In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful
Today is the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception. It is not a Muslim holiday; it is a Catholic one. Yet, despite this, I always have a warm place in my heart for this day. For one thing, it was an extra day off from school when I attended Marquette University. Yet, it is important for another, much more significant, reason.
Now, I had always thought that this day was celebrating the conception of Jesus Christ. I was surprised to learn, however, that this is not true. The Feast commemorates the conception of the Virgin Mary. This was a very pleasant surprise for me, because, the story of the birth of the Virgin Mary is in the Qur’an:
“A woman of (the House of Imran) prayed: ‘O my sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow (the child) that is in my womb to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me: verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!’ But when she had given birth to the child, she said: ‘O my sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female’ – the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to – ‘and the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed.'” (3:35-36).
Yet, that was not the only mention of the Holy Virgin in the Qur’an. Mary, in fact, is the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, and it is the only woman who has an entire chapter (Chapter 19) named after her. The Qur’an says that God “accepted her with a gracious reception and caused her to grow up beautifully” (3:37). The angels, who spoke to Mary, told her that “God has chosen you and purified you and chosen you over the women of all peoples” (3:42). Moreover, it is Mary – and no one else – that God specifically singled out in the Qur’an as the ultimate example of an ideal believer (66:12). She was an amazing woman, and I love her so very much.
Two weeks ago, in fact, I was discussing the Virgin Mary with some friends of mine – one of whom is a student of Qur’anic commentary and exegesis – and I learned some other fascinating things about the Virgin Mary in Islam. For one thing, the fact that Mary is (obviously) a woman did not diminish her spiritual greatness in Islam. This one fact alone should forever shatter the notion that Islam looks down upon and viciously oppresses the woman.
There are some scholars who believed that the Virgin Mary, in fact, was a Prophet. They base this opinion on this verse in chapter 19: “These were some of the prophets upon whom God bestowed His blessings – of the seed of Adam and of those whom We caused to be borne [in the ark] with Noah, and of the seed of Abraham and Israel…” (19:58). This ends a long passage that spoke of a number of Prophets – Moses, Abraham, Enoch, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, earlier, the chapter also talked about Mary and Jesus, and the scholars said that she, therefore, is also a Prophet.
Now, there may be some who dispute this, but I bring it up simply to show how honored, revered, and respected the Virgin Mary is in Islamic belief and theology.
What’s more, the Qur’an gives more details about the Virgin Mary. She took a special secluded place for herself in the Temple where she worshipped God devoutly: “And mention Mary in the Book: when she withdrew from her people to a place in the East and secluded herself from them…” (19:16-17). It was there that the Angel Gabriel appeared to her to give her the good news of the birth of her son:
“…We sent her Our spirit, which appeared to her just like a man. She said, ‘I take refuge from you with the Benevolent One, if you are conscientious.’ He said, ‘I am only a messenger from your Lord, to give you a sinless son.'”(16:17-19)
This will probably come as a surprise to many non-Muslims, especially Christians. But it should not. We Muslims have honored, revered, respected, and loved the Virgin Mary from the very beginnings of our faith. We would never even fathom attacking the person and character of the Virgin Mary, or her son, as many professed devout Christians have done so with the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). It is my hope and prayer, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, that this common love for Mary can help bring our two faith communities together and forge bonds of friendship, understanding, and mutual respect. Amen.