For a long time, I was ashamed to tell people how to pronounce my name: Maa-ria, with the first “a” drawn out and a soft “r” in the middle. Nobody normally asked. My name’s familiar spelling and prevalence in English meant people were often surprised to discover that a brown girl in a hijab has such a white-sounding name.
I sometimes mispronounced my own name to blend in. But as I grew more confident in my identity over time, I felt more comfortable using my real name. Although Maria is often assumed to be a western name, I’ve learned to embrace it as part of my Muslim heritage.
As the Christian world gathers for its annual celebration of Mary and the virgin birth, I’m reflecting on Mary’s role in my own traditions. To me, she represents a lineage of strong women who aren’t often talked about as feminists but who were progressive in their times.
The name Maria is believed to come from the Hebrew Miryam, a name belonging to the sister of Moses and Aaron (peace be upon them). Miryam is also the Hebrew version of the name of Mary, the mother of Jesus (peace be upon her). Maria can mean anything from “wished-for child,” “star of the sea” and “pious worshipper” to “strong” or “bitter.” Although Muslims believe in Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) as a prophet of God, the story of Mary bears its own significance in Islam. There’s a whole chapter named after her: Surah Maryam.
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Not only does the Qur’an affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, but it also describes Mary’s own birth as remarkable. According to the Qur’an, when Mary’s mother, Hanna, was pregnant, she vowed to dedicate her child to faith, something usually reserved for male children.
But Hanna gave birth to a girl. Uncertain, she turned to God and said, “My Lord, I am delivered of a female” (Qur’an 3:37). Then it gets interesting. The Qur’an says, “Allah knew best what she had brought forth and the male [she expected] was not like the female [she delivered].”
In other words, Mary was special. She would serve an important purpose that could not be achieved by the male child Hanna had in mind. Hanna decided to dedicate Mary to the temple anyway, which to me represents her pushing Mary to carve a path in a traditionally male-dominated domain.
We seldom think of women in faith traditions as feminists, but often religion helped propel women’s rights forward rather than push them back. Many of the rights women enjoy today — to an education, to consent to marriage, to earn money and to divorce — were introduced by religion long before they became secular laws.
As the traditions go, Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, and that too without the agency of a man. Today, she is remembered by Muslims as a woman of high character and fierce faith. It’s no coincidence that her story has been preserved in scripture.
The Qur’an even encourages us to follow her example by saying that God has chosen Mary “above the women of all peoples” (3:43). And I, for one, could not be prouder to be named after her.
This column first appeared in Broadview’s December 2020 issue with the title “What Mary means to me.”
Maria Iqbal is a writer in Brampton, Ont.
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