Muslim veneration of Mary

At The Christian Century, Philip Jenkins recently noted the importance of Mary to many Muslims as well. After describing a few famous incidents in which Mary was believed to appear in Egypt, he writes

Such visions demonstrate the continuing power of traditional beliefs among the Christian minority, but they also display the interest of faithful Muslims. The Zeitoun apparitions were a national sensation and were witnessed by the nation’s leader at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The fervor can be understood in the context of the catastrophic national mood that followed the nation’s defeat by Israel in 1967, at a time when Egyptians were desperately seeking signs of hope. But Muslims have participated fully in celebrating Marian manifestations, many of which actually began with reports from Muslim believers and then were taken up by their Christian neighbors.

Mary is a major figure in Muslim tradition and piety. She actually receives much more attention in the Qur’an than she does in the Christian Bible. Throughout Islamic history, she has been a focus of popular devotion, and women invoke her as a mother figure in a way that is highly reminiscent of Mary’s role in Catholic Christianity. Muslim women are likely to plead with Mary to help them bear a child or to offer healing.

Whatever the stance of official Islamic authorities, the belief in intercession is widespread among Egypt’s Mus­lims. Not surprisingly, then, stories of Marian visitations exercise a very wide appeal and can lead Muslims to visit Christian shrines. Whether seen by Christians or Mus­lims, Lady Mary (Sitana Mariam) is one and the same, making her a common adornment for both faiths. The fact that she has so often left her mark on the Egyptian landscape makes her a patriotic treasure. In the words of the national newspaper al-Ahram, “all Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, have exceptional love and respect for the Virgin Mary.”

The entire short piece is worth a read, and, if I am understanding it properly, gives a glimpse of the kind of folk Islam that has often attacked by those with stricter interpretations of the practices that Islam demands and forbids.


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