Verses 35-55 of chapter 3 of the Koran contain a narrative primarily about Mary and Jesus. It is a text riddled with historical problems. I will begin this post by interpreting the Koranic passage and noting where it agrees with and differs from earlier traditions. It will be clear that the author of the Koran is aware of earlier traditions. But I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting the author of the Koran had the earlier texts before him. I am merely noting that he knew the general form of earlier traditions.
Interpretations and Earlier Traditions
This passage begins with:
Behold! a woman of ‘Imran said: “O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things.” (Koran 3:35 Yusuf Ali)
Imran is the Amram of the Bible, the father of Moses and Aaron (Numbers 26:59). By itself, the Arabic translated as “a woman of Imran” can also mean “a wife of Imran.” Abdullah Yusuf Ali takes this verse to mean that the woman was both a descendant of Imran and a wife of a man named Imran (p. 30). Based on the context, Maulana Muhammad Ali takes this verse to merely mean that the woman was a descendant of Imran (pp. 144-145). The following verses make it clear that this woman is the mother of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
In The Protoevangelium of James (Prot. Jas.), the woman’s name is Anna. In this text, Anna is barren and prays to God for a child. She receives a message from an angel of the Lord stating that she will have a child. In response, Anna states: “As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life” (ch. 4). The Koran 3:35 is clearly familiar with this tradition. But note that in Prot. Jas. the name of Anna’s husband is Joachim and not Imran, as A. Y. Ali believes.
The Koran continues:
When she was delivered, she said: “O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!”- and Allah knew best what she brought forth- “And no wise is the male Like the female. I have named her Mary, and I commend her and her offspring to Thy protection from the Evil One, the Rejected.”
Right graciously did her Lord accept her: He made her grow in purity and beauty: To the care of Zakariya was she assigned. Every time that he entered (Her) chamber to see her, He found her supplied with sustenance. He said: “O Mary! Whence (comes) this to you?” She said: “From Allah. for Allah Provides sustenance to whom He pleases without measure.” (Koran 3:36-37 Yusuf Ali)
Zakariya is Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist (Luke 3:2). In The Prot. Jas., Mary is sent to the Temple. In ch. 8, it states: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.” Note that Zechariah is the high priest (ch. 8). The Koran 3:37 alludes to this tradition.
The Koran goes on to describe Zechariah’s prayer for a child and its answer:
There did Zakariya pray to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant unto me from Thee a progeny that is pure: for Thou art He that heareth prayer!
While he was standing in prayer in the chamber, the angels called unto him: “(Allah) doth give thee glad tidings of Yahya, witnessing the truth of a Word from Allah, and (be besides) noble, chaste, and a prophet,- of the (goodly) company of the righteous.”
He said: “O my lord! How shall I have a son seeing I am very old and my wife is barren?” “Thus” was the answer “doth Allah accomplish what He willeth.”
He said: “O my Lord! Give me a Sign!” “Thy Sign,” was the answer, “Shall be that thou shalt speak to no man for three days but with signals. Then celebrate the praises of thy Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning.” (Koran 3:38-41 Yusuf Ali)
Yahya is John the Baptist. These verses are similar to Luke 1:5-25. In both accounts Zechariah prays for a son (implied in Luke 1:13). In both accounts Zechariah receives an angelic message prophesying the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:8-11). In both accounts the age of Zechariah and the barrenness of his wife (Luke 1:7) cause Zechariah to ask how he can have a child (Luke 1:18). In both accounts Zechariah is given a sign that causes him to go mute. But, while the Koran says this lasted for three days, Luke 1:20 says it lasted until the fulfillment of the promise. In the Koran, Zechariah is commanded to glorify God. In Luke 1:64, 67-79 he does just that.
The Koran returns to Mary:
Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee- chosen thee above the women of all nations.
“O Mary! worship Thy Lord devoutly: Prostrate thyself, and bow down (in prayer) with those who bow down.” (Koran 3:42-43)
These couple of verses summarize the tradition found in Luke 1:26-56.
The Koran then addresses Muhammad:
This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Messenger.) by inspiration: Thou wast not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: Nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). (Koran 3:44 Yusuf Ali)
According to A. Y. Ali, the Arabic translated as “things unseen” means things that “belong to a realm beyond the reach of human perception” (p. 31). M. M. Ali states: “Mary’s history as narrated in the Gospels casts no light on these circumstances and hence the verse starts with the statement that this was an announcement relating to the unseen” (p. 148). Muhammad Asad writes: “This parenthetic passage, addressed to the Prophet, is meant to stress the fact that the story of Mary, as narrated in the Qur’an, is a direct outcome of revelation and, therefore, inherently true in spite of all the differences between this account and that given in the scriptures regarded by the Christians as authentic” (p. 87).
This verse is alluding to the marriage of Mary to Joseph. The casting of lots and the dispute are narrated in The Prot. Jas. chs. 8-9. In that text, a husband is chosen by the casting of lots for Mary from the among the widowers of Judea. The Koran mentions the use of arrows while Proto. Jas. states that staffs were used. Joseph was chosen to care for Mary when a dove miraculously came out of his rod and rested on his head! Joseph objects that he will become a laughing stock among the Israelites but is persuaded to take Mary home.
The Koran then continues with a description of who Jesus will be:
Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! Allah giveth thee glad tidings of a Word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the Hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to Allah.
“He shall speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. And he shall be (of the company) of the righteous.” (Koran 3:45-46 Yusuf Ali)
As in the case of verses 42-43, verse 45 is a summary of Luke 1:26-56. Verse 46, with its note that Jesus will speak in childhood, may allude to Jesus’ teaching in the Temple in Luke 2:41-52. M. M. Ali translates the Arabic word kahl to mean “when of old age” instead of “in maturity” (p. 149). He concludes that the Koran teaches that Jesus lived to a sufficiently old age and that he did not die at about 33 years of age.
The Koran goes on to describe Mary’s question:
She said: “O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?” He said: “Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be,’ and it is! (Koran 3:47 Yusuf Ali)
This question is similar to that found in Luke 1:34: “And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?'”
The Koran goes on to describe the career of Jesus:
“And Allah will teach him the Book and Wisdom, the Law and the Gospel,
“And (appoint him) an apostle to the Children of Israel, (with this message): “‘I have come to you, with a Sign from your Lord, in that I make for you out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, and breathe into it, and it becomes a bird by Allah.s leave: And I heal those born blind, and the lepers, and I quicken the dead, by Allah.s leave; and I declare to you what ye eat, and what ye store in your houses. Surely therein is a Sign for you if ye did believe; (Koran 3:48-49 Yusuf Ali)
Most of this is a summary of what can be found in the canonical Gospels. However, the turning of clay birds into real birds is found in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Inf. Thom.) ch. 2.
The Koran continues with:
“‘(I have come to you), to attest the Law which was before me. And to make lawful to you part of what was (Before) forbidden to you; I have come to you with a Sign from your Lord. So fear Allah, and obey me. (Koran 3:50 Yusuf Ali)
In support of the notion that Jesus taught the Law, Yahiya Emerick cites Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (p. 113).
Our Koranic passage comes to an end by further summarizing Jesus’ career:
“‘It is Allah Who is my Lord and your Lord; then worship Him. This is a Way that is straight.'”
When Jesus found Unbelief on their part He said: “Who will be My helpers to (the work of) Allah.” Said the disciples: “We are Allah.s helpers: We believe in Allah, and do thou bear witness that we are Muslims.
“Our Lord! we believe in what Thou hast revealed, and we follow the Messenger. then write us down among those who bear witness.”
And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah.
Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: Then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (Koran 3:51-55 Yusuf Ali)
A. Y. Ali takes the phrase “those who blaspheme” to refer to the Jews who brought false charges against Jesus (p. 32). Most Koranic commentators believe the Koran states that Allah raised Jesus up to heaven before he could be killed on the cross, but Muhammad al-Ghazali believes Jesus died a natural death (p. 43).
We can now enumerate the problems in the Koran 3:35-55. The first problem is that the Koranic account is based on traditions whose historicity is questionable at best. While the Gospel of Luke (along with Matthew and Mark) is considered one of the best sources for determining the historical details of Jesus’ adult ministry, many, if not most, scholars believe the infancy narrative found at the beginning of the Gospel to be of questionable value for determining the details of Jesus’ infancy and childhood. But note that the agreements between Matthew and Luke on a number of points (the betrothed couple Joseph and Mary, the virginal conception, the Davidic descent of Jesus, the birth in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great, the angelic revelation of the name “Jesus”, and Jesus’ upbringing in Nazareth) despite their differences suggests there is an historical core to the account. When it comes to Prot. Jas. and Inf. Thom. I am unaware of any historian who takes the accounts seriously as history. This point can be driven home with a few quotations from scholars.
Concerning Prot. Jas.:
Because of the author’s seeming ignorance about the geography of Palestine and religious practices there, we can safely assume that James is pseudonymous and that Palestine was not the place of origin. (Freedman, vol. 3, p. 630)
Since Origen certainly, and Clement of Alexandria probably, knew our document, and Justin shows very close contacts with its ideas (birth in the cave, Davidic descent of Mary), we may probably go back, so far as its roots are concerned, to the second half of the 2nd century, although we must regard several chapters as later additions (see below). We cannot deduce a Jewish-Christian origin for the author from the content. On the contrary, ignorance of the geography of Palestine and of Jewish customs (expulsion of Joachim for childlessness, upbringing of Mary in the Temple) could point rather to a non-Jew. (Schneemelcher, pp. 423-424)
The purpose of the book is not biographical, and therefore it has limited value as an additional source concerning the “Mary of history.” (Freedman, vol. 3, p. 631)
Concerning Inf. Thom.:
According to Irenaeus (adv. Haer. I 13.1) the Marcosians had a document containing a passage of our Gospel of Thomas (chapter 6). It thus probably belongs towards the end of the 2nd century. That the author was of gentile Christian origin may be assumed with certainty, since his work betrays no knowledge of things Jewish. . . .
Here the extraneous material is simply imported into the story of Jesus, without the slightest attempt to make it fit, even remotely, the portrait of Christ. If the name of Jesus did not stand alongside the description of ‘child’ or ‘boy’, one could not possibly hit upon the idea that these stories of the capricious divine boy were intended to supplement the tradition about him. Parallels from the legends of Krishna and Buddha, as well as all kinds of fables, can here be adduced in particular quantity. The cruder and more startling the miracle, the greater the pleasure the compiler finds in it, without the slightest scruple about the questionable nature of the material. In this respect there is a vast difference also between the Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James. . . .
Although lacking in good taste, restraint and discretion, it must be admitted that the man who collected these legends and composed the Gospel of Thomas was endowed with a gift of vivid story-telling, especially when he depicts scenes from everyday childhood. (Schneemelcher, p. 442)
Though later apocryphal documents like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas have a good deal to say about the so-called hidden years of Jesus, these documents amount to little more than pious fiction and are generally recognized to be of little or no historical worth. (Green, p. 73)
The second problem is that, even if Luke 1-2, Prot. Jas., and Inf. Thom. are historically reliable, the Koran still contradicts them on a number of points. In Prot. Jas. Anna’s husband is named Joachim and not Imran as A. Y. Ali takes the Koran to mean. In Luke Zechariah is struck mute until the birth and naming of John the Baptist while in the Koran he is mute for only three days. In Prot. Jas. Mary is married by the use of rods in the casting of lots while in the Koran she is married by the use of arrows in the casting of lots. The Muslim who insists that the Koran is historically accurate in 3:35-55 needs to argue that Prot. Jas. and Inf. Thom. are not pious fiction (for then the Koran would be pious fiction too) but that they are not entirely accurate (for then the Koran would be contradicting historical facts).
The third problem concerns the “things unseen” mentioned in 3:44. Recall that A. Y. Ali takes the Arabic translated as “things unseen” to mean things that “belong to a realm beyond the reach of human perception” (p. 31) and that M. M. Ali states that “Mary’s history as narrated in the Gospels casts no light on these circumstances and hence the verse starts with the statement that this was an announcement relating to the unseen” (p. 148). This is a factual error. Even at the time of Muhammad the contents of 3:44 could be found in Prot. Jas. chs. 8-9. It is certainly not the kind of thing that belongs to a realm beyond the reach of human perception.
The fourth problem is that this passage contains a blatant historical error. The death of Jesus by crucifixion at the age of about 33 is a very well-attested event from antiquity. If M. M. Ali is correct in his interpretation of 3:46, that the Koran implies Jesus lived into old age, then the Koran is wrong on this point. The Koran is certainly wrong in 3:55 regardless of whether the verse implies Jesus ascended to heaven prior to being crucified or that he died a natural death. Yahiya Emerick actually alludes to the NT account of the ascension to support this verse of the Koran (p. 113). This is disingenuous since the NT states that Jesus ascended to heaven after rising from the dead, not before being crucified.
The fifth and final problem in this passage occurs in 3:50 where it says Jesus taught the Law (Torah). Most Muslims I have dialogued with believe that Allah provided a revelation to Moses (the Torah) but that this revelation has been corrupted since the time of Moses so that the Torah contained in the Bible is not the Torah revealed to Moses. But, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, we now know with certainty that the Torah has been faithfully transmitted from the time before Christ to the present day. Therefore, it seems Muslims must hold that Jesus taught from the corrupt Torah that contradicts parts of the Koran. In other words, there is a problem with the consistency of Islamic theology.
al-Ghazaalai, Muhammad. A Thematic Commentary on the Qur’an. Translated by Ashur A. Shamis. International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2000.
Ali, Abdullah Yusuf. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an. CreateSpace, 2010.
Ali, Maulana Muhammad. The Holy Qur’an with English Translation and Commentary. Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Islam Lahore Inc. U.S.A., 2002.
Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Second edition. The Book Foundation, 2008.
Emerick, Yahiya. The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an in Today’s English. CreateSpace, 2010.
Freedman, D. N. Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Green, Joel B, Scot McKnight, and I Howard Marshall. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. IVP Academic, 1992.
Schneemelcher, Wilhelm, and R. McL. Wilson, eds. New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1: Gospels and Related Writings. Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.