Thursday, October 15, 2015

Different Jesus, Different Mary: The Annunciation as Seen in th Qur'an and Wider Than Heaven

In class, we focused on Andrew of Crete and Germanus of Constantinople. We neglected, however, to discuss the readings from the Qur’an. Indeed, at first glance, the selection of a reading from the Qur’an seems rather out of place. After all, the other two readings are both Christian homilies, crafted to teach those celebrating feasts in Mary’s honor. On closer examination, however, the contrasts between the passages illuminate the church’s developing view on who Mary was and why she must be so.

Of course, the Islamic and Christian traditions diverge not only on who Mary is, but who Jesus is as well. To Muslims, Jesus was “one of those who approach near the presence of God” (Qur’an 3.45). To Christians, however, Jesus was more than one close to God. As Andrew of Crete understands it in his “On the Annunciation,” Jesus is he “who was also God himself [and] who combined in perfection the [two] natures from which and in which he was formed” (207). The distinctions below all draw upon this difference; each tradition reinforces its own beliefs. Mary’s identity becomes linked to Jesus’ identity; who Mary is must support the desired idea of who her son is.

As such, the homilies portray Mary’s virginity differently than the Qu’ran. The Mary of Islam loses her virginity when she gives birth to Jesus; “the pains of childbirth came upon her” (Qur’an 19.23). On the other hand, Andrew and Germanus both weave a story that parallels that of Eve in Genesis. In “On the Annunciation,” Andrew writes Gabriel as reassuring Mary: “My manner is not wily nor have I come to lead you astray; nor again does a snake speak to you, hissing, nor am I addressing you from the ground” (213). Germanus, too, in his homily bearing the same name, proclaims:

Today the divinely planted Eden is opened, and the divinely molded Adam, who is again enrolled in it by the goodness of [God’s] benevolence, dwells there!

Today the ancestral sentence of pain has been released, and the invidious humiliation of our ancestress Eve has ceased, along with her wearisome penalty! (222)

In this tradition, unlike in the Islamic one, Mary escapes “the ancestral sentence of pain,” the pain of childbirth God laid on Eve after the fall. In turn, just as Mary parallels Eve, Jesus parallels “the divinely molded Adam” (222). The story of Jesus is the reversal, the inversion of the Fall. Mary’s preserved virginity when giving birth allows this reversal. Without Mary escaping labor pains, Jesus cannot take on the role of Adam and cannot fulfill the transition from the law to grace we discussed in class.

Another difference in the depiction of Mary in the two traditions comes after the birth of Jesus. The Qur’an contains an anecdote not seen in the Christian tradition (at least what of it we have read so far). Interestingly, the angel requests that Mary tell those who question her when she produces Jesus that she has taken a vow not speak that day (Qur’an 19.26). Instead, Jesus, even as an infant, speaks for himself.

I admit I am unsure as to the full implications of this. It seems as though Mary merely follows instructions to maintain silence; she is not struck with silence. Nevertheless, the anecdote calls to mind another story tangential to Mary’s life. It calls to mind the story of John the Baptist’s father, Zachariah, who was struck with silence when he doubted the words of an angel who told him he would father a child. As Andrew of Crete’s angel says, “Zachariah had formerly disbelieved [such a sign] in the inner sanctuaries [of the temple] and did not accept [it]; and it was on account of [this disbelief] that punishment was transferred from his reproductive to his vocal organs and sterility was exchanged for voicelessness (cf. Luke 1.5-20)” (211).

Yet Andrew draws a contrast between Zacharias and Mary, as indicated by the transition “on the other hand” (211). Germanus, here, however, seems to diverge from Andrew’s opinion. While Andrew, by separating Mary’s questioning from Zacharias’s, clearly rules out Mary’s questioning as doubt, Germanus does not. Germanus’ angel actually asks Mary, “why, and on what account, have you so much disbelief” (229). Indeed, Mary’s “disbelief” ties explicitly to Zachariah’s. “The prophet Zachariah, who is also beloved by your kinwoman Elizabeth” the angel instructs Mary, will give you reassurance, [thereby leading you] out of disbelief” (229).

Does the Qur’an’s account of Mary’s silence connect at all to the silence of Zachariah? As noted previously, Mary’s silence seems to be her voluntarily following the angel’s instructions; Zachariah’s silence is imposed because of his doubt. Certainly, in both the Christian and Islamic religious traditions, Mary, as the mother of a significant figure, must be portrayed overall in a positive light. Yet because the Islamic tradition does not see Christ as the son of God, Mary need not fulfill the same set of expectations as in the Christian tradition. She need not take on the role as an Eve, she need not act as the first step to undoing the law and the fall. Her questioning does not serve to show that she is keen to avoid the errors of Eve, the temptation of the serpent. The same tension between the risks of doubt and deception does not exist. Perhaps then the point of Mary’s promised silence is not to censure her for doubt, for questioning, but rather to mark her son as special even from birth by allowing him to speak in her stead.


Andrew of Crete,“Oration on the Annunciation of the Supremely Holy Lady, Our Theotokos” and Germanos of Constantinople, “Oration on the Annunciation of the Supremely Holy Theotokos,” in Wider than Heaven, trans. Cunningham, pp. 197-246.

Qur’an 3:35-51, 19:16-35, trans. George Sale, in Mary: The Complete Resource, ed. Boss, pp. 480-83.



  1. Very nice attention to the detail in both Andrew and Germanos and the Qur'an's depictions of Mary. As I indicated in class (albeit you are right, not on the day we talked about Andrew and Germanos), the Qur'an is clearly drawing on some of the same traditions that they are, most especially the Protoevangelium of James, and seems to have references to some of the other Temple traditions we talked about, including identifying Mary as the sister of Aaron and Jesus as the servant of God, but as you rightly point out, the emphases that the Qur'an gives to Mary and Jesus are very different. I am a little confused, however, by your discussion of Mary's silence in the Qur'an as a way of understanding why Germanos and Andrew give the emphasis that they do to whether Mary expressed doubt: you seem to be suggesting that the Qur'an can suggest she doubted because it does not describe her as the Mother of God, but then you note that Germanos has the angel chide Mary for her disbelief--but surely Germanos overall puts Mary in a very positive light. I am not quite clear where your conclusion leaves us! RLFB

  2. One thing that might be helpful when thinking about the references to Mary in the Qur'an is the potential influence of Nestorian understandings of on the formation of early Islam. It was mentioned off-hand in class that the Nestorians came to largely dominate the eastern regions where Islam emerged and flourished, and it might be prove fertile to compare Nestorius and the Qur'an on this subject.

    It's also very interesting to think what else a connection between Zachariah and Mary might indicate for the reader of Germanus. Certainly, he doesn't want us to think less of Mary, so what might he be trying to get at with this incident?

  3. Thank you for drawing our attention to some of the ways Mary is described differently in the Islamic tradition than from the Christian tradition! In particular, I find it interesting that, as you note, the Mary of the Qur’an feels pain during childbirth and loses her virginity. The opposite of both of these goes on to be an important part of Church doctrine. See, for example, the comparison Conrad of Saxony draws between Mary’s lack of the “woe of original sin” and lack of the “woe of the punishment” of pain during childbirth. Similarly, Mary’s perpetual virginity becomes an important part of what makes her pure enough to be the Mother of God. Yet the importances of perpetual virginity and pain free childbirth were very clearly naturalized after the fact.

    In one of our first classes, we discussed how many naturalizations were spurred by a need to differentiate the developing Christian faith from Judaism. I would be interested to know if the examples you have highlighted are evidence of a similar drive to differentiate Christianity from Islam. It is a pity we did not get a chance to delve a little more into this in class… does anyone with greater knowledge of the relationship between early Christianity and early Islam have an opinion on this?