"Everyone who belongs to the Truth hears my voice…" (John 18:37)

Muslims and the Blessed Virgin Mary

Mary-Islam

Traditional image of the Blessed Virgin in Islamic art

While flipping through a book recently, I came across a chapter entitled, ‘Mary and the Moslems.’ As you can imagine, it caught my attention right away. The book, written in 1952 by the Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen, delves not only into various aspects of Mary’s life and the doctrines associated with her, but also examines the relationship of Mary with people around the world, including Muslims.

In this particular chapter, Archbishop Sheen gives a brief introduction to Islam, calling it “the only great post-Christian religion of the world.”1 He describes its origins as combining “some elements of Christianity and of Judaism, along with particular customs of Arabia.”2 Because of the tumultuous history between Muslims and Christians – all the battles and wars that have been waged on both sides in the name of religion – we don’t often think we have anything in common. In many ways, it’s easier for us to embrace our Jewish brothers and sisters since Christianity grew out of Judaism. But we are often hesitant to see any connection between ourselves and those who practice the Islamic faith.

The Church, however, recognizes that we share an important truth with Muslims: belief in one God. “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”3

But that’s not all. Muslims believe that Mary was pure, a belief closely in line with the Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin birth. There are verses in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, about the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity. Although they regard Jesus as a mere prophet, the Blessed Virgin is honoured as the “true Sayyid, or Lady,” and is mentioned no less than 30 times.4

convent-of-our-lady-greek-orthodox-church-in-sednaya-syria

Our Lady of Saidnaya Convent, Saidnaya, Damascus, Syria

The respect and reverence given to Mary seems to have originated with the prophet himself, as illustrated by a story from the earliest of Muslim writings. In the year 630 A.D., Muhammad succeeded in occupying the city of Mecca and had cleansed it from what he saw as idol worship. Because Mecca was to be the centre of the new faith, its conquest was considered a “fulfillment of a divine promise.”5 As Muhammad entered a building that contained the city’s idols, he noticed an icon of the Virgin and Child and approached it, covering it with his cloak. Though he ordered all the others to be destroyed, this one alone was saved. While it’s impossible to know precisely which image Muhammad saw, the icon of the Blessed Mother clearly had a powerful effect on him. Even today, Muslims often visit the Christian Monastery of Saidnaya north of Damascus, “seeking the blessings and healing of our Lady and her infant son” as their ancestors have done for centuries.6

Icon of the Virgin Nicopeia at the Altar of the Madonna.

This 9th century Byzantine icon, the Virgin of Nicopeia, was thought to be aboard a ship in the victorious Catholic fleet after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Today, it is on display at the Basilica San Marco in Venice.

Perhaps the most interesting connection to Muslims, though, is another well-known image of Mary: Our Lady of Fatima. The name “Fatima” (or, Fatimah) is popular among Muslims because it was the name of Mohammad’s own beloved daughter. Yet even she could not rival the place held by Mary. Upon her death, Mohammad wrote: “Thou shalt be the most blessed of all the women in Paradise, after Mary.”7 Can it be mere coincidence that Mary appeared with a message of peace and conversion in a town bearing the name Fatima? I don’t think so. In God’s providence, “nothing is incidental or accidental.”8 Archbishop Sheen offers an explanation: “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people and an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.”9

And this should give us great hope as well. The Blessed Virgin is a good place to start, an opportunity to find common ground with Muslims in our mutual love and respect for her. Archbishop Sheen wrote, “In any apologetic endeavour, it is always best to start with that which people already accept.”10 In light of recent events in the Middle East and the atrocities committed by ISIS, many Christians understandably want to distance themselves from Muslims. But this cannot be our response. Muslims are our neighbours and co-workers, our classmates and teammates. Several popes in recent years have reached out to representatives of the Muslim community to address issues of mutual concern, particularly the spread of terrorism.11 Pope Francis has openly embraced people of other faiths, even developing close friendships with them. And we mustn’t fail to recognize that the radical views of ISIS and other extremist groups do not represent what all Muslims believe.

lady-of-fatimaWhen Mary revealed herself at Fatima, she said, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph.” What does this mean? In a document entitled, “The Message of Fatima,” the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote, “The Heart open to God, purified by contemplation of God, is stronger than guns and weapons of every kind. The fiat of Mary, the word of her heart, has changed the history of the world, because it brought the Saviour into the world—because, thanks to her Yes, God could become man in our world and remains so for all time. The Evil One has power in this world, as we see and experience continually; he has power because our freedom continually lets itself be led away from God. But since God himself took a human heart and has thus steered human freedom towards what is good, the freedom to choose evil no longer has the last word. From that time forth, the word that prevails is this: ‘In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart; I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33). The message of Fatima invites us to trust in this promise.”12

– Kelley Holy

Prayer to the Virgin of Nicopeia

Virgin of Nicopeia, You have carried in your womb Jesus Christ our Lord. By you the Son of God was born in the flesh for the salvation of men. You have followed in joy His mission of Cana, and in sorrow under the Cross. Pity bestowed on all mankind, you have held His Body in your arms. You, Immaculate Church, in the new relationship you have with John, greeted the Risen Lord. You now live with Him in the glory of the Trinity.

 Accept a pledge of victory, the humble prayer of your people, confirm our faith; sustain our hope; rekindle our charity. Look kindly upon humanity, exhausted from sin at the beginning of the new millennium. Show them mercy and joy in the Crucified and Risen One. Protect Your Church in every circumstance, happy or adverse. Comfort us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Lead us to the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit. Holy Virgin, hear then our prayer, and intercede for your children. Amen.

Footnotes:

1 Fulton J. Sheen, The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God (McGraw-Hill, 1952), 200.

2 Ibid.

3 CCC, 841.

4 Sheen, 202. For specific verses from the Qur’an, see also http://www.islam-universe.com/Jesus_and_Mary_in_the_Quran.html

5 Tarif Khalidi, “Jesus through Muslim eyes,” available from

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/isa.shtml

Internet; accessed 23 September 2014.

6 Ibid.

7 Sheen, 203.

8 Scott Hahn, Hail, Holy Queen: The Mother of God in the Word of God, (Doubleday, 2001), 89.

9 Sheen, 203.

10 Ibid, 204.

11 Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Journey to Cologne on the Occasion of the XX World Youth Day, available from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/august/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20050820_meeting-muslims_en.html;Internet; accessed 23 September 2014.

12Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “The Message of Fatima,” available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000626_message-fatima_en.html;Internet; accessed 23 September 2014.

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