In the Company of Prophets: The Raised Status of Mary in the Quran

Mary gave birth to Jesus alone, beneath a date palm, and her pain is described in the Quran.

In order to show how Allah the Exalted raised up the status of Mary/ Maryam the mother of Jesus/ ‘Eissa and why this is significant, it’s imperative to know the characteristics of true prophets. This is because after examining these characteristics and comparing them with Mary’s life as narrated in the Quran, it is clear that she meets all the qualifications of a prophet; all that prevented her from being called a prophet was her gender which in the society of her time could not assume a traditional leadership role or earn the degree of respect required for that role. Both her story and that of the prophets contain fascinating and revealing details often disregarded or not given much study.

Seven Characteristics of Prophets Fulfilled by Mary/Maryam

Before even listing these seven major characteristics, it should be noted that Maryam/ Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned in Surah Al- Anbia’ (The Prophets) in a list (21:48-91) of 17 prophets, some of whom are described at greater length, itself strong evidence from the Quran that she has been accorded prophet status, considered “in the company of” those men who were given prophethood. That reference describes Mary and her son Jesus rather than mentioning them by name, the description making their identity unmistakable. Her description precedes that of Prophet Jesus, and both are in the same aya, thus showing how her unique relationship to him brings her into the company of prophets. Both are described as a sign, itself a significant shared role.

And [mention] the one who guarded her chastity, so We blew into her through Our Spirit [Jibreel], and We made her and her son a sign for the worlds.

Surah Al-Anbia’ (The Prophets) 21:91

And now the really fascinating part. The prophets’ seven major characteristics, and how Mary/ Maryam fulfilled them, are listed below:

Jesus was Mary’s “Message” or “Word” sent through Jibreel

1) Each prophet was given a message from Allah to deliver to his people. The message could be in the form of a book, as with the Quran, the Injeel (Gospel), or the Torah. It could also be an oral message. In the case of Prophet Noah (Nooh), the oral message was physically supplemented by the building of the ark, both a means of survival through the coming flood and a symbol of Allah’s protection and the truth of His revelations regarding the future. The Quranic aya below refers to prophets as messengers; the word “prophet” in Arabic being nabiyi coming from the root meaning “to call” as in calling people to come and hear something important, and “messenger” or rasoul being “one who delivers,” like a courier, for example. The terms are used interchangeably.

And We have sent messengers before you and We have made for them spouses and offspring. It was not for a messenger to come with any sign/ miracle except with the permission of Allah; for each period there is a Book. 

Surah al-Raad 13:38

Mankind was [of] one religion [before their deviation]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. 

Surah Al-Baqara 2:213 (excerpt)

>> For Mary, Jesus (‘Eissa) was her message, and that is (at least clearly one reason) why he was called “word.”  

[And mention] when the angels said, “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].”

Surah Al-Imran 3:45

“The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him.” 

Surah Al-Nisa’ 4:171  (Excerpt)

This sense of Jesus as “word” is emphasized by the fact that he “spoke from the cradle to maturity” (3:46, 5:110), and in fact, spoke to his mother in the manner of a mature, understanding adult when he was just newly born

And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten!”

Surah Maryam 19:23

But he (infant Jesus) called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream./ (24) And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. (25)  So eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say, ‘Indeed, I have vowed to Al-Rahman abstention, so I will not speak today to any person.’ ” (26)

Surah Maryam 19:24-6

This shows us how unprecedented the birth process was, how Jesus himself comforted and advised her, having the body of an infant but the mind and speech of an adult; what was emphasized was his speaking, just as a sacred message is also recited from the Spirit Jibreel to a prophet, who in turn recites it to his people. And indeed, Jesus was specifically sent to the children of Israel, Mary’s “people,” thus helping her fulfill this characteristic of a prophet. Even when she was carrying the baby and encountered her shocked relatives who admonished her for what they mistakenly thought was immorality, she abstained from speech as her infant had advised, pointing to Jesus who began to speak on her behalf and his, giving an impressive discourse on being a prophet (see towards the end of this post) — leaving them, of course, speechless.

Mary Visited by Jibreel Alone (not as wife of prophet)

2) Each prophet was visited by the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel), who delivered Allah’s message to him.

As an example, the aya below refers to Jibreel by name as the one who sent the Quran into prophet Mohammad’s heart.

Say: “Whoever is an enemy to Jibreel (Gabriel), then know that he has sent it down into your heart with the permission of Allah, authenticating what is with him, and a guide and good news for the believers.” 

Al-Baqara 2:97

Not only to Prophets Mohammad and Jesus, but to all prophets:

يُنَزِّلُ الْمَلَائِكَةَ بِالرُّوحِ مِنْ أَمْرِهِ عَلَىٰ مَن يَشَاءُ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ أَنْ أَنذِرُوا أَنَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا أَنَا فَاتَّقُونِ

He sends down the angels with the Spirit from His command upon whom He wills of His servants, [telling them], “Warn that there is no deity except Me; so fear Me.” (Prophets are also referred to in the Quran as “warners”.)

Surah Al-Nahl 16:2

>>>Mary was visited by the Spirit Jibreel, who was accompanied by angels who announced that she would bear a son called Jesus (per 3:45 quoted above), who was called, as stated above, a “word” directed at her, in the sense that Jesus was himself a message she “carried” and literally delivered to her people, as well as her son who would bring a Divine book, the Gospel, to their people.

The Quran gives more accounts relating to the visitation of the Spirit Jibreel. 

And mention, [O Muhammad], in the Book [the story of] Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place toward the east.

Surah Maryam 19:16

فَاتَّخَذَتْ مِن دُونِهِمْ حِجَابًا فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرًا سَوِيًّا

And she took, in seclusion from them, a screen. Then We sent to her Our Spirit, and he represented himself to her as a well-proportioned man. (17) 

Surah Maryam 19:17

The word Ruhina, frequently used in the Quran to refer to Jibreel, was translated “Angel,” but although Jibreel seems to be in a higher category by himself among the angels — hence perhaps the non-Quranic term “archangel” —, this usage clarifies that this “messenger” is Jibreel, the Ruh Al-Ameen (Trustworthy Spirit) who carries Allah’s messages/ revelations to the prophets. The word for “angel” is a different word, “malak,” but Allah the Exalted more frequently refers to angels in the plural, whereas the Spirit is singular. 

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

Surah Maryam 19:18

قَالَ إِنَّمَا أَنَا رَسُولُ رَبِّكِ لِأَهَبَ لَكِ غُلَامًا زَكِيًّا

He said, “I am only the messenger of your Lord to give you a pure boy.” 

Surah Maryam 19:19

Jibreel is “giving” the “word” (as mentioned elsewhere) who is Jesus, a prophet and also a sign/ message to the Jewish patriarchy that Allah the Exalted can create humans and prophets without their involvement, and women must be respected, for they too, like Mary, can achieve the highest status in matters of faith and exemplary behavior. As to exactly “how” this delivery occurs through the Ruh “Spirit” — an expression often used to refer to Jibreel —, this is beyond the scope of our knowledge.

وَمَرْيَمَ ابْنَتَ عِمْرَانَ الَّتِي أَحْصَنَتْ فَرْجَهَا فَنَفَخْنَا فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِنَا وَصَدَّقَتْ بِكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّهَا وَكُتُبِهِ وَكَانَتْ مِنَ الْقَانِتِينَ

And [the example of] Mary, the daughter of ‘Imran, who guarded her chastity (the Arabic uses the term farjaha which respectfully refers to her private parts/ womb), so We blew into it from Our spirit (Jibreel), and she believed in the words of her Lord and His scriptures and was of the devoutly obedient.

Surah At-Tahrim 66:12

The words in bold are close to the same words used in the creation of Adam, except with Adam, who was created in Allah’s presence before being cast down to earth, the first person singular is used (“(I) blew into him from My Ruh/ Spirit”) whereas here the plural is used (“We blew into it from Our Spirit/ Ruhina).” “Our Spirit” most likely refers to Jibreel, who elsewhere is referred to as Ruhina or “Our Spirit” as well as simply Ruh/Spirit. 

وَالَّتِي أَحْصَنَتْ فَرْجَهَا فَنَفَخْنَا فِيهَا مِن رُّوحِنَا وَجَعَلْنَاهَا وَابْنَهَا آيَةً لِّلْعَالَمِينَ

And [mention] the one who guarded her chastity, so We blew into her through Our Spirit [Gabriel], and We made her and her son a sign for the worlds.

Surah Al-Anbia’ 21:91

The phrase “We made her and her son a sign” affirms that Jesus was himself a “sign” to the Jewish establishment/ patriarchy, as mentioned above, and that Mary herself is clearly also a sign for the same reasons.

Mary was given “signs” in the form of “provision” before Jibreel’s visit, for herself

3) Each prophet had signs or miracles associated with their prophecy, and Prophet Mohammad, the final prophet, was given only one miracle: the Quran, the final Divine revelation, protected from human intervention or adulteration, therefore unchanged, and full of “signs and wonders.” Truly the ultimate Book. We also know the miracles of Moses, to whom Allah gave nine miracles, and Jesus, some of whose miracles are specified in the Quran, as well as other prophets given “signs” to help them gain the trust of the people. 

>>>Mary, too, had miraculous “signs” even before the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus. We are informed in Surat Al-Imran 3:37 (following the du’a of Mary’s mother for Allah to protect her and her descendants from Satan):

So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zachariah. Every time Zachariah 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.”

“Provision” is unspecified, but from her uncle’s reaction we understand it is something unexpected/ extraordinary, given as a gift to her from Allah, as she put it simply. This itself is a miracle specifically for her. The virgin birth is, of course, the most famous miracle associated with her but also with her son, whereas the “provision” is hers alone.

Mary secluded herself from society like other prophets

4) In many narratives of the prophets they had to go away from their community to a place to be alone in order to receive the message, and/or to undergo a purification process. Prophet Moses left his community for forty days to receive the Torah. Prophet Mohammad left his community to the cave repeatedly before receiving the first of a 23-years’-long series of revelations which often responded in real time to the questions people were asking regarding faith and religion. One of the Quranic miracles is that the book was not revealed all at once, yet when the revelations completed, it was compiled into a timeless, universal message that keeps renewing for each succeeding generation, always relevant. Prophet Noah, after Allah revealed to him that no one would believe except those who already had, began to build the ark, in a sense separating from his community to accomplish that task.

>>>Mary used to separate herself from her relatives both before the visitation of Jibreel and what followed. After the birth of Jesus, her relatives were shocked to see her with a baby, knowing her good upbringing, her chastity and her exemplary, prayerful manners. Although infant Jesus miraculously spoke for her as mentioned above, both her pregnancy/ childbirth and suspicious relatives must have been a great test for her, as many prophets also underwent testing periods. The pain of such an exemplary woman being accused of immorality, which in her society was a great humiliation for a woman, may be hard to imagine. But she already had begun to separate herself from her relatives before she had the slightest idea of what would transpire. 

Surat Maryam 19:16 above mentions “she withdrew from her family to a place in the east.” And in 19:17 “and she took, in seclusion from them, a screen.” The “screen” is in Arabic hijab which besides “head covering” can also refer to any covering or barrier from sight, including a screen. This is just before Jibreel appeared to her, with no expectation of such an event, so it indicates her withdrawal from society to be closer to Allah, not unlike Prophet Mohammad’s withdrawing from his community to the cave prior to Jibreel’s visitation. It is like a preparation period before the “message.” And therefore such withdrawal may not have aroused much suspicion, seemingly until childbirth.

So she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a remote place.

Surah Maryam 19:22

As for Mary’s purification, this is specifically mentioned here:

And [mention] when the angels said, “O Mary, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. (42)  O Mary, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow [in prayer].” (43)

Surah Al-Imran 3:42-3

These two verses provide perhaps the strongest proof of Mary’s high status.

Like major prophets Moses and Mohammad, Mary was an orphan

5) Each prophet had father/ son issues, and/ or unusual births. Both Prophets Moses and Mohammad were orphans, and of course, Jesus had no father at all; often orphanhood was defined by the absence of a father. Prophet Abraham asked for a righteous child and was granted two sons, Ishmael (first-born) and Isaac (younger), after he was an old man, and Isaac was born to his barren, menopausal wife. Prophet Zakariya also prayed for and was granted a righteous son, who was Yahya (John) the prophet. Prophet Moses was delivered to a second “father” figure in the Pharaoh, whose wife graciously took him in and thus he escaped from that same Pharaoh’s policy of killing the infant sons of the children of Israel (Jacob). To avoid being killed later after he returned to the Pharaoh by Allah’s command to give him the message of faith in Allah, Prophet Moses literally led, by Allah’s will, his people across the miraculously parted Red Sea to escape from Egypt, the “land of bondage.” Bondage, of course, to the Pharaoh’s (a tyrannical father figure) regime. Prophet Abraham’s father literally had him burned at the stake for toppling his community’s idols, but Allah made the fire “cool and peaceful” on Abraham. Prophet Abraham’s son/ sacrifice story is one of the most famous stories of father/son issues, although the Quran reveals a less familiar narration

>>>Mary was an orphan, like Prophets Moses and Mohammad. Her mother was mentioned as having “pledged” to Allah the child in her womb, so when she delivered a daughter, she was surprised, but also asked Allah to protect “her and her descendants” from the influence of Satan. So “Allah accepted her” and had Prophet Zakariya be her caretaker; he and unnamed others drew lots, using pens, to decide who would take care of her. Presumably her mother had died, although the Quran does not tell us that. Thus Mary herself had an unusual birth, made auspicious by her mother’s du’a and the family into which she was born, but also “troubled” by her being orphaned, her care disputed over, a lack of close or sympathetic family members, and her tendency to prefer prayerful contact with Allah The Exalted to social engagement.

Mary’s pregnancy and childbirth were her test and her rebirth” as Allah’s chosen servant

6) Many prophets, especially the major ones, had to undergo a symbolic or otherwise transformative rebirth. Prophet Moses literally went through 3 rebirths: once as an infant cradled in a tabut (small “ark”) and set afloat to Pharoah’s palace; once after he escaped from Egypt and was “adopted” by his wife’s father after meeting and helping two sisters at a well; and once when the Red Sea was literally parted (the grand rebirth of rebirths) through which Moses and his entire people passed, reborn, “out of the land of bondage”. Prophet Jesus (‘Eissa) had the ultimate unusual birth by a virgin mother, in which he spoke soon after being born, as well as to her relatives, as described above, almost two “births” in one, as an infant in body and an adult in mind. And at the end of his life, he appeared to have been killed on a cross, but in fact, someone who looked similar to him was put in his place (by Allah’s will and means), after which Allah the Exalted raised him up to Himself, following an apparent death with an actual resurrection/ “rebirth”. Prophet Mohammad and his followers’ journey to Medina parallels this pattern, an entire community “reborn” in a new and unfamiliar place, where they were able to regroup, strengthen in power, and eventually retake Mecca for the believers and Allah’s way. Prophet Jonah was reborn from the belly of a whale/ fish, and Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) was reborn from the well where his brothers threw him, yet further examples of this.

>>>Mary was essentially “reborn” when she became pregnant and especially when she delivered Jesus, taking on the responsibility of raising him and managing their lives, as well as facing slanderous accusations from her own people. The Quran doesn’t tell us how she and Jesus were supported in terms of “daily bread” and shelter, but presumably Zakariya helped with that, and perhaps later his prophet-son Yahya. It’s relevant to this question that Maryam also had been receiving “provision” from Allah when she was younger on a regular basis, and indeed, Allah is The Provider.

Like the prophets, Mary was scorned and faced hostility from her own people unjustly

7) Each prophet had to fight against a community or people who had established a religion, way of life, or system (with which they ruled or conducted their lives), which was against Allah’s religion or way/ system in some way. Each prophet was therefore scorned, rejected, harmed, threatened, or even killed by his own people, and endured many difficulties. Examples of this abound: “they killed the prophets without right” (2:61); “why did you kill the prophets of Allah before?” (2:91); “they denied the verses of Allah and killed the prophets without right” (3:112); “and if they deny you (O Mohammad), so did the people of Noah, and ‘Aad and Thamud deny (their prophets)/ and the people of Abraham and the people of Lot/ …and Moses was denied…” (22:42-4). Prophet Mohammad met with such hostility from his community in Mecca that he and his followers moved, in their own “exodus” called the hijra from Mecca to Medina, so significant that the Islamic calendar is called the Hijri calendar and begins with the date of that exodus. This is one of the most outstanding element of the prophets’ lives, the difficult struggle of passing the message to their people, often with very little success, as with Saleh, Hud, Lot, and even Prophet Moses, who died during the wandering period imposed on them by Allah as a punishment for refusing to even try to enter the promised land even with assurances of victory.

>>>Mary faced slander and accusations of immorality from her own relatives and community, the children of Israel, after the birth of Jesus

And [We cursed them] for their disbelief and their saying against Mary a great slander

Surah Al-Nisa’ 4:156

The above quote refers to children of Israel, and is part of a series of curses from Allah on them for different examples of rejection and wrongdoing, such as “breaking of the covenant,” “denial of the signs of Allah,” “killing of the prophets without right,” and saying “our hearts are impervious.” Below, the Quran reveals another aspect of this, in their reaction to Jesus’ death which also shows their resistance to his message during his lifetime, a fact that is also upheld in the Christian tradition. Unfortunately, the Christians also deviated but into the direction of worshiping Jesus as a god (which we will not get into here), a belief that may be possibly buttressed by the response of the Jews to his death as below.

And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him for certain.

Surah Al-Nisa’ 4:157

This myth of crucifixion implies a flaw in Allah’s mercy, to allow the killing of the prophet who came to bring back the wisdom of a more tolerant and merciful faith to the Jews, who had deviated and become an entrenched religious hierarchy as mentioned above. The Christian mythology of Christ saving humankind by that death may have been devised as a way of dealing with this, instead of considering that it could be a lie. Just as the Jewish myth of Mary having a “betrothed” or fiancé, something that didn’t exist at the time, named Joseph, accompany her on a tour of the area, where “there was no room for them at the (Holiday) Inn” — was invented to hide the true story of an extraordinarily brave woman facing false accusations of immorality, and the humiliation of that, plus giving birth as a virgin without a midwife or any help, entirely alone, with no supporter but Allah!

The whole idea and fact of a virgin birth challenged the children of Israel’s political, social, and religious patriarchy which had deviated over time from the messages of the great prophets to an entrenched political, moral, and social authority which tolerated immoral and oppressive behavior from leaders, but enforced repressive and punitive laws against women and other less-empowered people. From the ayat above, and other Quranic narratives, one can sense that women’s agency in their lives was reduced, and arbitrary and vengeful behavior was tolerated from men, a dogmatic approach having been established where generally punitive laws superseded more forgiving and tolerant directives, thus established patriarchal leaders had grown arrogant and repressive. Mary’s high status in the eyes of God made her the perfect counterforce, along with the lack of male involvement in procreation, key to the ideology of male dominance/ superiority. Thus Jesus’ mission as prophet was one of reviving the practice of charity, forgiveness, compassion, mutual respect, tolerance, and respect for all people including women, a message he is known for to this day. 

After all, the prophets, as indicated by their characteristics above, were never, strictly speaking, “traditionalists,” but more “iconoclasts,” as with the example of Prophet Abraham who literally broke the idols worshiped by his father and his community. Prophet Moses, after he discovered his people worshiping the golden calf, broke the tablets containing the Torah in rage. Allah the All-Knowing chose Moses as a prophet because of his righteous, iconoclastic spirit, where he tolerated no idolatry or hypocrisy. Other prophets each came with “signs” and messages to fight against entrenched and oppressive dogmas, as people tend to develop if they have some degree of success, and reinforce the Divine message of justice, compassion, charity and voluntary sharing/ distribution of wealth, and forgiveness between people, as well as faith in Allah/ God and trustworthiness and honesty in themselves. 

So in that sense, the prophets were “rebels” against the arrogance and denial into which society’s cultural, religious, and political “elites,” including leaders and the wealthy, tend to devolve. For much (but not all) of history such elite establishments were patriarchies.

Thus Allah made Mary an exemplary empowered woman without a husband’s authority over her as a rebuke and sign against the Jewish patriarchy & its injustices

So with Maryam/ Mary we have an empowered woman attaining a rank or level of respect previously associated only with men, that of prophet. And here is her son, declaring, as an infant, to his mother’s suspicious relatives, 

[Jesus] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. (30) And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive. (31) And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. (32) And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.” (33)

Surah Maryam 19:30-3

Imagine hearing this speech, spoken by a baby with the delivery and language of an adult, with obviously no one coaching him. It would be, somehow, terrifying. And there are unusual aspects to it even beyond who is the speaker. One is, this unheard-of and frightening creature is pledging to be dutiful to his mother, standing there mute beside him. Any sane person would avoid messing with his mother at this point. These were the children of Israel, from the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and beyond. When it came to something like this, they knew Allah could indeed do whatever He wished, and such things were by their very nature surprising and fear-inspiring. And could have dire consequences. With this capability of speech and devotion, Jesus was not only Mary’s child but also her protector and ally in what would be a hostile or suspicious society, with the exception of those believers who stood with him and were inspired by his message of faith, which was founded on compassion and justice. 

Another aspect of the speech was his saying “He has not made me a wretched tyrant,” perhaps reminding the women (and possibly also men) surrounding mother and baby of certain arrogant men among them whose treatment of them or other women they knew was, shall we say, on the tyrannical side. Or perhaps reminding them of certain oppressive leaders. Jesus’ final statement (and final aya in this sequence) may be more significant to modern-day readers: “peace is on me the day…I will die” testifies against the idea of his having been crucified. But we will leave that point for a later discussion. 

Perhaps the believing women of the world, inspired by Mary’s story and her tribulations, will be more willing to see the truth when it is told, as it has been since the Quran was sent, and revive the message of justice, charity, and mutual compassion and respect without resorting to worshiping a man who, regardless to how he died, could never interfere in God’s justice if He, the All-Wise and All-Knowing and Just, was presented with a tyrant and rejecter of God Himself. It’s the law of reciprocity: how do you expect God’s acceptance if you never accepted God? And what would happen to the scales of justice if a criminal and mass murderer were to receive the same reward as the patient and kind one who helped those in trouble or in need? Mary’s contribution to raising awareness of the scales of justice is enormous by the grace of Allah. Acknowledging this fact can make all of us better human beings, and better servants of the Most High. 

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