Investigating the Missing Mary Magdalene in Islam 3 January 2016
Nakita Valerio explores the absence of Mary Madalene from Islamic scripture, despite the importance placed on Jesus as a significant prophet in the faith.
Mary Magdalene is an anomaly in Christian hagiography for her varied, and sometimes contradictory roles. The earliest texts elevate her to the status of the Companion of God, the mouthpiece of the Gnostics, the Apostle of the Apostles, the New Eve, and the Sweet Friend of God. She is named in the Bible and is one of the most frequently depicted saints in Catholic history. Her relics have been dispersed across Europe, and monasteries dedicated to her name have shaped pilgrimage routes and trade networks. Artistic depictions of her lead to her rise as the favourite female saint of the Middle Ages, and her role as an intercessor lead the famous poets of Europe to call on her for forgiveness. And yet, a simple glance into the realm of Islam and Mary Magdalene vanishes. There is not a single mention of Mary Magdalene in any of Islam’s accepted literature. Given how much of orthodox Islam continues from mainstream Christianity, how can there be no evidence whatsoever of Mary Magdalene’s significance from the Muslim perspective? In order to understand her absence, we must first look to the Islamic construction of Jesus as a man and a prophet, as well as orthodox interpretations of the crucifixion, the resurrection, attitudes towards ascetic practices, attitudes towards repentance and salvation, and the problem of intercession.
Jesus, Prophet of Islam
Considering that Mary Magdalene’s close proximity to Jesus is what warrants her edification and sainthood in Christianity, Jesus’ construction in Islam demands closer observation to understand her absence. Jesus is mentioned fifty-nine times in the Qur’an, significantly more than Muhammad who is mentioned only five times. In these mentions, Jesus is removed of all divinity and claims of being the son of God. Indeed, he is stripped down to his humanity: a mere messenger in a long line of messengers imploring people to worship one God alone. Jesus is considered, by Muslims, to be a prophet of God, the word of God, and the Messiah. It should be noted that while Muslims respect and love Jesus, he is not regarded as a singular unique event in history. Rather, he is perceived to have been sent at his particular time for his people with the same message as those that came before him: strict monotheism. According to the hadith, prophecies are relayed about Jesus’ return to earth as a sign of the End of Days and in order to defeat the dajjal (antichrist), “break the cross, kill swine, and abolish jizya (taxes)”. As well, his proximity to the Prophet Muhammad is noted.
In the Christian tradition, there has been much debate and speculation about the nature of Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus – particularly as to whether or not it was sexual or marital. This issue has come to the fore recently as popular cultural texts have been produced in the last decade that use The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Pistis Sophia, and The Gospel of Mary as evidence that Magdalene was the lover of Christ, in part accounting for the suppression of these Gnostic texts. The reasons for their suppression are numerous. The issue of a marital relationship for Christ has been an ongoing debate among Christians since at least the third century after his death. It has been noted that numerous “modern theologians have suggested that he may…have been married, as a rabbi of his age in orthodox Judaism is more than likely to have been.” This lends itself well to theories of marriage to Magdalene, “particularly given his rabbinical background… [where] a woman could only become a disciple if her master or husband were a rabbi.” Either way, the Church struggles to reconcile the divinity of Christ with the possibility of his earthly, sexualized marriage.
For Muslims, this is not an issue because Christ is not divine. With Jesus as a man first and foremost, Islamic doctrine not only takes no issue with his marriage or permissible sexual activity; it expects and encourages it. Marriage in Islam is not only a preventative prohibition of evil in recognizing the natural inclinations of men and women to desire intercourse (as they were created) but also signifies God’s power and glory. This is not a concept unique to Islam though, but was also present in Judaism – the idea of expecting a man, particularly a preaching Rabbi, to remain celibate was highly unusual. In this understanding, there would be no issue with the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene or whomever else he proposed. The Qur’an acknowledges that prophets are in need of marriage like any other men but makes no mention of whether or not Jesus did. While most Islamic scholars agree that this might indicate that Jesus did not marry (making him an anomaly among messengers), the absence of mention for his potential wife is not unusual. In fact, of twenty-six named prophets in the Qur’an, only twelve of them have wives that are either named or noted in a significant way. Further, in all instances where a wife of a prophet is named, it is only with a particular didactic purpose behind it. If this is absent, they are simply not mentioned, even if their existence is implied. In this case, it is certainly possible that Jesus was married to someone without that person being mentioned at all.
What remains to be made clear is that this is not unique to wives or even women. There are many other prophets recognized to have existed in Islam but without being named explicitly in the Qur’an. Given that all prophets were not named, it is unrealistic to expect all wives to be named. Furthermore, the lack of named women does not point to misogyny in early Islam either as we saw in the early disputes of the Church. The status of women in early Islam is incomparable to those in the early Church with Muslim women being central to the propagation, defense and understanding of the faith. The Qur’an and hadith repeatedly exalt the status of women and mothers in particular.
If the voices of Islam’s early women were not suppressed and the wives of Prophets (and indeed prophets themselves) were only mentioned for religiously didactic purposes, where does this leave us with Mary Magdalene? If she was, in some way, the consort of Jesus, was she simply unimportant enough to not warrant a mention as few others had in the Qur’an and hadith? Almost before I finish writing that sentence, I can hear the outcry. Was Mary Magdalene not at the crucifixion? Does this not point to her significance?
The Crucifixion Through Muslim Eyes
For the Church, Mary Magdalene’s presence at the foot of the cross is very significant and her role at the crucifixion went beyond being a mere spectator. According to Biblical and secondary sources, the character of Magdalene became a composite of several figures including unnamed women, Mary of Bethany and the anointer of Christ. Regardless of the nature of Magdalene’s presence there, it is significant enough to have been noted in John and elsewhere. With Magdalene established as a primary witness to the single most important event in the Christian religion and potentially as an anointer of Jesus just prior to the Passion, one would think that such a crucial role would warrant a mention in Islam. However, in the Islamic framework, Jesus did not die for the sins of humanity; in fact, according to the Qur’an and the agreement of most Islamic scholars, he did not even die. The crucifixion was an illusion to those enacting it and serves as a relatively moot point for Muslims who believe it to be one small part of the story of Jesus. With crucifixion relegated to the status of peripheral unimportance, being mentioned in one, singular ayah (verse) of 6236 verses, it is hardly surprising that witnesses to it, such as Mary Magdalene, would warrant little mention in Islamic theology.
The necessary finale to the spectacle of the crucifixion is the Resurrection in which Mary Magdalene plays her most important role: apostola apostolorum (Apostle to the Apostles). Firstly, she had been a direct witness to Jesus’ burial, with Mark 15:47 proclaiming that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw where he was laid.” After the Sabbath passed, it is related in all the Gospels, that Mary Magdalene was the first to venture to the tomb in the dark. Related in Mark, Magdalene finds the tomb open and “a young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them that Jesus has risen and implores her to tell the others. Later, Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven devils.” John offers a bit more detail when he relays that Magdalene visited the tomb alone and upon finding it empty, she ran to Simon Peter and another disciple to tell them. When they found the tomb empty, they returned home, leaving Mary there crying. In that moment, two angels appear to her and ask her why she is crying to which she replies that Jesus has gone missing. Jesus then appears to her but she mistakes him for a gardener until he says “Mary”, when she turns to him and cries out “Rabboni!” She is then charged with the honorific task of relating the good news to the other disciples.
While this is considered to be one of the most prestigious incidences in Christian history, no mention of it is made in Islam at all. As Jesus did not die, he could not be resurrected. Had the incident happened – in the Islamic viewpoint – and had Magdalene indeed been the bride of Jesus, it would make sense for her to be the first visitor to the tomb and the first to whom he appeared. The Islamic silence on this goes even deeper though and harkens back to a wider theological chasm between Christianity and Islam.
The role of the Apostle of the Apostles was celebrated and given literary fame in the commentary of Hippolytus of Rome on the Canticle of Canticles. The crucial point to take from his famous elaboration is his overt reference to Eve and his linking of Magdalene with her. Having found Christ in the garden, Magdalene becomes the New Eve, the first sign of the reversal of the fall of Adam. In Christian mythology, the Fall from the garden is related in Genesis, Chapter 3, where the serpent tempts Eve with fruit. After Eve eats some, she brings it to Adam who eats it also. Immediately following this, they realize the shame of their nudity and are rebuked and punished by God for their deviancy. This story accounts for the dogma of Original Sin. Due to their transgression and banishment from the Garden, the rest of humanity suffers under the weight of this guilt, necessitating the crucifixion of Christ as the expiating sacrifice.
While the Qur’an also relates the story of the fruit in the Garden, there is no snake tempting Adam and Hawwa (Eve). Rather, this role is filled by Shaytan (satan) who planted waswasi (whispers) in the hearts of both Adam and Eve so that their thoughts became consumed by desire for the fruit. When they forgot the warning of God, they ate the fruit and were reprimanded. There is nowhere in the Qur’an that suggests Hawwa convinced Adam to give up Paradise for a fruit. In the Islamic tradition, both Adam and Hawwa bear equal responsibility. Remarkably, they are also both immediately forgiven by God. Thus in Islam, there is no original sin, no need for crucifixion or resurrection, and no need for the New Eve, embodied in Mary Magdalene.
Magdalene, The Intercessor
If, in Islam, there is no original sin and no single figure can absolve a person of their sins except God alone, then what role do intercessors play? In the mid-13th century, Petrarch referred to Magdalene in a poem, calling her Dulcis Amica Dei (The Sweet Friend of God). Petrarch fashioned her as his very own mediatrix. While Magdalene was increasingly invoked for these purposes in Christianity, this is a concept foreign to orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, intercession implies a kind of prayer called duaa or supplication which is something reserved for Allah alone. Any supplications made to a figure other than God is considered major shirk – the association of another in worship with God and the only unforgivable sin in Islam.
Mary the Desert Ascetic
The last point of divergence between the Christian and Islamic faiths is Magdalene’s representation as a desert ascetic. The desert ascetic, is a much later conflation of Magdalene with Saint Mary of Egypt and is not based on Scripture but rather the inventions of hagiographical authors and is a result of pure scribal accident.
The concept of zuhd or asceticism in Islam is far different than what is found in medieval Christianity. The retreat of individuals to solitude in the desert, particularly single women such as Mary of Egypt, is forbidden in Islam. Other points of Christian asceticism such as excessive fasting, celibacy, nudity or scruffy clothing, impure states of being such as uncleanliness, self-flagellation, and wanton displays of poverty are all either forbidden or discouraged in orthodox Islam as well. In fact, abstinence from any activities that are permissible or fard (obligatory), such as sexual intercourse within a marriage, is forbidden in Islam. Real zuhd in Islam is the renunciation of what is forbidden and utter contentment (qana’ah) with the portion that Allah has given you, including accepting abundances. Spiritual poverty, a Muslim’s most prized attribute, signifies his utter dependence and submission to Allah but is not represented by outward excesses such as those found in medieval Christianity. One could make the argument that asceticism merely differed between the two religions, except that the Qur’an further charges the Christians with the invention of excessive asceticism and monastic life, something “not prescribed for them by Allah.” Thus, Magdalene’s conflation with Mary of Egypt and her excessive ascetic actions in the desert would have been foreign, even condemned, behaviour for most Sunni Muslims.
Mary Madelene – A Figure of Contention
This analysis has argued that the many roles of Mary Magdalene in scriptural, artistic and hagiographical sources embody key theological considerations that are unique to the Christian tradition. They do not translate to Islam, despite the figure of Jesus and other biblical characters being of exalted status in the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. With many prophets not being named, and other prophets’ wives or female companions only being named out of didactic necessity, it is reasonable to assume that if Magdalene was, in fact, the wife or companion of Prophet Jesus, she simply did not warrant a mention in the Qur’an or hadith sources. The fact that the crucifixion and resurrection are not accepted in Islam renders her most crucial roles in Christianity irrelevant. Further to this point, certain ascetic practices that were absorbed into the character of Saint Magdalene are considered forbidden religious innovations for Muslims as well. In this way, the single figure of Mary Magdalene is the point around which many crucial divergences between the two faiths orbit.
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