Although I’ve already written about Maryam as our Prophetess, I’d like to expand on her significance by comparing the cosmological role of our Prophet Muhammad to that of our Prophetess Maryam. There are several interesting parallels between Maryam and Muhammad; the first and most obvious is not only that both recieved word from the Archangel Jibril (Gabriel) of their Prophethoods, but that the reactions of these two Prophets to that word are strikingly similiar. When Muhammad is greeted by the Angel, he is terrified until he comes to recognize the entity; the Prophet had, at first, run frantically down the moutain. Likewise, when the Angel approaches Maryam, she cries,
“Indeed, I seek refuge
in the Most Merciful
from you, so leave me
if you fear God!”
until her visitor responds,
“I am only a messenger
of God to bring you news
of a child.” (19:18)
But what is more intriguing is the dialogue that takes place. Maryam proceeds to ask,
“How can I birth a child
when I am a virgin?” (19:20)
while Muhammad, when commanded to “Read!” at the revelation of Surah Iqra, responds, bewildered, “But I cannot read.”
The Prophet was indeed illiterate, and in this exchange his illiteracy plays the same role as Maryam’s virginity. This response, “I cannot read,” is paralleled with Maryam’s, “How can I birth a child when no mortal has touched me?”
Since Islam does not elevate the Maryam’s virginity to the extent that it is certainly elevated in other faiths accepting her as a religious figure, the Islamic approach to Maryam’s virginity is the same as its approach to Muhammad’s illiteracy. In other words, these two states are considered neither particularly virtuous nor are they frowned upon. They are merely the conditions in which these historical figures existed before greeted by the Divine. I am not entirely comfortable in drawing the theory that Muhammad’s illiteracy and Maryam’s virginity are symbolic of spiritual receptiveness to the Word of God, that the absence (of literacy and sexual experience) of each of these “worldy pretenses” made each Prophet the most receptive vessel, unobstructed by human finitude, for the Word of God to be Delivered–for Maryam, God’s Word in childbirth, and through Muhammad, God’s Word in the Qur’an–but it is nonetheless one to be considered.
A second parallel is the cleansing of both Prophets before the creation of the universe and all that exists. A hadith reads, “There is none born among the offspring of humankind that Satan does not touch; a child, therefore, cries loudly at the time of birth because of the touch of Satan, except Maryam and her child.” (Sahih Bukhari) This is an indication that both Maryam and her son are free of sin, like Muhammad who is distinguished by his isma, protection from moral depravity: “Did We not expand your bosom?” (Qur’an 94:1) so that the Messenger of the Qur’an could convey the message without error. Our Prophet’s heart is cleansed during his ascendance through the Heavens, and several hadiths, in which this described concept has been meditated upon by mystics, read that the Prophet existed before the very creation of the first human being, and several hadiths read that “the first thing God created [when Adam was still between water and clay] was my [the Prophet's] Light.” As the Prophet is distinguished as exceptional compared to all humankind, so is the declaration made for Maryam at her birth,
“When she [the mother of Maryam] had delivered,
she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered
of a female child!”—and God knew best
what she delivered—
“And no wise is the male
like the female.
I have named her Maryam (Mary), and I commend her
and her offspring to
Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.” (3:36)
Just as the Qur’an is protected from defect through the protection of the purity of Muhammad from moral depravity, so is Prophet Isa’s protection from Satan invoked in the same protection of his mother.
What are then, the cosmological and mystical implications of both these figures? It is no accident that the Prophetess and the Prophet have inspired the same passionate praise and meditative repose among those who follow them and submit to God. One of the most fundamental attributes of the Prophet is his Light, believed to be a direct reflection of the Light of God, the noor of Muhammad is so close to God that Muhammad is Loved if God is Loved. Likewise Maryam, who occupies the realm of the Womb, is tied closely, almost inextricably, to the realm of the Divine, as made clear in 4:1. Prophet Isa, son of Maryam, is secondary to his mother, as the Qur’an reads he declares,
“I am a servant of God;
God has given me a Book and made me
and blessed me and enjoined upon me
prayer and charity
and made me dutiful
to my mother
who bore me.” (19:30-32)
There are two things to take away from this: (1) Prophet Isa was made dutiful to his mother, which has interestingly never been interpreted as a Divine Ordination of matriarchy (though Isma’il’s dutifulness to God has been conveniently misread as dutifulness to Ibrahim as a patriarch), and (2) although it is true the conception was Immaculate, it is emphasized over and over in the Qur’an that Isa is the son of Maryam: she, alone, birthed him, harnessing the Divine powers manifested in the realm of the womb and acting singularly (without a man) to perform a miracle, a sign of the Prophets.
And Maryam is most certainly a Prophet. Whether she can be called a Messenger, having carried and delivered the Word of God in the form of a human being, just as Muhammad delivered the word of God as the Qur’an, is a decision I personally haven’t made and will leave up to you, dear readers. One thing is certain: Maryam, and Asiya, and Eve, and the numerous women who inarguably qualify as Prophets demonstrate with their capacities that the distinction between a Prophet and a Messenger is hazy and not so distinct, and more uncertain than widely defined.
I propose that there is an entire league of female Prophets who transcend patriarchal categorizations of Divine Interaction.