The Virgin Mary and the Prophet Muhammad

Mediating the Word of God in Christian and Islamic traditions

This Bible History Daily article was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


 
mary-ngl

The Virgin Mary and the prophet Muhammad have a lot in common within their respective Christian and Islamic traditions, according to author Mary Joan Winn Leith. Photo: Detail of Fra Filippo Lippi’s “The Annunciation,” courtesy National Gallery, London.

With another Christmas season upon us and Christmas carols in the air, I am struck anew at how much, within their respective traditions, the Virgin Mary and the prophet Muhammad have in common. I hasten to note that I am not suggesting that Mary and Muhammad are of equal importance in their traditions—just that there are some interesting commonalities; and, of course, both Islam and Christianity honor Mary as the virgin who miraculously conceived and gave birth to Jesus, but I want to pursue a different angle here. The similarities I have in mind first occurred to me when I was teaching the Qur’an’s Sura 97 (al-Qadr, “Destiny”). This is the Sura that extolls the holiest night of the Muslim calendar, the Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Destiny) when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Qur’an. The connection I see between Mary and Muhammad centers on the significance of the Word of God in Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Basic to all three religious traditions is the understanding that God, impelled by compassion, reveals to humans the way to salvation. The traditions use different theological terminology (redemption, salvation, eternal life, etc.), but in essence, God’s revelation gives humans the knowledge and means to overcome the sorrow, pain and death that constitute the human condition. All three traditions describe this revelation as the Word of God.

From the Jewish and Muslim perspective, this is quite straightforward. Both the Torah, given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and the Qur’an, disclosed by God in visions to Muhammad, are literally words from God. The Christian revelation is also the Word of God, but in Christianity the Word of God happens not to be a text but a person—Jesus. For example, the Gospel of John famously opens with the explanation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). For Christians, Jesus is the “Word” that became flesh, or, to use another Christian term, Jesus is the “incarnation” (the “enfleshment”) of God. In a very real sense, then, both Mary and Muhammad are the mediators, the “middle person” (“middleman” doesn’t work here) between God and humanity. Both are the bearers of a message from God that cannot be delivered to humans on earth without the agency of a human body. Mary literally bears the Word of God in her womb and—to use the archaic sense of the word—Mary is “delivered” of the Word of God when she gives birth to Jesus. Similarly, the earthly human capacity for hearing and speech allows Muhammad to bear and deliver the Word of God to the people of Mecca and Medina. It is significant, I think, that neither “deliverer” is considered to be divine, yet, from the earliest centuries of their respective religions, each was accorded a unique status hovering in the liminal area between human and divine.
 


 
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
 

 
patinir-flight-detail

In a detail of Jean Patinir’s “Rest on the Flight to Egypt,” the farmer, the soldiers and both the bare and the wheat-filled field are seen. The soldiers, looking for Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, believed no one was hiding in the wheat-filled field.

Because Mary and Muhammad in their roles as mediators by definition experienced a direct encounter with the divine, both faiths came to believe that they must have enjoyed an exceptional degree of purity. Mary’s purity of course, is her virginity, a physical state which Christians, under the influence of Greco-Roman thought, associated with spiritual perfection and sinlessness. As for Muhammad, his purity had nothing to do with sexuality; after all, he married a number of wives, including even some widows. Muhammad’s exceptional purity has to do with knowledge, which initially may seem to be a peculiar form of purity. However, it is an article of faith in Islam that the words of the Qur’an are God’s, not Muhammad’s, and the proof of this among Muslims is the conviction that Muhammad could not read or write; he was, so to speak, a virgin from the point of view of education. No human father contributed to the incarnation of Jesus, and no human artistry had any role in the creation of the Qur’an.

Beyond the complexities of theology and belief, surprisingly similar legends—neither story is in the Bible or the Qur’an—arose around Mary and Muhammad stemming from the fact that both had to flee for their lives. According to medieval tradition, as Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus fled from King Herod barely ahead of his soldiers, they came upon a farmer sowing his field. “Please don’t tell the soldiers you saw anyone come by,” they begged. The farmer, however, was too frightened to help them. When the soldiers arrived and asked whether the farmer had seen the fugitives, the farmer told the truth; “I saw them as I was sowing this field.” The soldiers, seeing the field, turned back. The wheat field was ready for harvest so they concluded that no one could have passed by anytime recently (see image above). Muhammad had to elude Meccan authorities who wanted to prevent him from making the Hijra (emigration) to Medina where he would found the first fully Muslim community (and whose date serves as the zero point on the Muslim calendar). Muslims love to tell the story of Muhammad and his companion Abu Bakr who had scarcely entered a cave to hide when the Meccans rode up. Having inspected the cave entrance, the pursuers rode on; the huge spider web across the mouth of the cave told them that no one had entered it in years.

hijra-stewart

This illustration depicts the Muslim tradition of the “Miracle of the Cave,” when Muhammad and Abu Bakr hid in a cave to elude Meccan authorities during the Hijra. The spider webs covering the cave entrance led the authorities to believe no one was in the cave. Photo: Desmond Stewart, Early Islam (Great Ages of Man), (New York: Time, Inc., 1967).

Finally, let me return to the Christmas carols and to Sura 97 that I mentioned at the start of this essay. Consider these lines from “Silent Night”:

Silent night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright…
Sleep in heavenly peace…
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia.

Or these from “Little Town of Bethlehem”:

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…
But in those dark streets shineth the everlasting light
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Here is how the Qur’an describes the Night of Destiny:

Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Destiny.
Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Night of Destiny is!
The Night of Destiny is better than a thousand months.
The angels and the Spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees.
(The night is) Peace until the rising of the dawn.

The peace of the season to all!

——————

This Bible History Daily article was originally published on December 16, 2014.
 


 
leithMary Joan Winn Leith is chair of the department of religious studies at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts. At Stonehill, she teaches courses on the Bible and the religion, history and culture of the Ancient Near East and Greece. In addition, she offers a popular course on the Virgin Mary. Leith is a regular Biblical Views columnist for Biblical Archaeology Review.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Origins of “The Cherry Tree Carol” by Mary Joan Winn Leith

Mary’s Many Sides

Mary, Simeon or Anna: Who First Recognized Jesus as Messiah?

Who Was Jesus’ Biological Father?

An Unexpected Consequence of the Christian Crusades

The Enduring Symbolism of Doves
 


 
Many of the ancient places, people and events that populate Biblical history are also a part of the Islamic tradition. Our free eBook Islam in the Ancient World traces the Biblical roots of Islamic traditions and holy sites, bringing a new perspective to Biblical history and traditions. Learn how the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque both drew on earlier religious traditions, and how other important sites in Islam are tied to the Bible.
 

 

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  • Don says

    The basis of this comparison is heresy. The god of Islam and the God of Israel are two entirely different person’s. Their characteristics and very nature are not the same and are contradictory to each other. Once the differences between the two are understood one can see why Islam calls for the utter annihilation of Israel and all Christians. To this woman who acclaims to understand and teach the Quran, and the Bible no less, obviously is either hiding or is blinded to the fact that the two religions are totally at odds with each other. The lie, centuries old, that the God of the Bible and the god of Islam are the same confuses many people. YHWH is not a God of confusion so from who or where has the confusion originated? I’ll leave that for you to decide. I suggest to the author she needs to study both more diligently before spreading heresy. And shame on Bible History Daily for even printing this article. Maybe you should change your name to Bible Heresy Daily.

  • daniel says

    god gave us mary st joseph and jesus the son of god is god of peace that yavee saboat or muhamed

  • krista says

    Mary is the “Mother of Jesus”, who is the Son of God and honored as such. She is not a mediator! She was chosen for this divine purpose because of her “lineage and purity”. (Luke 1:26-29) She comes from the line of Abraham and David, which is the promised lineage of the Son of God. Yes, Jesus is the word made flesh and He came to reveal the Kingdom of God; as Only a Son can do! He is the way, the truth and the life and no one can obtain salvation or eternity expect by Jesus (Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. John 14:6)

  • William says

    God and Allah are different… The Holy Bible and Qur’an are not the same

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