Mohammed, a pious PhD student from Egypt, sat guardedly in the “Community of Reconciliation.” Invited by David Vidmar, director of coaching for Peace Catalysts International, the middle-aged Muslim seemed soured on the idea of interfaith exchange at his northern California university.
Vidmar suspected Mohammed came to the jointly led Muslim-Christian dinners because he felt obligated to do da’wah, the Arabic word for spreading Islam. But over a shared meal and discussion about Mary, the Egyptian’s attitude shifted. “The deeper we got into the life of Mary and how Christians understand the virgin birth of Jesus, he became very enthused,” Vidmar said. “There are so many misunderstandings . . . it was wonderful to observe him see the similarities and be able to relax.”
Peace Catalysts is a Jesus-centered peacemaking effort, focused primarily on Christians and Muslims. Vidmar and his family worked for eight years with Uighurs in Kazakhstan and still wish Muslims would experience the love and forgiveness God reveals through Jesus. But now he works to help both sides experience heart transformation through deep and genuine friendship—and Mary proved a fruitful bridge.
“Since so many Muslims use the term ‘Jesus, Son of Mary,’ it would be helpful for evangelicals to think more deeply about this,” Vidmar said. “Muslims often excitedly tell me their favorite chapter in the Qur’an is Maryam, and women especially express appreciation for it.”
Mary is mentioned 34 times in the Qur’an—more than in the New Testament—and its only named woman. Islam upholds the virgin birth, the annunciation by Gabriel, and—mirroring the Ave Maria in Luke’s gospel—declares Mary to be “exalted above all women.”
Yet even Catholics have been slow to recognize the similarities. “Few church leaders today have highlighted Mary’s potential role as a bridge between the two religions,” wrote Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago and the co-chair of the National Catholic-Muslim Dialogue, in America magazine. “This seems like a missed opportunity.”
Beyond dialogue, some like Rita George-Tvrtkovi, author of Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History, view Muslim devotion to Mary as a prompt for the church. “I hope that Catholics will be touched when they witness Muslim piety—not only their devotion to Mary but also their faithfulness to praying five times a day [and] fasting during Ramadan—and will be inspired to practice their own Catholic faith more fervently,” she told Chicago Catholic.
History suggests Catholics could have known better. A popular moniker, “Our Lady of Fatima,” stems from the reported 1917 apparition of Mary to shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal. The town name stems from the 15th-century Reconquista, where a Catholic knight helped drive out the Iberian Peninsula’s last Muslim rulers. According to tradition, the knight fell in love with the ruler’s daughter—named Fatima, after Muhammad’s favorite daughter—who stayed behind to marry him and converted to Christianity.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Catholics began to grapple with Mary as a bridge to Islam. Archbishop Fulton Sheen, famed for his television preaching, believed that Mary might lead some Muslims to convert. But Louis Massignon, a secular French scholar of Islam who converted to Catholicism after witnessing Muslim spirituality in Baghdad, saw Mary as a bridge to deeper Christian-Muslim relationships.
It was Massignon’s vision that won out. His scholarship contributed significantly to the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate, the first official Catholic recognition of Mary as a figure of importance also to Muslims—as well as a bridge to dialogue and friendship.
Still, it was far behind the times. Christian shrines to Mary had long existed in the Islamic world, drawing frequent Muslim supplicants. Our Lady of Africa in Algeria, Meryem Ana Evi in Turkey, Mariamabad in Pakistan, and Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery in Syria are all esteemed places of blessing.
And in Lebanon in 2010, a Muslim sheikh led the effort to declare March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, as a national holiday. His motto: Together around Mary, Our Lady.
Arab evangelicals, however, tend to be offended. “It is nice that Christians and Muslims can use Mary as a bridge, but so what?” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. “It is the nature of any system that rejects a superior truth to elevate less important truths or to mix error with lesser truths.” Islam celebrates the virgin birth but denies Jesus’ deity and his death and resurrection, he said. And Catholics add to the gospel their understanding of works and church tradition.
Still, evangelical missiologists have encouraged Muslims to interact with biblical stories held in common, in hopes they will provide interpretation to the Qur’an. The Maryam chapter states clearly that Jesus would die and then rise again, which could alter perceptions of a more frequently cited verse elsewhere in the Qur’an that denies the Jews crucified him.
And since the Islamic Mary is told that the child coming to her is a “word” from God, perhaps other theological concepts—like the incarnation—can also shift. “Christians and Muslims believe essentially the same thing regarding the how question, [but] the main scandal for Muslims is the who question,” wrote Fred Farrokh, a former Muslim, in Biblical Missiology. “In Islam, the baby growing in Mary’s womb is part of creation. In Christianity, the baby growing in Mary’s womb is actually the Creator.”
Christians disagree over the use of the Qur’an in evangelism, and Muslim apologists are skilled in refutation. But for many, there is a perhaps more significant stumbling block to Mary’s usefulness as a bridge: Mary herself.
“The question with the use of Mary is not only how does it connect with Muslims,” said John Morehead, director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, “but how would evangelicals react who have previously taken issue with Catholicism?”
The strongest voices might come from Rome. “Roman Catholics have a more distorted view of Mary than Muslims,” said Leonardo de Chirico, vice chair of the Italian Evangelical Alliance, noting how Mariology goes beyond the similarities in the two scriptures. “Muslims may venerate her, but Roman Catholics hyper-venerate her.”
He cited the 1854 dogma of the Immaculate Conception as an example. Without using the term, Islamic tradition also holds that Mary, along with Jesus, was born without sin. But de Chirico also took issue with the spirit of Vatican II, and in particular the 2015 Evangelii Gaudium of Pope Francis. “Nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ,” he said. “More than focusing on a distorted and inflated view of Mary, we should engage our Muslim friends by pointing to the biblical Mary who points to her son.”
René Breuel, pastor of Hopera Church in Rome, is more optimistic. He agrees most Italian evangelicals would be put off by centering discussions upon Mary but suggests a subtle shift would especially appeal to Muslims. “Both Christianity and Islam care for the worship of God alone,” he said. “Protestants could use such conversations to share concerns about idolatry, yet explain why they still worship a man: Jesus.”
“I don’t see a discussion about Mary as being good for the world as a tool for doing da’wah or evangelism,” Vidmar said. “But talking about Mary and Jesus helps us humanize each other and authentically connect.”
Jayson Casper is Middle East correspondent for Christianity Today.
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