Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Maryam in the Bible and in the Qur'an

Maryam in the Bible and in the Qur’an

Dr. Mozammel Haque

Lord Harries and Lord Ahmed organised a Christian-Muslim celebration meeting in honour of Sayeditana Maryam entitled “Mary in the Bible and in the Qur’an” at the Cholmondeley Room at the House of Lords on Monday, the 28th of March, 2011. This was the first ever real celebration mounted by the All-Party Parliamentary Inter-Faith group. There were two renowned scholars from the Christian and Muslim communities, Archbishop McDonald and Hajj Ahmad Thomson, who gave brief outlines on the theme of Mary. The celebration was attended by parliamentarians, religious leaders from the Christian community, the Muslim Community, the Jewish community, the Hindu community as well as several journalists. There was a short film on Mary from the Christian-Muslim-Jewish Forum after the meeting.

Introductions by Lord Harries

Lord Harries, the chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Inter-faith Group made some introductory remarks and introduced the two speakers. Archbishop McDonald was ordained as a priest in 1974 in the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Chad in Birmingham; he served for a number of years in Oscar College, first of all, as a Lecturer in Moral Theology and after that as a Rector of that College; he worked as a Parish Priest in Sparkhill, Birmingham and then he was ordained Bishop of Northampton in 2001. After that he was appointed Archbishop of Southwark in 2003. He is responsible for the inter-faith relationship of half of the Roman Catholics in England and Wales and although he has retired as Archbishop of Southwark, he is continuing that work.

Archbishop McDonald spoke on the life of Mary for 10 minutes and then Lord Harries introduced Hajj Ahmad Thomson, who embraced Islam in 1973. In his professional life he is member of Gray’s Inn; he was called to the Bar in 1979 and is a practising barrister working in the field of charity, employment, discrimination and Islamic Law. He was a founding member of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, is secretary of Muslim Lawyers (Europe) and is an author of a good number of books. He has been on pilgrimage to Makkah.

Hajj Ahmad Thomson

Hajj Ahmad Thomson, Barrister, began his talk by reciting a few of the many verses in the Qur’an which deal with Maryam, peace be upon her. Hajj Ahmad mentioned that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him, who did not go to school and who could not read or write – and confirmed that the Qur’an was revealed to him by the Angel Jibril (Gabriel): “So it is a powerful message. It is always good to hear some of it.” Then Hajj Ahmad recited in Arabic verses 42 to 48 of Surah Ali ‘Imran from the Qur’an and read the English translation of those verses (reading from the Bewley translation) as follows:

“And when the angels said, ‘Maryam, Allah has chosen you and purified you. He has chosen you over all other women. Maryam, obey your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow.’ This is news from the Unseen which We reveal to you. You were not with them when they cast their reeds to see which of them would be the guardian of Maryam.You were not with them when they quarrelled.

“When the angels said, ‘Maryam, your Lord gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, ‘Isa, son of Maryam, of highest esteem in the dunya and the akhirah, [that is, in this world and in the next world] and one of those brought near. He will speak to people in the cradle, and also when fully grown and will be one of the salihun,’ [that is, of the people who are in the right place at the right time]

“she said, ‘My Lord! How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?’ He said, ‘It will be so.’ Allah creates whatever He wills. When He decides on something, He just says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is. He will teach him the Book and Wisdom, and the Torah [the revelation given to Moses] and the Injil [the revelation given to Jesus], as a Messenger to the tribe of Israel …[Surah Al ‘Imran : 3. 42-48]

After reading the translation, Hajj Ahmad continued, “These two examples of the angels addressing Maryam give us a glimpse of two different periods in her life: one when she was a young girl; and one when she was about to become the mother of Jesus, peace be on them.”

Speaking about a clear line of descent right from the Prophet Abraham down to the father of Hannah who was of course the mother of Mary, Hajj Ahmad said that he had not been aware of Maryam’s genealogy “when I was brought up as a Christian – and maybe I did not look hard enough.” Hajj Ahmad added, “Hannah, who was the mother of Mary was actually married to a man called Imran. Imran was descended from the Prophet Sulayman (Soloman), who was descended from the Prophet Dawud (David), who was descended from Judah, one of the sons of Yaqub (Jacob) – another of whose names was Israel – who was descended from Ishaq (Isaac), the son of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham).”

Purity and Special Station of Maryam

Another aspect which Hajj Ahmad mentioned is the purity and very special station of Maryam: “Hannah made a prayer and she said to God, ‘I dedicate to You whatever is in my womb,’ and she also made another prayer and she said, ‘Don’t let shaytan (Satan) touch whoever is in my womb or any of its offspring.’ And it is said that because of this prayer, when Maryam was born, shaytan could not even touch her – and similarly when Jesus was born, shaytan could not even touch him.” Hajj Ahmad added, “The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, said that every one of the banu Adam (that is, the people who are descended from Adam) is touched by shaytan when they are born – which is what makes them cry at birth – except for these two, because of the prayer of Hannah. So already even before she was born, there was an indication of the purity and special place that had been assigned for Maryam in the unfolding of the prophetic tradition.”

Hajj Ahmad also referred to the Prophetic geneaology of Zakariya: “The Prophet Zakariya (Zachariah) was also descended from Soloman, through the same lineage as Imran. He was married to Ishbah, which is the Arabic name for Elizabeth – and Hannah and Ishbah were sisters. The son of Zakariya and Elizabeth was Yahya, John the Baptist. So again we see within the prophetic family, we see this very close genetic link, as well as the link as regards the message given to mankind about the nature of God, the nature of existence and the guidance that He sent to mankind through His Messengers.”

Referring to Maryam’s relationship with her Lord, Hajj Ahmad said, “We have descriptions in the Qur’an of Maryam’s childhood in the Temple – and that first passage of the two main passages that I recited, mentions the angels speaking to her when she was still a girl, telling her to be obedient to God and to worship Him – and we also have a description of Zakariya coming into her room and finding her eating food and he asks, ‘Where did you get this food from?’ and she says, ‘It has been provided for me by my Lord.’ This was in fact food from the Garden, food from Heaven, from the Unseen. And again this is an indication of her purity and her special station, that she was given food from the Garden.”

Coming of Jesus – identical

There are many ayahs (verses) throughout the Qur’an which refer to Maryam and there is a chapter in the Qur’an which is entitled Maryam in honour of her. Then Hajj Ahmad referred to the second passage which really refers to the coming of the Angel Gabriel to her: “When Jibril (Gabriel) came to tell her that you are going to be the mother of Jesus, he appeared as a handsome man. And as we all know, this is where, if you look at the Christian tradition and the Muslim tradition, it is almost identical, word for word: ‘You are going to be the mother of Jesus.’ And she says, ‘How can I be, when I have not been touched by any man?’ And she is told, ‘It is by the command of your Lord,’ – and He can do anything, including the creation of the whole of the universe and everything it contains.”

God bestowed the highest station to Maryam

God has bestowed the highest station to Maryam. When speaking of the reference to Maryam in the Qur’an as an example of a believer, Hajj Ahmad said, “And then God gives the example of Maryam – and this is the highest station. We also have a hadith (prophetic saying) from the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, that enough for you – meaning that these are the best examples for you – are Maryam the mother of Jesus, Asiya the wife of Pharoah, Khadija (who was his first wife) and Fatima, who was his daughter from whom all the members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad are subsequently descended during the last 14 centuries up until now, blessings and peace be on all of them. So we have these indications again and again and again, right from before she was born and after, that Mary had a very high station with her Lord. And this was a station which no human being could confer on her – it was a station for which she was created.”

Miraculous figure of Mary

There then followed a lively Questions & Answers session when different questions were asked, especially as to whether Mary was a miraculous figure in her own right. Archbishop McDonald replied, “I think the key point is about two things about Mary – which I think as, if you like, the act of God: one is the virgin birth and the other is the fact that she was without sin from the outset. These two things, we call the virgin birth and the immaculate conception.”

Significance of Mary

On this question, Archbishop McDonald replied, “I think regarding the person of Mary as someone with whom we can engage, it is to engage together with Mary in whatever way our traditions commit us and encourage us – and to allow spontaneous responses and affective responses (and not just intellectual responses) to be shared; that is what I would suggest.”

Hajj Ahmad’s reply was, “I think regarding Mary there is no dispute about who she is and how she lived: she was very pure, she is a very good example and she was the mother of Jesus. This is something about which we have complete and concrete agreement on. Therefore there is no basis for entering an argument on that. I think that as far as women are concerned in this society, they have a good example. You could say that Maryam is someone who has an unfair advantage over any other woman in the world because of what was destined for her – but at the same time the way she lived was exemplary: she worshipped God without any partner and this is a good example; she was modest; and she had all the fine qualities that a woman can have.”

Limits of the two traditions

Another question asked was: “What are the limits in the two traditions, as regards the past?” Archbishop McDonald replied, “As a Christian, I can engage with and seek to identify with Mary in relation to the crucified Lord and in relation to God who created me. I think the most fruitful, most fertile area for common engagement with Mary would be the annunciation – and not for obvious reasons, the crucifixion, because that is specifically the Christian thing. I think it is a great important principle both in ecumenical dialogue and in interfaith dialogue that we begin with what we can confirm together or by what we can celebrate together – and if any further exploration in building towards more difficult things is indicated, then we can pursue it.”

In contrast, Hajj Ahmad said, “As I understand it, your question is actually looking at what happened before, rather than at anything that comes after – and, looking at the Jewish tradition, certainly the coming of Jesus was expected. I think it is probably mentioned in the Torah somewhere that the coming of the Messiah would take place – and when Jesus came, it happened that some people said yes, he is the Messiah and some Jews said no, he is not – and some say even nowadays that they are still waiting for the Messiah. The Christians obviously said yes, he is the Messiah – he came and he has gone. The Muslims say yes, he was the Messiah, he was not crucified, he was taken up into the Unseen – and he will be coming back. This is what the Muslims believe from the Qur’an.”

Hajj Ahmad continued, “And the Qur’an says that when Jesus returns, then the People of the Book, the people who received the earlier divine revelations, will then believe in the final revelation of the Qur’an without any disagreement whatsoever – because it will be very clear at that point that he is the Messiah, come back for the second time as far as the Christians and the Muslims are concerned, and arrived for the first time as far as the Jews are concerned. So there is still more confirmation to come in the future – but it does go right back to the time of Moses. That is why the genealogy I was giving earlier in my talk confirms actually how close all the Messengers of God and all the Prophets of God are in the Prophetic tradition – certainly as regards those who were post-Abraham, but also those who were pre-Abraham, because they all came originally from Adam and Eve. So we see that within the Prophetic tradition they were related genetically as well as by their message and function.”

The Roman Catholic duty priest commented, “Surely the main attribute of Mary is that she embodies someone who heard the word of God and kept it – and this is true for both of our traditions – and as a result of which she was able to answer the call of the archangel Gabriel.”

Hajj Ahmad replied, “I think that is a very good point that you have made. If I could, I would just like to add one point to the Bishop’s: as regards that great gathering, that gathering of 5,000 people is concerned, I find it very interesting that in the Gospel of Barnabus, the reason for that gathering is given: it was to give everyone a clear understanding of who Jesus was by letting Jesus prove that he was not God. So he asked a scribe, ‘Doesn’t it say in the Torah that God has no beginning and no end?’ – and the scribe said, ‘Yes, thus it is written.’ Then Jesus said, ‘I have a beginning and an end – so I am not God.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Doesn’t it say that God never sleeps, nor slumbers?’ – and the scribe said, ‘Yes, that’s what it says in the Torah,’ and Jesus said, ‘I have to sleep – so I am not God.’ And then Jesus said, ‘Is it not true that it says in the Torah that God has created everything in the heavens and the earth?’ – and the scribe said, ‘Yes, that is what it says,’ and Jesus said, ‘I could not even create a fly.’ Then the people said, ‘Then who are you?’ and Jesus said, ‘I am a Messenger of God.’”

Lord Harries

After the Q & A session, Lord Harries made the following closing remarks: “I have been involved in inter-faith dialogue for quite a long time and in my experience, there are three main fundamental principles. First of all, it is a way of understanding – of letting people define themselves in their own terms; secondly it is a way of affirmation – trying to identify and find common ground; and thirdly it is a way of sharing. It seems to me that we have certainly done the first two today: people have defined the subject in their own terms. I think this is very important.”

I think one of the ways in which inter-religious relationships are poisoned,” continued Lord Harries, “is because of the caricatures which society inherit – and we have to get beyond that and people have to define themselves in their own terms and secondly to identify a lot of common ground.”

Lord Harries concluded by saying, “And my third point is that whereas some people think wrongly that in order to engage in interfaith dialogue you have to criticise your most cherished convictions and try to find a sort of lowest common denominator of religion, in fact, in a true dialogue you have to share differences as well as what you have in common – and my own experience is that if you can build up relationships which rely on respect and trust, so also you can share differences as well as affirm the common ground.”

Lord Ahmed

After thanking everyone for coming and especially Caroline Jean from the Mary foundation because, “it was her idea that inspired me and prompted us to decide on all this,” Lord Ahmed said, “I think it is important to have this type of event where Maryam, peace be on her, brings everybody together – because we have seen too much of the Christian Minister in Pakistan who was murdered by extremists in Lahore and Terry Jones the so-called Pastor who burnt the Qur’an in the United States last week – that creates the differences and the hatred. It is important that we do bring people together.”

An Interview with Archbishop McDonald

After the conclusion of the celebration, I had the opportunity to talk to Archbishop McDonald and interview him regarding the common ground where both Christian and Muslim traditions can meet. The Archbishop confirmed, “The virginity of Mary is accepted by both traditions.”

As regards the understanding that Jesus spoke to people from the cradle, which is what Muslims believe, the Archbishop said, “We don’t believe this – that is not part of our tradition. This is a point of difference.”

On the point of the annunciation, the Archbishop said that both traditions can meet on this: “The story is told differently, but the key element of the story is held in common. The important thing is to engage first to our lady and then to engage with each of the stories of the annunciation together – and that we can do.”

On the question of the holiness of Mary, which the Muslim tradition accepts, the Christian tradition does not. The Archbishop said, “No, it is different. The main difference is our understanding of Jesus Christ, because we see the holiness of Mary as coming from the redemption of Christ – so we see the source of the holiness differently.”

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