In the Quran (Surat Al-Imran 3:42), Allah describes Maryam (Mary), who had not yet borne Aissa (Jesus), this way:
وَإِذْ قَالَتِ الْمَلَائِكَةُ يَا مَرْيَمُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ اصْطَفَاكِ وَطَهَّرَكِ وَاصْطَفَاكِ عَلَىٰ نِسَاءِ الْعَالَمِينَ
And the angels said: “O Maryam, Allah has selected you and cleansed you, and He has selected you over all the women of the worlds.
We shall show in this analysis how Allah has raised her to the level of prophet, how she meets the criteria of that level, and what this means for her gender.
Chosen over “all the women of the worlds,” or alaalameen, a commonly used expression emphasizing all, must be very significant. It does not give her “divine” properties, as some assert (which would make them mushrikeen or idolators), but it does give her an elevated status.
Continuing from the Quranic passage above, we read in Surat 3:
إِذْ قَالَتِ الْمَلَائِكَةُ يَا مَرْيَمُ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُبَشِّرُكِ بِكَلِمَةٍ مِّنْهُ اسْمُهُ الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ وَجِيهًا فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ وَمِنَ الْمُقَرَّبِينَ
When the angels said: O Maryam, surely Allah gives you good news with a Word from Him (of one) whose name is the Messiah, Aissa son of Maryam, beautiful (or worthy of regard, but has the sense of actual beauty) in this world and the hereafter and of those who are close (to Allah).
The use of “Word” here, referring to Aissa (Jesus), reminds one of the Gospel of John where the same expression is used. But here in the Quran we learn something more about what it means. Why would “a Word” from Allah be given to Maryam (Mary)? And why would a human being, a prophet, be referred to as a “word??”
The birth of Aissa occurred when Maryam was in a place away from all society, set apart, and completely alone. She endured the pain of childbirth with no one to assist her but Allah.
فَحَمَلَتْهُ فَانتَبَذَتْ بِهِ مَكَانًا قَصِيًّا
And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.
Note: Although one can assume she delivered in “a far place” to be away from her relatives, who surely would wonder how she happened to get pregnant while never having been married or “touched by a man,” nonetheless she “delivered” “the Word” in a place set apart from other people. One could say also that she “received the Word,” the “Word” being in this case the prophet Aissa (Jesus), who spoke as an infant. To speak as an infant is a miracle with a message: that relative to Maryam, Aissa IS the message, her message (Word) to the world.
فَأَجَاءَهَا الْمَخَاضُ إِلَىٰ جِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ قَالَتْ يَا لَيْتَنِي مِتُّ قَبْلَ هَٰذَا وَكُنتُ نَسْيًا مَّنسِيًّا
And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: Oh, would that I had died before this and had become a thing of naught, forgotten! 19:23
Maryam’s suffering occurs when she is entirely alone — not only the physical pain of childbirth, but knowing she must face the certain embarrassing and indeed humiliating accusations of her family, whom she fears — justifiably as it turns out — will not believe her when she says Allah created the infant in her womb without a human father.
This type of difficulty and pain is characteristic of prophets, who face ridicule and other suffering including in some cases being killed, once they take on the task of delivering the message given to them from Allah.
19:24 فَنَادَاهَا مِن تَحْتِهَا أَلَّا تَحْزَنِي قَدْ جَعَلَ رَبُّكِ تَحْتَكِ سَرِيًّا
Then (one) cried unto her from below her, saying: Grieve not! Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you,
19:25 وَهُزِّي إِلَيْكِ بِجِذْعِ النَّخْلَةِ تُسَاقِطْ عَلَيْكِ رُطَبًا جَنِيًّا
And shake the trunk of this palm tree; it will cause ripe dates to fall upon you.
فَكُلِي وَاشْرَبِي وَقَرِّي عَيْنًا فَإِمَّا تَرَيِنَّ مِنَ الْبَشَرِ أَحَدًا فَقُولِي إِنِّي نَذَرْتُ لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ صَوْمًا فَلَنْ أُكَلِّمَ الْيَوْمَ إِنسِيًّا
So eat and drink and be consoled. If you see any human being, then say: ‘I have vowed an abstinence for the Almighty, so I will not talk today to any of mankind.’
Here the infant Aissa actually speaks to her. Now she has been transformed, reborn herself, one could say, as a mother — the mother of a prophet, and someone Allah has honored, protected, and to whom He has granted miracles and signs. For the miracle of speaking as an infant is not listed among Aissa’s miracles. Rather it is only mentioned in the Quran associated with Maryam’s childbirth and Aissa’s birth. The Word she has delivered speaks for her, and she herself, although capable, does not speak, as a “sign” and protection from Allah, letting Aissa miraculously speak — thus showing her skeptical relatives that Allah chose her to “deliver” this “message.”
19:27 Then she came to her people carrying him. They said: “O Mary, you have come with a thing totally unexpected!”
فَأَتَتْ بِهِ قَوْمَهَا تَحْمِلُهُ قَالُوا يَا مَرْيَمُ لَقَدْ جِئْتِ شَيْئًا فَرِيًّا
19:28 “O sister of Aaron (Haroun), your father was not a wicked man, and your mother has never been unchaste!”
يَا أُخْتَ هَارُونَ مَا كَانَ أَبُوكِ امْرَأَ سَوْءٍ وَمَا كَانَتْ أُمُّكِ بَغِيًّا
Here is the implied accusation against Maryam of being “unchaste,” exactly what she had feared. But Allah has given her the Word, and the Word speaks for her.
19:29 So she pointed to him. They said: “How can we talk to someone who is a child in a cradle?”
فَأَشَارَتْ إِلَيْهِ قَالُوا كَيْفَ نُكَلِّمُ مَن كَانَ فِي الْمَهْدِ صَبِيًّا
Here her relatives acknowledge that this is an impossibility. The miraculous nature of what is about to occur is tacitly acknowledged.
19:30 He said: “I am a servant of God, He has given me the Book and made me a prophet.”
قَالَ إِنِّي عَبْدُ اللَّهِ آتَانِيَ الْكِتَابَ وَجَعَلَنِي نَبِيًّا
19:31 “And He has made me blessed wherever I am, and He has charged me with the salat prayer and charity purification (zakat) as long as I am alive.”
وَجَعَلَنِي مُبَارَكًا أَيْنَ مَا كُنتُ وَأَوْصَانِي بِالصَّلَاةِ وَالزَّكَاةِ مَا دُمْتُ حَيًّا
Thus simply by speaking, even though his words do not directly refer to his mother to exonerate her from their accusations, infant Aissa shows them a miracle. And by this miracle, they are shown that this is no ordinary birth. That itself gives them pause.
19:32 “And to be dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a mischievous tyrant.”
وَبَرًّا بِوَالِدَتِي وَلَمْ يَجْعَلْنِي جَبَّارًا شَقِيًّا
19:33 “And peace be upon me the day I was born, and the day I die, and the Day I am resurrected alive.”
وَالسَّلَامُ عَلَيَّ يَوْمَ وُلِدتُّ وَيَوْمَ أَمُوتُ وَيَوْمَ أُبْعَثُ حَيًّا
Prophet Aissa (Jesus) is “dutiful” and shows honor to his mother, who is not only a mother of a child destined to be a prophet, but also a mother solely by having received “a word” from Allah (God), not as a result of conjugal relations with a man, and hence no ordinary mother, but a woman whose child was given to her “as a word from Allah.”
Thus Maryam the mother of Aissa (Jesus) delivered a “Word” — message — to her people: the first criterion of a prophet. Second, that “Word” was “brought” to her from Allah via Jibreel (Gabriel): the second criterion of a prophet. Third, Maryam went away from people to be alone when “delivering” the “Word,” thus meeting the third criterion of a prophet. Fourth, she came with miracles or signs, in her case both before and after receiving and delivering the “Word.” The signs prior to receiving the Word in her womb (like an ark) are the food that would miraculously appear in the place where she prayed , and the request of her mother that she be an upright servant of Allah (as many prophets were born after similar requests, including her cousin Yahya — albeit she didn’t know she would have a daughter nor did she request a specific gender for her child).
Although these qualifications give Maryam (Mary) the status of prophet, she did not lead a people or nation as a prophet would, and hence was not a prophet. But as one can easily see, Allah went to great lengths to accord her all the signs of a prophet, as well as the important characteristic of being faithful and God-fearing. And the virgin birth is also a way of untethering Maryam from the necessity of a man’s presence to attain the highest level of acceptance and honor from Allah the Almighty. Allah shows us that by virtue of her faith and righteousness, she is accorded the highest honor without having to expose herself to men the way men are necessarily exposed to each other (in leading a traditionally patriarchal society).
Thus the Quran gives women, through the example of Maryam, full status and equality with men in the sight of Allah. It is in fact male weakness towards or predisposition against women that precluded female leadership in the societies of that era, for which examples of exception, notably the Queen of Sheba (Saba’), are also mentioned in the Quran. It shows the feminine role is equal to the male role in the sight of Allah, and removes the stigma from femininity in all its roles and possibilities.