ’They said, “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste” (Quran 19.27-28).
Later in Luke’s Gospel, after Jesus had been found in the Temple, we read, ‘His mother treasured all these things in her heart’. (Luke 2.51b) The Quran also reflects on this: ‘And Mary, the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity… she believed in the words of her Lord and His scriptures and was of the devoutly obedient (Quran 66.12).
When we put these texts side by side, we can clearly see the parallels in the narratives around the birth of Jesus and the way in which Mary is also central to the working out of God’s plan. It is also necessary to say, however, that both traditions and faiths must be honest in acknowledging difference – not to claim superiority, but to allow constructive dialogue between faith communities. The virgin birth of Jesus within the Christian tradition clearly points us to the divine nature of Jesus as the Son of God. Within Islam, the virgin birth of Jesus does not take the direction of travel. What happens to Mary in this context enables the birth of a great prophet, her son Jesus; a prophet but not the Son of God.
While acknowledging the fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam, it is helpful to have these characters in common. They give us a divergence of language and, dare we say, honour and faith. Places of pilgrimage, such as the Holy House of Ephesus, also can be places of connection for these faith communities. In Luke we read, ‘For he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on, all generations will call me blessed’ (Luke 1.48). Reflecting on the honour in which Mary is held by these great world religions, might just allow us to see this phrase from Mary’s Magnificat, in its widest possible context.
The Revd Preb Mark McIntyre CMP SSC is the Vicar of St Gabriel’s, Fulbrook, Walsall, and Rural Dean.