Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Final | Nadine Connamacher

Nadine Connamacher
RELG 270: Islam
19 December, 2019

Divinely Inspired
The Argument for Mary as a Prophet

“As-salamu `alaykum. My question is: Why isn’t Maryam counted as a prophet by Muslims when she is clearly mentioned in Surat Al-Anbiyaa’ 21 in a list of prophets. In Arabic, when there is plural mix for both masculine and feminine, the masculine form of the word is applied, thus in Al-Anbiyaa’ it indicates a mix of prophets from both genders. Maryam is mentioned with the letter “wa”, that means “and”, before her name, as are all the other prophets in that surah.” [1]

The above question, asked on aboutislam.net, was raised on the twentieth of April, 2019.  The answer the questioner received was that Mary is, in fact, a prophet. Yet, this is not the first time this question has been asked, nor is this the answer that has always been received.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the only woman named within the Qur’an. Not only does she receive this distinction, but her name is also given to the nineteenth sura, Maryam. With such importance given unto her, significant theological thought has been dedicated to Mary’s role within Islam.  Most often, she is considered to simply be a holy and righteous women. However, in both historic and modern times, various Islamic theologians and commentators have argued that Mary’s true status is that of a prophet. This paper will first summarize Mary’s role within the Qur’an and then delve into the theological arguments, both historical and current, for her prophethood.

Mary is mentioned in seven suras of the Qur’an.  Two suras tell her story and the remaining four simply reference her.  She is first mentioned in the third sura, Ali ‘Imran, translated titled “The Family of Imran.”  In Ali ‘Imran, the wife of ‘Imran, while pregnant, pledges the unborn child to God, believing the child to be a boy.  However, the child is proven to be a girl: Mary. God, well aware of the child’s gender is still accepting of the offering and blesses both Mary and her descendants (Jesus) so that they would not be corrupted by Satan, a status unique among humans.  Mary was put in the care of Zechariah and spent her childhood within a prayer chamber, during which heavenly food would often appear for her, a sign of her blessedness. Angels say to her, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds,” (3:42) and tell her of the coming birth of Jesus.  She replies, “My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?” to which the angel responds, “Such is Allah; He creates what He wills.” (3:47)

The nineteenth sura, Maryam, fills in the remainder of Mary’s story within the Qur’an.  The sura begins by repeating the story of the angel’s visit to Mary as depicted in Ali ‘Imran.  It then tells of the birth of Jesus, saying that Mary withdrew to seclusion and that the pains of labor make her wish that she “had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten” (19:24).  However, God provides her with fresh water to drink and dates to eat and Mary vows, following God’s request, to not to speak to anyone that day. When she returns to the people, they question her, saying “O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented.  O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste” (19:27-28). The infant Jesus speaks his her stead, proving and claiming for himself his role as a prophet and servant of God. The remainder of the sura refutes Christian claims that Jesus is part of a trinitarian God.

Mary is then mentioned in An-Nisa, Al-Ma’idah, Al-Anbya, and Al-Mu’minun.  The fourth sura, An-Nisa, translated “The Women,” references Mary in relation to Jesus.  Contrary to common naming conventions, Jesus is referred to as Jesus son of Mary. Traditionally, he would be referred to as the son of his father.  This naming peculiarity reflects the fact that the Qur’an specifies that Jesus is not the son of God, but rather was created by God just as He created everything else.  The following sura, Al-Ma’idah, translated as “The Table Spread,” also expresses a similar sentiment, further rejecting the idea of a trinitarian God within Jesus. The sura does add a few details to Mary’s character, however, referring to her as “a supporter of truth” (5:75) and saying that God favors her. (5:110)  Al-Anbya, “The Prophets,” is the twenty-first sura and is the only one which includes Mary but does not refer to her by name. Instead, Mary is called “the one who guarded her chastity” (21:91). The sura adds to her holy status by saying that God “made her and her son a sign for the worlds” (21:91). Al-Mu’minun, “The Believers”, shares that sentiment and mentions that God made Jesus and Mary “a sign” and “sheltered them” (23:50).

Discussion and analysis of Mary as a prophet are few and far between among Islamic theologians.  Historically, the belief not only that Mary was a prophet, but that a woman could be a prophet at all has been considered heretical by Sunni scholars. [2]  However, the position has been argued and favored by both classical and modern religious scholars.

The argument against Mary’s prophethood, as well as female prophets in general, relies on verses in two suras, one in the twelfth, Yusuf, and the other in the sixteenth, An-Nahl, “The Bee.” [3]  The two verses are similar.  Both of these verses, the 109th in Yusuf and the 43rd in An-Nahl, contain the phrase “mā arsalnā min qablika illā rijāl”–translated, this is “We sent not before thee [any messenger] save men.” [4]  By using these two verses, the argument relies upon two particulars of word choice.  The first is that no distinction is made between a messenger and a prophet, and the second is the choice to interpret rijāl as “men” meaning specifically male as opposed to “men” meaning the general human race. [5] These choices of diction are often refuted by scholars who view Mary as a prophet.  Those opposed to Mary’s being a prophet also often reference a hadith that states that women cannot be prophets because “Eve was created from Adam’s leftovers.” [6]

A primary defender of the philosophy of Mary’s prophethood is Abū Muḥammad ʿAlī ibn Aḥmad ibn Saʿīd ibn Ḥazm, often referred to as Ibn Ḥazm of Córdoba.  Known as the father of comparative religious studies, Ibn Ḥazm lived from 994 to 1064 in Spain. [7]  He is most well known for his writings on jurisprudence and love. [8]  Ibn Ḥazm was also a key proponent of Zahirism. [9]  Founded by Dawud al-Zahiri, Zahirism is a school of Islamic thought that relies on strict literalism of the text. [10]  Many Zaharites believed in Mary’s prophethood, Ibn Ḥazm among them. [11]  Ibn Ḥazm, however, defines a distinction between nubuwwa (prophethood) and risala (messengerhood), and invalidates verses 12:109 and 16:43 by saying that, though messengerhood could only be held by a man, prophethood is available to either gender. [12]  Prophecy, he wrote in his book al-Fişal, is a message from God, the truth of which is assured by either the sending on an angel or by divinely inspired intuition. [13]  Under this definition, Ibn Ḥazm fully considers Mary to be a prophet and he describes the message Mary receives from the angel Gabriel as “genuine prophecy.” [14]   Ibn Ḥazm further argues for Mary’s inclusion among the prophets as listed in Maryam and references an hadith in which the prophet Muhammad considered Mary and Āsiya, the pharoh’s wife, to be both perfect and preferred by God. [15]

Another supporter of Mary’s prophethood was also hailed from Córdoba in Spain. [16]  Abu ‘Abdullah Al-Qurtubi lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and is most famous for his Quranic commentary Tasfir al-Qurtubi. [17]  Al-Qurtubi draws upon a hadith that says, “Abu Musa reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: There are many persons amongst men who are quite perfect but there are none perfect amongst women except Mary, daughter of ‘Imran, Asiya wife of Pharaoh, and the excellence of ‘A’isha as compared to women is that of Tharid over all other foods,” [18] and in response writes, “Our scholars [‘ulamā] have said that ‘perfection’ [kamāl] is the highest degree for a human being and the most complete, as absolute Perfection is attributed only to God, the Most High.  And there is no doubt that the most perfect type of human beings are prophets, then the holy ones among the pious and the martyrs and the righteous.” [19]  In other words, to be perfect is to be close to God and the most perfect of humans are prophets.  Thus, Mary, as one of the two most perfect women in creation, must be a prophet. Al-Qurtubi also states that the fact that Mary received a revelation from an angel and a sign from God confirms her status as a prophet. [20]

Ibn Hajar Al-Asqalani follows Al-Qurtubi’s arguments for Mary’s prophethood.  Ibn Hajar lived from 1372 to 1448 and wrote fifty works, the most famous of which is Fath al-Bari, a commentary on Jami’ al-Sahih by Muhammad ibn Isma’il al-Bukhari. [21]  Ibn Hajar understood that if Mary and Āsiya, as the pinnacle of their gender, were not prophets, then there was no possibility for divine characteristics among women at all.  “Yet,” he writes, “the reality is that these characteristics are frequently met with amongst women.” [22] Ibn Hajar also relied on the work of Ibn Ḥazm to conclude his argument.

Modern commentators of Islam who favor Mary’s role as a prophet often cite these classical authors in defense of their argument for her prophetic status.  However, more recent reasoning for why Mary should be a prophet features a new, more progressive lean. Among informal commentartors, Alif Azadi Taufik on medium.com reasons that if Islam is to be an egalitarian religion as it claims to be, then God must have sent female prophets or else be “sexist and biased”. [23]  He writes that the lack of female prophets in Islam is because they “have for so long been hidden and denied by sexist and patriarchal scholars who put double standards on who could be considered a prophet and who could not, taking a disgusting act of excluding half of mankind from consideration.” [24]  Like Ibn Ḥazm, Taufik takes a stance that there is a difference between messenger and prophet, and argues that Mary has all the characteristics of a prophet.  He additionally challenges scholars in opposition as “ridiculous and highly bigoted.” [25]

A more scholarly approach is that of Dr. Jasser Auda, who answered the question posed at the beginning of this paper.  Auda relies heavily on the work of Al-Qurtubi. He further argues that the reasoning for a female prophet negates Islam’s stance against misogyny, saying, “It is time to correct the general misperception that no single woman, however excellent she might be, could be equivalent to men in carrying major responsibilities and leading people in the way of good deeds.” [26]  Though Auda does not take as radical a stance as Taufik, he still uses the equality of men and women to bolster his argument.

Amina Inoles in her book Women in Shi’ism also argues that Mary is a prophet.  She says of it, “Personally, I find that this question involves a lot of hair-splitting, and if having a face-to-face conversation with the Angel Gabriel doesn’t make you a prophet(ess), I don’t know what does.” [27]  Inoles argues her point in a slightly different direction than the other commentators discussed within this paper.  Inoles discusses the particular male aspects of Mary’s life and upbringing. Mary is dedicated and raised within the temple, a practice that would have been exclusive to men. [28]  Furthermore, though Mary did not technically break any rules by having Jesus out of wedlock, she was “violating a social norm of men controlling women’s reproduction.” [29]  Inoles sees Mary as breaking gender norms and assuming a masculine status within society, and easily connects that to the idea of Mary assuming the traditionally masculine role of a prophet.  

Undoubtedly, the question “Is Mary a prophet?” carries significant theological weight within Islam.  However, the true importance of the question is not in determining Mary’s divine status, but rather what it would mean for women.  One cannot deny that the role of women in both Western and Eastern societies is under a patriarchal structure. Islam is not the only religion that is facing a debate of women’s possible status of leaders within the faith.  Within Islam, answers to the question of women’s leadership vary wildly among countries and schools of Islamic thought. Some schools hold that women can lead prayer without restrictions, others that women can only lead other women, and others still that say women cannot lead prayer at all. [30]  Yet, everyday steps are being taken towards women’s religious equality.  Only in the last decade did the first Muslim woman lead Friday prayers in the United Kingdom, [31] and this is a trend that is being followed around the world.  Though Mary has never received consensus that she is a prophet, there have always been those who honored her as such.  As a perfect woman in Islamic tradition, Mary is a inspiration to the millions of women who believe in her and how she is seen reveals what women can aspire to be.

Footnotes:
[1] Annonymous, “Were There Any Female Prophets According to Islam?”, About Islam, 20 April, 2019, https://aboutislam.net/counseling/ask-about-islam/female-prophets-islam/.
[2] Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 77.
[3] Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, 77.
[4] Schleifer, Aliah, Mary the Blessed Virgin of Islam (Fons Vitae, 1997), 74.
[5] Schleifer, Mary, 75.
[6] Inoles, Amina, Women in Shi’ism: Ancient Stories, Modern Ideologies (Gorgias Press, LLC, 2019), 270.
[7] Adamec, Ludwig W., Historical Dictionary of Islam (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), 188.
[8] Kechichian, Joseph A., “A mind of his own,” Gulf News, 20 December, 2012.
[9] Adamec, Historical Dictionary, 188.
[10] Mallat, Chibli, Introduction to Middle Eastern Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 113.
[11] Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, 77.
[12] Stowasser, Women in the Qur’an, 77.
[13] Schleifer, Mary, 83.
[14] Schleifer, Mary, 85.
[15] Schleifer, Mary, 85.
[16] Ramzy, Sheikh, The Complete Guide to Islamic Prayer (Salah) (AuthorHouse, 2012), 43.
[17] Ramzy, The Complete Guide, 43.
[18] Translation from sunnah.com.
[19] Schleifer, Mary, 81.
[20] Schleifer, Mary, 81.
[21] Adamec, Historical Dictionary, 187.
[22] Schleifer, Mary, 82.
[23] Taufik, Alif Azadi, “Was Mary a Prophetess of Islam?”, Medium.com, 6 February, 2017, https://medium.com/@alif.a.taufik/was-mary-a-prophetess-of-islam-666d589475f8.
[24] Taufik, “Was Mary a Prophetess of Islam?”
[25] Taufik, “Was Mary a Prophetess of Islam?”
[26] Auda, Jasser, “Were There Any Female Prophets According to Islam?”, About Islam, 20 April, 2019, https://aboutislam.net/counseling/ask-about-islam/female-prophets-islam/.
[27] Inoles, Women in Shi’ism, 268.
[28] Inoles, Women in Shi’ism, 268.
[29] Inoles, Women in Shi’ism, 268.
[30] Shakir, Imam Zaid, “Female Prayer Leadership (Revisited),” New Islamic Directions, 22 April, 2008, https://www.newislamicdirections.com/nid/articles/female_prayer_leadership_revisited/.
[31] Taylor, Jermone, “First woman to lead Friday prayers in UK,” Independent, 10 June, 2010, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/first-woman-to-lead-friday-prayers-in-uk-1996228.html.

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