Be inspired. Lessons from the life of Maryam, mother of Jesus
Muslims regard Mary as one of the best women who ever lived.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The chief of the women of paradise are four: Maryam, the daughter of Imran, Fatima, the daughter of the Messenger of Allah, Khadija the daughter of Khuwaylid, and Asiya”. (Ahmad and Al-Hakim. Good Hadith).
There are undoubtedly many lessons we can learn from her life. What makes her so incredibly special? And how can we navigate the adversities of our own life through her example?
The way in which she handled her unique destiny, reality, and faced her extraordinary challenges contain inspirational lessons for us today.
She is the only woman who is mentioned by name in the Quran, and indeed has a chapter dedicated to her. Even the mother of Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is not mentioned.
Allah did choose Adam and Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of ‘Imran above all people (3:33)
Allah Almighty mentioned her family as specially chosen. Her father, ‘Imran was the Chief of the Rabbis in Jerusalem and very righteous. Her mother was also very devout and respected. In addition, her uncle Zakariya, who became her guardian, was a prophet, and his wife – Maryam’s maternal aunt too – was pious, so Maryam was born into a highly spiritual and knowledgeable family.
Her mother Hannah was barren, and vowed to God that if she had a baby, she would dedicate it to God’s service. Her supplication was made expecting her baby to be a boy, as the tradition was that boys served in the House of God, so she was shocked when she delivered a baby girl. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her oath and dedicated her daughter to a life of service in the House of God. An exception was made for her to do this as the daughter of ‘Imran, though ‘Imran had passed away before her birth.
The importance of personal choice and freedom
Maryam grew up praying and worshipping God with devotion. Maryam could have walked away from this life and rejected what her family had in mind for her. She could have rebelled.
Not all righteous parents have righteous offspring, because each one of us has personal choice. And we see this demonstrated in the story of Nuh, as his son refused to accept the word of God, and was drowned because he refused to board the ark.
In life, we are free to believe and obey, or disobey and rebel. Our choices create our destiny, or said differently, we write our destiny through our choices.
Maryam made her choice: to be connected and dedicated to Allah. She lived under the supervision of the Rabbis, who competed to supervise her when she reached 7-8 years, until Zakariya became her guardian. He, despite being a prophet, was inspired by this young woman who dedicated her life to worship God, fasted, displayed a high level of tranquility and serenity, and a strong connection to God.
Yet while we assume Maryam was sheltered, as she was dedicated to learn the scriptures, she did not inhabit a cocoon. She was aware of reality, and she understood it. Sometimes we wrap our children in cotton wool, but Maryam was not like that – she knew the ways of the world. We know this through the conversations she had with the archangel Jibril. When he told her she would have a child, her first reaction was that she did not want to commit any sin – to have a baby out of wedlock. She was told of her destiny:
The angels said to Mary: ‘Mary, God has chosen you and made you pure: He has truly chosen you above all women.
O Maryam, (Mary) be devout to your Lord, and prostrate yourself and bow down with the ones who bow down (for Him).” (3:42-43)
With the privilege comes the responsibility.
God had chosen and purified her out of all women. Still, she could have chosen to act differently, but she accepted her appointment and surrendered herself body and soul. She loved it and lived it authentically.
What lessons can we draw from this aspect of Maryam’s life?
Embrace your situation in life and make the best of it
Sometimes we are appointed to certain positions, but we are unsure if we will succeed or not, until we make a conscious choice to utilise what we have been given.
Maryam saw light instead of the darkness, the positives over the negatives. She saw the opportunity to become closer to God.
This is why the Quran advises Maryam to devote herself to God, and prostrate and be with the ones kneeling to God, and she accepted and joined the rows of worshippers.
Inspiring others through your connection with Allah
Thus, Maryam became a better practising believer and connected to God through seclusion. Her connection inspired her uncle, Zakariya. Each time when he was visiting her in the temple, he would find a provision next to her: fruits, food, and drinks. And as her guardian, he was wondering who was bringing these to her. She reassured him, declaring that she received these provisions from God. And this is one of her miracles (karama in Arabic).
So her Lord (Allah) accepted her with goodly acceptance. He made her grow in a good manner and put her under the care of Zakariya. Every time he entered the Mihrab to (visit) her, he found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Maryam! From where have you gotten this” She said, “This is from Allah.” Verily, Allah provides sustenance to whom He wills, without limit. (3:37)
Zakariya was an old man, with no children, in his eighties and his wife was barren. When Zakariya saw these miracles, and heard Maryam stating that God provided these to her, he made a supplication instantly and asked God to give him a son. Allah accepted his supplication, and He himself named Zakariya’s son, Yahya (John).
So the angels called him while he was standing in prayer in the chamber, “Indeed, Allah gives you good tidings of John, confirming a word from Allah and [who will be] honourable, abstaining [from women], and a prophet from among the righteous.” (3:39)
And the same happened to Maryam: Allah named her son, Eesa (Jesus).
The angels said, ‘Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God. (3:45)
Jesus and John were cousins. In that environment, we see that Maryam dedicated her life to worship, learn, supplicate, and to establish a strong bond with her Creator. She then started speaking to the angels before Jibril came to her in the form of a man.
Was Maryam a prophet?
These events have caused some discussion among the scholars to understand Maryam’s status: was she a prophet, or just a righteous woman? Some scholars have said that Maryam was a prophet, but not a messenger (the distinction being that messengers bring laws (shariah), while prophets confirm them). The Quran negates the possibility of women being messengers, however it is silent on women being prophets. Several great scholars, including Imam al-Qurtubi, al-Bukhari, Ibn Hazam, and Ibn Ashur, came to the conclusion from their understanding that Maryam was a prophet, on the basis that she experienced miracles and she was visited by Jibril, whose function is to bring divine messages to the prophets. However, they are in the minority.
Maryam did indeed receive messages from the angels, and later Jibril, who appeared to her and informed her that she would become pregnant. And thus, in Surah Maryam, a dialogue starts between her and Jibril in which she wonders how she can have a baby when no man has touched her, and is concerned about her reputation as a righteous woman.
Jibril reassured her that this decision was a miracle from God and she would have a baby, without a father. The Quran made a comparison between the births of Jesus and Adam, which were both miracles. If we are so astounded by Jesus’s birth, surely the birth of Adam without both parents is another feat. He was created from clay.
Maryam went through pregnancy in an isolated place outside the city. The birth did not just happen suddenly, as some sources suggest, but was preceded by pregnancy that would have lasted nine months.
Overcoming our weakness with courage
After the birth of Eesa (peace be on him), we see the weakness of Maryam, at her young age of nearly 18. Imagine yourself in her shoes. A young woman from rabbi’s family, with a good reputation, from a respected lineage of worshippers and scholars, returning to your community after an absence, unmarried, with a baby. Adultery and sexual relationships outside marriage were forbidden and punished by stoning to death during her time.
However, the Quran established her innocence. Her baby, Jesus (peace be on him), spoke while in his cradle, to her community. She faced their accusations of being unchaste by being silent, as she had been commanded not to speak for three days. In her place, her baby professed her innocence and saved her from being stoned to death.
فَأَتَتْ بِهِ قَوْمَهَا تَحْمِلُهُ ۖ قَالُوا يَا مَرْيَمُ لَقَدْ جِئْتِ شَيْئًا فَرِيًّا
Then she came to her people, carrying him. They said, “O Mary, you have done something terrible.
يَا أُخْتَ هَارُونَ مَا كَانَ أَبُوكِ امْرَأَ سَوْءٍ وَمَا كَانَتْ أُمُّكِ بَغِيًّا
O sister of Aaron! Your father was not an indecent man, and your mother was not unchaste.”
فَأَشَارَتْ إِلَيْهِ ۖ قَالُوا كَيْفَ نُكَلِّمُ مَنْ كَانَ فِي الْمَهْدِ صَبِيًّا
So she pointed to him. They said, “How can we speak to an infant in the crib?”
قَالَ إِنِّي عَبْدُ اللَّهِ آتَانِيَ الْكِتَابَ وَجَعَلَنِي نَبِيًّا
He said, “I am the servant of Allah. He gave me the Scripture, and He made me a prophet.
وَجَعَلَنِي مُبَارَكًا أَيْنَ مَا كُنْتُ وَأَوْصَانِي بِالصَّلَاةِ وَالزَّكَاةِ مَا دُمْتُ حَيًّا
And He made me a blessing wherever I may be, and has enjoined on me prayer and charity, so long as I live. (19:27-31)
When we reflect on this scene, we see Maryam returned to her community with a heavy burden. She did not attempt to escape her responsibilities. Not everyone can honour their appointment and responsibilities and some even try to escape their predicament through alcohol and other substances. Her internal strength enabled her to achieve this. We can look at Maryam and be inspired by her courage and determination in the face of what seems an insurmountable task or responsibility. She had to be strong internally first in order to lead by example.
What nurtured Maryam’s strength is her connection with her Lord, her dedication, and her devotion. Maryam’s mother had also been a strong worshipper, with an infallible connection with her Lord, and this is why her prayers were accepted.
How can we be strong from the inside?
We have challenges on a daily basis in our lives, and we need to be connected to our Lord to overcome them, through our acts of worship (prayers, recitation, remembrance), our dedication, and the purity of our heart and intentions.
Her connection to her Lord led to miracles. When we are dedicated and connected to our Lord, we will experience miracles: be as He wants you to be, and you will be amazed at what follows.
Through these stories of Maryam and other righteous people, we can derive inspiration to live our lives today.
Acknowledge your weakness
We feel for Maryam as this young lady who felt she would cave in under the pressure placed upon her. At her lowest point, during the pains of childbirth, and concerned about how she would be treated, she wished she was dead:
And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, “Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.” (19:23)
Acknowledging our weaknesses is part of our nature as human beings. God created us with weaknesses, and we can transform them into strengths.
And Allah wants to lighten for you [your difficulties]; and mankind was created weak. (4:28)
Acknowledging our weaknesses is the key to remedy. We can apply this to our current situation, especially in the area of mental health. Denying our issues and weaknesses can actually cause harm to ourselves and others around us.
Maryam faced her reality and acknowledged her weaknesses, and she received the support from angels, through her dedication and devotion.
Her courage can inspire us to face our reality and to obey the commands, and honour the integrity of our principles. The internal acceptance and dedication permitted her obedience, and this shows that working on ourselves will cause the necessary transformation and miracles we need in our lives.
Take time out for reflection
Maryam secluded herself and we can follow her example. Seclusion is essential and we need time out for ourselves, time for reflection and especially now, we need time for our “spiritual accountability” with our Lord, our family and friends.
Take time out to go through your accounts: check what you are thankful for, and what you can improve. As Muslims, we have a special time for seclusion during Ramadan. Our Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) would seclude himself for 10 days, which is known as etikaf. We all need this seclusion to get our priorities right, and to check our internal state.
No matter what challenges you have in your life, when you are strong internally, you can overcome any obstacle or challenge. But remember you sometimes also need to press the ‘help’ button.
When you are facing challenges and struggling to turn your circumstances around, get your house in order first. I.e. get yourself in order first.
Being strong inside helps us to overcome the challenges around us.
As long as we are weak inside, anything can break us.
Work on improving your daily worship (prayers, remembrance) by starting your morning prayer on time. It will shape your day, and set it in the right direction.
Abu Hurayrah narrated that Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) said:
“Satan puts three knots at the back of the head of any of you if he is asleep. On every knot he reads and exhales the following words, ‘The night is long, so stay asleep.’ When one wakes up and remembers Allah, one knot is undone; and when one performs ablution, the second knot is undone, and when one prays the third knot is undone and one gets up energetic with a good heart in the morning; otherwise one gets up lazy and with a mischievous heart.” ( Bukhari and Muslim)
Our day has to revolve around our connection with our Lord. Our priority is our connection with our Lord, and then the rest of our day will gravitate around it. Praying on time only requires an hour allowance of our day to create focus in our life, and strengthen us.
Be Inspired by Maryam – Delivered by Shaykh Haytham Tamim on 23rd Dec 2021 to Norton Rose Fullbright.
Transcribed by Zahra Hrifa
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