Jesus Christ holds an exalted status in Islam. Such a view is nurtured by his prophethood, unique conception, and birth. So unique is Christ’s birth in the Islamic tradition that the only figure comparable to him in this regard is Adam, the very first human being,
“Indeed, the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam. He created Him from dust; then He said to him, “Be,” and he was” (3:59).
Muslims affirm the supernatural virgin birth of Christ. Through a miracle, God caused the young virgin Mariam (the Arabic term for Mary) to conceive without the aid of a man. Mary is no doubt viewed as an exceptional figure in Islam. She is the offspring of priestly descent (3:35) and a whole chapter (sura 19) of the Qur’an is named after her. She is elevated beyond all other women: “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds” (3:42). An authoritative hadith, Sahih al-Bukhari also attests to Mary’s uniqueness: “Every child that is born is touched by Satan and this touch makes them cry, except Miriam and her son” (6:71). We also learn that when she was young, Mary was raised by Zechariah, the later father of John the Baptist, in the temple,
“So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah. Every time Zechariah entered upon her in the prayer chamber, he found with her provision. He said, “O Mary, from where is this [coming] to you?” She said, “It is from Allah. Indeed, Allah provides for whom He wills without account” (3:37).
It is clear that the Islamic tradition exalts Mary as an exceptional individual because she was chosen by God for a specific purpose. In Q3:45 some angels speak to Mary, revealing: “O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ].” This Jesus is also clearly of much importance. According to Q3:45-51, Jesus will be righteousness, a Messenger sent by Allah to the Children of Israel, a teacher of the Torah and the Gospel, a miracle worker who will cure the blind, the leper, and bring the dead back to life by the permission of Allah. Jesus will teach that Allah is the one true God and that everyone should fear and obey him.
Turning to sura 19 (the chapter with Mary’s name in its title and where will find the Qur’an’s version of the virgin birth), we read that Mary withdraws from her family to an eastern place to be alone. While in solitude, God appears to her in the form of “a well-proportioned man.” Mary is frightened but the angel says that he is from God and reveals God’s promise that she will give birth to a boy. But Mary asks: “How can I have a boy while no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?” (v. 20). But this is certainly no challenge to a God who then decrees what he promised. Mary miraculously conceives and withdraws to a remote place (v. 22). Mary soon-after finds herself in extreme pain and under a palm tree. She laments: “I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten” (v. 23), but God provides her a stream to drink from and dates from a tree. Mary refreshes herself and then takes the newborn Jesus to her people (v. 27). Beholding this they chastise her: “They said, “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.” Mary does not defend herself against these accusations but points instead to her baby. The people then cry out: “How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?” (v. 29). And then to the astonishment of everyone the baby Jesus speaks and declares,
“Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive. And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive” (v. 30-33).
What should the neutral reader make of the Qur’an’s version of Mary and the child Jesus?
Most conspicuous is that some of the Qur’an’s stories have clear parallels to other ancient materials. For example, the story of Mary’s pious youth while growing up in the temple under the supervision and guidance of priest Zechariah in Q3:37 can be found in the earlier apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. The Protoevangelium was authored around 400 or so years prior to the Qur’an’s composition and embellishes Mary’s story to a great degree as to elevate her status. Elevating important biblical persons from the Christian New Testament was a common feature of the apocryphal texts, many of which evolved over the centuries post the first century CE and prior to the advent of Islam in the seventh century CE. In all probability, the Prophet (or his followers) came across these stories from Christians living in the Arabian peninsula who evidently accepted the embellished, aggrandized accounts of Mary and included them in the Qur’an thinking they were historical fact.
Another story with apocryphal parallels is found in Q3:49. Here we read that one of the signs that Jesus is God’s Messenger is that he will create clay birds into whom he will breathe life. This story has no parallel in the New Testament sources but first emerges in an apocryphal work of a later anonymous author. The Jesus of this apocryphal text, called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (probably written around 150 or so years after the historical Jesus), performs numerous unusual feats, including causing a boy to wither to death for draining Jesus’ pools of water (Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2:2), striking the parents of the boy he had withered to death blind for complaining to Joseph (Jesus’ father) (5:1), killing another boy who accidentally knocks into him while running (4:1), killing a teacher who physically disciplines him for disobedience in the class (13:2), and so on. Oddly, Jesus reverses all of these curses (8:1-2 and 14:2-4), partly in response to his teacher Zacchaeus identifying him as a supernatural being. The episode of the child Jesus creating clay birds in a riverbank is also found in 1:2 of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The Jesus of this text is remarkably unusual and legendary, a point which has fascinated scholars. This fascination is not about who the historical Jesus really was (this source is not generally taken to constitute a reliable historical testimony to the ministry of Christ as are some earlier materials) but for how Christian communities in the late second century CE viewed him. In the case of this story’s inclusion in the Qur’an, it is likely that the Prophet (or his followers) heard it from some Christians. These Christians likely accepted the Infancy Gospel of Thomas’ depiction of Jesus without knowing better, which was not uncommon for many Christian communities in the centuries post Christ’s death and the emergence of the church.
What is further interesting is that the Qur’an gives Mary the title “sister of Aaron” (19:28). However, Aaron was the Prophet Moses’ brother we read about in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) and probably lived more than 1300 years before Mary’s own time. This is a perplexing detail but it is possible that the Qur’an confuses the mother of Jesus, Mary, with Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 15:20). The Qur’an (3:35 and 66:12) also gives Mary’s father’s name as Imran (the Arabic for the Hebrew Amram; according to Numbers 26:59 of the Pentateuch the father of Aaron, Moses, and Miriam was Amram), which seems to support the idea that the Qur’an confuses Mary with Miriam.