The esteemed Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen wrote about the Muslims’ great reverence for the Blessed Mother, whom they believe to be the virgin mother of Jesus Christ. He noted that Muslims in Africa, India and elsewhere have paid tribute to the Pilgrim statue of Our Lady of Fatima, and have even allowed processions and prayer services in her honor. He suggested that her appearance in the region of Portugal previously occupied by Muslims served as “a pledge and a sign of hope to the Muslim people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her divine Son, too.”
While he assures us that Our Lady of Fatima is an excellent starting point for deepening the conversation with Muslims, Mary has not been idle since 1917. In fact, the most widely-viewed apparition in Church history was in Zeitoun, Egypt, where she was seen by millions between 1968 and 1970, and calmed an explosive period of inter-religious violence in that country. She is indeed the Queen of Peace and our advocate in these difficult times.
But while Christians and Muslims honor the mother of Jesus Christ, it is essential that Christians recognize key differences in how we each understand her place in salvation history. In this column and those that follow, I would like to consider these contrasting views of Mary, which begin with historical confusion, and are followed by details that reveal troubling theological divisions.
As Christians, we begin with the genealogies of Mary and Joseph found in the New Testament. More importantly, though, is the summary, which follows one sequence of ancestors: “Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is 14 generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, 14 generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, 14 generations” (Mt 1:17).
We know that thousands of years separated Mary from both Abraham and Moses. We also know that this latter pivotal figure was born in Egypt after the Jews — brought there by famine generations earlier — had been pressed into bondage by their anxious hosts. Unfortunately, this chronology has been lost in the Qur'anic account of Mary, who would have also been known by her Jewish name, Miriam. Because of this, she has become mingled with the other prominent Miriam in holy Scriptures, and she is repeatedly referred to as the sister of Moses. Placing her squarely in a family of epic fame is meant as an honor, but ultimately it undermines her real obscurity that is such a captivating element of her unique call.
This confusion over dates is entirely understandable. Many such stories commonly plied their way haphazardly across the desert by means of pious pilgrims and evangelists, not to mention the trading caravans who were relied on to distribute gossip, news and rumors along with their goods and services. Thus, accounts of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and their subsequent return would have conveniently overlapped with Moses’ own well-known exodus from Egypt, adding to the misunderstanding.
Unfortunately it is virtually impossible to bring this historical mistake to the attention of pious Muslims, because they believe the Qur'an to be without error. Furthermore, believing it to be handed down from Allah to Muhammad personally, they embraced it as a corrective to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures which, they believe, had become corrupted over the centuries.
Certainly, shared affection for Our Lady is an excellent starting point for further discussion, but we must defend what we know to be true so that the critical theological distinctions that flow from each detail find the most accurate expression.
[The Anchor 11.12.10]