How Mary can be a bridge between Christians and Muslims

Posted on May 12, 2019

He said, ‘I am but a messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’ She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste.’

—Qur’an, Sura 19:19-20

by Cardinal Blase J. Cupich*

It might surprise some Christians to learn that the excerpt from the Annunciation narrative above comes not from the Gospel of Luke but the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. In fact, the Qur’an contains not one but two Annunciation stories. (The other is in Sura 3.) Mary, the only woman mentioned by name in the Qur’an, has an entire chapter named after her (Sura 19, “Maryam”) and is honored by Muslims as the Virgin Mother of Jesus.

In an era when Islamophobia is on the rise, it seems especially important for Catholic Christians to know that in addition to sharing our belief in the one God, Muslims also share a reverence for Mary. While contrasting ideas about Jesus have long been a dividing line between Christianity and Islam (Christians call him the Son of God, while Muslims call him a prophet), his mother Mary can more easily be seen as an interreligious bridge.

This is exactly how she is viewed in the Second Vatican Council’s document on the relationship between the Catholic Church and non-Christians, “Nostra Aetate,” which explicitly mentions Mary as a point of agreement between Catholics and Muslims: “[Muslims] also honor Mary, [Jesus’] Virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion.”

Like Catholics, Muslims believe Mary to be pure, courageous and faithful. They also believe that she was free from sin. The Qur’an calls her an example for believers, a woman of truth, a sign for all peoples and chosen above all women. Some medieval Muslim scholars even argued that Mary was a prophet. (This was a minority position, however.) The famous Muslim poet Rumi devotes a full chapter of his magnum opus, the Mathnawi, to the Visitation—when John the Baptist leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting in Lk 1:41. Rumi described Mary as a “woman with a silent heart” and “a lovely branch which when touched by a sweet breeze gave birth to Jesus the rose.”

Not only can Christians and Muslims gain insights into each other’s faiths by comparing their images and stories of Mary, but they can also visit several Marian shrines throughout the world that are frequented by Catholics, other Christians and Muslims alike. Some of the more popular shared Marian shrines include Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery in Syria, Our Lady of Africa in Algeria and Meryem Ana Evi in Turkey, the latter of which was visited by Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In Lebanon, a Muslim-majority country with a significant Christian minority, March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation) has been declared a national holiday. The idea originated with a Muslim, who also created the day’s motto, “Together around Mary, Our Lady.”

Yet despite the similar Annunciation stories, common attributes, shared shrines and the acknowledgment in “Nostra Aetate” of Muslim Marian devotion, the Virgin remains largely underutilized as a resource for Christian-Muslim dialogue and understanding. Aside from Bishop Miguel Ayuso Guixot, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, who recently held Mary up as a “model of dialogue,” few church leaders today have highlighted Mary’s potential role as a bridge between the two religions. This seems like a missed opportunity.

If Muslims and Christians in Lebanon can come together around “Mary, Our Lady,” why can’t we?

* Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, archbishop of Chicago, is the Catholic co-chair of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, sponsored by the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.