Righteousness of the young — Mary and the Prophet Yahya

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 13 January 2023

“…and I have named it Mary, and I commend her and her offspring into Your protection from the accursed devil. So her Lord accepted her with a goodly acceptance and made her grow up a goodly growing, and gave her into the charge of Zacharias. Whenever Zacha­rias entered the sanctuary to (see) her, he found food with her. He said: Mary, from where does this come to you? She said: It is from Allah. Surely Allah gives to whom He pleases without measure. There did Zacharias pray to his Lord. He said: My Lord, grant me from Yourself goodly offspring; surely You are the Hearer of prayer.— ch. 3: Āl-i Imrān, v. 36­­–38

وَ اِنِّیۡ سَمَّیۡتُہَا مَرۡیَمَ وَ اِنِّیۡۤ اُعِیۡذُہَا بِکَ وَ ذُرِّیَّتَہَا مِنَ الشَّیۡطٰنِ الرَّجِیۡمِ ﴿۳۶  فَتَقَبَّلَہَا رَبُّہَا بِقَبُوۡلٍ حَسَنٍ وَّ اَنۡۢبَتَہَا نَبَاتًا حَسَنًا ۙ وَّ کَفَّلَہَا زَکَرِیَّا ۚؕ کُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَیۡہَا زَکَرِیَّا الۡمِحۡرَابَ ۙ وَجَدَ عِنۡدَہَا رِزۡقًا ۚ قَالَ یٰمَرۡیَمُ اَنّٰی لَکِ ہٰذَا ؕ قَالَتۡ ہُوَ مِنۡ عِنۡدِ اللّٰہِ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰہَ یَرۡزُقُ مَنۡ یَّشَآءُ بِغَیۡرِ حِسَابٍ ﴿۳۷   ہُنَالِکَ دَعَا زَکَرِیَّا رَبَّہٗ ۚ قَالَ رَبِّ ہَبۡ لِیۡ مِنۡ لَّدُنۡکَ ذُرِّیَّۃً طَیِّبَۃً ۚ اِنَّکَ سَمِیۡعُ الدُّعَآءِ ﴿۳۸

I am continuing with the subject covered in last Friday’s khutba. I had reached the point at which Mary was born and her mother felt the disappointment that she, the mother, would not be able to fulfil her vow which she had earlier made to God that she would devote the child to the service of the temple, since the child was not a male. Nonetheless Mary’s mother prayed that Mary and any offspring she has may receive God’s protection from being misled by the devil. The Quran then tells us that Mary was accepted by God and He decreed for her a good upbringing. Here we see again that a baby girl is accepted by God Himself, without any reservation, and with the fullest acceptance. Unfortunately, in our Muslim societies, and also in many non-Muslim societies in countries such as India and China, humans don’t accept the birth of a girl as a good thing.

Mary’s mother gave Mary into the charge of Zacharias, one of the temple priests, for a religious upbringing in the temple. Obviously this was not done as soon as Mary was born, but when she reached a young age to be able to receive religious instruction. It also appears that Zacharias’ wife was Mary’s aunt, her mother’s sister, whose name is given in the Gospels as Elizabeth. According to the Gospel of Luke, “they (Zacha­rias and Elizabeth) were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:5). There is a point here to ponder for our Christian friends. This was before the birth of Jesus that there was a Jewish priest and his wife who were perfectly obedient to God, in a blameless way, meaning commit­ting no sin. This contradicts the notion that before the appearance of Jesus everyone was a sinner, and people only became free of sin through Jesus. The Quran also contains a brief statement in another chapter about Zacharias and his wife, which is as follows: “Surely they used to hasten in (doing) good deeds and called upon Us, hoping and fearing; and they were humble before Us” (21:90). This also shows us that religion is not just a man’s world, but that husband and wife together, or men and women both, are required to act on the teachings of the religion to do good deeds, pray to God with hope, fear and humility.

Then the Quran says in this story that “whenever Zacha­rias entered the sanctuary to (see) her, he found food with her”, and he asked her where it came from and Mary replied: “It is from Allah. Surely Allah gives to whom He pleases without measure”. From this statement many Muslims have made up all kinds of stories and fables, for example, that food used to appear in Mary’s chamber miraculously, including out of season fruits. But what Mary is saying is merely an expression of thanks to God. Very frequently we hear someone say about something they possess or have received that “this is from Allah”, meaning that it is not solely as a result of their efforts. It never means that it came to them in a supernatural way and appeared out of nowhere. Maulana Muhammad Ali asks in his Urdu commentary of the Quran: If this coming of food to Mary was an ordinary event, why does the Quran mention it? He answers that there is a lesson for Muslims in this, that when someone devotes his life for the service of Islam, he naturally has an apprehension about what will be his means of earning and where will his livelihood come from? Here Allah indicates that He Himself makes provision for the worldly sustenance of such a person. So we can take this verse as meaning that people, seeing that Mary was devoting herself to religious work, were bringing her food and provisions.

Another interpretation is that the food mentioned here, called rizq or sustenance, is not any physical means of sustenance but stands for knowledge and spiritual develop­ment, or food for the mind and spirit. What is meant is that whenever Zacharias saw her, to check on her progress, he found her to have acquired more knowledge and to have developed further in moral and spiritual terms. And this was not through any human teaching her, but God bestowing this knowledge on her. Five verses later we read this:

“And when the angels said: O Mary, surely Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the world” (3:42).

So this was the rizq or sustenance that came to her from Allah: her purification and being chosen by Allah.

As regards Mary’s reply, “It is from Allah. Surely Allah gives to whom He pleases without measure”, whatever a person needs physically, food or otherwise, always has a limit. No one needs an unlimited amount of food or sustenance. But there is no limit to our moral progress and to the knowledge we can acquire. Whenever Allah promises to give something “without measure” it really refers to things to which there is no limit on how much you can get or things which simply cannot be measured. The progress you make in a job, and rise to some higher position, that can all be measured and also counted in terms of salary. But a piece of knowledge that you acquire or some good deed you learn to do, cannot be measured by any number. In another place in the Quran it says that the light of Allah is to be found in houses where the residents keep up payer, give in charity, and do not let the earning of worldly wealth divert them from these duties. It goes on to say: “that Allah may give them the best reward for what they did, and give them more out of His grace. And Allah provides without measure for whom He pleases” (24:38). What Allah is providing to them without measure is the reward or result of their good deeds. Unlike worldly wealth or a bank account, its value cannot be measured on any scale. And as it cannot be measured, there is no limit to how much we can get of it.

Hearing this reply from Mary, Zacharias was deeply impressed. The Quran says: “There did Zacharias pray to his Lord. He said: My Lord, grant me from Yourself goodly offspring; surely You are the Hearer of prayer”. Zacharias and his wife were old and childless. Yet he is so impressed by Mary’s character that he prays to be granted such a child. Before going further, I would like to point out that what strikes me is that we hear so much about priests of various religions beating, maltreating and even sexually abusing children who are under their care in various institutions and religious schools. Here we have the best example of how those under care of religious instructors should be treated. Firstly, Zacharias checks on her welfare and asks her where is this food coming from? Secondly, this teacher is so impressed with the progress of the pupil that he prays to be granted such a child himself. The Quran then says:

“So the angels called to him as he stood praying in the sanctuary: Allah gives you the good news of Yahya (called John the Baptist in the Gospels), verifying a word from Allah, and honourable and chaste and a prophet from among the good ones” (3:39).

The name Yahya means one who would have life, and here “life” means he would have spiritual life. So it was such a great son who was promised to Zacharias by Allah. This prophet Yahya started his preaching just as Jesus was growing up and he declared to people the coming of Jesus and that he was preparing the way for Jesus.

It is interesting to note that just as at the beginning of the Jewish or Israelite religion there were two prophets at the same time, Moses and Aaron, one being the other’s helper, similarly at the end of prophethood among them there were two prophets at the same time, John and Jesus (Yahya and Isa), Yahya being the one who proclaimed that the Messiah Jesus was about to come. It appears that Yahya or John the Baptist was arrested and executed by the Jewish king of the time. According to the Quran, Allah directed Yahya as follows:“O John, take hold of the Book with strength” — Yā Yaḥyā, khudhi-l-kitāba bi-quwwah (19:12), and it goes on to say:

“And We gran­ted him wisdom when a child, and kind-heartedness from Us and purity. And he was dutiful, and kindly to his parents, and he was not insolent, disobedient” (19:12–14).

Taking hold of the Book with strength, or firmly, means to act upon its teachings with determination and firm resolve. This applies to all of us, that we should adhere to the Quran with all our strength. As it also says here, he was given wisdom while still a child. This shows that being of a young age is no bar to having wisdom and knowledge, even though it is generally considered that wisdom comes with age and is the preserve of the older people.

May Allah enable us to take the opportunity to acquire knowledge and serve His religion, and to realise that being a woman, or a young girl, or a young boy, should not hold us back. — ameen.