Mary (as)

The Immaculate Conception

‘We breathed into her Our Spirit’ is misconstrued as implicating God in a paternal role: Understanding the physical and spiritual birth of Jesus(as).

53The Review of Religions – April 2004 And remember her who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our Spirit (Ruh) and We made her and her son a Sign for all peoples. Verily this is your people – one people; and I am your Lord, so worship Me. [Surat al Anbiya 21:92-3] These verses of the Qur’ a n describe events and concepts that have mystified humanity for two millenia. The miraculous physical genesis of Jesus ( a s ) and his spiritual significance for human- ity are widely recognised and yet poorly appreciated by Christians and Muslims alike. Unfortunately, the incident of Jesus ( a s )’s birth took place in an era when superstition and scientific ignorance prevailed, and the contemporary interpretation of this miraculous phenomenon has coloured our own understanding from that time. The Qur’an is the Holy Word of Allah and free from every defect and imperfection. It thereby holds the key that can unlock the truth regarding the birth of Jesus( a s ). Disturbingly, perhaps through the influence of the many Christians who joined the fold of Islam in times of antiquity, the orthodox Muslim interpretation of the miraculous conception of Jesus(as) is also enshrouded in mystery and ignorance. The Muslims do believe that Allah is One and has no physical child, and yet the verse ‘We breathed into her of Our Spirit’ (Ch.21:V.92) is often taken to refer to the conception of J e s u s( a s ) ( 1 ), thereby covertly implicating Allah in a paternal role. As we shall explain, such an interpretation is erroneous. M o r e o v e r, deep study and contemplation of the Qur’an does indeed give us understanding of the true physical and spiritual significance of the birth of Jesus(as). The Immaculate Conception By Moosa Qureshi LLB (Hons) MCSE – London (adapted) 54 The Review of Religions – April 2004 Allah’s Word and His Spirit Firstly, it is important to recognise that verse Ch.21:V.92 does not speak of Allah giving Jesus(as) to Mary(ra). His conferral of Jesus(as) is instead mentioned in two verses [ C h . 3 : V.46] and (Ch.4:V. 1 7 2 ] , both of which use the expression ‘Word’ (Kalimah), and not the expression ‘Spirit’ (Ruh): When the angels said, ‘O Mary, Allah gives thee glad tidings of a son through a Wo rd from Him; his name shall be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, honoured in this world and in the next, and of those who are granted nearness to God.’ (Ch.3:V.46) O People of the Book! Exceed not the limits in your religion and say not of Allah anything but the truth. Ve r i l y, the Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, was only a Messenger of Allah, and a fulfilment of His word which He sent down to Mary, and a mercy from Him. (Ch.4: V.172) In the Qur’an, there is no reference to any involvement of the Spirit of Allah in the conception of Jesus( a s ). And the Word of Allah pertains to the glad tidings given to Mary( r a ), rather than any imagined physical infusion of Allah’s Word into her o v u m . Surat al Anbiya in context S e c o n d l y, (Ch.21:V.92) should be considered in context. Every verse of the Qur’an fits into a logical pattern established by Allah. If we read carefully, we find that ( C h . 2 1 : V.92) follows a succession of verses where Allah recounts instances of Prophets behaving in a fashion pleasing to Him, and Allah rewarding them with His favour. This is important when interpreting verse (Ch.21:V.92), as we shall later consider. Suffice it to observe at this point in our discussion, that if we read the whole of Surat al-Anbiya, we realise that a recurrent theme expounded therein is that Allah is above everything He creates, that all Prophets are created human beings, and that Allah and humanity are physically very distinct entities: The Immaculate Conception 55The Review of Religions – April 2004 And their hearts are forgetful. And they – the wrongdoers – confer together in secret and say, ‘Is this man aught but a mortal like yourselves? Will you then yield to his sorcery with your eyes open?’ (Ch.21:V.4) And We sent none as M e s s e n g e r s b e f o re thee but men to whom We sent revelations. So ask the people of the reminder, if you know not; Nor did We give them bodies that ate not food, neither were they to live forever. (Ch.21:Vs.8-9) And We sent no Messenger before thee but We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I; so worship Me alone.’ And they say, ‘The Gracious God has taken to Himself a son.’ Holy is He. Nay, those whom they so designate a re only His honoured servants. (Ch.21:Vs.26-7) And whosoever of them should say, ‘I am a god beside Him,’ him shall We requite with Hell. Thus do We requite the wrongdoers. (Ch.21:V.30) We granted not everlasting life to any mortal before thee. If thou shouldst die, shall they live here forever? (Ch.21:V.35) Herein, surely, is a message for a people who worship God. And We have not sent thee but as a mercy for all peoples. Say, ‘Surely it has been revealed to me that your god is but One God. Will you then submit?’ (Ch.21:Vs.107-9) Much of the Surah is directed against the Christian belief that Jesus(as) was the consequence of a metaphysical union of Allah and M a r y( r a ). The Surah repeatedly emphasises that Allah and humanity are comprehensively and utterly separate, in their essential natures. It follows that Allah does not give physical life to human beings by breathing His physical ‘Ruh’ into them. Such an interpretation of (Ch.21:V. 9 2 ) would contend uniquely against The Immaculate Conception 56 The Review of Religions – April 2004 the general purport of Surat al- Anbiya. What is the Spirit of Allah? As noted, (Ch.21:v92) speaks of Allah breathing His Ruh into Mary(ra), and not of bestowing His Word on her. There are three other verses in the Qur’an where Allah speaks of breathing His Spirit into a human being, and we should examine these three verses when interpreting (Ch.21:V.92). Two of these three verses ( C h . 1 5 : V.30) and (Ch.38:V. 7 3 ) appear to refer exclusively to Adam(as): And remember when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am about to create man of dry wringing clay, of black mud wrought into shape: So when I have fashioned him in perfection and have breathed into him of My Spirit (Ruh), fall ye down in submission to him.’ So the angels submitted, all of them together. (Ch.15:Vs.29-31) Call to mind when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am about to create man from clay; and so when I have fashioned him in perfection, and have breathed into him of My Spirit (Ruh), fall ye down in submission to him.’ (Ch.38:Vs.72-3) H o w e v e r, further study of the Q u r’an demonstrates conclu- sively that the Muslims mis- construe this verse by interpreting it physically and not spiritually: And when thy Lord said to the angels, ‘I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth,’ they said, ‘Wilt Thou place therein such as will cause disorder in it, and shed blood? – and we glorify Thee with Thy praise and extol Thy holiness.’ He answered, ‘I know what you know not.’ And He taught Adam all the names, then He put the objects of these names before the angels and said, ‘Tell Me the names of these, if you are right.’ They said, ‘Holy art Thou! No knowledge have we except what Thou hast taught us; surely Thou art All-Knowing, the Wise.’ He The Immaculate Conception 57The Review of Religions – April 2004 said, ‘O Adam, tell them their names,’ and when he had told them their names, He said, ‘Did I not say to you, I know the secrets of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you reveal and what you hide?’ And when We said to the angels, ‘Submit to Adam,’ and they all submitted. But Iblis did not. He refused and deemed himself too big; and he was of the disbelievers. (Ch.2:Vs.31-35) The Qur’an (Ch.15:v.30, Ch.38: V.73) tells us that Allah instructed the angels to submit to Adam( a s ) a f t e r breathing His S p i r i t into the fully developed man. The Qur’ a n (Ch.2:Vs.31-5) also attests that Allah commanded the angels to submit to Adam( a s ) after Adam( a s ) was already alive, and indeed after Allah had taught knowledge to A d a m( a s ). Accordingly, when Allah states that He breathed His S p i r i t into man in (Ch.15:v.30) and ( C h . 3 8 : V.73), He is not speaking of giving physical life to man, but rather He is speaking of giving spiritual life to man, i.e. when He guides a human being to a great spiritual status or gives him knowledge of the unseen. Innate logic should advise us that angels would not bow to man simply because man is physically alive, otherwise why not bow to any animal that is physically alive? In fact man is physically inferior to many animals in many respects. M a n ’s superiority to animals relates to man’s spirituality. Nevertheless, if we wish not to rely on innate logic, then the Q u r’an also makes clear that the S p i r i t of Allah does not give physical life to human beings. The third verse (Ch.32:V. 1 0 ) which mentions Allah’s Ruh, also clearly explains that this Ruh is not involved in the physical process of conception: Who has made perfect e v e rything He has cre a t e d . And He began the creation of man from clay; Then He made his progeny from an extract of an insignificant fluid; Then He endowed him with perfect faculties and bre a t h e d i n t o him of His Spirit. And He has given you ears, and eyes, and The Immaculate Conception 58 The Review of Religions – April 2004 hearts. But little thanks do you give! (Ch.32:Vs.8-10) Allah tells us that He breathed His Spirit into the first man after creating that man’s progeny. A l t e r n a t i v e l y, if we interpret (Ch.32:V.10) as Allah breathing His Ruh into that man’s progeny, it is known that the foetus is physically alive in the mother’s womb before its physical faculties are perfected. Indeed, funda- mentally important structures such as the nervous system and liver are not perfected until after b i r t h( 2 ). Therefore this verse cannot be held to refer to a biological process of perfection and subsequent life-giving, for biologically life-giving precedes perfection. As we have estab- lished above, when Allah speaks of breathing His Spirit into a person, He is telling us that He gives spiritual life to that person, and not physical life. How Allah breathed His Spirit into Mary And remember her who guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her of Our Spirit (Ruh) and We made her and her son a Sign for all peoples. (Ch.21:v.92) The commonality of the Muslims believe that this verse implies that because Mary ( a s ) guarded her c h a s t i t y, therefore Allah miraculously breathed His Ruh into her and gave her a son without the agency of a father. They speculate thus because Allah speaks of breathing His Ruh into Adam(as) and they erroneously conclude this signifies Allah gave physical life to Adam(as) without the agency of a father or mother. Such an interpretation is not supported by the Qur’an, and it is not supported by moral logic. Many women guard their chastity, but this is not a reason for Allah to bestow miraculous sons on them. Furthermore, as earlier explained, Allah sent His Word to Mary(ra), and not His Spirit, in the matter of the conception of Jesus(as). We observed previously that this verse (Ch.21:V.92) occurs after a series of verses describing how Prophets behaved in a morally The Immaculate Conception 59The Review of Religions – April 2004 good way, and then how Allah favoured them. Abraham( a s ) w a s saved from the fire (Ch.21:Vs.69- 70), Lot( a s ) was rescued from the abominations of his fellow citizens ( C h . 2 1 : V.75), and Noah( a s ) w a s delivered from the flood ( C h . 2 1 : V.77). Solomon( a s ) a n d D a v i d( a s ) were granted great blessings by Allah (Ch.21:Vs.79- 83). Allah also removed distress from Job( a s ) (21:85) and Dhu’l- N u n( a s ) ( C h . 2 1 : V.88). Furthermore, Allah favoured Zachariah( a s ) with a son by his formerly sterile wife ( C h . 2 1 : V.91). Then Allah states that He breathed His S p i r i t i n t o M a r y( a s ) and made herself and her son a Sign (Ch.21:V.92), before promising that any believer who does good works will be rewarded by Allah: So whoever does good works and is a believer, his endeavour will not be rejected and We shall surely record it. (Ch.21:V.95) The significance of (Ch.21:V.92) is simply that Mary(ra) guarded her c h a s t i t y, so Allah breathed spiritual life into her in the same way that He breathes His Ruh into any human being who is good (see (Ch.32:Vs.8-10) above). She and her son were ‘a Sign for all peoples’ because of their spiritual goodness at a time of moral stagnation of the Jewish nation, and this interpretation is in harmony with the pattern and essential message of Surat al- Anbiya. The mystery of the conception of Jesus We alluded earlier to a Qur’anic explanation of the miracle of Jesus(as)’s birth. Interestingly, the hypothesised solution to this mystery is found not in any verse that refers directly to Jesus( a s ) himself. Before presenting the clue found in the Qur’an to the phenomenon of virgin birth, we should affirm that Mary ( r a ) was indeed untouched by man prior to the conception of Jesus(as): She said, ‘My Lord, how shall I have a son, when no man has touched me?’ He said, ‘Such is the way of Allah. He creates The Immaculate Conception 60 The Review of Religions – April 2004 what He pleases. When He decrees a thing, He says to it, “Be” and it is.’ (Ch.3:V.48) She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?’ The angel s a i d , ‘Thus it shall be.’ But says thy Lord, ‘It is easy for Me; and We shall do so that We may make him a Sign unto men, and a mercy from Us, and it is a thing decreed.’ (Ch.19:Vs.21-22) It is evident that Mary(ra) herself lacked understanding of how she conceived Jesus(as), and Allah did not clarify this phenomenon to her except to state that it was His decree. Nevertheless, the Qur’an does intimate the explanation to the miracle of Jesus(as)’s conception in another enigmatic verse, hitherto perplexing to Muslim scholars: Remember when a woman of Imran said, ‘My Lord, I have vowed to Thee what is in my womb to be dedicated to Thy service. So do Thou accept it of me. Verily, Thou alone art All-Hearing, All-Knowing’. But when she was delivered of it, she said, ‘My Lord, I am delivered of a female,’ – and Allah knew best what she delivered and the male was not like the female – ‘and I have named her Mary, and I commit her and her off-spring to Thy protection from Satan the rejected’. (Ch.3:Vs.36-37) P u z z l i n g l y, Allah does not confirm that the woman of Imran did indeed give birth to a female when she was delivered of Mary(ra). How should we interpret the enigmatic words – and the male was not like the female? The phenomenon of virgin birth remains the object of scientific research in modern times, and there are two biological mech- anisms that form the focus of ongoing studies. F i r s t l y, parthenogenesis is a biological process common in The Immaculate Conception 61The Review of Religions – April 2004 insects and fish, whereby an ovum is developed into a new biological organism without the agency of a spermatazoon. Spontaneous parthenogenesis has been documented in human oocytes but was found to be extremely rare ( 3 ), and human parthenogenesis induced thus far has progressed only to the blastocyst stage of cell division(4). Biological progress is incomplete because the human egg cell misses a fully functional centro- some when activated by parthenogenesis, and essential genetic information is inac- cessible to the parthenote due to maternal imprinting(5). Moreover, even theoretically, mammalian parthenogenesis yields exclu- sively a female offspring with XX chromosomes, and therefore cannot account for the generation of Jesus(as)(6). Secondly, and more convincingly, the mechanism of true hermaphroditism may explain the virgin birth of Jesus(as). This is a congenital condition where exter- nal genitalia and internal sex organs have both male and female characteristics. Both ovarian and testicular reproductive tissue is found in a true hermaphrodite, a quality that is still poorly understood. In 1990, a true hermaphrodite rabbit was found to conceive when kept in isolation in laboratory conditions ( 7 ). The tenability of autoreproduction in human hermaphrodites has also been affirmed: ‘If it is indeed true that in some (human) hermaphrodites auto- reproduction could be possible with medical intervention, another question may be asked: “Is it possible that such auto- reproduction could, with the greatest rarity, occur without such an intervention?” Indications exist in the mythology of various cultures which mention her- maphroditic reproduction, and there are references to virgin birth in the historical documents of several different societies.’(8) The Qur’an may indeed refer to such a biological condition of a true hermaphrodite when we read, ‘Allah knew best of what she was delivered and the male was not The Immaculate Conception 62 The Review of Religions – April 2004 like the female’ (Ch.3:V.37). It is characteristic of the propriety and tactful beauty of the Qur’ a n i c diction, that Allah should thus describe the hypothesised her- maphrodite quality in Mary( r a ). The contrast with other religious scriptures is remarkable. It is also truly miraculous that such a complex biological phenomenon, incompletely understood even today, may be alluded to at a time and place of such profound scientific ignorance as 7th century Arabia. Conclusion We have made a sequential and logical journey from a verse of the Q u r’an that many Muslims erroneously read as a reference to the miraculous conception of Jesus(as), to a verse of the Qur’an that is overlooked as an alternative explanation of this hugely important historical event. Along the way, important ideas such as the breathing of Allah’s Spirit into humans, the impor- tance of placing each verse of the Qur’an in its correct pattern and context, the essential message of Surat al-Anbiya, and the purity of style and diction in the Qur’an, have been touched. Perhaps the most important lesson we can draw from this journey is the concept of miracles in Islam: ‘Miracles are not seen in Islam as unnatural occurrences, but as natural phenomena that are concealed from human know- ledge at that period of time. Otherwise, there would be many questions raised against the wisdom of God. If God created the laws of nature Himself, He should have made some provisions whereby without breaking them, He could bring about desired solutions to a problem. Not all laws are known to man… Miracles are so, only in relation to man’s knowledge in a specific period of time. When a special exercise of God’s power is displayed, apparently a law is broken. But it is not so; it is a hidden law that was already there and came into operation through God’s command.’(9) As we advance in our under- standing of the universe and the laws that govern its operation, we The Immaculate Conception 63The Review of Religions – April 2004 grow ever more appreciative of the wonder of Allah’s creation and of the glory of the Qur’an. May Allah open our eyes and guide us always along the path of truth and wisdom. References 1 Ibn ‘Umar Ibn Kathir I. Tafsir al Q u r’an al Azim (Abridged by Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al- Mubarakpuri). 1st ed. Riyadh: Darussalam Publishers; 2000; Vol.6 pp.487-8. 2 Guyton AC. Textbook of Medical Physiology. 8th ed. Philadelphia: WB Saunders Company; 1991; p.929 3 Araki Y, Yoshizawa M,Yo s h i d a A,Sang-Yong Kim, Motoyama M, Araki S. Spontaneous Parthenogenesis i n Human Oocytes. J. Mamm. Ova Res. 1996; 13:115-7. 4 Lin H, Lei J,Wininger D, Nguyen M, Khanna R, Hartmann C, Yan W, Huang SC. Multilineage Potential of Homozygous Stem Cells Derived from Metaphase II Oocytes. Stem Cells. 2003; 21:152-161. 5 Johnson MH, Everitt BJ. Essential R e p ro d u c t i o n. 5th ed. Oxford: Blackwell Science; 2000; p.169. 6 Cohen P. Like a Virgin. New Scientist 1998; 160 (2165): 36. 7 Frankenhuis MT, Smith-Buijs CM, de Boer LE, Kloosterboer JW. A case of combined hermaphroditism and autofertilisation in a domestic rabbit. Veterinary Record. 1990; 126 (24): 598-9. 8 Schulman JD, Sherins RJ. A u t o re p roduction by h e r m a p h rodites. Human Repro d . 1995; 10 (3): 500-1 9 Ahmad Mirza Tahir. Christianity: A Journey from Fact to Fiction. 1st ed. Tilford (Surrey): Islam International Publications; 1994; p.6 The Immaculate Conception We hope you have enjoyed reading this edition of the magazine. The Review of Religions will continue to provide discussion on a wide range of subjects and welcomes any comments or suggestions from its readers. 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