‘A thousand faces’
The Muslim Koran mentions her 54 times and devotes the 19th chapter or “sura” to her. Christians call her “our tainted nature’s solitary boast.” Who is this lady they’re talking about? Miriam of Nazareth—and of the Jewish faith.
The differences between Christianity, Islam and Judaism are many, sometimes cruelly violent. Yet, these three faiths come together around this simple village maid.
Different eras honored her in painting, sculpture, music, and liturgy, notes Fordham University professor Elizabeth Johnson in a John Courtney Murray Lecture. She is a mother of perpetual help in their lives, millions of Filipinos say. The title of a book, by George Tavard, gets it exactly right: “The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary.”
“Many Koranic stories concerning Mary are foreign to Christian ears.” The Koran and the New Testament share, to take just one example, the Annunciation accounts.
“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God,’” Luke writes in the New Testament. “‘And you shall conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and be called the son of the Most High and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’”
Read the “sura” (19:14-21): “And when she saw him she said: ‘May the Merciful defend me from you! If you fear the Lord, leave me and go your way.’ ‘I am the messenger of your Lord,’ he replied, ‘and have come to give you a holy son.’ ‘How shall I bear a child,’ she answered, ‘when I am a virgin, untouched by man?’ ‘Such is the will of your Lord,’ he replied. ‘That is no difficult thing for Him. He shall be a sign to mankind.’”
A detailed analysis of how Christians and Muslims view Mary’s unique role is sketched out by Giancarlo Finazzo in the Vatican’s official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (April 13, 1978, page 4).
Mary’s genealogy and her childhood, in the Koran, “is more detailed than in the four Gospels…” The Koran attributes to “her, alone among creatures, and to her Son, a nature exempt from all sin.” The concept of original sin is not contained in Islam. However, “it attributes to man a natural defectibility which makes him imperfect from birth.”
“Every child is touched by the devil as soon as he is born and this contact makes him cry,” says a Hadith attributed to the Prophet and verses 35-37 of Sura III. Excepted are Mary and her Son.
“After this premise it is not surprising that … the Immaculate Conception [which Catholics mark on Dec. 8], is univocally recognized…” The extraordinary person of Mary and her pure life (III, 42 to LXVI, 12) “set her, with her Son, above every other created being.”
“Everything contributes to making her and her Son a ‘signum’ for mankind… In the Koran Christ is called repeatedly ‘Issa ibn Maryam’—Jesus son of Mary. [This] name … perhaps is the best known one in the Islamic world.”
“For the sake of equity, mention should be made of doctrinal difficulties connected with Arab social and religious environments in the 6th and 7th centuries… Some Christians of Arabia had introduced the Marian cult which… degenerated into worship of the Virgin…”
Indeed, “Catholics would tell you, rather firmly, that Mary is not a goddess,” the Economist notes in its cover story titled “A Mary For All” (pages 25-19). “She is not worshipped, but rather venerated: a human being with a unique role in praying for and protecting the human race.”
Mary is Islam’s most honored woman, the magazine points out. Muslims and Eastern Christians “cherish the story of Mary’s childhood in a place of supreme holiness. Both name Mary’s guardian as the priest Zechariah or Zakariya.” The wisdom texts speak of “a woman clothed with the sun.” And down the centuries, “heart-stopping turns of phrase” have been applied to Mary.
The Economist cites the “wisdom” texts in Jewish and Christian scriptures and the Eastern Church’s lesser known Gospel by James. It reviews studies by Methodist Hebrew scholar Margaret Barker to John Wilkinson of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem.
“The essential point for both is … Christianity inherited and built on the Jewish belief that it is possible for the human being to have a direct encounter with God, and in some sense to become part of divine reality.”
“Christians and Muslims will never agree on the nature of Mary’s child,” the Economist adds. Yet, they “alike see in Mary an affirmation that there is no limit to proximity of God that any human can attain… Surely, that is reason enough, for people of any faith, to feel reverence for history’s foremost Jewish mother.”
In today’s charged atmosphere of tension between Muslims and non-Muslims, isn’t it prudent to attempt to find common ground between these clashing Abrahamic traditions? asks Heather Abraham who wrote the book “The Muslim Jesus” (2001).
Mary’s shared importance offers an opportunity for interfaith dialogue. Easing of tension is an enormous undertaking because religious differences are often used to justify anger and distrust.
Maybe, just maybe, religious similarities may lessen the divide? Abraham asks. The question of the day is: Why are the media (Western and Eastern) and religious clerics (Christian and Muslim) not focusing on the commonalities and unifying aspects of Abrahamic cousins?
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