Maryam AS, the mother of Isa AS
The final prophet descended from Bani Israel (from the lineage of Ishaq AS, the son of Ibrahim AS) ended with one of the most prominent figures in human history, Isa (Jesus) AS. He was the last of the prophets of Bani Israel and no prophet existed between him and the final Prophet and Messenger, Muhammad (SAW), who was descended from Ibrahim’s AS first son, Ismail AS.
We had touched upon the story of Maryam’s AS birth and upbringing in her early years, in the story of Zakariya AS Maryam AS was from an extremely noble lineage, descended from Daud AS and born of a pious man and woman. Her mother, the wife of ‘Imran, had been barren all her life and had reached old age. However, she made an earnest and sincere supplication to Allah, pledging that if she were granted a child, that she would dedicate that child to the pure service of Allah.
She conceived, but gave birth to a girl instead of a boy. This was unanticipated, for she had been hoping for a son who would also carry the honour of being a Prophet of Allah – this being the ultimate servitude to Allah accorded to mankind. A woman would be unable to fulfil the role of a Prophet or Messenger. However, realising that Allah was the one who destined for her to have a daughter, she still fulfilled her vow, and dedicated the baby, Maryam AS, to Allah. She also made a supplication for Allah to protect Maryam AS and her offspring from Shaitan, the accursed.
Authentic Hadith states that “No baby is born but it is touched by Satan at the time of its birth, and it comes out screaming, except Maryam and her son Isa.” In another hadith, it is stated that “Every human when it is given birth, Satan kicks him on both sides, except Maryam and her son Isa. Didn’t you see how the baby cries when he comes out?” The Companions said: “Yes, O Messenger of Allah.” He said: “That happens when Satan kicks him on both his sides.”
In the story of Zakariya AS, we saw how Maryam AS was entrusted to the care of her uncle Zakariya AS after her father passed away. Maryam AS grew up in purity and beauty, displaying the ultimate good behaviour by her conduct, chastity and piety. She spent her early years cloistered in the privacy of a separate room built especially for her within the walls of the sacred Baitul Maqdis, and this enclosure was forbidden to anyone else. Her days and nights were spent in the solitary worship of Allah.
Because of the earnestness of her devotion, Allah bestowed her with His special favours and provisions. For example, whenever Zakariya AS entered her prayer area, he used to find fresh fruits which were out of season. Being her guardian, he was the only man to have access to her place of seclusion, and he was surprised by the appearance of all this unusual food. He asked her where they came from, and Maryam AS replied that the provision was from Allah, who bestows upon who He wills without measure.
Allah also purified Maryam AS, and chose her above all the other women in the world. She was so highly honoured that she has an entire chapter in the Qur’an titled named after her (Surah Maryam). Further, she also had her family name as the title of another chapter in the Qur’an (Surah Aali Imran).
Allah SWT says: “And [mention] when the angels said, “O Maryam, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of the worlds. O Maryam, be devoutly obedient to your Lord and prostrate and bow with those who bow [in prayer].”” (Al Qur’an 3:42 – 3:43)
Maryam’s AS piety, good behaviour and chastity are beyond reproach. Rasulullah SAW said that:
“The best of the women of the world are four: Maryam bint ‘Imran, Aasiyah, the wife of Pharaoh, Khadijah bin Khuwailid, and Fatimah bint Muhammad the Messenger of Allah.” (Al Tirmidhi)
In another hadith, it is stated that:
“Many of men reached to the position of perfection. But it is only three women who acquired this perfection: Maryam the daughter of ‘Imran, Aasiyah the wife of Pharaoh, and Khadijah the daughter of Khuwailid, and the excellence of Aaishah over the other women is like the excellence of Tharid over other food.”
What of the original vow made by Maryam’s AS mother prior to conceiving her? Allah in His wisdom, was to give Maryam’s AS mother what she had prayed for, which was a Prophet to continue the delivery of the message of Islam. However, He had ordained for this Prophet to be of such noble lineage, from a mother who was exceptionally pure, the highest woman of Allah’s creation, and the one who had been purified by Allah and selected by Him. Thus the full supplication of Maryam’s AS mother only crystalised two generations later.
The Conception and Birth of Isa AS
One day, Maryam AS withdrew from the companionship of her family and sat in seclusion towards the east. As was customary for her, she drew a veil, or screen, in order to guard her privacy. At this time, she received a strange visitor. It was an angel who materialised before her in the shape of a handsome man. Allah made him appear in this form, as human faculties are not able to withstand the sight of an angel in its original form.
And mention, [O Muhammad], in the Book [the story of] Maryam, when she withdrew from her family to a place toward the east. And she took, in seclusion from them, a screen. Then We sent to her Our Angel, and he represented himself to her as a well-proportioned man. (Al Qur’an 19:16 – 19:17)
Maryam AS thought that he intended her harm. She immediately invoked the protection of Allah, saying:
“Indeed, I seek refuge in the Most Merciful from you, [so leave me], if you should be fearing of Allah.” (Al Qur’an 19:18)
To this, the angel announced that he was a messenger sent by her Lord to give her the good tidings of a pure son. This child was to be named Masihi (Messiah, the anointed one), the son of Maryam. Maryam AS was understandably shocked by this announcement. It defied all logic and biology. She immediately questioned how this could be, for after all, she had never been touched by a man, nor had she indulged in any immoral or unchaste behaviour.
The angel responded:
“Thus [it will be]; your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me, and We will make him a sign to the people and a mercy from Us. And it is a matter [already] decreed.” (Al Qur’an 19:21)
Another part of the Qur’an describes this strange encounter:
[And mention] when the angels said, “O Maryam, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Isa, the son of Maryam – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah]. He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous.” (Al Qur’an 3:45 – 3:46)
This was astounding news, but such is the nature of Allah that for anything to happen, He just needs to command it. Surah Al Ya Sin says:
His command is only when He intends a thing that He says to it, “Be,” and it is. (Al Qur’an 36:82)
Ordinarily, mankind reproduces through a union between a man and a woman. However, Allah showed us in the story of Adam AS that he was created by Allah without a mother or a father. That cycle of parentless creation then extended to Hawwa (Eve) who was created from a man: the rib of Adam AS without the involvement of a mother. Allah then showed us that similarly, it is possible, with His will, for a man to be born of a woman without the involvement of a father.
It is not known, nor is it of any benefit for us to speculate, on what kind of pregnancy it was – whether Maryam AS carried her child to full term for the normal nine months, or whether the process was accelerated. What is important is that the pregnancy was a great trial for her, because she knew that the immediate assumption of someone in her circumstances was that she had strayed into an immoral relationship with a man, and carried within her an illegitimate child. This kind of gossip was imminent, for who would believe her if she explained what really transpired? Even in traditional societies today, the birth of child out of wedlock can place the mother and child in mortal danger for having dishonoured herself and her family, what more the conservative society like the one she was living in which had prophets living in their midst?
Maryam AS was at a loss. How was she to avert the inevitable slander and accusations? Her character would be tainted and her honour would be in tatters, potentially also tainting the character of her pious family. It was a very heavy trial indeed, getting more difficult to bear when her swollen belly became more visible.
Some scholars said that when the signs of her pregnancy became obvious, Jacob bin Jacob An Najjar, the son of her maternal uncle, expressed his astonishment and disapproval. He was aware of her piety and righteousness, so he asked her: “O Maryam! Will a plant grow without a seed?” She realised what he was alluding to, and said: “Yes, who has created the first plant?”
He then asked: “Will the child be born without a man?” She replied: “Yes, Allah created Adam with no man and woman.” It is also reported that Zakariyya AS, her uncle, asked similar questions and she provided him with similar replies.
As the time drew near, Maryam AS segregated herself completely from society. Alone and heavily pregnant, she left the comforts of her sanctuary, and walked some distance to Bethlehem, to be in total seclusion for the birth. One can only imagine the strain that she was under, about to deliver by herself and not knowing what lay in the future for her, and fearing the weight of the scandal that would ruin her and her family.
Maryam AS was alone, distressed and desperate, and then she felt the first pangs of labour. The wave of pain drove her to the trunk of a date tree. In her misery she wished that “Would I that I had died before that, and become a thing forgotten!” (Al Qur’an 19:23) She did not wish for death in the sense of a suicidal person who had given up on life, but she would rather have faced death instead of being the cause of fitnah or trial to the whole community.
In the midst of her despair, she heard a voice coming from beneath her. Some scholars interpret this as the voice of her infant, Isa AS, while others speculate that this was the voice of an angel, Allah knows best. What was relevant is that this was a message from Allah to her. The voice said:
“Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree; it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say, ‘Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful abstention, so I will not speak today to [any] man.’ “ (Al Qur’an 19:34 -19:26)
Maryam AS did as instructed. The trunk of a date tree is an extremely sturdy structure. It cannot be shaken, nor does it sway in the breeze. In fact, it can withstand the impact of a truck. So let us ponder on how a woman, fatigued from childbirth, could shake the trunk of a date tree with enough force for it to yield its crop? It is physically impossible, however, such is the Might of Allah.
Refreshed and strengthened by the water and the dates, Maryam AS had nowhere to go but home. As expected, the people were outraged by the sight of her carrying her newborn. They exclaimed:
“O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste.” (Al Qur’an 19:27-19:28)
Maryam AS did not answer this and the other scorn and insults that rained upon her, but merely pointed silently to her baby. They said:
“How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?” (Al Qur’an 19:29)
At this moment, Isa AS spoke in defence of his mother:
[Isa] said, “Indeed, I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive. And [made me] dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.” (Al Qur’an 19:30 – 19:33)
Babies were not expected to talk, and neither were they expected to speak so lucidly to clear their mother’s name. The people were silenced by this miracle, and the crisis was averted.
The truth was apparent. However, Bani Israel had once again fallen into deep corruption, and as obvious as the miracle was, they recognised that this miracle from Allah would threaten their dominance and corrupt practices.
The power of a mother’s supplication
Here we see how a pious woman is yearning for a child. But she carried with her wishes a very high purpose of the child – not for just a child to be a bundle of cuteness, but one who can carry the covenant and continue the message of Allah SWT. Maryam’s AS mother wanted a child purely for servitude to Allah in order to carry the message of Islam. When she delivered a daughter, she accepted that Allah had given her a girl and not the potential male Prophet she was hoping for, but she still kept her covenant to Allah. A generation later, her supplication came to fruition and her grandson became one of the mightiest five prophets of Allah.
Iman, Yaqeen and Taqwa
The qualities of faith, certainty of faith and absolute reliance on Allah allowed Maryam AS to reach a level for Allah to provide for her directly from jannah. Another lesson to be learnt is that with the journey of iman and yaqeen, one cannot question the qadr and will, ability and might (qudra) of Allah. Allah will put us in certain trials and situations where our intellect would fail us as we would not be able to comprehend such events.
Even Maryam AS unintentionally acted in error – when the angel gave her the glad tidings of a child, she questioned how it could be, meaning that she used her faculty of reason and overlooked the qudra of Allah. It has been said that after that, the heavenly supply of food ceased, as Allah’s reproach to her.
At some points in our lives, all of us will be tested with incredible and illogical conditions which we will not be able comprehend with intellect alone, for Allah to test our faith. In the case of Maryam AS, at the time of her delivery, Allah SWT asked her to shake the date tree. In physical reality, to shake a strong tree, one has to be in a standing position and apply force. It is impossible for a woman, in extreme pain and fatigued, to be able to make a date tree move, much less with enough force for it to shed its fruits.
This is one of the messages of Allah: it is not the physical act of shaking the trunk of the date tree, but rather the obedience to Allah’s command even though the instruction was seemingly illogical. This is reminiscent of the incident with Musa AS, where he was asked to strike the Red Sea with his staff, and the waters parted and allowed safe passage to Bani Israel to walk to the other side. The power did not lie in the staff or the force of the strike, but in the state of obedience that Musa AS to the Almighty.
If we obey Allah, Allah will make things easy for us even in the face of insurmountable odds. We face all types of challenges, and in facing these challenges, two elements sometimes contradict: the command of Allah which sometimes at face value is difficult to obey and comprehend, contrasted with the belief in Allah, His might and His ability. If we have the proper foundation of faith, and obey Allah unconditionally, this will give us the strength to overcome the odds and what we understand with our limited faculties as being impossible.
If one wants to be in a state of obedience to Allah, that obedience should be absolute. Even in times of uncertainty, there is a manner on which one can seek understanding and vision from Allah, instead of questioning His powers.
This is what we need today, in the middle of all the odds facing us as individuals and as an ummah. We need to strengthen our faith, the one that allows us to reach and be accepted by Allah to give us His support and victory. We see that when the obedience continues and Maryam AS faced the trial of being an unmarried woman with child, Allah opened for her and gave her His support from incomprehensible sources, when He allowed the baby to not only talk, but to also tell them of his own future, which is his Prophecy.