This is another Meccan sura. In the first part of Muhammad’s career, a group of Muslims migrated from Arabia to Abyssinia. One of the Muslims recited the material here about Mary and Jesus to the Christian ruler of Abyssinia, showing him that Muslims believed in Jesus, but not as the Son of God.
After the mysterious letters in v. 1, verses 2-40 retell the story told in Luke 1:5-80 – with some important differences, of course. Vv. 2-15 begin, as does Luke’s account, with the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, encountering an angel (Luke 1:11; v. 9 of this chapter of the Qur’an establishes that Allah is not speaking directly with Zechariah). The angel tells him he will become a father despite his old age and his wife’s barrenness (v. 8). In the Qur’an, unlike in the Gospel, this comes as an answer to his prayer for a son (vv. 4-6). In both the Gospel (Luke 1:20) and the Qur’an (v. 10) he is unable to speak after this vision, although the Qur’an, unlike the Gospel, does not present this as punishment for his unbelief, but only as a sign of Allah’s power.
There is nothing in the Qur’an paralleling the Gospel’s connection of Zechariah’s son John with Elijah (Luke 1:17), the prophet who was to return before the Lord’s coming (Malachi 4:5-6). John is not the messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord; he is simply pious (“meaning that he was pure and had no inclination to do sins,” says Ibn Kathir, in an echo of some Christian traditions that John committed no sins), devout, and kind to his parents (vv. 13-14).
Then vv. 15-40 follows the story of the birth of Jesus, but like the account of the birth of John it differs significantly from the Gospel account. For one thing, the angel tells her only that she will be the mother of a “holy son” (v. 19) – there is not a word, of course, about his being “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), a concept rejected again in v. 35. Jesus is virginally conceived (v. 20). Ibn Kathir says that many scholars believe she conceived by the breath of the angel Gabriel: “Many scholars of the predecessors (Salaf) have mentioned that at this point the angel (who was Jibril [Gabriel]) blew into the opening of the garment that she was wearing. Then the breath descended until it entered into her vagina and she conceived the child by the leave of Allah.”
Mary still suffers the pains of childbirth (v. 23) – while in some Christian traditions she does not, since those are the result of the sin (Genesis 3:16) that Jesus is taking upon himself and expiating (I Corinthians 15:22). Here, Mary gives birth to Jesus under a palm tree (not in a manger as in Luke 2:7) as Allah comforts her in her pains with dates (vv. 24-26). A voice cries out from beneath her, “Grieve not! For thy Lord hath provided a rivulet beneath thee” (v. 24); Ibn Abbas, Sa‘id bin Jubayr, Ad-Dahhak, ‘Amr bin Maymun, As-Suddi and Qatadah say this was Gabriel, while Mujahid, Al-Hasan, and Abdul-Rahman bin Zayd say it was the baby Jesus, who speaks soon enough anyway (vv. 30-33).
Abdul-Rahman bin Zayd notes that when Jesus told her in this verse not to grieve, she responded, “How can I not grieve when you are with me and I have no husband nor am I an owned slave woman?” To avoid the embarrassment of having to explain how she came to have a newborn, he tells her to tell people she is fasting and not speaking with anyone (v. 26). And as expected, when her family sees the child, they are amazed (v. 27), and remonstrate with her: “O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of evil, nor thy mother a woman unchaste!” Many have charged that since the Qur’an here calls Mary “sister of Aaron,” Muhammed is confusing Mary the mother of Jesus with Miriam the sister of Moses and Aaron – in Arabic the names are identical, Maryam. Even the Christians of Muhammad’s day noticed this, but Muhammad had a ready explanation: “The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them.” So calling Mary “sister of Aaron” was, says Muhammad, an honor, not an error.
In any case, to allay their suspicions Mary simply points to the cradle, and Jesus begins speaking (vv. 30-33). This and other Qur’anic material about Jesus seems to come from heretical and non-canonical Christian material: the baby Jesus doesn’t speak in the New Testament, but an Arabic Infancy Gospel that dates from the sixth century says this: “Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.” Of course, in the Qur’an he doesn’t say he was the Son of God, but rather the “slave of Allah” (v. 30), for to have a son is not befitting for Allah’s majesty (v. 35).
Verses 41-50 return to the story of Abraham, recounting his breach with his father when his father refused to give up his idol-worship. Abraham prays that Allah will forgive his father (v. 47), but we learn elsewhere that in this he is not an example for the Muslims (60:4). Abraham turns away not only from the idols, but from his father also (vv. 48, 50). Verses 51-58 mention in passing several prophets, including Moses, Ishmael, and Idris (Enoch). Verses 59-63 return to the delights that the blessed will enjoy in Paradise, but without being very specific.
Then verses 64-98 conclude the sura by sounding familiar themes, mostly about the unbelievers. The angels don’t descend except by Allah’s command (v. 64) – this said because Muhammad wondered why he didn’t see Gabriel more often. Those who doubt the resurrection will not escape the Day of Judgment (vv. 66-71). In v. 73, the unbelievers are ready to determine which religion to follow based on the level of earthly prosperity of its adherents. “In this,” according to Ibn Kathir, “they were saying, ‘How can we be upon falsehood while we are in this manner of successful living?’” But Allah has destroyed countless generations before them (v. 74). Those who boast of their worldly success while remaining unbelievers will be punished for their boasts (vv. 77-80). The demons that the unbelievers worship will turn against them (v. 82); indeed, Allah will set the demons upon them (v. 83). The idea that Allah has begotten a Son is “most monstrous” (v. 89) – indeed, “at it the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in utter ruin” (v. 90). Allah will judge all beings (v. 95). The Qur’an gives “Glad Tidings to the righteous, and warnings to people given to contention” (v. 97) – for “how many a generation before them have We destroyed!” (v. 98)
Next week: Sura 20, “Ta Ha”: “We have not sent down the Qur’an to thee to be an occasion for thy distress.”
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)