It was many years ago, in graduate school at Berkeley, that an architectural student from Iraq told me that Islam honoured Mary. So I went looking for her story in the Koran.

The Koran

The day will surely come when each soul will be confronted with whatever good it has done. As for its evil deeds, it will wish they were a long way off. God admonishes you to fear Him. God is compassionate towards his servants.

Say: 'If you love God, follow me. God will love you and forgive you your sins. God is forgiving and merciful'.

Say: 'Obey God and the Apostle'. If they give no heed, then, truly, God does not love the unbelievers.

God exalted Adam and Noah, Abraham's descendants and the descendants of 'Imran [father of Moses and Aaron] above the nations. They were the offspring of one another. God hears all and knows all.

Remember the words of 'Imran's wife 'Lord', she said 'I dedicate to Your service that which is in my womb. Accept it from me. You alone hear all and know all'.

And when she was delivered of the child, she said: 'Lord, I have given birth to a daughter' - God well knew of what she was delivered: the male is not like the female - 'and have called her Mary. Protect her and all her descendants from Satan, the Accursed One'.

Her Lord graciously accepted her. He made her grow a goodly child and entrusted her to the care of Zacharias.

Whenever Zacharias visited her in the Shrine he found that she had food with her. 'Mary', he said, 'where is the food from?' 'It is from God', she answered. 'God gives without stint to whom He will'.

Thereupon Zacharias prayed to his Lord, saying: 'Lord, give me upright descendants. You hear all prayers'.

And as he stood praying in the Shrine, the angels called out to him, saying: 'God bids you rejoice in the birth of John, who shall confirm the Word of God. He shall be princely and chaste, a prophet and a righteous man.

'Lord', said Zacharias, 'how shall I have a son when I am now overtaken by old age and my wife is barren?'

'Such is the gift of God,' He replied. 'He does what he pleases'.

'Lord,' said he, 'vouchsafe me a sign'. For three days and three nights,' He replied, 'you shall not speak to any man except by signs. Remember your Lord always; give glory to Him evening and morning.'

This is an account of a divine secret. We reveal it to you [Muhammad]. You were not present when they cast lots to see which of them should have charge of Mary; nor were you present when they argued about her.

The angels said to Mary: 'God bids you rejoice in a word from Him. His name is the Messiah, Jesus the son of Mary. She shall be noble in this world and in the hereafter, and shall be one of those who are favoured.

He shall preach to men in his cradle and in the prime of manhood, and shall lead a righteous life'.

'Lord', she said, 'how can I bear a child when no man has touched me?'

Antonello da Messina, Annunciation, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo. For which he has used as model an Arab Sicilian girl who looks up from prayer at the moment of the Angel's Message.

He replied: 'Even thus. God creates whom He will. When he decrees a thing, He need only say: 'Be,' and it is. He will instruct him in the Scriptures and in wisdom, in the Torah and in the Gospel, and send him forth as an apostle to the Israelites. He will say, 'I bring you a sign from your Lord. From clay I will make for you the likeness of a bird. I shall breathe into and, by God's leave, it shall become a living bird. By God's leave, I shall heal the blind man and the leper, and raise the dead to life. I shall tell you what to eat and what to store up in your homes. Surely that will be a sign for you, if you are true believers. I come to confirm the Torah which preceded me and to make lawful to you some of the things you are forbidden. I bring you a sign from your Lord: therefore fear God and obey me. God is my Lord and your Lor: therefore serve Him. That is a straight path'.

When Jesus observed they had no faith, he said: 'Who will help me in the cause of God?'

The disciples replied: 'We are the helpers of God. We believe in God. Bear witness that we have surrendered ourselves to Him'.

Lord, we believe in Your revelations and follow the apostle. Count us as among your witnesses'.

They plotted, and God plotted. God is the supreme Plotter. God said: 'Jesus, I am about to claim you back and lift you up to Me. I shall take you away from unbelievers and exalt your followers above them till the Day of Resurrection. Then to Me you shall all return and I shall judge your disputes. The unbelievers I shall sternly punish in this world and in the world to come: there shall be none to help them. As for those that have faith and do good works, He will give them their reward in full. God does not love the evil-doers.

This revelation, and this wise admonition, We recite to you. Jesus is like Adam in the sight of God. He created him of dust and then said to him: 'Be', and he was.

This is the truth from your Lord; therefore do not doubt it. To those that dispute with you concerning Jesus after the knowledge you have received, say: 'Come, let us gather our sons and your sons, our wives and your wives, our people and your people. We will then pray and call down the curse of God on every liar'.

From The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text, trans. N.J. Dawood (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1994), pp. 53-56.

Antonella da Messina's painting in Palermo has us be the Angel of Life bringing her the Good News of the Prince of Peace. Or be the Angel of Death.

This essay is shaped from the Koran, quoting the Gospel, quoting the Torah. I should like to add to it some further observations. In 1999 I was in a tram in Göteborg with a young Swedish friend. On the tram also were a mother, her daughter and two sons, and she was reading from the Koran in Arabic, her daughter sharing with her this text, the two younger children looking on, their eyes filled with awe and love. I asked her her daughter's age. 'Ten,' she replied. And where were they from? 'Somalia', she replied.

Moslems pray five times a day. Do Christians? Christians in Vows of Religion are intended to pray seven times a day, or at the least three, but there is no such requirement for the laity. While lay Moslems pray like Christian nuns and monks, at the same time raising their families, often in poverty, but also with the knowledge that Islam requires that the widow and orphan be protected and aided. Our first law code comes from Iraq, that of Hammurabi. Iraq is Abraham's home, is Ur, is the cradle of our civilization, of our alphabet, and of our Trinity of Sacred Books.

The young mother from Somalia wore a head scarf. I, too, wear a nun's veil. Now illegal in France. But to us these head coverings we don of our own free signify that we are not sex objects for others but 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', that we are free and worthy of respect, not of abuse. When I put on my blue habit, my white veil, and pray in the mornings and in the evenings, I become ready for the Word. It is as if I step into the painting by Antonello da Messina and those by countless others. And into the world of Islam, Christendom and Judaism, the religions sharing the one God.

When we, as Catholics, shared blessed olive leaves from Tuscany to those grieving the deaths and maimings of many young people in Göteborg, refugees from Bosnia, both the Imam and the Orthodox priest said that olive leaves have for them the same peaceable meaning.



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