An Interfaith perspective on the birth of Jesus: A Woman’s Tale of a Radical Reliance on Nothing but God
4th in a Series on Mary & Interfaith Dialogue offered by Sr. Annelle Fitzpatrick, CSJ, Ph.D.
THE BIRTH OF JESUS IN THE QURAN
No Wisemen, No Shepherds, No Joseph! …
Both the Bible and the Quran record the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. However, the accounts are radically different. We as Catholics are well-versed in the details surrounding the nativity – complete with shepherds, wisemen, sheep and of course, Joseph – the doting husband! We are comforted by Christmas cards showing the support group surrounding Mary as she welcomes Jesus into the world! Over the centuries, the scant information given to us by Matthew and Luke have become so embellished that we can even picture the “Little Drummer Boy” – in the background offering his music as a gift to the newborn child.
Yet, the events surrounding the birth of Jesus in the Quran are radically different. In the Muslim tradition – Mary is totally alone! The Quran tells us that when Mary knew her time had come – she left the comfortable surroundings of the temple – and “Went off to a distant land to be alone!”
The Birth of Jesus
“When her time came, she withdrew to a remote place” (Surah 19:22). [Surah is the term for a chapter of the Qur’an.]
One can only wonder why? Why didn’t she stay in the comfort of her temple enclosure and call for her cousin Elizabeth or Hannah, her Mother to come help her at such a difficult time? Could it be that Mary was keenly aware of the scandal that would emerge once word spread that she was with child? Was it fear of being stoned to death for the crime of being unchaste? Was it the realization of her own inadequacy? We will never know what motivated Mary to seek refuge in the isolation of the desert. But we do know that she had complete faith that God would not abandon her.
The Humanity of Mary – The Quran speaks of Labor Pains!
The Quran is silent as to the “Why” she chose to be totally alone. However, Muslim scripture gives us an additional insight into Mary’s humanity which the Christian scriptures fail to mention!. The Quran records that Mary actually cried out due to the intensity of the labor pains that she was experiencing! “And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. Mary cried out: ‘I wish I had died before this and I had become something totally forgotten”. (Surah 19:23)
[Editor’s note – cf Rev 12:2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.]
So there she is – a young girl – maybe 15 or 16 years of age – in the middle of an arid desert. We – who live in an age with state of the art Labor & Delivery rooms – complete with Labor Coaches and epidural sedatives cannot even begin to conceive of such a trying ordeal. Against a stark and arid landscape, this young girl cries out to Allah for assistance and a voice from heaven brings solace by inviting her to eat from the date tree under which she has found shade ….
Not only did God provide food – but – like the miracle at Lourdes, – a spring of water miraculously gushes forth to soothe her parched lips and those of her son.
Then she heard words of solace that her prayers to Allah had been answered: “Do not grieve Mary! Your Lord has placed a spring beneath you. Shake the trunk of this palm tree and it will let fall fresh dates upon which are to eat.” (Surah 19: 24-25)
Can one even begin to fathom what must have been going thru her mind at that moment? Repeatedly in the Quran, Mary expresses her complete dependence upon divine providence – and her faith has been rewarded. “For I testify that God provides for whom He will – without limit” (Surah 3:37)
One does not know how long Mary stayed secluded in the desert – but the Quran and the Hadiths speculate that it was her fear of returning to her people – with a child in her arms and no husband to defend her honor that caused her great trepidation. Why?
We assume that Mary was well aware of the Laws of Moses which stipulated that the punishment for certain sexual sins was stoning to death. How was she going to explain the events that brought about the birth of this child? The Quran simply states that Mary left the desert with her child and returned to her people – where – as suspected – she was harassed and ridiculed and – once again – possessed little in her own defense except a radical belief that God would perform another miracle – which he did! (Stay tuned – to the next chapter in this series) – where the infant Jesus – performs his first miracle – while in his Mother’s arms!
Questions for Interfaith Dialogue
1. Ponder the birth narratives as recorded in the Bible and the Quran. What parallels do you find? What startles you the most?
2. Reflect on Mary’s confidence that God would not abandon her during this critical period when she almost gave way to the forces of despair (i.e. “I wish I had died before this and I had become something totally forgotten”. (Surah 19:23).
3. Read aloud the words recorded in “The Magnificat”, one of the eight most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn. Ask yourself “Is this not a prayer that BOTH Christians and Muslims can pray in unison”?
The Canticle of Mary
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for He has looked with favor on His lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.
He has mercy on those who fear Him in every generation.
He has shown the strength of His arm, He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. / He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of His servant Israel, for He has remembered His promise of mercy, the promise He made to our fathers, to Abraham and His children forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, / as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.