To continue our comparison between the Muslim and Christian understanding of the Blessed Mother, we now come to the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel invited Mary to become the mother of Jesus. The Qur’anic account places Mary in the care of her guardian Zachariah, which is fine, given that he was a kinsman and it is natural — given the Islamic understanding of the role of women — that she had to be in the care of someone. Zachariah’s conversation with an angel is also recorded in the Qur’an, including the short time in which he was left silent, but without the implied chastisement for his disbelief. (The details are disjointed and confusing; only with a Christian familiarity with Scripture are they even comprehensible.)
What becomes problematic is Mary’s own subsequent conversation with the angel, which is long and complex — complete with all the details of Jesus’ life arrayed before her (referencing the apocryphal gospels of Thomas, James, and Mary which were circulating even after their rejection by the Christian Magisterium centuries earlier).
But what comes next is key: “And she who was chaste, therefore we breathed into her (something) of our Spirit and made her and her son a token for (all) peoples” (Qur’an 21, 91). Interestingly, Muslims are completely at peace with the virginal conception of Jesus, accepting this remarkable dimension without dispute, but although the event was clearly miraculous, an important element was missing.
According to Muhammad’s account, she said: “‘My Lord! How can I have a child when no mortal hath touched me?’ He said: ‘So (it will be). Allah created what he will. If he decreeth a thing, he saith unto it only, Be! And it is’” (Qur’an 3, 47).
This is where the Islamic view departs radically from the Christian view — which hinges on Mary’s consent: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). To remove Mary’s fiat from salvation history allows God’s will to become manifest without her free assent.
Christians firmly believe that the exchange between the Angel Gabriel and Our Lady reveals God’s respectful interaction with his creatures. It is an article of our faith that one cannot be forced to be good, for coercion undermines the freedom that lies at the heart of our human dignity. Just as Jesus freely chose to assume flesh and to suffer on our behalf, each human person is invited into a relationship with God and to collaborate with the grace he provides.
John Paul II writes in Mulieris Dignitatem: “With her fiat, Mary becomes the authentic subject of that union with God which was realized in the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word, who is of one substance with the Father. All of God’s action in human history at all times respects the free will of the human ‘I.’ And such was the case with the Annunciation at Nazareth” (MD, 4).
God’s perfect plan to intervene in human history depended on Mary’s cooperation. Much has been made in art and literature of the moment of anticipation that hinged on her response to the angel’s invitation. We know that the key to the fall of the angels before the creation of the world, and the fall of our first parents in the garden was their ability to say no to the will of God. As tragic as these events were for all who followed, only when there is a distinct possibility that consent will be refused will an assent find its true value. That is the essence of our freedom, an element sorely missing in Islam.
[The Anchor 11.26.10]