Play Draws Mary from Bible and Quran: Theologian-Playwright Hopes to Deepen Understanding between Christians, Muslims

By Manson, Jamie | National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2017 | Go to article overview

Play Draws Mary from Bible and Quran: Theologian-Playwright Hopes to Deepen Understanding between Christians, Muslims


Manson, Jamie, National Catholic Reporter


SAN JOSE, CALIF. * If the political discourse of the last year contained any theological lesson, it's that Americans could benefit from greater religious literacy. One place to start might be to examine which stories our faiths share in common.

That is the hope of "Mary/Maryam," a new play by Victoria Rue that explores the life of the mother of Jesus as she is presented in the Christian Scriptures and in the Quran.

"The Quran has a whole chapter named after Maryam," Rue said in an interview in her office on the campus of San Jose State University, where she is a lecturer in comparative religious studies and women's studies. "She has an entire chapter, or sura, named after her. Her name is mentioned 34 times."

In fact, Maryam is the only woman mentioned in Islam's holy book. She is known as the mother of Isa, the Quran's name for Jesus, whom Muslims see as a prophet. Rue said that encountering Maryam gave new dimensions to the Mary she knew from childhood, who was more of a static object of piety.

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"The Quran put flesh and blood onto Mary for me," said Rue. "It gives her a childhood, a young adulthood and motherhood. That's a lot more than we're given in the synoptic Gospels."

The play imagines an older Mary and an older Maryam looking back on their lives. Each woman tells her own story, while another actress plays out important scenes that depict the parallels of their lives and the ways in which their stories diverge.

Since there is little in the canonical Gospel narratives about the early life of Mary, Rue relied on the Infancy Gospel of James to fill in some details. The apocryphal text dates to the second century and contains the earliest surviving stories about the birth of Mary and about her mother, Anna.

In some of the play's funniest scenes, the evangelists Luke, Matthew and Mark break in to quibble with Mary over the "imaginative liberties" that the Infancy Gospel of James takes with her story

"The emphasis for all of the Gospel writers is to focus on the life and death and resurrection of my son Jesus," Mary tells the evangelists and the audience. "They rush to get there and forget that Jesus was a child birthed by a flesh-and-blood woman, and a mother who suffered in birthing her child Jesus."

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Some of the parallels between the Quran and the Infancy Gospel of James are striking.

In both Scriptures, for example, Mary is raised in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the Quran, Zachariah builds a private room for Maryam, which the text describes as a "mihrab." To this day, every mosque has mihrab carved into a wall to indicate the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca.

"She is raised in an all-male establishment," said Rue. "She breaks the gender exclusion in the temple by her very presence."

Both texts also agree that when Mary/Maryam begins menstruating, she must leave the Temple. And, eventually, both women are visited by the angel Gabriel to tell them that they will give birth to Jesus/Isa.

But unlike Mary in the Christian Scriptures, there is no Joseph in the Quran.

"Maryam is a single mother," Rue said. "I was very moved by that."

Maryam gives birth alone under a palm tree and eats its dates to help with the birthing. Rue said that Muslim women are still given dates to help with the birthing process.

"How does something like that end up being revealed in Quran?" Rue wondered. "You get that sense of the culture being infused into the text, but also of the culture being infused with the divine."

Rue calls that "phenomenon revelation," a topic that led her to explore the Quran in her earlier work. The seeds for "Mary/Maryam" were planted during her research for her 2009 play, "Approaching the Quran," in which she contemplated Muhammad's experience of receiving the Quran in his encounter with the angel Gabriel. …

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