Pulchra Ut Luna: Some Reflections on the Marian Theme in Muslim-Catholic Dialogue

By Winter, Tim | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Pulchra Ut Luna: Some Reflections on the Marian Theme in Muslim-Catholic Dialogue


Winter, Tim, Journal of Ecumenical Studies


PRECIS

The utility of the Virgin Mary as a theme for Muslim-Catholic understanding has often been overstressed. Islam has no doctrine of original sin that might facilitate a recognition of Roman Catholic teachings concerning the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption; neither does it recognize virginity as a privileged state. Mary thus competes with several married archetypes of Muslim female piety. However, the symbolic language of the two faiths in their devotional and mystical modes reveals striking convergences in their exploration of a gendered dynamic by which heaven and earth are reconciled. Thus, symbolism, rather than founding historical figures, must be considered the basis for any dialogue that hopes to avoid both the dangers of reductionism and the sterility of a simple acknowledgement of difference.

May: A Theme for Dialogue?

The figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary has long formed a barrier to Christian ecumenism that has been both doctrinal and affective. [1] Even in the comparatively irenic conditions of the twentieth century, Karl Barth did not hesitate to view Mariology as the defining error of the Roman Church. [2] What hopes, then, are there for constructing an appropriate understanding of the Virgin, as a discrepantly shared symbol, for dialogue between Christianity and Islam? Fundamental issues touching on the nature of the two religions are raised by this question, and the following discussion will necessarily lead the reader over a diverse and contested landscape. I hope to show that, while the Virgin Mary has been overestimated as a potential shared theme for dialogue, images of the feminine, for which she frequently becomes the preeminent figure, can be read to show that the two religions are much closer in their mystical and devotional practices than their theologies might suggest.

It should be noted at the outset that the Muslim-Protestant conversation has been relatively untroubled by mariological concerns, since neither Islam nor Protestantism concedes any significant role to Mary in the economy of salvation, nor do they acknowledge the characteristic Roman Catholic doctrines of the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, and Mary's perpetual postpartum virginity. [3] The Orthodox churches also, inasmuch as their views can be summarized in the absence of a definitive magisterial teaching, have been reluctant to accept the grander roles accorded to Mary by Catholicism, including the all-important dogma of the Immaculate Conception, [4] despite the significance of Mary as God-bearer (theotokos) and her concomitant prominence in iconography and the ecclesiastical calendar.

However, any comparative theology attempted between Islam and Catholicism runs up against the figure of the Virgin almost at once. Cheikh Bouamrane has identified four areas of dogmatic difference between the two traditions: the definition of God's unity, the locus of revelation (Bible or Qur'an), the legitimacy of Muhammad's ministry, and Mariology. [5] Present-day petitions to the Holy See urging Mary's further elevation to the status of co-redemptrix with Christ would, if successful, further exacerbate the Marian problem in dialogue.

In this way the Virgin Mary has conventionally appeared as an emblem of what Islam and Catholicism find superficially recognizable in each other but which investigation discloses as alienating. Confronted with this precious but differently appropriated woman, the mutual consideration of the two faiths has in consequence been very hesitant. Should Catholics rejoice to find Mary venerated in the Qur'an, even though she is stripped of her glory as Mother of God? Should Muslims regard what in their eyes is the risky hyperdulia accorded her by Catholicism as on balance preferable to a Christianity that hardly acknowledges Maryam at all? The dilemma has medieval roots: hence Ramon Lull's conviction, against Islam, that "the dishonour done to Christ's mother by robbing her Son of His divinity outweighed the possible value of direct praise of her. …

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