In the words of noted historian, Jaroslav Pelikan, "One of the most profound and most persistent roles of the Virgin Mary in history has been her function as a bridge builder to other traditions, other cultures, and other religions." (1) Indeed, in certain places common to Catholics and Muslims popular piety bears out the truth of this statement as both gather at Marian shrines to pray. (2) Intellectuals and spiritual leaders from each of these faiths, however, present somewhat less homogenous opinions regarding the efficacy of using Marian beliefs for common ground upon which to build interfaith dialogue. (3)
While the study of Mary will not necessarily result in complete doctrinal agreement, the figure of Mary within the context of these two religious traditions is an exceptionally apt point of convergence and divergence through which to gain deeper understanding of each religion's concepts of God and paradigms of discipleship. I have three reasons for this contention. First, Mary is the personal and unique bearer of the Word of God in each tradition. (4) For Catholics, she is the Theotokos through whom God enters human history; for Muslims, she and her son are signs to humankind (Sura 23:50) that "personally and by their exceptional gifts and prerogatives, manifest Allah's attributes of might and wisdom in an exceptional way." (5) The Muslim Mary received "a child from God's spirit, a word from God ... whose name was the Christ Jesus son of Mary, chosen to be one of God's righteous prophets." (6) Additionally, in classical Sufism, Mary provides "the medium by which [God] comes into concrete existence in terms of human perception." (7) Therefore, she is a window through which each tradition's conception of the Godhead may be explored.
Second, Mary is seen as both a symbol of Islam and the perfect Christian. (8) She is a model disciple for men and women alike, and her life affords a great opportunity to deepen understanding of the human-divine relationship and the nature of discipleship in each tradition.
Finally, Mary is exalted in both the Muslim and Catholic faiths because of the great things that God has done for her. (9) These "great things" are linked to doctrines that we have in common--namely, the virgin birth and her preservation from sin--but that are interpreted differently. The fact that Islam and Catholicism exalt the same person as a symbol of the faith--favored by God with God's Word and afforded the unique gifts of sinless purity and a virgin birth-means that Marian doctrines, studied within the context of each religious tradition, afford a great opportunity to explore our respective belief systems.
Clearly, an exhaustive study of this topic would require a more in-depth treatment than this essay provides. Therefore, I intend to demonstrate Mary's worth as a hermeneutical tool for Catholic-Muslim dialogue by submitting certain defined reflections pertaining to the concepts of God and discipleship as gleaned through the window of our common Marian doctrines: the virgin birth and Mary's sinless purity. (10)
I. Fundamentals of the Marian Story
A basic familiarity with Mary's story as it is told in Islam and Catholicism is necessary background to the discussion in this essay; therefore, I have included the following chart as an overview of the events in Mary's life. It is not a comprehensive presentation of all the scriptural and extra-scriptural references to Mary but, rather, a comparison of the hallmark events of Mary's life within each faith tradition. The Bible and the Qur'an are the primary sources for this overview; (11) however, I have included certain elements present in tradition that have greatly impacted popular piety and/or Marian doctrine; these are italicized in the following chart of the parallel stories.
The Catholic Story of Mary
Mary's Birth and Childhood (Lk.
Mary is conceived without original
sin and remains completely free of
sin throughout her life. …