11
May
07

Maryam

The significance and role of prophets and messengers in the Qur’an has been extensively studied by all schools of thought in the world of Islam. The significance and role of Maryam (Mary), the mother of Aissa (Jesus), on the other hand, has been given only the most obvious consideration: that she was the mother of Prophet Aissa through a miraculous virgin birth, that this was a sign of Allah’s (God’s) ability to create whatever He wills, and that she was an honorable and chaste, faithful worshipper, submitted to Allah alone (a Muslim or “submitted one”). While these are certainly true facts, they fall short of telling the whole story: could there be more to the role and significance of Maryam than this?

To understand her role, we need to review the role and specific characteristics of prophets. Prophet Moosa (Moses) is well-known as one of the most important prophets of Allah (God), frequently mentioned in the Qur’an and given great status among prophets as both a man of faith chosen specially by the Almighty for delivering the message of the Torah, and also as a nation-builder. Prophet Mohammad too was a nation-builder and specially chosen by the Almighty to deliver the message of the Qur’an, the final Revelation. There are, of course, many other prophets, and all of them have certain traits and life-events in common, some of the more exalted prophets having special attributes or circumstances in common, signifying a higher level in Allah’s consideration (all prophets are to be considered equal in our consideration as per 4:150).

For example, all prophets were sent with signs or miracles to show the people to whom they were sent, as a sign of their “authenticity” and to show their connection to the Almighty. Prophet Moosa, for example, had a number of miracles, such as his staff turning into a live and aggressive snake, his hand becoming white, and the parting of the Red Sea in the famous escape from Pharoah and his men. Prophet Aissa could heal the sick, raise the dead (temporarily), breathe into a clay bird and make it live by Allah’s permission, and have knowledge of what food was in people’s homes. Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) could accurately interpret dreams. Prophet Mohammad’s miracle is exclusively the Qur’an – the final and only revelation from the Almighty never to be changed or adulterated.

All prophets were also messengers – either sent with a new revelation or to confirm previous ones – and their messages were delivered by the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel). Therefore, all prophets had direct visitation by Jibreel, who acted as the carrier of the Messages from Allah to His prophets.

All prophets were “singled out” from among a people or nation and chosen by Allah and raised up for this purpose, and were given exalted status in His consideration. They became prophets as fully mature adults, approximately 40 years old or older, and usually had a period of isolation from their community preceding the reception of their “Message” from Allah.

Some of the most important prophets were orphans or fatherless – prophets Moosa, Mohammad and Aissa are examples. Prophet Ibraheem (Abraham) had a significant conflict with his father in which his father cut him off and he also ultimately had to cut himself off from his father, who was a denier and disbeliever. Prophet Isma’eel was almost sacrificed by his father, Prophet Ibraheem, and was only saved when Allah provided a sacrificial lamb in his place. Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) was cut off from his father, Prophet Yaqub, by the plot of his brothers who threw him in a well, and was later reunited. The cutting off of a prophet son from his father is almost a “rite of passage”, although not mentioned in every case, but certainly implied in some of the most important prophets mentioned in the Qur’an.

Prophets also went through a period of testing, during which they were cut off from society in some way. Prophet Moosa got into a fight and killed one of the Egyptians, and had to escape to another country (Madyan), where he lived in exile for a number of years. Prophet Yusuf was bought as a slave by travellers and sent to work in Azeez’s palace (“Azeez” being the ruler of Egypt at the time or at the least a man of both prestige and power), where he got into trouble with Azeez’s wife who had fallen in love with him and falsely accused him of trying to seduce her, which accusation landed him in prison, where he stayed a number of years. All prophets were rejected by their people, who ridiculed them and castigated them and disbelieved in them. Prophet Yunus (Jonah) was swallowed by the whale (or “sea creature”) when he fled his responsibility as a messenger and left his people after their ridicule and rejection, and only when he repented of this sin, did Allah deliver him from the belly of the whale and upon returning to his people, all of them believed in him without exception – this total support and faith is the sole example of such success in the Qur’an, and was preceded by great agony.

And of course, all prophets were men. Which brings us to the only woman to have a Sura of the Qur’an named after her – and Sura 19, no less – Maryam (Mary), the mother of Aissa (Jesus). Surat Saba’ is not named after the Queen of Saba’ (Sheba) – her name is not given here – but after the name of her country, Saba’, of which she was Queen. Maryam is also mentioned frequently and discussed in Surat Al-Imran (the family of Imran), the third Sura. She is generally considered significant only as the mother of Aissa who gave birth to him without having conjugal relations, i.e., as a virgin, Aissa in that case having no father. Aside from the significance of this fact in the pattern of a prophet being “cut off from” a father – in this case, not having one at all- there is also significance in this for Maryam, not only in maintaining her purity and chastity, but also as a “sign” or miracle, and an impressive one at that.

Maryam, of course, was not a prophet per se, and had no “message” or nation to deliver that message to, being in the position of a woman. At least, not in the traditional sense. But close examination of her story as revealed in the Qur’an shows that her status was identical to that of a prophet, and in fact, she was, in the eyes of the Almighty, considered as if a prophet, but in this case her “message” was delivering, quite literally, a messenger, Aissa, to a specific and named people, “Bani Isra’eel”, or the “children of Isra’eel”. The miracle of virgin birth was not only Aissa’s miracle – in fact, it wasn’t his miracle at all, since he didn’t deliver himself. It was Maryam’s miracle, and a “sign” for “all mankind”.

In Surat Al-Anbia’ (the Prophets), Maryam is listed in her own right after the list of prophets, not merely as the “mother of Aissa”:

“And the one who guarded her chastity, We blew into her from the spirit, and we made her and her son a sign for the whole world.” (21:91)

Instead of mentioning her name, reference is given to something good she did herself, further enhancing Maryam’s status in this reference. Aissa was a “sign” in that he spoke as an infant, and Maryam was a “sign” in that she delivered a baby while being a virgin. The fact that she “guarded her chastity” highlights the fact that she fulfilled her responsibility as a “mu’mina” or woman of faith.

Surat al-Imran (3): 45:

“The angels said, ‘O Maryam, Allah gives you good news, a word from Him to be called Massih (Messiah), Aissa the son of Maryam….”

Why the use of the expression “a word” (kilma) here? Aissa was a son, a human being, not a word! This usage specifically shows two things: one, that Allah creates by simply saying “Be!” (“a word”) and it is, and this fact is specifically mentioned in reference to the creation of Aissa in Maryam’s womb (3:47) in response to Maryam’s question as to how a child could be created in her womb without having been touched by a man. The second reason for use of the word “kilma” here is to show that Aissa is not only a “messenger” but also a “message” – Maryam’s “message”!

This was not her first or only miracle. In 3:37, Zachariah remarks that when he enters Maryam’s sanctuary he finds “provisions” (risq) there miraculously with no known source, and upon inquiring her about it, she simply answered him that these “provisions” were from Allah – a miracle.

Maryam’s mother, the “wife of Imran”, pledged to Allah the infant Maryam in her womb, not knowing the infant to be a girl (3:35). This is reminiscent of Prophet Ibraheem’s request for a son to carry on the message of Allah after he died, in a sense, asking for a child to “dedicate” to the service of Allah. The “wife of Imran” is, of course, a woman – and upon delivering a girl, asked Allah’s protection and guidance for her (3:36). This is the only instance in the Qur’an of a woman asking to dedicate her unborn child, and it is appropriate that the child be female like her. The other examples, such as Prophet Ibraheem, are of a man asking for a son to dedicate to Allah’s service or to carry on the Message.

Maryam was also an orphan, and was cared for by Zachariah (3:37). While still an infant, her relatives feuded over who should take care of her and settled the matter by drawing raffles (3:44). Her care and upbringing were supervised by Allah Himself (3:37). This is consistent with the childhood of major prophets.

Later, in 3:42, we read

“The angels said, O Maryam, Allah has chosen you and sanctified you. He has chosen you over all the women.”

Thus she is specially chosen, and given an exalted status.

Maryam was also visited by the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) (19:17), who informed her that she was to have a son named Aissa. He appeared to her in the form of a man, and she was frightened and appealed to “Al-Rahman” for protection. Then Jibreel told her (19:19):

“I am sent by your Lord, to grant you a pious child.”

Note that it is Jibreel who “grants” her the pious child – that is, delivers the “word” containing the child to her. This is the only time when Jibreel delivers to humankind anything other than actual words, a literal “message” or warning, or revelation (he is the one who carries all revelations from Allah to the prophet who then proclaims and presents that Message to his people). Here he delivers – a child – to Maryam, who then carries the child to term in her womb and then, literally, delivers that child to the world. In the case of prophets, Allah “sends” his Messages via Jibreel to prophets who then become messengers to their people, carrying the revelations revealed to them by Jibreel. In the case of Maryam, Allah “sent” his “word”, the word “Be!”, via Jibreel to create a child in Maryam’s womb, which she then must deliver to the people – her “message” being literally a “messenger”!

According to 29:18, the messenger’s (prophet’s) sole mission is to deliver the message. In this case, Maryam’s sole mission was to deliver a messenger – under highly unusual and miraculous circumstances, according to and submitting totally to Allah’s will.

Like the prophets, Maryam was also tested. After delivering Aissa, she returned to her people carrying the infant, and her people accused her of immorality and of having extramarital relations (19:27-8, 4:156). The act of delivery itself was painful to her and tested her, and she had to deliver the child alone, with no human support beside her (19:22-3). She was thus isolated from her community when she delivered Aissa, just as Prophet Moosa was isolated from his community when he received the Torah.

Maryam was told by her newborn son Aissa, who literally spoke in words to her (further supporting the use of the expression “word” in reference to Aissa), to not worry, that Allah provided her a running stream and ripe dates, and thus miraculously provided immediate comfort and assistance to her, both in words and in “provisions” (19:24-6).

Surat Al-Mu-minoon (23):50 states:

“And We set up the son of Maryam and his mother as a miracle, and we gave them refuge on a mesa with shelter and water.”

Here Maryam’s status is equated with that of her prophet son’s, i.e., being “set up” as “a miracle”, and both being provided for directly by Allah. Interestingly, this aya is immediately preceded with the following aya:

“We have given the scripture to Moosa, that they may be guided.”

This reference to Moosa is no mere coincidence, but there is a “connection” between Maryam and Moosa that bears closer analysis and discussion. Why was this reference to Maryam and her son given here, where reference was given previously only to Moosa and his brother Haroon (Aaron)?

This is not the only incidence of reference to Moosa being followed by reference to Aissa as the son of Maryam, thus mentioning Maryam’s name close to that of Moosa. Refer to 2:87:

“We gave Moosa the scripture, and subsequent to him we sent messengers. And we gave Aissa the son of Maryam profound signs, and supported him with the ‘holy spirit’ (Jibreel).”

In 4:153-5, tribulations caused by Bani Isra’eel to Prophet Moosa are described, immediately followed in 4:146 by a separate aya about, not Aissa, but Maryam:

“And because of their rebellion, and because of accusing Maryam of a terrible falsehood”

– this tribulation is listed right after those endured by Moosa and before the blasphemy concerning Aissa and the myth of his crucifixion as examples of sins committed by Bani Isra’eel (who were also Maryam’s people as well as Moosa’s).

In 61:5, Prophet Moosa asks his people why they insult him, and immediately following, in 61:6, Prophet Aissa is referred to as “Aissa the son of Maryam” and also addresses Bani Isra’eel, referring to Prophet Mohammad as a future messenger/prophet, and is accused by them of “magic”. Although many ayat regarding these two prophets and regarding Maryam are separate, the “link” between Maryam and Moosa seems to focus on both their tribulations (see above) and speech.

In 43:46-56 is a discussion of Prophet Moosa’s miracles and his rejection by Pharoah. In aya 52, Pharoah is quoted as stating:

“Which is better, me or this one who is lowly and can hardly speak?”

This reference to Moosa’s speech impediment is significant in that there is a link between Maryam and Moosa regarding “speech”, and immediately following the ayat regarding Moosa’s story here is an aya referring to Maryam (43:57):

“And when the son of Maryam was cited as an example, your people rebelled.”

Although she is not personally specified, but she is named as the mother, while her son is not mentioned by name here. Her son, as described above, is also referred to as “a word” and has NO speech impediment – in fact, speech is definitely one of his miracles!

Similar to Prophet Moosa’s request for support from his brother Haroon (Aaron) (28:34, 26:13), whom he asked to be a prophet as well, in particular to assist him in speaking as he had a speech impediment (20:27-35), so Maryam was told by her infant son to tell people she promised a fast to Allah from speaking and would not talk to anyone (19:26), and infant Aissa then spoke to her relatives in her stead (19:29-33), thus assisting her in speaking and providing a miracle for her people to see that this was no ordinary child or ordinary birth, and hence defended her against attacks on her character, by demonstrating that their preconceived ideas may not apply in this obviously unusual case.

An interesting connection between Maryam and Prophet Moosa emerges in the Qur’an. Maryam is referred to as

“the daughter of Imran” (66:12),

and the name “Imran” has been considered historically as the name of Moosa’s father as well, although the Qur’an provides no evidence for this. Haroon is well known as Moosa’s brother, and Maryam is also mentioned as “sister of Haroon”. This could mean either that Maryam had a brother named Haroon who then would be different than Prophet Moosa’s brother, or that Maryam was of the lineage of Haroon or related to him. In either case, the reference “ties” Maryam with Moosa. Although obviously they could not be actual brother and sister, there is evidence that they are “spiritual siblings”, being probably of the same lineage and having certain things in common.

Both had significant events in their lives relating to speech: the analagous situations mentioned above, for example; the fact that Prophet Moosa was spoken to directly by Allah (unique among the prophets); the fact that Maryam was given a “kilma” or “word” from Allah directly into her womb; and that her son was referred to as “a word” and spoke miraculously as an infant, language skills fully developed while he was physically only a newborn child. Both Moosa and Maryam were orphaned at an early age and grew up without a father, and both were exalted among the people by Allah, and chosen especially by Him, and watched over by Him in their early childhood. Both had mothers who were remarkably faithful and had special concern for their child (i.e., Maryam or Moosa).

The Qur’an clearly indicates that the role and significance of Maryam is equal in status to that of a prophet, and what distinguishes her from prophets is simply that she delivers a messenger rather than a message per se. The other attributes and circumstances that distinguish prophets also apply to Maryam, and even the frequency of prophet Aissa being referred to as “the son of Maryam” emphasizes her significance and the level of her own contribution and the high honor accorded her role.

One of the most striking ayat showing Maryam’s status further mentions her in relationship to Allah’s revelations, thus linking her with His messages and confirmation thereof:

[at-Tahrim 66:12.6] “And Mary the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of Our spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants).

“ Regardless of the nature of her “testimony”, both the connection to His messages and the reference to her as “devout” is consistent with similar references made in the Qur’an regarding prophets.

Like other prophets, some of her people or those who came after them actually worshipped her, but she is innocent of their idolization of her. The fact that many men may find it difficult or uncomfortable to accord a woman the same status as a man could be a clue as to why the sura named after her is number 19, a number associated in the Qur’an with a test (its sole mention is “over it (hell) are 19”, which although presumed to be angels, could simply refer to something that tests one’s true monotheism or faith in Allah alone and his guidance). It is a test to the sincerity of male worshippers that they could honor a woman in the same way they honor a man – on the level of prophet. Of course, it is of utmost importance that “honor” be distinguished from “worship” or any form of idolatry. But the equality in STATUS of men and women as evidenced by the example of Maryam in the Qur’an is unmistakable.

Not only is Maryam of equal status to prophets, but she is even ranked on the highest level of prophets, given extensive subtle reference in the Qur’an linking her to Prophet Moosa as a “spiritual sister”. It is important to reiterate that she fulfilled her “mission” alone, without the assistance of any man, or any human being for that matter.

That “connection” in turn teaches the reader more about the role of language, words and speech in human life and in our spiritual path to Allah. One could easily deduce from this that it is through speech and communication with one another that ultimately peaceful coexistence could be achieved between all people, including between men and women, and ultimately “equalize” the inequalities that have been imposed by misguided applications of religion. Surely, Allah guides those who have minds to greater understanding of these issues through the Qur’an.

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