Last month, President Donald Trump retweeted three videos that purportedly showed Muslims harming young people and destroying a Christian statue. Few if any details were given about these violent incidents in the tweets, which were originally posted by an anti-immigrant group in the United Kingdom. Later reporting uncovered that at least one of the videos had nothing at all to do with Muslims, and numerous religious leaders spoke out against the videos, saying they sought to cast Muslims and their religion in an unfair and negative light.
Still, in one of the videos, from Syria in 2013, a Muslim man named Abo Omar Ghabra does indeed throw a statue of the Virgin Mary to the ground, where it shatters. This jarring video is reminiscent of similar gestures we may have seen on the news or social media, where other members of militant groups like ISIS or the al-Qaeda affiliate that Ghabra belonged to have destroyed sacred Christian symbols or houses of worship. These displays of hostility are meant to provoke fear and outrage — to create further divisions between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East and around the world. But what these videos don’t show are the many similarities and deep connections that Christians and Muslims share.
One of these shared aspects of faith is a profound respect for Mary. Contrary to Ghabra’s actions, Muslims on the whole deeply revere and honor the mother of Jesus.
For those who practice Islam, Mary is an important religious figure. In the Quran, her name and story appear frequently, and an entire chapter is named after her. Muslims recognize Mary as the virgin mother of Jesus. The Quran tells the story of the Annunciation with striking similarities to the version in the Gospel of Luke. In the Quran, Mary asks the angel Gabriel, “How shall I bear a son when no man has known me?” (Quran 3:47, and 19:20). Mary’s birth, which many Catholics recall this month in conjunction with the feast of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, is mentioned in the Quran (3:35-36). An account of Jesus’ birth — albeit different from the biblical one — is also mentioned (19:23-27). In the Quran, as in the Bible, Mary bears Jesus out of wedlock, facing scorn from her community. And in his first miracle, according to the Islamic tradition, the newborn baby Jesus speaks up in defense of his mother when she, a virgin, is questioned for having a child.
Maryam, as she’s known in the Islamic tradition, is honored as the mother of the Jesus, who in Islam is a great prophet alongside Muhammad, Moses, Abraham and other familiar biblical characters. But Mary also is known for her intellect and deep spiritual connection to God. Chosen by God “above all women everywhere,” the Quran says (4:32), Mary spent much time in solitude, praying in a place reserved especially for her in the sanctuary. Thus, the mihrab, the arched alcove that is the focal point in mosques, is often associated with Mary’s special place of prayer.
In many mosques, a quotation from the Quran about Zachariah finding her in her place of prayer is mounted above the archway. Because of Mary’s centrality to the faith, many Muslim women and girls share her name, Maryam.
In many places throughout the world, Muslims and Christians alike visit shrines dedicated to Mary. At a holy site called Our Lady of the Mount in rural Jordan, for example, Arab Christians and Muslims visit a statue of Mary that is thought be a source of miracles. And in Lebanon each year, Muslims and Christians together celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, sharing in song and prayer dedicated to Sayyidatuna (“Our Lady”).
The importance of Mary is just one of many similarities shared by Catholics and Muslims. Nostra Aetate, the Church declaration about other religious communities that emerged from the Second Vatican Council, mentions many of those commonalities, which include worship of God, reverence for Jesus and Mary, and practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In this document, the Church also urges Catholics, together with Muslims, “preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” in society. Today, there are countless challenges and injustices that face the human family, and Catholics and Muslims can work together to address them.
Popes also have called on Catholics to enter into friendship and dialogue with Muslims. Interreligious dialogue, Pope St. John Paul II said, is a journey with those of other faiths toward our “transcendent goal,” the common God whom we all seek. In his encyclical Redemptor Hominis, John Paul II assured Catholics that participation in dialogue “does not at all mean losing certitude about one’s own faith or weakening the principles of morality.” Rather, as he says elsewhere, the “beliefs and the moral values of the followers of other religions can and should challenge Christians to respond more fully and generously to the demands of their own Christian faith.”
This Advent season — when we remember Mary’s immaculate conception and await the birth of Jesus — also can be a time to recall what we share with those other faith traditions, and to embody the spirit of hospitality and love that Mary and her son teach us.
Jordan Denari Duffner is the author of “Finding Jesus among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic” (Liturgical Press, $17.99).