Surah 3 Al-Imran (The Family of Imran)
‘The male is not like the female.’
The wife of Imran said, “My Lord, I have vowed to You what is in my womb, dedicated, so accept from me; You are the Hearer and Knower.”And when she delivered her, she said, “My Lord, I have delivered a female,” and God was well aware of what she has delivered, “and the male is not like the female, and I have named her Mary, and have commended her and her descendants to Your protection, from Satan the outcast.”
Her Lord accepted her with a gracious reception, and brought her a beautiful upbringing, and entrusted her to the care of Zechariah. Whenever Zechariah entered upon her in the sanctuary, he found her with provision. He said, “O Mary, where did you get this from?” She said, “It is from God; God provides to whom He wills without reckoning.” Thereupon Zechariah prayed to his Lord; he said, “My Lord, bestow on me good offspring from Your presence; You are the Hearer of Prayers.”
Then the angels called out to him, as he stood praying in the sanctuary: “God gives you good news of John; confirming a Word from God, and honorable, and moral, and a prophet; one of the upright.”
He said, “My Lord, how will I have a son, when old age has overtaken me, and my wife is barren?” He said, “Even so, God does whatever He wills.” He said, “My Lord, give me a sign.” He said, “Your sign is that you shall not speak to the people for three days, except by gestures. And remember your Lord much, and praise in the evening and the morning.”
The angels said, “O Mary, God has chosen you, and has purified you. He has chosen you over all the women of the world. “O Mary, be devoted to your Lord, and bow down, and kneel with those who kneel.”
These are accounts from the Unseen, which We reveal to you. You were not with them when they cast their lots as to which of them would take charge of Mary; nor were you with them as they quarreled.
The Angels said, “O Mary, God gives you good news of a Word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest. He will speak to the people from the crib, and in adulthood, and will be one of the righteous.”
She said, “My Lord, how can I have a child, when no man has touched me?”
He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. To have anything done, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”
And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel. A messenger to the Children of Israel: “I have come to you with a sign from your Lord. I make for you out of clay the figure of a bird; then I breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by God’s leave. And I heal the blind and the leprous, and I revive the dead, by God’s leave. And I inform you concerning what you eat, and what you store in your homes. In that is a sign for you, if you are believers.” “And verifying what lies before me of the Torah, and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. I have come to you with a sign from your Lord; so fear God, and obey me.” “God is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is a straight path.”
When Jesus sensed disbelief on their part, he said, “Who are my allies towards God?” The disciples said, “We are God’s allies; we have believed in God, and bear witness that we submit. Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.”
They planned, and God planned; but God is the Best of planners. God said, “O Jesus, I am terminating your life, and raising you to Me, and clearing you of those who disbelieve. And I will make those who follow you superior to those who disbelieve, until the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me is your return; then I will judge between you regarding what you were disputing. As for those who disbelieve, I will punish them with a severe punishment, in this world and the next, and they will have no helpers. And as for those who believe and do good works, He will give them their rewards in full. God does not love the unjust.” This is what We recite to you of the Verses and the Wise Reminder. (v.35–58)
It is well known, in places where Muslims talk to non-Muslims, that there is a chapter of the Qur’an (Surah 19) that is named after Mary. It is also mentioned that Jesus appears frequently in the Qur’an, though not always remarked upon that he is often called ‘Jesus the son of Mary’. In what was a patriarchal culture women were named as the daughter (‘bint’) of their fathers and fathers given the alternative name of father (‘abu’) of so and so. Both Mary and Jesus are at odds with this, they are very special high status characters, Christian readers will be all too aware of this from the Bible, but it is equally true in the Qur’an. They offer a new paradigm of spirituality and closeness to God. This is highlighted in the story in this chapter, which is named ‘The Family of Imran’, Imran being Mary’s father. So Mary and her family are named in two chapters of the Qur’an, not just one.
The wife of Imran, from what I have observed over many years of speaking with and listening to Muslims, is not given any special mention as a key Qur’anic character or female role model, and undoubtedly she is overshadowed by her daughter. Yet, she is vitally important. The idea of a prospective mother vowing to God will be familiar to Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible, it is most likely that we will think of Hannah in the book of Samuel. Muslim writers, especially feminist ones, have noted this. This unnamed woman is not only blessed with an important appearance in Scripture but one of its great lines too: ‘the male is not like the female.’ What did she mean?
So let’s think about the male in these middle-eastern societies, though it is not so very different in our own day and in ‘Western’ society — to be male is to be privileged, to be secure and powerful, to be the hearer/reader that Scripture addresses (and, boy, are you in for some surprises!). To be female is to be insignificant, secondary, less than, endangered (and remember the Qur’an is explicitly a book of female emancipation, it has God’s Word which stands against the contemporary custom of disappointed fathers committing female infanticide) but not because of God. God sees our sexist, patriarchal, misogynistic societies (yes, don’t blame the Book for these things) and says, ‘I’m going to shake this up.’ This is exactly the message that we get from Mary’s mother. She made the vow, probably hoping for and expecting a son, and God gives her a daughter, she is stunned but God has a plan, it does not involve men! Her mother doesn’t know what God has in mind, perhaps she is even asking for a counter-intuitive, counter-cultural fulfilment of God’s promise and intervention. And God knows all this and more. This is such an important theme in the Qur’an, it is a Book of knowing, it gives answers to things that are not known in the Bible, is conveyed from the Divine perspective throughout and keeps the reader on her, or his, toes, it has things up its sleeves, so don’t read it too fast!
Had Mary been a man, she would not have needed protection (though consider that Moses, in both the Biblical and Quranic narratives, is protected and that the Prophet Muhammad was an orphan and was protected by loving family members), as the Qur’an describes. She is triply protected — by God, in her secret room in the Temple and by her uncle/cousin Zechariah. She is not ‘like the male’ because she is not like anyone, even the most pious are staggered by the Divine provision that is made for her, and God only knows how she came to have a special place at the heart of the most male structure of her time, the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah learns from her, she is his teacher, when he sees what God is doing for her his heart is freed to pray for what he wants more than anything — a son (John the Baptist). She is at a prophetic level, close to the level of those who are entrusted with Revelation, even the mainstream has had to ask, even if they have not been able to answer ‘yes’ — is Mary a prophet?
Meanwhile, Mary is visited by angels, who address her with these weighty words, “O Mary, God has chosen you, and has purified you. He has chosen you over all the women of the world.” God does, it seems, normally choose men, until now, but God also does what otherwise does not happen — purified her. This does not mean that she, or women, are impure, she has been especially readied for an encounter with the Divine, which has to be, at the same time, a recognition of her exemplary humanity, which both the Qur’an and Islam consistently say is piety. Mary was tuned into God like no other, the intimate contact and matter of fact speech (‘Oh yes, this table groaning with food has come from the angels’) show this. Only to such a person can the Special Revelation of God be given, the Word. It is not because she was an innocent and submissive young girl, she was an assertive and confident woman who spent her every waking hour thinking of God. This is the woman who becomes the bearer of God’s Word, this makes her the proto-Messenger of her age. After a brief exchange with the angel(s) she then disappears from the story and we will meet her again in Surah 19 with another chance to ponder her story and character. In this story however the Divine Message riffs on who Jesus is — Word and Messiah — a uniquely high status baby. Christians can wonder at why exactly Jesus has such high status in the Qur’an and Islam and we will return to this. But, before we forget Mary, at least some of the description of Jesus here is a foretelling to Mary of what her, as yet unborn, baby will do and say, but only because she has already said ‘Yes’ to God, when too many men either said No or didn’t hear the question. ‘The male is not like the female.’