Mary and the palm tree: What were the miracles?
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 7 October 2022
“And the pains of childbirth drove her [Mary] to the trunk of a palm-tree. She said: Oh, I wish I had died before this, and I had been a thing quite forgotten! So a voice came to her from beneath her: Do not grieve, surely your Lord has provided a stream beneath you. And shake towards you the trunk of the palm-tree, it will drop on you fresh ripe dates. So eat and drink and be comforted.” — ch. 19: Maryam, v. 23–26
فَاَجَآءَہَا الۡمَخَاضُ اِلٰی جِذۡعِ النَّخۡلَۃِ ۚ قَالَتۡ یٰلَیۡتَنِیۡ مِتُّ قَبۡلَ ہٰذَا وَ کُنۡتُ نَسۡیًا مَّنۡسِیًّا ﴿۲۳﴾ فَنَادٰىہَا مِنۡ تَحۡتِہَاۤ اَلَّا تَحۡزَنِیۡ قَدۡ جَعَلَ رَبُّکِ تَحۡتَکِ سَرِیًّا ﴿۲۴﴾ وَ ہُزِّیۡۤ اِلَیۡکِ بِجِذۡعِ النَّخۡلَۃِ تُسٰقِطۡ عَلَیۡکِ رُطَبًا جَنِیًّا ﴿۫۲۵﴾ فَکُلِیۡ وَ اشۡرَبِیۡ وَ قَرِّیۡ عَیۡنًا ۚ
It is often alleged that the scholars of the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement, starting with Maulana Muhammad Ali, have denied the miracles that are mentioned in the Quran as having been granted to the prophets. One example is in connection with the events surrounding the birth of Jesus as related in the Quran. I have quoted above two verses, and the start of the next verse, about one such incident. Mary, after conceiving Jesus, was on a journey and she encountered the pains of childbirth. By the way, as to how she conceived Jesus, i.e., became pregnant, I will leave for a later khutba. In connection with this incident many Muslim scholars and commentators of the Quran came up with their own idea, without any foundation, that the voice which came to Mary from beneath her was that of the baby Jesus while he was emerging from her womb. According to their opinion, Jesus, even at the point of his delivery into this world, was able to guide his mother by telling her to shake the trunk of the palm-tree, and not only did he speak, but he also had the knowledge that ripe dates would fall from the tree. This is just an example of how Muslim scholars of the Quran were keen to invent miracles of their own imagination and stories to fascinate the ordinary people, especially in the case of Jesus. But other commentators, from the earliest times, have said that this was the voice of an angel. This is substantiated by the fact that it is stated in the verses just before these verses that an angel communicated with Mary to give her news of the birth of Jesus. The Lahore Ahmadiyya scholars agree with this view. It cannot be said that they have denied a miracle accepted by other Muslims. In fact, they are accepting the interpretation held by many, possibly most, other early Muslim commentators.
The second invented miracle, believed by almost all Muslim commentators, is that this palm-tree was dry and without fruit, and Mary is being told that if she shook its trunk, ripe dates would miraculously appear on it and fall down. But the Quran does not say that the stream of water which is mentioned and the ripe dates appeared by miracle just at that time. The angel drew Mary’s attention to them while she was in a state of great distress. But there is, in fact, a miracle here if we consider that the palm-tree already had ripe dates on it in the normal and usual way that trees bear fruit. The miracle is that this verse indicates the time of the year when Jesus was born. It indicates it to be around August in the land where Jesus was born. As you know, Jesus was traditionally supposed to have been born on 25th December. This was the accepted view for about 1500 years until Christians themselves started questioning it in the last couple of centuries. They realised that other events reported as happening at the time of his birth showed that he could not have been born at the height of winter. So we say that no miracle took place in the form of ripe dates suddenly appearing on that tree out of season. The miracle is that the Quran disclosed that there were ripe dates on that tree when Jesus was born, and if we consider the dates to have appeared on the tree in the natural way, it reveals the time of the year that Jesus was born, and resolves a great mystery.
Another natural, everyday phenomenon mentioned here is the suffering of the pains of childbirth by the mother. If there was going to be a miracle, why couldn’t the miracle be that Allah made her delivery pain-free? This mention of the pains of childbirth is very significant. According to the Bible’s story of Adam and Eve, the devil tempted Eve to eat the fruit from a tree which God had forbidden them to eat, and then she persuaded Adam to eat it as well. God was angry at their disobedience and the sin they had committed. The punishment He gave to Eve was as follows: “To the woman He [God] said: I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis, 3:16). According to the beliefs devised and invented by Christian theologians, the punishments given to Adam and Eve were for their descendants as well because that they inherited a sinful nature from these parents of mankind. Yet the same religious scholars who invented this notion, before Islam came and corrected it, also claim that Mary and Jesus were the only sinless humans ever to exist. The Quran here points out that Mary herself suffered from severe pains in giving birth to Jesus, so much so that she cried out: “Oh, I wish I had died before this, and I had been a thing quite forgotten!” The Quran is making the point here that either you have to consider Mary to be sinful like all other human beings because she suffered the same punishment as all other women or you have to realise that this pain is not a punishment at all but a natural occurrence.
There are two points of the teaching of the Quran that are absolutely certain. One is that Mary was a righteous woman of the highest possible degree. The Quran tells us that the angels had revealed to Mary: “O Mary, surely Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the world” (ch. 3, Āl-i Imrān, v. 42). The other is its teaching, given twice as follows: “And We have enjoined on every human concerning his parents — his mother bears him with faintings upon faintings and his weaning takes two years — saying: Give thanks to Me and to your parents” (ch. 31, Luqmān, v. 14), and: “And We have enjoined on every human the doing of good to his parents. His mother bears him with trouble and she gives birth to him in pain. And the bearing of him and the weaning of him is thirty months” (ch. 46, Al-Aḥqāf, v. 15). The first of these verses occurs in the advice given by the prophet Luqmān to his son, as to what God requires from us, while the second one directly addresses Muslims. The first verse shows that this teaching was given by earlier prophets also, and it could never have been that God ever said that the pains of childbirth were a punishment for women. Far from being a punishment, according to the Quran these difficulties must be acknowledged and the mother repaid with gratitude, love, kindness and service by those whom she brought into the world.
There is a deeper point conveyed by the Quran in referring to this incident of Mary. She is a symbol, representing the Christian world. In the same way, Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, the mother of Isaac, is a symbol representing the Jewish religion, and his second wife, Hagar or Hajira, is a symbol of Islam. When these ladies are mentioned in religious scriptures, there is also a deeper meaning referring to the religions that they are a symbol of. The suffering of pain by Mary represents the suffering of the Christians caused by the doctrines imposed on them by their churches and preachers, such as the belief that every human being is born sinful by nature because of having inherited sin from Adam and Eve. That pain can be alleviated by shaking the trunk of the tree of Islam, by studying the Quran, which causes the fresh ripe dates of truth to fall on you. Elsewhere in the Quran, a good word is compared to a good tree: “Do you not see how Allah sets forth a parable of a good word as a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are high, yielding its fruit in every season by the permission of its Lord? And Allah sets forth parables for people that they may be mindful” (ch. 14, Ibrahim, v. 24–25). A good tree represents the true religion.
In the incident of Mary, the word used for “palm-tree” is nakhla. There is a very sound hadith according to which the Holy Prophet said: “Surely among the trees there is one which may be likened to the Muslim.” Abdullah ibn Umar, who was relating this, goes on to say: “I intended to say that it was the date-tree (nakhla) but I was then the youngest of all the people, so I kept silent. Then the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم said: It is the date-tree (nakhla)” (Bukhari, book: Knowledge, hadith 72). So the palm-tree whose trunk Mary is advised to shake is Islam.
In this incident the word used for “fresh dates” is ruṭab. There is a hadith as follows about fasting: “The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم would break the fast with fresh dates (ruṭābāt) before performing Salat. If there were no fresh dates then (he would break the fast) with dried dates (tumairāt), and if there were no dried dates then he would take a few sips of water” (Tirmidhi, book: Fasting, hadith 696). Following that tradition of the Holy Prophet, many Muslims break their fasts with dates, although it is not obligatory to do so. This makes dates an emblem of Islam. Underlying the Quran’s account of this incident of Mary and the palm-tree is the prophecy that Christians will study Islam thoroughly and as a result they will be showered with truths which will resolve the severe problems from which they would be suffering.
These are the real miracles of this verse as believed in by the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement: that it gives us the time of the year when Jesus was born and it assures us that Christians will find solace and comfort in Islam. These miracles are of practical use in the present-day world. The invented stories that Jesus spoke to his mother when he was emerging from the womb, and that dates were miraculously ripened for Mary on that tree, don’t benefit the world in any way nor do they teach us anything.