Lady Mary in the Qur’an

Hujjat al-Islam Dr Mohammad Ali Shomali presents the Muslim’s understanding of Lady Mary, based on the Holy Qur’an. (Special Interfaith Edition issue 65 March 2019)

(Originally published on Issue 64, Nov/Dec 2018)

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

After listening to the previous presentation we are truly spiritually prepared and attuned, albeit it is difficult to reach the same height. As you know, Lady Mary is greatly praised in the Qur’an and is the only woman mentioned in the Qur’an by name. Indeed, the Qur’an makes references to otherwomen, like the wife of Pharaoh and the mother of Ishmael; however, no otherwoman is cited by name. Lady Mary has been mentioned thirty-four times in theQur’an; sometimes alone and sometimes along with Jesus, “Isa Ibn-e-Maryam:Jesus the son of Mary.” Moreover, although her story is divided into manydifferent chapters, a chapter in the Qur’an is called Mary, indicating her specialposition. Furthermore, the characteristics that we find for Lady Mary in theQur’an are very special, to the extent that the Qur’an says that God chose herover all the women of the world. Thus, in that age she was the best woman. Itmay also be true regarding other ages, but certainly in her age she was chosenover all women.

I would like to mention characteristics that we find for Lady Mary. The first characteristic is that her upbringing was very special. Lady Mary’s father, and perhaps her mother, had a dream that they would be given a special son, which was Jesus(a). Since they thought it would be the immediate child and not grandchild, they were expecting a son. Thus, Lady Mary’s mother made a vow when she was pregnant to dedicate her child to God. She said,

“‘My Lord, I dedicate to You in consecration what is in my belly (3:35).’”

“My Lord, I am making the vow to dedicate what is in my womb to you.” At that time it was a practice to dedicate your child to serve in the temple. However, when Lady Mary’s mother delivered the baby she was surprised to see that it was a girl. Nonetheless, she still wanted to keep the promise a sit was uncommon to dedicate girls to the temple. The temple was for men.  

One significant point that drew my attention about two or three months ago was that when the mother of Lady Mary dedicated her to God, theQur’an says that God accepted her vow.

“There upon her Lord accepted her with a gracious acceptance (3:37).”

Her Lord accepted in a good way, a good acceptance, wa anbataha, and made her grow up, wa kafalaha Zakariyyah.

“And made her grow up in a worthy fashion, and He charged Zechariah with her care (3:37).”

God made prophet Zakariyyah(a) (Zechariah), to be in charge of her upbringing. The point that came to my mind a few months ago, which I am still trying to digest, is that as a father or mother we always want our child, for example, to be very good, pious, spiritual, and dedicated to God. However, we are only part of this. The main thing is the relation between the child and God. I cannot decide how my child is going to be. Although I can pray, I cannot decide. Nevertheless, because the mother of Lady Mary offered her when she was unborn or was just born but did not yet have free will and was a little child, God accepted her at that time and undertook her upbringing. Consequently, I think this somehow solves the problem in the sense that if you can manage to make this deal with God when your child is still unborn or it is very early and God accepts to become the guardian of your child, I think then it is guaranteed. Making God accept is a matter of your full trust and dedication to God. God says that Lady Mary’s mother said, “Please accept her,” and God says taqabbalaha,“God accepted her and made her grow up and made Zechariah(a) look after her.” It is impossible for someone to be accepted by God and become grown by God and then become an evil person. Hence, in my view, this point provides a very good kind of hope for parents. When their child is not yet born, or when it is born but still very little, they can make this deal with God. If they ask Him to take care of their child and He accepts, then it is guaranteed.

Thus, from the time Lady Mary was in the womb of her mother and then afterwards, she was always under special divine care. Another important point is that God made one of His prophets look after her. In fact, this is also the gratitude of God. Since Lady Mary’s mother offered her as a servant to the temple, God makes His prophet her servant; he has to look after her. How grateful is God? Hence, Lady Mary grew up in a very special way and with full dedication to God under the protection and guidance of someone like Zechariah(a). Indeed, she grew up so well that even Zechariah(a), who was in charge of her upbringing, was surprised. Zechariah(a) was just aninstrument of God, but the growth of Mary was not decided by Zechariah(a).Therefore, the Qur’an says that whenever Zechariah(a) used to visit Maryin her place of worship he found there is food,

“Whenever Zechariah visited her in the sanctuary, he would find provisions with her (3:37).”

It must be noted that this did not happen just once or twice, but kullama; every time Zechariah(a) visited Lady Mary there was some food. Perhaps the first few times he did not ask questions and maybe thought someone had brought them, but then finally he asked:  

 “He said, ‘O Mary, from where does this come for you (3:37)?’”

How does this come to you; where does this come from? Lady Mary replied that this comes from God. So, this shows that if God works through means it does not imply that the work will be limited by that person. Although Zechariah(a)was responsible, the growth of Mary was more than what Zechariah(a)could see happening. Therefore, she grew up and God especially asked her to be obedient, to prostrate, and to worship with the worshipers. A stage then came when God gave her the good news,

 “When the angels said, ‘O Mary, God gives you the good news of a Word from Him whose name is Messiah, Jesus son of Mary (3:45).”

This verse reveals that angels spoke to Lady Mary and she was in communication with them. As far as I know, no scholar would dispute the fact that she was muhaddath, a person who was spoken to. The angels said to her, “O Mary, truly God gives you the good news, the basharah, of a Word from Him, kalimatin minh, a word from Him. God could have said He is going to give a son or child; however, He says, “a Word from Him,” which is not a very common expression to use for human beings. Of course, we know that every creation of God is a word because the Qur’an often mentions words of God forcreation.

“Say, ‘If the sea were ink for the words of my Lord (18:109).’”

Although we know that every creation of God is a word of God, it is not very common to use the term for people. Nevertheless, God states here that Jesus is a Word from Him and his name is Messiah, ‘Isabni Maryam, Jesus the son of Mary,

 “Distinguished in the world and the Hereafter (3:45).”

He would be a person who has a high position in this world and the Hereafter,

“And one of those brought near [to God] (3:45).”

And he would be one of the people who are very near to God. Hence, this verse was a kind of preparation so Lady Mary was aware it was going to happen. She knew she was going to have this child, but it happened in a very miraculous way that perhaps never happened in history. As far as we know, only Adam had no father and mother. His example might be easier to understand because it is a complete intervention of God to create someone, whereas having just a mother and no father might be more difficult for people to digest. How can there be a divine act which also uses a human being to give creation? In a sense, this example is more difficult to comprehend. Consequently, as far as we know, this is the only time this has happened; the case of Adam has some similarities and some differences.  

Thus, when God decided to create Jesus(a) through Lady Mary, we all have this story of the angel coming to Lady Mary, as stated in a beautiful but deep verse in the Qur’an. For many years I have pondered upon this verse. Lady Mary had gone to a private place; some say she went for prayer, while others say she wanted to have private time, perhaps to bathe. An angel then appeared in the form of a complete human being, not a half-body human being,

“And he became incarnate for her as a well-proportioned human (19:17).”

Lady Mary clearly did not expect any human being, especially a man to be in her private place. As a woman who was very careful about her chastity, she was greatly worried. The Qur’an says that Lady Mary said to the angel,

“She said, ‘I seek the protection of the All-beneficent from you, should you be Godwary (19:18)!’”

“I seek refuge with God from you if you are a pious person.” She was asking God to give her refuge from him if he was a pious person. What did she mean? It seems that, first of all, no idea of sinning came to her mind; she was not such a woman who would think that this is a time that she can have a relation. That thought definitely did not come to her mind. The only thing that came to her mind was how to maintain her chastity; she asked God for help but perhaps saw in that person signs of piety, for I assume when an angel takes the form of a human being he looks like a pious person and not a mean person. So, that angel came in the form of a pious person and Lady Mary said, “I ask God to give me refuge,” and if you understand these things and are a pious person you should understand that I am now under the protection of God.” Thus, Satan would not be able to come here. It is a very special verse which I am still trying to understand because she should have said, “I ask God for protection,” and that is it. However, she said, “I ask God for protection if you are a pious person, ”which means if you understand such things and are a person who has this logic or approach. Hence, her chastity is greatly emphasised in the Qur’an.

 “Guarded her chastity (21:91, 66:12).”

Also, her obedience to God is mentioned,

“And shew as one of the obedient (66:12).”

 The Qur’an also states that angels spoke to her. It is alsomentioned that Lady Mary received sustenance from God and from Heaven directlyin the chapter 3:37.

Another aspect the Qur’an states about Lady Mary is that she was chosen, istafaki. Therefore, God chose her,

 “God has chosen you (3:42).”

Moreover, she was purified by God, which is another very importantQur’anic concept. For example, we  Muslims Shi’ah consider a verse in the Qur’an extremely dear to us. The verse is about the Ahlul Bayt(a) (the family of prophet Muhammad(s)) and the holy Imams. In verse 33 of Chapter 33 God says to the Household of the Prophet,

“Indeed God desires to repel all impurity from you, O People of the Household, and purify you with a thorough purification (33:33).”

God wants to remove all the impurities away from you and purify you a thorough purification. Thus, we believe that the Ahlul Bayt(a) are purified. God states the same thing about Lady Mary,

“And purified you (3:42).”

God purified you. In my understanding, for everyone, spirituality is a matter of seeking purity. However, there is a limit to what you can achieve; so you seek purity and you become purer, purer, and purer. Yet, a time comes that you can no longer go further. For example, you cannot avoid mistakes, forgetfulness, or thoughts which sometimes come to your mind. From that stage onwards it is only God who purifies. So, first we have seeking purity, tatahhur, then we have tathir purification. Lady Mary reached that level that she did her best and then God took over and from that stage it is only God. Wes till have to do lots of things, but a time comes when you are only in the hands of God. Hence, Lady Mary reached the level that she was only in the hands of God.

What is more, she was also siddiq, as the Qur’an says,

“And his mother was a truthful one (5:75).”

There are four foremost categories of people in the Qur’an:

 “Theprophets and the truthful, the martyrs and the righteous (4:69).”

The four categories are to be righteous, salih, to be a witness, shahid, to be siddiq, truthful, and to be nabi, prophets and messengers. Lady Mary was siddiq, most truthful. Siddiq is very rarely used for people; I do not think it is used for any person who is not infallible because to be siddiq is more than to be truthful in one’s words. Siddiq means that one is completely in harmony with the truth. Not only does a siddiq tell the truth, but he or she also thinks truthfully, plans truthfully, and acts truthfully. Everything is done according to the truth, and Lady Mary was in such a condition.

So, these are some of the characteristics of Lady Mary that make her very special. Yet, we need to ask how we can bring these aspects to our life because the Qur’an states that she was a role model. A Quranic verse states that God gives two examples for believers: one is the wife of Pharaoh and one is Lady Mary. Therefore, Lady Mary is introduced as a role model for all believers, men and women. Perhaps we need to discuss more about how we can benefit from her life.

In addition to trying to move towards these virtues that we mentioned, I think one of the things that we find very special in the life of Lady Mary is that it seems she was, as her mother wanted, fully dedicated to God. You do not see any sense of ego, any sense of selfishness, or any sense of having plans for yourself, even good plans. Sometimes we have bad plans for ourselves; for example, we just want to be successful or enjoy our life physically, but sometimes we have good plans for ourselves; for example, I want to be a great scholar, I want to teach many people, and I want to write many books. However, even this good plan can still be selfish.

What we read in the story of Lady Mary brings to the mind that she was not thinking of anything for herself. She was totally empty from personhood as such; she was fully possessed by God. It can thus be said that not only did her mother dedicate her body and physical presence to the temple, but because her soul was accepted and was also dedicated to God, she became an instrument of God. It is not by accident that God chose Mary for His Word, for if there was anything personal or selfish there she could not receive the Word of God. Indeed, God saw maximum capacity in Lady Mary because there was the least of personhood, impurity or selfish ego. In my view, this is a great lesson for us. Although we can never become like Mary, we can move to that direction and try to be just a container for the will of God and for the word of God. We should be at the service of God and work for the plan of God, which in fact is the best plan for ourselves. If we dedicate ourselves to God and are an instrument for God, then that is the best thing. It is not that we are losing, but we are actually gaining more. Thank you.

Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years. Download the full pdf here:

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