In the name of God, the most gracious and the most merciful. It is right and proper that Muslim society honours the women of distinction within its midst. Where better to base the search for such exemplary women than at the source of our Muslim religion, the word of God? Islamic faith and culture are premised on a set of truths and laws decreed by our holy book, the Quran, which we believe was revealed to humankind through God’s prophet, Mohammed, peace be upon him.
A central figure in the Quranic revelations about the lineage of prophets sent through the ages was the woman chosen by God to be the mother of the Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him. This woman was Mary, or as we call her in Arabic, Miriam. The Quran states that this woman was clearly like no other. She lived her life in a state of virtue, purity and chastity, which was by no means simply a product of the environment in which she was reared. Had that been the case, she would have been susceptible to behave like any other woman, with all the possibilities that might suggest. The Virgin Mary, however, was a miracle from heaven who was established on earth for a specific purpose.
It is a rare occurrence for any woman, in any society, to possess such purity and grace that common people enshrine her as a symbol of pride. Such absolute honour and virtue are rarely found in a woman in any historical epoch. For a human being, therefore, to adhere to such a standard of chastity is a great achievement.
For that virtue to have been bestowed by God, the Creator of all, is quite another thing. That grace was indeed the case with Mary. It is the difference between a woman who is described by others as a woman of honour, chastity and high stature, and the woman who is told by the angels that God has bestowed on her the chastity which had elevated her among her peers.
The Arabic verb used in the Quran to express ‘to select’ infers the nuance of meaning ‘to prefer and to choose’. This verb therefore has a special resonance. It states beyond doubt that the individual preferred and selected by God has exclusive characteristics. Muslims find this matter extremely simple to comprehend in the sense that this process is not the work of a human being.
Magic performed by a man amazes spectators because the deception of the act is amazing. When a miracle is willed by God, we realise that the act is not one of deception but is well and truly impossible. Such indeed was the miracle of the birth of Jesus, peace be upon him, by a virgin mother. Christians may be surprised that this miracle is a tenet of belief for all Muslims, but indeed the Quran states that God bestowed His preference upon Mary with the gift of the purest chastity, and it was that condition which was the essential foundation for her motherhood of Jesus.
The Virgin Mary was descended from a highly respected family, namely that of Imran. God selected that family for a majestic role which will be remembered until the Day of Judgement, as cited in the Quranic verse: “God has preferred Adam, Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of Imran over all nations.” Furthermore Imran, the father of Mary, was a well-known figure among the Jews, because of his noteworthy devotion and piety.
The greatest sadness of Imran and his wife was that she was barren. She prayed to God that if she be given a descendant that was male, that he would be taught to serve only God and would be dedicated to the Temple in Jerusalem. The prayers were answered, except that the cherished baby was a girl! The parents still gave thanks and prayed that God would safeguard the infant and her descendants from the intrigues of the devil.
In Judaism the female was not fit to serve in the Holy Shrine of the Temple. But God accepted that she was to live in His service, just as her mother had vowed, for the reason that only God Himself knew the destiny of this child. The youthful Mary was therefore brought up in an environment of virtue and piety. It happened as per God’s will that her father Imran died, so that the upbringing of the girl became the responsibility of Zachary (in Arabic Zakariya), who was her aunt’s husband. Among the miracles that God bestowed on Mary during this period was that every time Zachary visited her quarters where she was in prayer, to ensure that she was safe, he would find provisions in her possession that he had not brought her, nor had anyone else. He of course demanded of her from where she had secured such supplies. Her pious answer was that they were from God, who endlessly provides for whoever He pleases.
As the Virgin grew into womanhood, she knew only the pious life devoted to prayer to God. She was then informed by the angel Gabriel that God had selected her to become the mother of a boy, who was to be conceived in her womb by an act of God’s will, His simple command ‘Be’.
Mary was naturally puzzled as to how she could have a baby without following the human norm, which was marriage and the union between male and female. She enquired of this difficulty to the visiting angel, whose reply was that the Omnipotent does whatever He pleases for His own reasons.
God’s will materialised in the form of the conception of the Prophet Jesus, who was to hold a lofty stature even among those few other prophets who had likewise been selected throughout the ages to reveal God’s message to mankind. God would work many miracles through this man, in order to convince his listeners that he was the Messenger of God.
During her pregnancy, Mary lived in isolation in order to worship undistracted and to give undivided attention to the new life within her womb. When it came time to give birth, she sought shelter under a palm tree. God inspired her to shake the tree, whereupon dates showered down around her to provide her with nutrition, and He commanded a spring of fresh water to rise from beneath the tree to refresh her. The act of a woman in labour having the energy to shake a palm is in itself a miracle. Such an act would be impossible for a strong man, let alone a woman weak with the pains of birth. Need we also note that the dates prescribed by God for Mary’s nutrition have since been proven by scientists to be of the greatest value for pregnant women?
The Angel Gabriel informed the Virgin that if anyone questioned or reproached her for the infant she had borne, that she was to keep her silence and to simply point to the infant, which would signal that she was abstaining from communication until God would reveal otherwise. Mary subsequently returned to her family seat, carrying her new-born infant. Her relatives were bewildered by the sight of such a chaste girl and devout worshipper of God to have birthed a child outside of marriage. When they questioned her, she merely pointed to the infant. It goes without saying that she conducted herself at this difficult moment of accusation with the confidence bestowed on her by a miracle of God. Such had been His command.
The answer was then actually provided by none other than the infant Jesus himself, speaking while still cradled in his mother’s arms. He spoke and revealed to Mary’s accusers what they did not know, which according to Quranic verse, was in these words: “I am indeed the servant of God. He has given me revelation and made me a Prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I be, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity as long as I live. And He has made me kind to my mother, not overbearing nor unjust.
And peace is upon me from when I was born, the day that I die and the day that I shall be raised up to life again.”
How in fact could anyone be born without a father? The only feasible answer could be by the intervention of God’s will. Adam had been born without father or mother, which was even more miraculous. And Eve had been created out of the rib of a man, without woman. God manifestly could create a boy from a woman without a father, and in fact could create whatsoever He pleased.
Islam makes it incumbent upon the believers to show their love and reverence to the Virgin Mary, the symbol of chastity and purity. She must be regarded by Muslims as a saint, a title that is only given to those who are chosen by God and those who are named by the prophets. God Himself gave to Mary the title of a believer, and the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, gave the same title to the most devout person after him, Abu Bakr al Siddique.
This title of ‘believer’ has a great significance in the Muslim faith. During the agony of labour pain, Muslim women pray to God to deliver them from the pain as He did for the Virgin. They pray that God grant to them the blessing that He bestowed on Mary, especially if they have tried to emulate her example.
Linguistically, the word ‘virgin’ in Arabic means ‘something that has not been utilised’. A virgin jewel, for example, is a jewel which has not been pierced. Virgin soil is the soil which has not been cultivated. In Arabic and Islamic literature, the word is used to denote absolute chastity and virtuous behaviour. If a love affair develops between a man and woman and they do not commit sin, such love is called by the Arabs as ‘virgin love’, the equivalent of platonic love in denoting purity, sincere intention and spiritual transparency. Such is the tribute that should be accorded to the Virgin Mary.
Many Muslims name their female children Miriam, believing that the name is a good omen which will bless the infant with the purity and chastity which the name now signifies. The Virgin Mary was a delicate and well-mannered woman endowed with both physical and spiritual beauty. Her face radiated with the light emanating from her faith. She has now become the everlasting symbol of chastity, purity and virtue.
Muslims dearly cherish the story of this woman on whom God bestowed such honour. She was chosen as the woman of distinction to be emulated by Muslim women throughout the ages.