Mary’s mother and Mary as models for the righteous
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 6 January 2023
“When a woman of Amran said: My Lord, I vow to You what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Your service), so accept (it) from me; surely You, only You, are the Hearing, the Knowing. So when she gave birth to it, she said: My Lord, I have given birth to a female — and Allah knew best what she had given birth to — and the male is not like the female, and I have named it Mary, and I commend her and her offspring into Your protection from the accursed devil.” — ch. 3: Āl-i Imrān, v. 35–36
اِذۡ قَالَتِ امۡرَاَتُ عِمۡرٰنَ رَبِّ اِنِّیۡ نَذَرۡتُ لَکَ مَا فِیۡ بَطۡنِیۡ مُحَرَّرًا فَتَقَبَّلۡ مِنِّیۡ ۚ اِنَّکَ اَنۡتَ السَّمِیۡعُ الۡعَلِیۡمُ ﴿۳۵﴾ فَلَمَّا وَضَعَتۡہَا قَالَتۡ رَبِّ اِنِّیۡ وَضَعۡتُہَاۤ اُنۡثٰی ؕ وَ اللّٰہُ اَعۡلَمُ بِمَا وَضَعَتۡ ؕ وَ لَیۡسَ الذَّکَرُ کَالۡاُنۡثٰی ۚ وَ اِنِّیۡ سَمَّیۡتُہَا مَرۡیَمَ وَ اِنِّیۡۤ اُعِیۡذُہَا بِکَ وَ ذُرِّیَّتَہَا مِنَ الشَّیۡطٰنِ الرَّجِیۡمِ ﴿۳۶﴾
I am continuing with the subject covered by our friend Ken Mustaq Ali in last Friday’s khutba, and will look at it from a different perspective. The narration of the birth of Jesus in the Quran, with the news of his birth being conveyed by the angel to Mary, and his name being the Son of Mary, the lack of mention of any father, and certain other statements in this context — all have created the widespread impression that according to the Quran Mary became pregnant with Jesus without the involvement with any male. Perhaps what the Quran is trying to convey is not that Jesus was conceived without a father, but what a woman can achieve by herself, without playing a secondary role to a man. The account in the verses I have read above begins with a prayer from Mary’s mother. ‘Imrān or Amran was the name of Moses’ father. The name of this chapter, Āl-i Imrān or the People or Family of Imran, refers to the followers of the law of Moses, beginning with Moses and ending with Jesus 1400 years later. “A woman of Amran” means a woman of the Israelites.
We see here, first of all, that this woman makes a vow to God that she will devote the child to be born to the service of God, i.e. make the child a priest of the Jewish temple. Of course, in Islam we don’t have any priesthood. But still there has always been a need for people who devote their lives to the service of the religion. All parents have ambitions for their children, as to what profession they would like them to follow in life, and the aspiration expressed by Mary’s mother for her child, yet to be born, is the highest one. Maulana Muhammad Ali, in his Urdu commentary of the Quran, writes as follows under this verse: “All stories of the previous nations given in the Quran are meant for conveying a lesson to the Muslims. The statement made here shows that among the Israelites, even in their time of decline, there were people who devoted their offspring to the service of the religion. In fact, no religion can remain in existence until it has within it some followers who devote their lives for serving the religion. Muslims today must learn a lesson from this, and have among them people who devote their offspring to the service of the religion and prepare them for it from childhood. Muslims should remember that even if they again become rulers of the world, the high standing and prestige of Islam cannot be established in the world unless they have people who devote their lives for the propagation of Islam.”
According to the classical commentaries of the Quran, the name of Mary’s mother was Hannah. In Christian writings her name is Anne. They say that she was unable to conceive a child, so she prayed to be able to have a child and God granted her prayer. Thus she became pregnant with Mary in the normal way through her husband. As regards her vow, “My Lord, I vow to You what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Your service), so accept (it) from me”, there is no mention of Mary’s father in connection with this vow. Perhaps this is to show the empowerment of women, that the mother by herself can express an aspiration for the future of her child.
When Mary was born her mother realised that, as she was not male, she could not be permanently devoted to service in the temple. Disappointed at being unable to fulfil her ambition, she says: “My Lord, I have given birth to a female”. How often do we hear this sentiment in our society, but for a different reason! A female has been born and people are disappointed that the family will be loaded with the burden of bringing up a daughter and then getting her married. A son, on the other hand, is considered as a future asset for the family, and not as a liability. But the concern of Mary’s mother is not this, but being unable to fulfil her vow. At this point the Quran says: “and Allah knew best what she had given birth to”. The meaning is that Allah knew the great capabilities that the child would have. In human eyes a female was born, but in Allah’s eyes “what she had given birth to” was someone possessing the highest moral and spiritual qualities. And that was seen in the life of Mary, although in this khutba we don’t have the time to go further than Mary’s birth.
Mary’s mother prayed that Mary and her offspring always remain under God’s protection from being misled by the devil. Mary was just then born, so the mention of her future offspring in this prayer by her mother shows that what she had in mind was that Mary would grow up and have children in the normal way in which women conceive and give birth to children. The prayer also shows that both Mary and her offspring require God’s protection from the devil, both in the same way. This refutes the Christian belief that, out of all human beings, Jesus is sinless in a special way which is exclusive to him.
In connection with the prayer of Mary’s mother, “I commend her and her offspring into Your protection from the accursed devil”, there is a hadith which runs as follows: “There is no human being born but the devil touches him when he is born. So he cries out for help because of the touch of the devil, except for Mary and her son” (Bukhari, hadith 3431). The Christian critics of Islam have used this hadith to argue that Islam is admitting that every human being gets touched by the devil at his birth, in other words, he is made sinful at birth, except for Mary and Jesus. So they claim that this shows that all prophets, even including the Holy Prophet Muhammad, were touched by the devil at the time of their birth. This hadith, if taken literally, is against the basic teaching of Islam that every human being is created possessing the true human nature with which God has created human beings and that turning to God is part of their nature (the Quran, 30:30). The Quran also says that at the birth of a human being God makes him complete by breathing His, that is God’s, own spirit into him (32:9). It also declares that, when human beings are born, God makes them bear witness to His existence by asking them: “Am I not your Lord?” (7:172).
It is also quite ridiculous and against obvious facts to say that a baby cries at birth because the devil touches him. This hadith has a spiritual meaning, not a literal one. That meaning has been explained by some earlier commentators of the Quran in Islamic history, and it was put forward again by the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement and the great scholars of our Movement. That is that by “birth” here is meant a human’s spiritual birth, when he grows up and learns the difference between right and wrong and has to struggle against the devil. The devil touches him, meaning that the devil puts him into a state of test and tribulation by trying to draw him away from the right path. So the human cries to God for help. That is what happens to ordinary human beings. But as this hadith says: “except for Mary and her son”, the devil does not succeed against them. By Mary in this hadith are meant the believers of the highest ranks and by “her son”, or Jesus, are meant the prophets of God. These are the two categories of people whom the devil cannot touch or harm.
What is our basis for saying that Mary here stands for the believer, the mu’min, of the highest rank? This is indicated in the Quran itself when it says: “And Allah sets forth an example for those who believe — the wife of Pharaoh, when she said: My Lord, build for me a house with You in the Garden and deliver me from Pharaoh and his work, and deliver me from the wrongdoing people. And Mary, the daughter of Amran, who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into him of Our inspiration, and she accepted the truth of the words of her Lord and His Books, and she was of the obedient ones” (66:11–12). These verses tell us that there are two kinds of believers: those who are like the wife of Pharaoh and those who are like Mary. The wife of Pharaoh was herself a righteous woman but she had to submit to Pharaoh and to be with the wrongdoing people of the Pharaoh, even though she disliked this. So she prayed to God to save her from the wrong that the Pharaoh and his people were doing. This represents the type of believer who wishes to be free of sin and wrongdoing, prays for it as well, but still remains trapped in the grip of his wrong desires and bad deeds which he cannot escape from. On the other hand, Mary represents the type of believer who guards himself against all wrong deeds, so God breathes into him His own Divine spirit and inspiration. You can say, metaphorically, that God makes him pregnant and that believer gives birth to a new person. From that same believer who was like Mary a new person is born, a new version of himself.
To sum up, Mary’s mother and Mary are presented in the Quran as models for the righteous men and women to follow. By presenting women as the examples to follow, the Quran has dignified women. The Quran has recognised, and taught us, that women can reach the highest spiritual status, perform the highest sacrifices for the religion, and have their prayers and efforts accepted by Allah. May Allah enable us to follow the examples He has put before us. — ameen.