Quran Read-A-Long: Al-‘Imran 31-41 Starts to Reveal Where This Surah Gets Its Name

These verses are very interesting, particularly as they discuss the mother of Mary (the grandmother of Jesus), and make it quite clear that Jesus and this woman came from the House of Imran, which is the house of the father of Moses and Aaron. This ultimately creates a huge and direct connection right in the Quran from Adam through Noah, Abraham Moses, Aaron, and Jesus. As this surah is called Al-‘Imran, or as I understand that, the House/Family of Imran (or Amram, of the Bible), this surah (or at least part of it) is about these prophets and important people. I’m very excited to see how these different characters and this larger family are made relevant in Islam and the Quran.

In the last surah, JDsg had to point out to me the point of the surah being called the Cow and when we were in the midst of those particular verses he was like, “Yoohoo, Jay! Over here.” I hope that this time I’ve at least identified the connection (a bit) between the surah title and the relevant verses (not that it was obfuscated or anything), but I look forward to everyone’s help elaborating upon their relevance and meaning within this surah.

These verses are particularly interesting because as far as I know there is no where in the New Testament that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is mentioned before the story of Jesus is immediately relevant. I would be fascinated to learn if there are any Gnostic sources or alternate non-canonical gospels that discuss the birth and life of Mary before Jesus and if they exist, how they compare to this story here. Beyond that, I’d be interested in knowing where and how long they were preserved, whether on parchment or orally. Does anyone know of anything in particular?

The story about Zechariah recounted in verses 38-41 can be found in a somewhat similar fashion at the beginning of the New Testament book of Luke. The Quran’s version is certainly more terse than that in the New Testament, and though it’s not necessary to recall all of the differences between the two versions, I will point out what seems to me to be a significant lacuna: that the angel mentioned in the New Testament who foretold the birth of John (the Baptist) was the Angel Gabriel, the same angel that relates the Quran to Mohammed, if I have my facts straight. Why would this be left out? Could it be that the story was not known in this fashion or was it an intentional omission and a ‘clarification’ of the New Testament story? Intentional, I say, because perhaps the significance of Mohammed’s revelation was not meant to be compared with that provided to Zechariah about John the Baptist? That doesn’t seem a good answer to me as the Quran, though recognizing the new trumping of itself revelation-wise, still respects all revelation – that leaves the question open and one over which I will anxiously await others’ thoughts.

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Al-‘Imran 31-41

31. Say [O Prophet]: “If you love God, follow me, [and] God will love you and forgive you your sins; for God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace.” 32. Say: “Pay heed unto God and the Apostle.” 33. BEHOLD, God raised Adam, and Noah, and the House of Abraham, and the House of `Imran above all mankind, 34. in one line of descent.* And God was all-hearing, all-knowing** 35. when a woman of [the House of] `Imran prayed: “O my Sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow [the child] that is in, my womb, to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me: verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!” 36. But when she had given birth to the child,  she said: “O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female” – the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and [fully aware] that no male child [she might have hoped for] could ever have been like this female – “and I have named her Mary. And, verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her offspring against Satan, the accursed.” 37. And thereupon her Sustainer accepted the girl-child with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in goodly growth, and placed her in the care of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her provided with food. He would ask: “O Mary, whence came this unto thee?” She would answer: “It is from God; behold, God grants sustenance unto whom He wills, beyond all reckoning.” 38. In that self-same place, Zachariah prayed unto his Sustainer, saying: “O my Sustainer! Bestow upon me [too], out of Thy grace, the gift of goodly offspring; for Thou, indeed, hearest all prayer.” 39. Thereupon, as he stood praying in the sanctuary, the angels called out unto him: “God sends thee the glad tiding of [the birth of] John, who shall confirm the truth of a word from God, and [shall be] outstanding among men, and utterly chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.” 40. [Zachariah] exclaimed: “O my Sustainer! How can I have a son when old age has already overtaken me, and my wife is barren?” Answered [the angel]: “Thus it is: God does what He wills.” 41. [Zachariah] prayed: “O my Sustainer! Appoint a sign for me!” Said [the angel]: “Thy sign shall be that for three days thou wilt not speak unto men other than by gestures. And remember thy Sustainer unceasingly, and extol His limitless glory by night and by day.”

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3 Responses

  1. I hope that this time I’ve at least identified the connection (a bit) between the surah title and the relevant verses…

    You have. 🙂

    I would be fascinated to learn if there are any Gnostic sources or alternate non-canonical gospels that discuss the birth and life of Mary before Jesus and if they exist, how they compare to this story here.

    You’ll have to find someone else to discuss this with. 😉

    The story about Zechariah recounted in verses 38-41 can be found in a somewhat similar fashion at the beginning of the New Testament book of Luke.

    It’s also found in Surah Maryam, 19:2-15; the passages in Surah Al-Imran and Surah Maryam are very similar to each other.

    Could it be that the story was not known in this fashion or was it an intentional omission and a ‘clarification’ of the New Testament story? Intentional, I say, because perhaps the significance of Mohammed’s revelation was not meant to be compared with that provided to Zechariah about John the Baptist?

    Personally, I would say that the answer is much simpler (and one we’ve discussed before): that this was a detail that wasn’t necessary. There are only two facts that are absolutely necessary in this passage: that the message being delivered is sent from Allah (swt) as passed to Zachariah (pbuh) by the angels, and the content of the message itself. Which angel(s) actually spoke the message is irrelevant. Notice that in verse 39, the angels (plural) answer Zachariah (pbuh), but in verses 40 and 41 it’s the angel (singular) that speaks. This is echoed in the next section, which is with respect to Maryam Umm Isa, where the angels speak to Maryam in verse 45, but the angel speaks in the longer passage of 47-51. This literary “echo” to me indicates the similarity of the experiences between Zachariah (pbuh) and Maryam.

    That doesn’t seem a good answer to me as the Quran, though recognizing the new trumping of itself revelation-wise, still respects all revelation…

    This last section (“though recognizing…”) is very true and very important.

  2. Two other things I find of interest in this passage:
    * The similarity of experiences between the wives of the Prophets Ibrahim and Zachariah (pbut). Both were barren, yet both still conceived sons who became prophets in their own right. (See 11:69-73.)
    * In verse 3:41, the angel answers, “‘Thy Sign,’ was the answer, ‘Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three days but with signals. Then celebrate the praises of thy Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning.'” I like Asad’s explanation about this sign:

    According to Abu Muslim (quoted with approval by Razi), Zachariah was merely enjoined not to speak to anyone during the period of three days, and not struck dumb as in the New Testament narrative (Luke i, 20-22): thus the “sign” was purely spiritual, and was to consist in Zachariah’s utter self-abandonment to prayer and contemplation.

  3. I think….Protovangelium of James (gospel of James) has a version of the birth of Mary (pbuh) but is different from Quran.— I am moving house and don’t have my notes.—-The similarities are interesting but it is the differences that are intriguing…..by the way….as JD mentioned, the use of singular and plural is also an interesting aspect of the Quran—-so it is good to be aware of it.
    verse 36—from the perspective of women, this verse is one among many in the Quran that indicates spiritual equality.
    37-38—“God grants sustenance unto whom He wills…” —either spiritual or physical/wordly……Islam is submission (to God) and this as well as the story of Prophet Abraham (pbuh) show what this truly means at its highest (spiritual) level.
    However, recall Surah 2 and our discussion about responsibility—Just because God can change circumstances—does not mean that we as individuals should abandon all our duties and responsibilities!!!
    God is the “Creator” that has created everything–including the laws of biology. While we have a limited capacity/knowledge to manipulate biology (–these days), God has the unlimited ability to create at will. Yet, it is easy to forget about it because we feel that we are so capable and knowlegeable—and we understand “the laws” of nature so well—that we can figure out what is and is not possible.

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