The Muslim Mary
If you are looking for the religious text with the most references to Mary, the mother of Jesus, look no further than the Koran, Jennifer Green writes.
By Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen
Islam and Christianity revere Mary above all other women, a human divinely appointed to bear Jesus in a virgin birth. But the Koran mentions Mary 34 times, and names an entire chapter after her -- more than she gets in the Bible, according to Cruden's Complete Concordance. She is the only woman mentioned by name in the Koran, and some scholars say Muslims actually revere her more than Christians do.
"Without a doubt, she is the most spectacular female figure that appears in the whole of the Koran," says Bruce Lawrence, Islamic scholar and author of The Qur'an: A Biography. "That's quite something extra for Christians to have to deal with."
Robert Moynihan, editor of Inside the Vatican magazine, agrees. In one sense, "I would say Muslims have more veneration of Mary -- those who are believing Muslims -- than most Christians today. That's because of the decline of Marion veneration in Christianity."
Pockets of worshippers around the world still pray extensively to Mary, especially among Catholics, but her influence has waned in the last generation. As women struggled to be heard, in church hierarchies and society at large, exhortations to follow Mary's example of chastity and acceptance of God's will started sounding like clerical spin designed to keep the ladies in line.
"She is not out of the picture, but she is not woven into the warp and woof of the faith," Mr. Moynihan said from his office in Rome. "That shattered with the confrontation with the modern world."
Muslim women are not as likely to have submitted Mary to this political litmus test, so they are still comfortable turning to her, he says.
Aynur Gunenc is a 37-year-old Ottawa native who commutes to Montreal every week to complete her master's degree in bioresource engineering at McGill University. She is also a practising Muslim and the mother of two sons.
Like many Muslim women, she looked to Mary while she was pregnant and when went into labour, reading Surah 19, the chapter in the Koran named for the virgin. She also ate dates as Mary did while giving birth to Jesus.
"It is supposed to help for an easy delivery." Did it work? "Yes."
"For us, Mary is a symbol of purity and patience, honesty and believing 100 per cent in God, even when things are difficult. I am full of respect and love for her. I cannot imagine, myself, keeping your faith when you have had a baby without a husband, close to people who disapprove. It would not be bearable.
"If there had been a woman prophet, it would have been Mary. She knew this life is temporary."
Christianity and Islam differ on the fundamental nature of Jesus. For Christians, he is God the Son; for Muslims, he is a prophet who was fully human.
But their accounts around his birth are startlingly similar. Both tell of an elderly couple beseeching God for a child.
In the Bible, Elizabeth and her husband, the temple priest Zachary, become parents to John the Baptist.
In the Koran, the elderly Zakariya pleads to God for a son, and his prayer is answered with the birth of "Yahya" -- John.
Mary's mother, Anna, offers her child-to-be to God, but she is surprised and dismayed to see that she has given birth to a girl, whom she names Mary, or Maryam. She offers the child to God anyway and brings her to the temple, where she comes under the protection of Zakariya.
Every day she has holy visions, and when Zakariya comes with food, he finds angels have already provided for the young girl -- details remarkably similar to the Proto Gospel of James, scripture that is not included in the Bible, but is considered credible by Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics.
In the Koran, the angel Gabriel comes to tell Mary she will bear a child, to which she says: "How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?"
He said: "So (it will be): Thy Lord saith, 'that is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us': It is a matter (so) decreed.
"So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place."
In the Koran, there is no Joseph to protect her reputation. Instead, Mary goes off to an unspecified location to bear the child. Once there, she cries out in pain and says she wishes she had died before this.
In response, God provides a stream for water, and dates from a tree above.
When she returns home with the babe in arms, the villagers are horrified. How could she have a child without a husband? Jesus himself speaks to them from her arms, even though he is only a few days old.
Mary is also a bridge between Islam and Christianity, something Pope Benedict XVI touched on in his recent trip to Turkey, where he celebrated Mass at Ephesus, the western town in which Mary is said to have lived her last days.
The Pope pointed to her as an explicit link between Islam and Christianity, stressing that a common devotion to Mary can help bind the two faiths.
Vatican expert and author John Allen also commented on the link: "It is true that Mary is actually referred to more often in the Koran than she is in the New Testament," he told reporters during the pope's visit.
"She has always been a figure of strong popular devotion for Muslims as well as Christians. And it would not at all be surprising if Benedict XVI were to want to build on that in some fashion."
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