In 630, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers conquered the sacred Arabian city of Mecca. Now in control of the city that had persecuted Islam, Muhammad ordered that the Ka’ba, a shrine believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael for the worship of God, be cleansed of all signs of pagan corruption. According to Islamic tradition, Muhammad instructed his followers to remove all the idols and to wash away the images on the walls of the Ka’ba with one exception, an icon of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child. The Prophet is said to have placed his hands upon the holy image and commanded that it remain untouched.
While the above may come as a surprise to some Orthodox Christians, especially given the Islamophobic rhetoric spewed by some church leaders, the Virgin Mary has always held a special place in Islam. Muslims often refer to Mary as al-Batūl (Arabic for “the Virgin” or “the Chaste”). She is given this title not only for her physical purity, but for her willingness to submit her entire being, body and soul, to God’s will. A minority of Muslim scholars, including Ibn Ḥazm, have gone as far as to number Mary among the prophets of Islam. Moreover, Mary is also the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’ān, and the nineteenth Sura (chapter) is even named in her honour. In fact, many Qur’ānic verses about Mary are so similar in both spirit and content to the Eastern Christian understanding of her, that when the first Muslims attempted to escape persecution in Mecca by seeking refuge in Abyssinia, the Christian ruler of the country is said to have been so moved by some of what was written about Mary in the Qur’ān, that he granted sanctuary to the followers of the new religion.
According to the Qur’ān, Mary’s father was named ʿImrān, not Joachim, and while her mother is not named in the sacred text, Muslim commentators often agree with the Christian tradition and refer to her as Anna (Hannah). Islamic tradition teaches that ʿImrān and Anna were pious, but advanced in years and childless. Yet, God eventually hears Anna’s prayers and blesses her to conceive, and the grateful woman promises to dedicate her child to the Lord (Q 3:35). Anna, however, is surprised when she gives birth to a female (Q 3:36), but, of course, this is God’s will, as Mary will one day be called to carry in her womb the next great prophet, Jesus. In fact, Anna’s child, Mary, is accorded a very unique status in Islam, and one that sounds somewhat similar to the later Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, as Muhammad is said to have taught that Mary and her son Jesus are the only human beings to have ever been preserved at birth from Satan’s touch.
The Qur’ān also portrays Mary as living in a sanctuary—likely a reference to the Temple in Jerusalem—under the guardianship of Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist (3:37). While some later Muslim scholars mention Joseph, the biblical husband of Mary, Zachariah is usually seen as fulfilling the role of protector for the young Virgin. Moreover, Mary is viewed by Muslims as a spiritually perfected woman, who had no dealings with men, and whose piety was so great that while living in the sanctuary an angel would provide her with food (Q 3:37).
Of course, Orthodox Christians should find much of this quite familiar, as it largely reflects the Church’s accounts of Mary’s life prior to the Annunciation, which are celebrated during the feasts of the Mother of God’s Conception, Nativity, and Entrance into the Temple. Of course, most Protestants reject the stories behind these feasts as mere legends, since the accounts are rooted not in the Bible, but in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, a 2nd-century infancy gospel. Thus, it is testimony to a common spiritual heritage that Orthodox Christianity and Islam both share these stories about Mary’s early years.
We also find the story of the Annunciation in the Qur’ān. Mary is visited by an angel, whom Muslim commentators usually identify as Gabriel, and told that she will conceive “a pure son” (Q 19:16-9). The Qur’an says that Mary was chosen “above all women” (3:42). However, like in the Gospel of Luke, Mary is confused as to how she, a virgin, can conceive, but the angel responds that such a thing is easy for God (Q 19:20-1). While Muslims do not believe that Jesus is the Son of God or divine in any way, and thus Mary is not the Mother of God in Islam, the Qur’ān still calls Jesus the “Word” (3:45; 4:171) and “Spirit” (4:171) of God, and Mary conceives him miraculously without seed. Furthermore, since the Qur’ān does not portray Mary as either betrothed or married, after giving birth to Jesus she is forced to face a judgmental society as a single mother. But God provides her with a miraculous defence. Mary, who has been instructed by the angel to remain silent in the presence of her critics, points to the infant Jesus, who begins to speak and tell the people that he is a prophet blessed by God and has been commanded by the Lord to cherish his mother (Q 19:26-33).
The divine directive to “cherish” Mary has remained with Muslims since the time of Muhammad. Maryam (the Arabic form of Mary) is one of the most popular names for girls in the Muslim world. [Editor’s note: The original Greek of the New Testament also calls her Mariam—Μαριάμ—while the other Marys are called Maria.] Muslims, especially in the Middle East, are known to visit Orthodox, and other Christian, churches, monasteries, and shrines dedicated to Mary in order to seek her intercession. One may, in fact, be able to trace the Muslim practice of visiting such sites back to those who knew Muhammad personally, as it is believed by some that Muʿāwiya I, and perhaps even the austere companion of the Prophet, ʿUmar, prayed at the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem.
While there are certainly differences between the Orthodox and Muslim views of Mary, what we share in common about this pure and holy figure should inspire the members of both religious traditions to further work toward greater mutual understanding.
Andrew Matthews holds a Certificate in Orthodox Christian Studies and a Master of Arts in Theology, Ministry, and Mission from The Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge. His work focuses on comparative theology between Orthodoxy and Islam. He is a tonsured reader in the Orthodox Church and resides in Toronto, Canada. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.