Mary (PBUH) is mentioned 39 times in the Quran. Thus, giving her the honour of being the most mentioned woman in the Quran.
The Description of Mary (PBUH) in the Quran
The Quran states that God has singled out Mary (PBUH) from among all women, He purified her and chose her to be one of His signs. (3: 42), (23:50) Mary (PBUH) was a sincere truthful (saint) woman, (5: 75) chaste, (21: 91) she believed in God’s word, and was a devout servant of God (66: 12)
The Story of Mary (PBUH) in the Quran
The story of Mary (PBUH) is mentioned in detail in two places in the Quran. The first is narrated in surat Al-Imran (Chapter 3) and the second is found in surat Mary (Chapter 19). In surat Al-Imran, the verses describe how Mary (PBUH) was conceived, how she was chosen to serve in the temple, and how she was raised and prepared to be part of God’s miracle of delivering Jesus through virgin conception. In surat Mary, the verses continue to describe the life of Mary during this miraculous time, such as the encounter between Mary (PBUH) and the angel who gave her the news of her pregnancy, the delivery of Jesus (PBUH), and the encounter between Mary (PBUH) and her people.
The Story in Surat Al-Imran (Chapter 3)
This group of verses starts with a statement emphasising the special status of Adam, Noah, the families of Abraham and Imran. These people were chosen by God to deliver His guidance to the rest of the world. (3: 33-34) The significance of starting Mary (PBUH)’s story with this verse is twofold. First, it emphasises that Jesus (PBUH) is a human being, a descendant of a human family that can be traced back to Adam (PBUH). Second, it confirms that God’s miracles are part of His plan of creation and are prepared according to His knowledge.
When Mary’s mother finally became pregnant in her old age, she prayed to God to give her a son and promised to dedicate him to the service of God. (3: 35) She felt disappointed when she delivered a baby girl fearing that her daughter would not be fit to serve in the temple. The norm was only males can serve at the temple. Nevertheless, she prayed to God to protect her daughter and her offspring from the temptation of the devil. The Quran tells us that God accepted Mary (PBUH). It seems that several of the elders in her family wanted to act as guardians, however when they drew a lot, Zakary (PBUH) was the winner. This indicates the great interest of each of these elders in acting as a guardian of such a blessed girl. (3: 44) And so under the guardianship of Zakary (PBUH), Mary (PBUH) served in the temple (3: 37) Her service in the temple was part of the preparation she needed to be able to carry out the responsibility that she was destined for.
Verse (3:37) takes us to a scene in the inner chamber of the temple which Mary (PBUH) used as a sanctuary. Her guardian comes to visit her and finds that she had food. Only Zakary (PBUH) was allowed to visit her, so where did the food come from? Her answer was, “From God. God provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.” (3: 37) This wisdom delivered from a little girl motivated Zakary (PBUH) to ask God for a son. Zakary (PBUH) was an old man, his wife was barren. It would take a miracle for such a couple to get pregnant and carry a baby full term but Mary’s (PBUH) experience revived the hope in his heart. God answered and gave Zakary (PBUH) the son whom he had longed for. (3: 39)
After a brief detour to discuss Zakary’s (PBUH) experience, the narrative returns to Mary (PBUH) being addressed by the angels, “And when the angels said, “Mary, God has chosen you, purified you, and chosen you above the women of the world. Mary, worship your Lord devoutly. Prostrate yourself, and bow down with those who bow down in prayer.” (3: 42-43) Having prepared her to receive the blessing that was intended, the angels deliver the good news, “The angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you glad tidings of a Word from Him. His name will be the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and one of those drawn near to God.’” (3: 44-45) Mary (PBUH) asked, “My Lord, how shall I give birth to a son when no man has touched me?” He said, “So it will be, God creates what He wills. If He decrees a thing, He says Be and it will Be.” (3: 47)
This brings us to the end of Mary’s story contained in surat Al-Imran.
The Story in Surat Mary (Chapter 19)
The story in surat Mary (PBUH) starts with the meeting between Mary (PBUH) and the Holy Spirit, while she is in seclusion in the sanctuary. Gabriel (PBUH) was sent as a messenger of God to give her the news of the blessing that God bestowed on her in the form of a son (19:17). When she showed her surprise of giving birth while she was still a virgin, she was told that God creates what He wills. (19: 20- 21) The miraculous birth of Jesus (PBUH) was meant to be a sign for the Children of Israel. Mary’s (PBUH) question was a natural human reaction to the news. Although she had experienced God’s miracles before, this was something different and she wanted to state her chastity clearly and unequivocally. When Mary (PBUH) was given the answer that this was God’s decree, she fully accepted and embraced the decision.
Mary (PBUH) received the spirit of God, became pregnant, and withdrew to a place away from people. (19: 22) When she felt the pains of childbirth, she wished she had died before she had become pregnant. (19: 23) The angel called upon her again in a merciful tone to console her and reassure her of the availability of the help and care of God. (19: 24) The angel pointed to the arrangements that were made for her to give birth safely, and afterwards eat, and feed the baby. Water and food in the form of dates were provided. She was resting her back to the trunk of a palm-tree laden with fruits and a stream of fresh water was running under her feet. (19: 25 – 26)
It is interesting to note that the verses show that she was asked to “shake” the trunk of the palm-tree for the dates to fall down. This seems strange. Would a woman delivering a baby and suffering the pains of childbirth be able to shake the solid trunk of a palm-tree? This is an indication that although God bestows His blessings as He wishes, and the success of any endeavour is contingent on His will God still wants to see his servants making the effort, no matter how small.
Gabriel (PBUH) also reassured Mary (PBUH) about God’s support for her when she will ultimately meet with her family and have to deal with their reaction. Of course she must have anticipated the level of shock her news would bring when her family discovers she has given birth to a baby. In an effort to mitigate the stress on her, she was instructed to indicate to them that she had taken a vow of silence, allowing the baby to speak on her behalf and explain her innocence of any wrong doing. (19: 27 – 33)
There are several lessons that can be gleaned from this story.
- It is a confirmation of the prophet-hood of Muhammad (PBUH). Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had no way of knowing the details mentioned in this account. It refutes the claim that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) copied these stories from the Bible. The details of the story as mentioned in the Quran are different from that mentioned in the Bible. (3:44)
- There is a difference in opinion regarding whether Mary (PBUH) is a prophet of God or not. Al-Qurtobi is of the opinion that since she received a revelation from God, she is considered a prophet. (19: 17)
- Although God is capable of providing for His servants with no effort on their part (3:37), it is through God’s law that people should earn their living. Even if the effort they spend in earning their living is symbolic (19: 25)
- The verses emphasise that Mary (PBUH) is a human being that was chosen by God to demonstrate God’s power and miracles (5: 17, 5: 75)
- One of the signs of the strength of Mary’s (PBUH) faith in God, is that she never asked for a sign to confirm the angel’s message that she will have a baby while she is still a virgin. She simply accepted the news as a decree from God.
- Training and preparation of individuals to fulfil their tasks are important for the success of their efforts.