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The Muslim Mary: A Symbol of Devotion, Virtue and Hope

For Christians, the contemplative Christmas season is over. Holy Week and Easter will soon be upon us. During these sacred observances, the figure of Mary looms large: from giving birth in a stable to keeping vigil at the foot of the cross. For me as a Muslim woman, St. Mary or Maryam (Turkish: Meryem), as she is called in the Qur’an, is a source of inspiration. As a scholar, I often discover new aspects about her unique persona. Muslims often return to reflect on her spiritual legacy.

Mary unites us — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — even if we harbor irreconcilable theological differences about her status. The daughter of a Jewish family from Nazareth, she is later revered in Christianity as the Mother of God (theotokos). For Muslims too she has a special place because she is a role model of ultimate devotion to God and virtue. She is honored because of her unique personality — not only as the mother of Jesus, but specifically because she is Mary. This aspect is therefore emphasized in the Qur’an: “And (remember) when the angels said, ‘O Mary, God has chosen you and purified you, and He has favored you above all (other) women of the worlds’” (Qur’an 3:42).

Mary’s son is therefore often referred to in the Qur’an through the honorific title of “Jesus, son of Mary” (Arabic: ‘Isa ibn Maryam) (Qur’an 5:75). For Muslims, it is Mary who gives Jesus a special status — not the other way around. The Qur’an honors her by naming the 19th chapter — Surah Maryam — after her. She is the only woman who is mentioned by name 34 times. To this day, Muslims and non-Muslims from all over the world make pilgrimages to the House of Virgin Mary in Efes, Türkiye. It’s a deeply moving experience.

Mary remains a role model of piety for me and many other Muslims. That’s why I named my daughter Meryem after her. For me, this naming was a sincere prayer, a hope. I prayed to my Creator that my daughter would also embrace Mary as an inspiration, a guide in her life. I followed the example of Mary’s mother St. Anne, or Hannah in Hebrew — and repeated the supplication she spoke during her pregnancy: “My Lord! I dedicate what is in my womb entirely to Your service, so accept it from me. You (alone) are truly the All-Hearing, All-Knowing” (Qur’an 3:35).

Mary’s mother is shocked at first. She was expecting a son whom she wanted to dedicate to the Holy Temple. But God assures her that Mary is his choice and his will:

When she delivered, she said, “My Lord! I have given birth to a girl,” — and God fully knew what she had delivered — “and the male is not like the female. I have named her Mary, and I seek Your protection for her and her offspring from Satan, the accursed. (Qur’an 3:36)

Mary is placed in the care of Prophet Zachariah and is the first female to be granted access to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There in her prayer niche (the mihrab, the same term for the section in the mosque that indicates the direction of prayer), Mary spends her time in sincere worship. Mary is omnipresent in our important daily Muslim prayer (salat) and always in our memory. Here, I look up to her too. Too often, I and many other Muslim girls and women have been denied entry into mainstream society because of our religious practices. Mary — a symbol of hope for positive change. Mary, the young, courageous girl who challenged the status quo. The religious elite, the male clergy, the patriarchy are all questioned.

Zachariah finds her with special fruits and gifts. He is taken by surprise:

So her Lord accepted her graciously and blessed her with a pleasant upbringing—entrusting her to the care of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her supplied with provisions. He exclaimed, “O Mary! Where did this come from?” She replied, “It is from God. Surely God provides for whoever He wills without limit.” (Quran 3:37)

Mary provokes with her answer. She questions causality. God is the real Causer of causes. Causality is simply a curtain to challenge us and test our beliefs. It is not the cloud that sends the rain. The cloud has no consciousness and cannot express compassion. It is God — the Most Merciful, the true Provider, who knows us and our needs and responds to them appropriately. There and then, Zachariah is moved by Mary’s profound answer to pray to God for a child. He realizes that even in his old age God can grant him a descendant because he is the Most Powerful:

 Then and there Zachariah prayed to his Lord, saying, “My Lord! Grant me — by your grace — righteous offspring. You are certainly the Hearer of (all) prayers.” So the angels called out to him while he stood praying in the sanctuary, “God gives you good news of (the birth of) John who will confirm the Word of God and will be a great leader, chaste, and a prophet among the righteous.” Zachariah exclaimed, “My Lord! How can I have a son when I am very old and my wife is barren?” He replied, “So will it be. God does what He wills.” (Qur’an 3:38-40)

Mary’s life is an endless inspiration. She invites those of us who operate in a world of causality to affirm the true Oneness of God and assess our assumptions. But at times she herself as a devout believer is puzzled over God’s power to create without an apparent cause:

(Remember) when the angels proclaimed, “O Mary! God gives you good news of a Word from Him, his name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary; honored in this world and the Hereafter, and he will be one of those nearest (to God). And he will speak to people in (his) infancy and adulthood and will be one of the righteous. Mary wondered, “My Lord! How can I have a child when no man has ever touched me?” An angel replied, “So will it be. God creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He simply tells it, ‘Be!’ And it is! (Qur’an 3:45-47)

In Mary’s struggles I see the desperation and fear, but also the hope of a mother. Mary is so raw, so human. As she has to give birth alone in the wilderness, I remember the emotional and physical strain that every expectant mother experiences during her pregnancy. Mary, without any support, help, or resources, is now completely isolated from the outside world. How can she give birth and care for her child in this desert? A child that is fatherless? A scandal! Her community will stone her for this. A return is impossible.

Her hopelessness and her pain are palpable in her words. She reaches her end. She just wants to die. “Then the pains of labor drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She cried, ‘Alas! I wish I had died before this, and was a thing long forgotten!’” (Qur’an 19:23).

But it is precisely in this intimate moment of loneliness and utter despair that God comes to her rescue:

So a voice reassured her from below. “Do not grieve! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet. And shake the trunk of this palm tree towards you, it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon you. So eat and drink, and put your heart at ease. But if you see any of the people, say, ‘I have vowed silence to the Most Compassionate, so I am not talking to anyone today.’” (Qur’an 19:24-26)

Mary’s life and personality is full of lessons and wisdom. How could I not name my daughter after her?

My beautiful Meryem was born on December 12, 2018, under very difficult circumstances. She was tragically killed by a truck driver on December 2, 2022 — 10 days before her fourth birthday. Friends, neighbors, colleagues, students, and strangers — Jews, Christians, and Muslims — prayed for her and my family during this difficult time. Prayers were offered for her in churches, synagogues, and mosques. For me, this was an answer to my prayer: Meryem had brought people together in a unique way and had touched them deep in their hearts. Her birth was a miracle, but her death also led to a spiritual awakening of so many people. I have reflected on her spiritual legacy and still continue to do so. Meryem was born in the state of Virginia and was buried in the state of Maryland. Both states trace their name’s origin to St. Mary. Not a coincidence for me. Mary still connects us.

God’s compassion and love was Mary’s constant companion. He never leaves us, even in our profound pain. As a grieving mother, I know that the loss of a child is the most distressing experience in a person’s life. I miss my beautiful Meryem every second. The heartache, sweet longing, and holy yearning will never go away. But my hope and my conviction that my merciful Creator will reunite us in the afterlife gives me enough strength and patience to walk this painful path.

Dr. Zeyneb Sayılgan is the Muslim Scholar at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies in Baltimore. Her experience of being born and raised in Germany as a child of Kurdish Muslim immigrants from Türkiye informs her interreligious work. Zeyneb’s research engages the theological ideas of the Muslim scholar Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (1876-1960). She is the host of On Being Muslim: Wisdom from the Risale-i Nur.


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