A rereading of the story of Maryam

Marzuqa Karima

The name of Maryam (peace be upon her) is one which believers all around the world recall several times when reciting the divine revelation, the Qur’an. When Muslims take her name in such reading, they are rewarded tenfold for each letter. She is a paragon of virtue who is also remembered by other faiths, and is celebrated as one of the world’s greatest women by the Prophet Muhammad .

Although the Qur’an does not mention time and place with regards to the story of Maryam as its intent is not to offer a chronology of events – there is a narrative one can follow when looking at various parts of the Qur’an: the time she was born, when she conceives Prophet Isa (pbuh), and motherhood. Altogether, there are about 70 verses which refer to her, and it is interesting to note that her greatness is not by virtue of her solely relation to a prophet – in fact, a reverse attitude seems to prevail.

There is a consistent image of Prophet Isa as the son of Maryam which is also a consistent denial of the Prophet Isa as the son of God. Together, by miraculous conception, Maryam and her son form one of the many signs which the Qur’an presents to take man out of the enchantment of seeking material explanations for the world without recourse to a higher cause. The Qur’an removes the veil for man to see through the apparent order or predictability of natural phenomena wherein God’s will sustains, halts, or diverts that orderliness. Maryam’s story re-connects man to Allah’s unparalleled power and the majesty of His will, all represented in one word – Be – thus reflecting the sheer incapacity of the human being.

A mother’s prayer

When her mother, Hanaa Bint Fakudha, conceived Maryam, she took a vow that she would give the child in service of the masjid. This meant completely freeing a person from the worries or constraints of this world to the freedom (ḥurriya) of the worship of Allah, an honour for both the parent and the child.

However, when she gave birth to a girl, Hanaa despaired, as it was customary then to give only boys away to the service of the masjid. Allah affirms that, indeed, a male cannot be like the female; this appeared in her favour, for what Maryam was about to perform, a man could not.

Allah informs us of His all-encompassing knowledge of the events that unravelled. This was part of the divine decree in which Allah would prepare this child for a greater service; much greater than what her mother had hoped for. Sometimes our hopes limit the extent of our thoughts, and we fail to look beyond them. But Allah’s infinite wisdom and knowledge transcends far beyond our created minds. Maryam went onto serve as an example for not only her people, as Hanaa had hoped, but civilisations to come thereafter and for us in the 21st century. Hanaa serves as an example of how people may have pre-conceived notions about the form their desires should take, and how reality may be starkly different. Allah will most definitely respond, but He will respond within the limitless plane of His wisdom and knowledge. For Divine attention encompasses the inner and outer, the deed and intention, present accomplishment and future effects and consequences. He knows the future after this effort, which to the supplicator is unseen. 

After accepting the decree, her mother then prays for her and Maryam’s spiritual journey begins. Her inherent purity from birth is attested to by the Prophet (pbuh) himself when he declares that Maryam was free from the touch of the devil. (1)

A youth of service

At a young age, Maryam’s devotion was apparent: an indication of her mother’s pre-natal vow to give her child for worship. And Allah accepted her devotion in the most beautiful manner.

Even in the presence of a prophet – Zakariyya (pbuh) – Allah favoured Maryam with privileges given to no one else in her time. Each time Zakariyya entered the sanctuary, he would find provisions with her.

Her sanctuary, a mihrab, was named as such because of its roots in the word harb (war). A person who devoted themselves to a mihrab was in constant battle with shaytan (the devil) and their desires in order to devote themselves to Allah.

When Maryam explained to Zakariyya that the provisions had come from Allah, she directed Zakariyya, not to herself as an intermediary (Mustajāb al-du’ā), but to The Responder of prayers (Mustajīb al-du’ā). Allah is portrayed as a Being with a will, knowledge and power, wholly transcendent, yet nearer to His creation than they are to themselves.

In the midst of debating whether Maryam was a prophet or not, a significant and powerful lesson can be overlooked. It was Maryam who inspired a prophet with complete tawakkul (trust) in Allah, such that Prophet Zakariyya supplicated to Allah in his old age. One moves beyond debating over titles and begins to appreciate the greatness of the acts of individuals.

Further, the Qur’an teaches its receivers that it should not be reduced to the mere enumeration of how many men and women have been mentioned, but that it is a divine book which transcends trivial gender disputes and brings us back to its very purpose, and that, as the Qur’an describes itself, is as a hādī: a guide.

The news of Isa

When Jibril, peace be upon him, came to Maryam with the news of Isa, her piety shone through her response.

She was alone in this room with a man, and she was startled. It was not a normal situation because she was in a room that no one should have access to except Prophet Zakariyya. Her natural reaction was to seek refuge in Allah. At the same time, she attempted to plant in him in such a prophetic manner: the seed of reformation and turning back towards Allah. She reminds Jibril and she reminds us of Allah’s overwhelming mercy, and that it is knowledge of a compassionate and concerned God which steers one away from wanting to disobey Him.

قَالَتْ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِالرَّحْمَٰنِ مِنكَ إِن كُنتَ تَقِيًّا – 19:18

She said, “Indeed, I seek refuge in the Most Merciful from you, [so leave me], if you should be fearing of Allah”.[2]

Then the news of Isa’s conception was delivered to her. The most critical question for us to reflect on is: what was her reaction? For Maryam, it was going to be a tremendous test of her faith and everything she stood for; as a symbol of piety and chastity, who had been endowed to the mosque since birth, appearing to carry a child conceived out of wedlock would utterly ruin her.

In such circumstances, her immediate surrender to her conception there and then again represents an act of total faith in the will and promise of Allah. Despite the trials ahead of her that she could undoubtedly envisage, she submitted herself to Allah’s will, ready to take on such a responsibility willingly for the sake of her Lord.

Some months later, when Maryam was about to deliver Isa, she withdrew to a remote vicinity in Jerusalem. In this tremendous moment of extreme pain and distress, she let out a plea to disappear into non-existence, worry-stricken about what would become of her and her family. The mental strength she would’ve needed to muster to pass through this ordeal highlights the true strength of her endurance.

Yet even as she was in labour she continued to make her effort: shaded by a palm tree, Allah commanded her to shake the trunk so that she can benefit from the fruits that fall. Alone and in agony, she did not resent this command.

When James Baldwin said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read,” (3) this quote would’ve been aptly completed with, “then you read the Qur’an”. For in the story of Maryam, we experience pain and worry, we experience hope, and we experience the truth of the promise of Allah. 

Then she came out to her people with certainty that, just as Allah was with her in her young age, He will be here with her again. She brought forth Isa in her arms and faced her people, her mind and heart completely fixated towards Him in certainty and conviction despite all the odds against her.

This was the critical moment in which all the worship she had been engaged in had prepared her for. And the promise of Allah was true, and the infant Isa (pbuh) spoke to the people as they levelled accusations against her. In awe of this miracle the people departed, her life saved.

Maryam epitomises the essence of worship as a transformational process to a higher state of moral being. She became an extraordinary example both physically and spiritually. She was not absolved from the responsibilities of motherhood and raised the next spiritual being for his generation. She went beyond the ordinary in submission, devotion and purity. Moreover, her early years of worship were crucial in preparing her for the enormous role she would play in the history of mankind. 

In a world where a woman’s value is measured against the materialistic pursuits of wealth, power, and consumption, always bending to ever-changing social expectations, Islam liberates us and provides us relief from this. Allah gives men and women equal value based on piety – taqwa – a value secularity will never acknowledge. Though the spheres of action may be different, it is the equality of the spiritual soul which Maryam reflects. Thus, we remember her devotion and sacrifice like any prophetic act of devotion and sacrifice. In this way, she becomes a model for both men and women.

 Allah says: 

وضرب الله مثلا للذين آمنواوَمَرْيَمَ ابْنَتَ عِمْرَانَ الَّتِي أَحْصَنَتْ فَرْجَهَا

And Allah sets forth an example for those who believe (men and women) … and Maryam, daughter of Imran, who safely guided her chastity. (4)

(1) Abu Huraira, may Allah be pleased with him, reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No person is born but that he is pricked by Satan and he cries from the touch of Satan, except for Mary and her son.” Sahih Bukhari 3248 & Sahih Muslim 2366

(2) Quran 19:18

(3) “Doom and glory of knowing who you are”. Jane Howard, Life Magazine, Volume 54, No. 21 (p. 89), May 24, 1963

(4). Quran 66:11-12

Marzuqa Karima is a graduate of Ebrahim College having completed the Alimiyyah Programme and subsequent postgraduate course in Hadith studies (Dawra Al-Hadith). Her interest lies in the Hadith sciences, and she has attained ijāza from the likes of Shaykh Akram Nadwi (UK) and Shaykh Hatim al-Awni (Makkah), as well as having studyied for a brief stint in Ammān at the University of Jordan. She is currently pursuing an MA in Islamic Studies at SOAS. She is a student by day and a Taekwondoist by evening.

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