Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an

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Picture of Dr Jonathan Kearney

Dr Jonathan Kearney

Dr Kearney holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages from University College, Dublin.

While it is widely known that Jesus is honoured as a prophet in Islam, less well-known is the place in the Qur’an of his mother, Maryam or Mary. She is mentioned some 34 times by name in the Qur’an, more than the New Testament.

So what is the presence of Jesus and Mary in the Qur’an and what does the text says about them. And how does Islam see itself in relation to earlier written revelations – revelations whose existence and the prophets to whom they were given Muslims are obliged to believe in as two of the Six Articles of Belief.

Islam sees itself as the primordial religion of humanity, with the Prophet Muhammed as its final and most important prophet in a line stretching back to the first human (and prophet) – Adam. For Muslims, then Muhammad is the restorer rather than the founder of Islam.

The Qur’an itself mentions 25 prophets by name. Each of these prophets is known as a nabi (very similar to the Hebrew word for prophet, navi). Five of these prophets, however, are of a higher status than the others. Each of these higher prophets is known in English as a “Messenger” (Arabic rasul).

A Messenger is differentiated from the “regular” prophets by the fact that each Messenger was given a written text – a book that initiated a new dispensation. Most Muslim scholars agree that the five Messengers are: Ibrahim (Abraham); Musa (Moses); Dawud (David); ‘Isa (Jesus) and, of course Muhammad. The written revelations given to each of these Messengers are known respectively as the Suhuf, Tawrat, Zabur, Injil and the Qur’an.

A major feature of the study of the Qur’an by Western scholars interested in the culture and religion of the Middle East was its preoccupation with examining how the Qur’an had “adopted and adapted” Jewish and Christian narratives and incorporated them into the text. Such a conception of the Qur’an is entirely alien to Muslim sensibilities.

Since they view the Qur’an as a restored and corrected revelation, it does not contain “versions” of the Jewish and Christian narratives. Instead, the Qur’an contains the truest and most reliable versions of narratives – a need necessitated by the doctrine of taḥrīf: the belief that the earlier revelations were distorted or corrupted.

For those unfamiliar with the Qur’an it is informative to begin with some bare statistics: Prophet ‘Isa (or Jesus) is mentioned some 25 times by name in the Qur’an. The Prophet Muhammad is mentioned by name only four times (although he is addressed by God in the text many more times than this). Jesus’ mother, Mary, or Maryam as she is known in Arabic (closely related to the Hebrew and Aramaic forms of this name), is explicitly mentioned 34 times.

Indeed, the two are frequently mentioned together: the most common designation for Jesus in the Qur’an is ‘Isa ibn Maryam (“Jesus son of Mary”). Indeed, it may surprise to learn that one of the chapters (surahs) of the Qur’an bears the name of Jesus’ mother: the 19th chapter is known as Surat Maryam.

Muslims believed that Jesus’ birth was miraculous – Mary was a virgin when he was born – but crucially, Muslims do not accept that God in any way “fathered” Jesus. Indeed, a verse in Surat al-Ikhlas (112:3) directly refutes such a belief: the Qur’an states of God: “He begot no one nor was he begotten.” Indeed, Surat Maryam itself (19:35) while supporting the virgin birth of Jesus, clearly states that God is not his father: “it would not befit God to have a child. He is far above that: when he decrees something, He says only, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

Surat Maryam includes an annunciation narrative (19:16-21). We are then told that Mary retreated to a place of seclusion to give birth to her child. When she returns to her family after Jesus’ birth, she is accused of unchaste behaviour. Having taking a vow of silence, she point to the infant Jesus who miraculously speaks the following words, worth quoting in full (19:30-34):

30[But] he said ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; 31made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, 32 to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. 33Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ 34Such was Jesus, son of Mary.”

It might also be noted that Jesus is referred to as al-Masih (“messiah”) on 11 occasions in the Qur’an. The Muslim understanding of this term and its theological implications are, however, not the same as those of Judaism and Christianity. Indeed, the Qur’an itself is not especially explicit on this question. Instead we need to look to the Hadith literature (the codified traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Tafsir literature (the still dynamic and ever-growing discourse of Qur’anic interpretation).

In both of them, we find that Jesus plays a major role in Islamic eschatology or teaching about the end times. Many hadiths mention his return to earth as a precursor or forerunner of the end of days, and as a vicegerent of the Prophet Muhammad. In this sense, we might venture to characterise Jesus as the second most important Messenger of Islam, and his mother Mary, as the most important woman in the Qur’an.

So, clearly, for Muslims, Jesus and his mother Mary play a very important role in the Qur’an. However, we need to look to Muslim tradition and the exegesis of the Qur’an for much of the later developments and elaborations of the Islamic “theology of Jesus and Mary.”

We might conclude by offering a short narrative from the history of the nascent Muslim community that represents Jesus and his mother as unifying figures between Muslims and Christians – rather than divisive ones. When suffering persecution at the hands of their Meccan opponents, Muhammad sent a delegation of the community seeking sanctuary in the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia (contemporary Ethiopia and Eritrea).

The refugees reached Abyssinia, but were followed by a delegation of their Meccan persecutors, who aimed to dissuade the Negus (king) of Abyssinia from receiving the asylum seekers. When asked by the Negus to recite something of their revelation (the Qur’an), the Muslims chose some verses from the recently revealed Surat Maryam. We are told that the Negus and his bishops were moved to tears by what they heard and were convinced by the Qur’anic narrative of Jesus and Mary to grant asylum to the Muslims – dispatching their Meccan persecutors with a promise that he would never give up the Muslim refugees.

Dr Jonathan Kearney

Dr Kearney holds a doctorate in Near Eastern Languages from University College, Dublin.

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