While Muslims and Christians share a love for Mary, the mother of Jesus, her maternity is seen differently through their respective prisms of faith, and it’s not only the identity of her Son that is at issue. Surely, the most obvious difference is that Jesus is honored by Muslims as a fellow Muslim — since he spent his life doing the will of God, while Christians recognize him as the second person of the Blessed Trinity, God Incarnate. But there is an additional theological divide that is more pernicious, particularly to women.
It was previously pointed out that the Qur’anic account of Jesus’ conception leaves out Mary’s freely given consent, because Allah simply used her to show his power. While the Muslim acceptance of the virginal birth acknowledges that Allah can do as he likes in all things, Christians see motherhood as something more than just bringing forth physical children — which God could draw from stones if he wished.
Beyond the question of freedom, Mary’s consent before being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit reveals the truth about spiritual maternity, which is essential to the feminine vocation. Christians believe that women are not called to mere physical motherhood, nor do they breed for God in some debased sub-human way. A woman’s personhood implies an integrated whole — body and spirit, intellect and will. Mary’s free assent was more important than the mere corporal reality of being Jesus’ mother, to which the Muslim account reduces her, but a free embrace of that spiritual motherhood.
In “Mother of the Redeemer,” John Paul II explains: “This fiat of Mary — ‘let it be done unto to me’ — was decisive, on the human level, for the accomplishment of the divine mystery … and as the Fathers of the Church teach — she conceived this Son in her mind before she conceived him in her womb: precisely in faith.”
Only in light of this truth is this biblical exchange properly understood: “While Jesus was saying these things, one of the women in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed.’ But he said, ‘On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it’” (Luke 11: 27-28). He was clearly indicating that motherhood was more than a physical phenomenon — and while it was deeper, it was also universal.
John Paul wrote further in Mulieris Dignitatem: “Motherhood has been introduced into the order of the covenant that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ. Each and every time that motherhood is repeated in human history, it is always related to the covenant which God established with the human race through the motherhood of the Mother of God.”
Therefore, the Christian understanding of the incarnation adds great depth to our view of motherhood, perceiving it to be free, spiritually profound and deeply personal — bearing on the very relationship between God and man. To be a spiritual mother means that the relationship with one’s offspring is understood primarily as an opportunity for evangelization, a means for both to grow in holiness, and the relationship itself will be a path to truth.
Undoubtedly, the way that women understand Mary’s motherhood will affect how they understand their own vocations. Those who see only the physical will have a one-dimensional view of femininity, and those who perceive that a woman’s entire being is engaged in the divine realities will come closer to grasping authentic human dignity. For such layered realities are ultimately what draw us into a deeper, richer communion with God — and as usual, Mary is the key.
[The Anchor 12.10.10]