Mediating the Word of God in Christian and Islamic traditions
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.
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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.
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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.
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”:
Or these from “Little Town of Bethlehem”:
Here is how the Qur’an describes the Night of Destiny:
The peace of the season to all!
Mary 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.
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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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