By Dr. Zahra Kashaniha
Translated by Fatima Sultan
Mary’s Upbringing according to the Qur’an and the Bible
An individual’s nurture and upbringing is based on two conditions: genetic and acquired. Scholars and scientists differ as to whether inheritance or environment is more effective. Some believe that inherited factors are more important than environmental factors, such as August Kent and Herbert Spencer.
On the hand, there are people who believe that environmental factors are more important, such as Stewart Mill and John Locke who believe that many of the intellectual and behavioural characteristics develop and flourish in the environment. The reality is that both groups have actually taken the path of two extremes. Living beings are influenced by both environment and inheritance.18
There are five general factors that bear on one’s upbringing: 1) the instructor, 2) the individual, 3) environment, 4) inheritance and 5) the spiritual and supernatural causes.
For Lady Mary, the instructor was Prophet Zechariah (a) who was given this task by Allah (swt).
The second factor is Lady Mary herself who was a worshipper, always prostrating, bowing, and supplicating. Every opportunity she found at the temple was spent in self-building and acts of worship. She was virtuous, chaste, and far from Satan as Lady Mary’s mother had asked for when she prayed to God:
فَلَمَّا وَضَعَتْهَا قَالَتْ رَبِّ إِنِّي وَضَعْتُهَا أُنثَى وَاللّهُ أَعْلَمُ بِمَا وَضَعَتْ وَلَيْسَ الذَّكَرُ كَالأُنثَى وَإِنِّي سَمَّيْتُهَا مَرْيَمَ وِإِنِّي أُعِيذُهَا بِكَ وَذُرِّيَّتَهَا مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
And when she bore her, she said, ‘My Lord, I have borne a female [child]’ —and God knew better what she had borne — ‘and the male is not like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Your care against [the evil of] the outcast Satan.’ (3:36)
The third factor is the environment. Lady Mary was definitely influenced by a healthy environment. She grew up in the temple, a place where people would come to pray to God.
The fourth factor is inheritance and genetics. As stated in the Qur’an, Lady Mary was from the family of ‘Imran and in His book, Allah has ‘chosen’ the Family of ‘Imran where He says:
إِنَّ اللّهَ اصْطَفَى آدَمَ وَنُوحًا وَآلَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ وَآلَ عِمْرَانَ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ
Indeed Allah chose Adam and Noah and the progeny of Abraham and the progeny of ‘Imran above all the nations. (3:33)
Because ‘Imran is of the Family of Abraham, Allah the Exalted could have simply used Family of Abraham and not have mentioned Family of Imran in the verse. However, due to the virtue of that family (which were no more than three individuals: the mother of Mary, Lady Mary herself, and Jesus), Allah the Exalted separately spoke of the Family of Imran and included them amongst the chosen and dignified.
For this reason, in terms of inheritance and genetics, the originality of Mary’s lineage and her purity is approved by the Qur’an.
The fifth factor is the spiritual and supernatural causes. With regards to Mary’s nobility and spiritual virtues, it is enough to say that in her perfection she rose above the Prophet of her time (Zechariah). This was to the point that every time Zechariah visited her in the Temple, he would see heavenly provisions at Lady Mary’s disposal.
Thus, this good upbringing and proper and complete growth was gathered in Lady Mary and one can say her being chosen was both genetic and acquired. In the Gospel she is only known to be an ordinary person who so happened to be chosen for the birth of Jesus Christ.
According to Islamic narrations, Mary the daughter of ‘Imran was of the lineage of Aaron and Levi, but according to Christian narrations she was not of the lineage of Levi; rather, her ancestry reached King David. Her mother’s name was ‘Hannah’ or ‘Hana’ whose sister was Elizabeth, the wife of Prophet Zecharias.
According to the Qur’an, ‘Imran’s wife had made vow to dedicate her child to serving at the Temple. Even though ‘Imran’s child was a female, they allowed her to worship at the Temple. Hannah named her child Mary, meaning ‘the worshipper,’ and her uncle Zechariah was to convince the priests to allow Mary to live in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
According to biblical sources, Mary was an ordinary girl who would go to Heichal (a place of worship) in Jerusalem only on Jewish holidays. In the Gospel there is no sign of Mary being ‘chosen’ and ‘distinguished’ until the point in time where God spoke to her. According to Christian belief, the basis for why Mary was chosen as the one to give birth to Jesus Christ was simply a decision made by God based on His wisdom.
According to the Qur’an (3:44), the temple priests and the Israelite scholars had a dispute over who should be given Mary’s guardianship and custody. They made a draw by throwing their pens into the water. All of the pens sunk into water and only Zechariah’s pen stayed afloat.
Thus, Zechariah obtained the custody of Mary and built her a room atop the temple; every few days, using a ladder, he would go up to her room and would take essentials for her. Zechariah would also witness her nobility when he visited her:
وَكَفَّلَهَا زَكَرِيَّا كُلَّمَا دَخَلَ عَلَيْهَا زَكَرِيَّا الْمِحْرَابَ وَجَدَ عِندَهَا رِزْقاً قَالَ يَا مَرْيَمُ أَنَّى لَكِ هَذَا قَالَتْ هُوَ مِنْ عِندِ اللّهِ إنَّ اللّهَ يَرْزُقُ مَن يَشَاء بِغَيْرِ حِسَابٍ
…Whenever Zechariah visited her in the sanctuary, he would find provisions with her. He said, ‘O Mary, from where does this come for you?’ She said, ‘It comes from Allah. Allah provides whomever He wishes without any reckoning. (3:37)
Of course when exploring the great status of Mary, we must not forget her mother’s important role. Even though the growth and nurturing of Mary were in the hands of Zechariah, this was still at the final stages of her rearing. Mary’s mother had the worthiness to give birth to a mother of a prophet and she had great insight which made her decide to send her daughter to the temple.
The most important point regarding Mary’s mother is how God accepted her daughter in the best possible way:
فَتَقَبَّلَهَا رَبُّهَا بِقَبُولٍ حَسَنٍ وَأَنبَتَهَا نَبَاتًا حَسَنًا ...
Thereupon her Lord accepted her with a gracious acceptance, and made her grow up in a worthy fashion, and He charged Zechariah with her care... (3:37)
Allah (swt) gave this lady many gifts and blessings and she was capable of safeguarding them. Allah (swt) chooses people for His missions like being role models for people based on His wisdom:
اللَّهُ أَعْلَمُ حَيْثُ يَجْعَلُ رِسَالَتَهُ
“Allah knows best where to place His apostleship” (6:124).
And Mary was an example of this.
We can say that even though Mary was chosen based on her family background, her formation in the womb of her mother and her superb upbringing by her mother, she continued to improve under the guardianship of Zechariah in her nurture and growth. Of course, as mentioned before, her true guardian was Allah.
Mary’s Extraordinary Acts
The virtue and greatness of Mary is made clear in the Qur’an. However, throughout time, Qur’anic commentators have had two opinions. Some Mu‘tazilites like Zamakhshari in his Al-Kashshaf have suggested that Lady Mary on her own was not able to witness and speak with angels. It was a miracle of Zechariah and Jesus and a sign of their greatness that she could have such experiences.
They have suggested that all extraordinary things that happened to Mary were either of Zecharias’ miracles or of the early miracles of Jesus. This is called Irhas (auspice). It is similar to the series of extraordinary events that will take place before the Day of Judgment (referred to as Signs of the Hour). Before the appointment or birth of a prophet, a series of extraordinary events usually take place.
Conversely, people like Qurtabi, a famous Sunni exegete, believe Mary to be a prophet. Their reason behind this belief is because angels would often appear to her and make her aware of Divine Revelations.
Through those revelations they would announce her purity and excellence and give her the glad tiding of becoming a mother to a prophet. Since Mary would receive revelations from the angels and could speak to them and the angels approached and spoke to her, she must be a prophet.
Shi‘a scholars are of the belief that the status and greatness of Lady Mary has to do with herself and not just because of Zechariah or Jesus. Those extraordinary acts were not miracles of Zechariah or Jesus.
They argue for both positions from the Qur’an’s exoteric meaning. According to the Qur’anic passages, all the virtues and extraordinary acts of Mary belonged to herself. The angels spoke to her and appeared to her.
The Qur’an states:
فَاتَّخَذَتْ مِن دُونِهِمْ حِجَابًا فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرًا سَوِيًّا قَالَتْ إِنِّي أَعُوذُ بِالرَّحْمَن مِنكَ إِن كُنتَ تَقِيًّا
And he appeared to her as a well-proportioned human. She said, ‘I seek the protection of the All- beneficent from you, should you be Godwary!’ (19:17 & 18)
At the same time, Shi‘a scholars normally hold that Mary was not a messenger and had not received the legislative revelation. It should be noted that Qurtabi’s idea that Lady Mary was a prophetess may be accepted, but if he meant that she was a messenger, this is incorrect as described earlier.
The reason for differences of opinion between the Qur’an and the Gospels
As mentioned, in regards to Lady Mary and Jesus and many other issues, there are differences between the Qur’an and the Gospels. The Qur’an itself states this notion:
إِنَّ هَذَا الْقُرْآنَ يَقُصُّ عَلَى بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ أَكْثَرَ الَّذِي هُمْ فِيهِ يَخْتَلِفُونَ
Indeed this Qur’an recounts to the Children of Israel most of what they differ about. (27:76)
After relating the story of Mary and the miracle of Jesus, the Qur’an states the following in another section:
ذَلِكَ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ قَوْلَ الْحَقِّ الَّذِي فِيهِ يَمْتَرُونَ
That is Jesus, son of Mary, a Word of the Real concerning whom they are in doubt. (19:34)
According to Professor Michelle Dosch, professor of History of Religions, in the various Gospels, on one account Lady Mary’s name appears five times; and on another, nineteen times. Also, as mentioned earlier, Mary was portrayed only as an ordinary and average girl who so happened to be the mother of a prophet.
In the Gospel, both her early childhood and final stage of her life are unknown. However, in the Holy Qur’an not only is a chapter (Mary) named after her, but her name has also been mentioned thirty-four times with great titles attributed to her.
In order to provide a role model, the Holy Qur’an has used various individuals so that people can use these good exemplars as templates for themselves. Amongst them is Lady Mary, a reliable example for both women and men.
Lady Mary qualifies for an exceptional ideal because of her fine ancestry and her proper upbringing in a healthy environment. Having teachers such as her mother and Zechariah, and considering her abilities and her status before God as one who was deserving of the heavenly provisions sent for her, led to her to become a fine role model.
Ashtiyani, Seyyed Jalaaluddin, Interpretation of the Qaysari’s Introduction to the Bezels of Wisdom (Fusus al-Hikmah), 4th Edition, Qom: the Office of Islamic Propagation, 1375 S.A.H.
Fahim Kermani, Murtadha, Women and Bringing the Message, vol. 2, Tehran: Office of Islamic Cultural Publications, 1374 S.A.H.
Hasan Zadeh Amuli, Mumidd al-Himam (A Commentary on the Fusus al-Hikam), Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Printing and Publishing Organization, 1378 S.A.H.
Hojjati, Mohammad Baqir, Islam and Education, vol. 1, 15th Edition, Tehran; Office of Islamic Cultural Publications, 137 S.A.H.
Ibn Arabi, Muhyiddin, Conquests of Mecca, volume 3, Beirut. Jawadi Amuli, Abdulla, Tasnim, 2nd Edition, Tehran, Isr Publications, 1371 S.A.H.
Jawadi Amuli, Abdullah; Women in the Mirror of Majesty and Beauty, vol. 2, Tehran, Raj Publications, 1371 S.A.H.
Kashaniha, Zahra, Women: the Embodiment of God’s Beauty, 2nd Edition, Tehran, Ramin, 1382 S.A.H.
Majlesi, Muhammad Baqir, Bihar Al-Anwar, 14th Edition, Beirut: Al-Waf Institution, 1403 A.H.
Mutahhari, Murtadha, The Rights of Women in Islam, 27th Edition, Tehran, Sadra, 1378 A.H.
Razi, Fakhr al-DinRazi Muhammad ibn ‘Umar, Al-Tafsir al- Kabir, vol. 2.
Schimmel Annemarie, Tabyin-e Ayat-e Khud vand (Deciphering the Signs of God), Trans. by Abd al-Karim Guw hi, Tehran, Office of Islamic Cultural Publications, 1376 S.A.H.
Tabatabai, Sayyid Mohammad Husayn, Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol. 2, 15th Edition, Tehran, Office of Islamic Cultural Publications, 1370 S.A.H.
Zamakhshari, Mahmud Ibn ‘Umar, Al-Kashshif, Beirut, Dar Al-Ma‘rifah, 1391.
1. Assistant Professor at the University of Shaheed Raj ’i, Tehran.
2. Kasaniha, 1382. p. 119.
3. Jawadi Amuli, 1381, volume 2, p. 326.
5. فَنَفَخْنَا فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِنَا
6. وَصَدَّقَتْ بِكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّهَا وَكُتُبِهِ
7. مِنَ الْقَانِتِينَ
8. Ibn Arabi, volume 3.
9. Schimmel, 1376, p. 449.
10. Qanit has also been defined as preacher (dai). See Majlesi, 1403, p. 207. Therefore, Lady Mary was one of those who preached people towards god. See Fahim Kermani, 1374, pp. 42 & 43.
11. Fahim Kermani, 1374, p. 27.
12. Ibid, p. 15.
13. Gospel, Chapter 21, Verse 7-10.
14. Gospel of Luke, 1378, p. 119.
15. Jawadi Amoli, 1371, p. 143-144.
16. Motahhari, 1378, p. 119.
18. Hojjati, 1370, p. 124.