Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The House of Imran

Surah 19:  Maryam

Wadh-kur fil-Kitabi Maryama idhin-tabadhat min ahiliha makanan-shatqiyya.  Fattakhadhat min-dunihim hijaban-fa arsalnaa ilayha ruhana fatamaththala laha basharan-sawiyya. [17]
Qalat innil a’udha birRahmani minka in-kunta ta-quyya.  Qala innamaa ana Rasulu Rabbiki li’ahaba laki ghulaman-zakiyya.  Qalat anna yakunu li ghulamunw-wa lam yamsasni basharunw-wa lam aku baghiyya.  Qala kadhaliki qala Rabbuki huwa alayya hayyin.  Wa linaj’alahuu ayatal-linnasi wa rahmatam-minna; wa kana amran-maqdiyya. [18-21]

And call to mind through this divine writ, Mary.  Lo!  She withdrew from her family to an eastern place and kept herself in seclusion from them, whereupon We sent unto her Our angel of revelation, who appeared to her in the shape of a well-made human being.  [17]
She exclaimed:  ‘Verily, I seek refuge from thee with the Most Gracious!  [Approach me not] if thou art conscious of Him!  [The angel] answered:  ‘I am but a messenger of thy Sustainer, [who says,] “I shall bestow upon thee the gift of a son endowed with purity.’  Said she:  ‘How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?  For, never have I been a loose woman!  [The angel] answered:  ‘Thus it is: [but] thy sustainer says, ‘This is easy for Me:  and [thou shalt have a son,] so that We might make him a symbol unto mankind and an act of grace from Us.’  And it was a thing decreed [by God].  [18-21]

These verses from Surah Maryam are part of what was recited to the Christian Abyssinian king, the Negus, to inform him about Prophet Muhammad’s, pbuh, revelations about Prophet Jesus and Mary.  A group of about 80 Muslims had traveled to Abyssinia from Mecca in the years before the Hijra to Madinah, to escape their increasing persecution by the Quraysh.  When the leaders of Quraysh heard that they were in Abyssinia, two Qurayeshi leaders traveled to visit the Negus, to tell him that the Muslims were traitors to their tribe and should be returned to Mecca for punishment.  The Negus answered that he would not return them until he had heard their case.  When he asked them about their religion, their representative Ja’far recited this passage from Surah Maryam.  The Negus and his bishops wept when they heard it, and the Negus told the Qurayeshi representatives that he would not deliver the Muslims to them.   They left, but returned the next morning and told the Negus that the Muslims claimed that Jesus was a slave.  Summoned again, Ja’far told the Negus, “We say of him what our Prophet brought unto us, that he is the slave of God and His messenger and His Spirit and His Word which He cast unto Mary the blessed virgin.”  The Negus took a piece of wood and said, “Jesus the son of Mary exceedeth not what thou hast said by the length of this stick.”

Surah Al-Imran (#3) contains the story of Mary’s family.  Mary was a descendant of the “House of Imran.”  Ayat 34-37 tell us of Mary’s mother, “a woman of ‘Imran,” [known as Ann in the Bible], who devoted the child that was in her womb to the service of God.  When the child was born, she said “O my Sustainer!  Behold I have given birth to a female.”  Of course God was fully aware that she would give birth to a girl, and that “no male child could ever have been like this female.”  Mary grew up in the temple, and God placed her in the care of Zachariah.  Whenever Zachariah would visit her in the sanctuary, Quran says, “he found her provided with food.  He would ask: ‘O Mary, whence came this unto thee?’  She would answer:  ‘It is from God; behold God grants sustenance unto whom He wills, beyond all reckoning.”  Zachariah also prayed for a child, and angels gave him word of the birth of John, “who shall confirm the truth of a word from God, and outstanding among men, and utterly chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.”  Zachariah was amazed by this since he and his wife were old, and asked God for a sign, and the angels told him he would not be able to speak for three days.  Then Quran relates that angels came to Mary and told her about the birth of Jesus.  When she asked how she could have a son when no man had ever touched her, the angels answered “Thus it is:  God creates what He wills when He wills a thing to be, He but says unto it, ‘Be’ – and it is.  And he will impart unto thy son revelation, and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel, and will make him an apostle unto the children of Israel.”  [3: 46-48]

Quran lists the miracles Jesus performed, and that he confirmed the messages of the previous prophets, and that he confirmed the oneness of God.  Jesus said “Verily, God is my Sustainer as well as your Sustainer; so worship [none but] Him:  this [alone] is a straight way!” [51]

Quran confirms the truth of Jesus’s message:

“And the unbelievers schemed [against Jesus]; but God brought their scheming to nought:  for God is above all schemers.  Lo! God said: ‘O Jesus!  Verily, I shall cause thee to die, and shall exalt thee unto Me, and cleanse thee of [the presence of] those who are bent on denying the truth; and I shall place those who follow thee [far] above those who are bent on denying the truth, unto the Day of Resurrection.  In the end, unto Me you all must return, and I shall judge between you with regard to all on which you were wont to differ.”  [54-55]


We find different messages in the Quran about the Christians.  The first is that it is wrong to call Jesus the son of God – Lam yalid wa lam yulad– He begets not, neither is He begotten - and it is wrong to think that Jesus can save us because each person is directly responsible to our Creator for his or her own destiny. 

But God also acknowledges in Quran that there are divergent views about the Truth, and that this is also part of God’s plan. 

Surah 2:111-113
And they claim, “None shall ever enter paradise unless he be a Jew” – or “a Christian.”  Such are their wishful beliefs!  Say:  “Produce an evidence for what you are claiming, if what you say is true!  Yea, indeed:  everyone who surrenders his whole being unto God, and is a doer of good withal, shall have his reward with his Sustainer; and all such need have no fear, and neither shall they grieve.
Furthermore, the Jews assert, “The Christians have no valid ground for their beliefs,” while the Christians assert, “The Jews have no valid ground for their beliefs” – and both quote the divine writ!  Even thus, like unto what they say, have [always] spoken those who were devoid of knowledge; but it is God who will judge between them on Resurrection Day with regard to all on which they were wont to differ.”

Surah 2:252-3
“These are God’s messages:  We convey them unto thee, [O Prophet,] setting forth the truth – for, verily; thou art among those who have been entrusted with a message.   Some of these apostles have We endowed more highly than others:  among them were such as were spoken to by God [Himself], and some He has raised yet higher.  And We vouchsafed unto Jesus, the son of Mary, all evidence of the truth, and strengthened him with holy inspiration.
And if God had so willed, they who succeeded those [apostles] would not have contended with one another after all evidence of the truth had come to them; but [as it was,] they did take to divergent views, and some of them came to deny the truth.  Yet if God had so willed, they would not have contended with one another:  but God does whatever He wills.”

How can understanding these verses help us, especially since we as Muslims are a minority in the broader culture of the US – and especially now during this season where the symbology of “Christ the savior, son of God” is all around us?

I spent a week before Christmas with my family in Maryland, who are all Christians.
The festivities of the season were well under way.  Christmas is a BIG deal in my family.  The celebration is all about the children, and my parents have 11 great-grandchildren.  Their parents (my nieces and nephews) and grandparents (my siblings) do everything they can to make Christmas as magical and fun, and meaningful for the children as possible – carrying on the tradition my parents shared with us as children.  There are Christmas lights and Christmas trees and Christmas pageants at church where the children play the parts of Mary and Joseph and the wise men and shepherds and cows and camels and donkeys.  There are Christmas concerts with Santa Claus, and special Christmas lunches for book clubs and workplaces, where gifts are exchanged and too many sweets are eaten. 

We had two additional significant events in my family during the week that I was there – my brother’s surgery for a knee replacement, and the birth of my 10th great-nephew.  I share all this to give a sense of the buzz of activity I walked into.  I spent the night of Matthew’s birth “babysitting” with my brother while my sister-in-law was at the hospital with my niece.  I spent the next night babysitting Matthew’s siblings while their parents were in the hospital.  I took my brother to the doctor’s, ran errands, and in the first few days of my visit, did not get to spend much time with my parents.  I noticed that my mother seemed abnormally subdued – not her normal cheerful self.  On the fourth night of my visit, as I was headed to bed, I noticed the light still on in her room, so I knocked on her door.
“You can’t sleep?”  I asked.
“No, I’m just feeling a little down.” 
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes, I guess I do,” she said.  “So you don’t want to exchange Christmas presents at all this year?”  Uh-oh – big red flag.

I won’t repeat the rest of the conversation, but at first she said she was disappointed that she wasn’t feeling the Christmas spirit – She knew I had been understandably busy, but I had shown no interest in helping her put up the rest of her decorations, and she knew she shouldn’t feel that way …. 

At first I felt bad, like the lost sheep who had gone away and converted to Islam and distanced myself from her irrevocably.  But thankfully I’ve learned not to fall prey to those feelings. 

“Mom, what can I say?  This is my life.  This is where God has led me.  I love being here with you and my family and sharing this season with you – these are my roots – but I can’t lie and pretend to be other than who I am now.”
 “No, of course not, I don’t expect you to…”  So we talked, and she shared her feelings, and I shared mine, and we both felt better, and it was beautiful. 

So what does that have to do with religion?  I share this because I see those moments with my mother illuminating what Quran is trying to tell us.  The love that she and I share has it’s origin – as does all love - in God.  It is above all understanding, above all definition.   God tells us that we cannot know the ultimate meaning of things in this life – that is beyond our capacity.  We cannot know the ultimate reason behind the multiplicity of faiths – although we can and have devoted centuries of scholarship on trying to figure that out.

Fazlur Rahman addresses the issue of the diversity of religions in Appendix II of his book, Major Themes of the Quran.  He reminds us that God’s guidance is universal and not restricted to any nation or nations:  And there is no nation wherein a warner has not come.” [35:24], and “For every people a guide has been provided.”  [13:7]. 

And probably the most famous interfaith ayah, 2:62:

Those who believe [Muslims], the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans – whosoever believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds, they shall have their reward from their Lord, shall have nothing to fear, nor shall they come to grief.

Fazlur Rahman notes that the Quran “appears to give its final answer to the problem of a multi-community world” in Sura 5:48:

And We have sent down to you the Book in truth, confirming the Book that existed already before it and protecting it… For each one of you We have appointed a Law and a Way of Conduct.  If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but [He has not done so] that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness.  To God shall you all return and He will tell you [the Truth] about what you have been disputing.  
And so, in the end, after our heart to heart talk and mutual understanding that it’s ok that I no celebrate celebrate Christmas as a religious holidy, my mother and I sent each other Christmas presents anyway – as we do every year…. just because we love each other, and love surpasses all understanding.  Oh, and, by the way, isn’t that what Prophet Jesus taught us, and Prophet Muhammad confirmed his message?

59: 10    
“O our Sustainer! Forgive us our sins, as well as those of our brethren who preceded us in faith, and let not our hearts entertain any unworthy thoughts or feelings against [any of] those who have attained to faith. O our Sustainer! Truly You are Kind, Compassionate.”

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