CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Pilgrims enter into the house in Ephesus in which Mary reportedly lived.
The three Abrahamic faiths have all sorts of things in common, in addition to their significant differences. But the unique meeting point for Islam and Christianity may be their shared memory of a Jewish peasant girl who gave miraculous birth to Jesus.
That common ground isn't solely theological. In Turkey, just outside the ancient site of Ephesus, stands a stone house where hundreds, even thousands of Muslim and Christian pilgrims visit daily. Both Christians and Muslims believe this is the home where Mary spent her last years on earth.
In Christian tradition, Mary was brought there by the Apostle John, to whom Jesus entrusted his mother from the cross.
Tradition attests that John established and led the Christian community in Ephesus.
Perhaps the strongest evidence that Mary lived there is that the first church built in Ephesus, dating from the second century, was named not after St. John but after Mary. In those early years of Christianity churches were generally named after saints who had lived in the area.
Of course, it's possible this little stone house up on a hill overlooking what was then the second largest city in the Roman Empire had nothing to do with Mary. It could be just a pious legend.
But standing inside the cool stone room before an altar with a statue of Mary on it, then watching people outside write and leave prayers in the crevices of a wall below, it is impossible to deny the shared devotion of Muslims and Christians to a poor and simple woman who was completely open to God.
Our shared love of Mary isn't confined to the grounds of a thriving tourist site in Turkey. At mosques anywhere in the world, Muslims are likely to hear Friday sermons based on Mary.
"As Miriam was chaste and gave birth to Jesus – who in some traditions is considered the word of God and so analogous to the Quran – so is the prophet Mohammed unlettered," says Azeezah Kanji, a Muslim student of the Quran from Toronto.
"So, in a way, his mind was chaste and he gave birth to the Quran without any previous implantation of a literary seed.
"There's an analogy made between her chastity and his illiteracy and between Jesus and the Quran."
Many mosques around the world also have areas dedicated to Mary where verses from the Quran about Mary are inscribed in the walls.
Samira Kanji, president of Toronto's Noor Cultural Centre and Azeezah's mother, thinks of Mary as a comfortable and natural part of Muslim spirituality.
CNS PHOTO | PATRICK HERTZOG, POOL VIA REUTERS
Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass outside the House of the Virgin Mary in 2006.
"By and large Muslims just venerate Mary, or appreciate her as being highly exceptional because she was the vessel through which the word Jesus was delivered," Kanji said.
Mary could present a rich source of Muslim-Catholic dialogue touching on the roles women play in religion, feminism and shared tradition, said Father Damian MacPherson, the Toronto Archdiocese's director of ecumenical and interfaith affairs.
For Catholics, another look at Mary would mean another look at women in the Church, he said.
"We would be an impoverished institution, very impoverished, if we didn't have women active in the life of the Church. Their dignity cannot be overstated."
Shared devotion to Mary is the opposite of syncretism, or a kind of random salad of different religions. Rather, it amounts to "peace between the two traditions through their mutual veneration of this great woman," Azeezah said.
"Maybe it's a story that we need to hear more, especially here where the stories we hear are of the persecution of Christians in Iraq, for example. . . . Maybe this is another story that we should be hearing instead of the excessively and exclusively bleak picture."
This doesn't mean promoting Mary as a kind of strategy for interfaith peace.
"For us there's no need to strategize," said Samira. "It's not even an act of trying to do something. It's in our Quran. She's a revered person, a special person in the Quran and we respect her. We respect Jesus. We respect all the prophets of the Jewish and Christian tradition."
Mary is mentioned by name 36 times in the Quran and chapter 19 of the Muslim holy book is named after her.
There are differences in how the New Testament and the Quran see Mary and Jesus. Muslims see Jesus as a great prophet and the virgin birth as a sign of how exceptional he was. The Sura of Mary is an argument for the humanity of both Mary and Jesus and against the idea of the Trinity.
Where Christians view Mary as a unique and privileged pathway to Jesus and to God, Muslims don't feel they need a pathway to any prophet.
Perhaps ironically, Catholicism and Islam – the two traditions with the closest ties to Mary – are the two religions most often accused of keeping women more than arms length from power and leadership. When feminists talk about patriarchy and religion, chances are they're either thinking about the Catholic Church or Islam.
As a young Catholic woman, Daniela Virone, a third-year Christianity and culture major at Toronto's University of St. Michael's College, doesn't see Mary as a silent, passive model of obedience.
The Mary who proclaims a God who casts the mighty from their thrones, who gives the starving good things and sends the rich away empty, seems an unlikely justification for keeping women in their place, said Virone. Even the Hail Mary promotes Mary as powerful and effective.
"We're asking her to pray for us. I don't see how she can make women feel silent or passive. For me, she makes me feel stronger," said Virone.
Muslim women are unlikely to see Mary as a model for their own lives, said Azeezah.
CATHOLIC REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN
Samira and Azeezah Kanji are Toronto Muslims who reflect on Mary's role in the Quran.
"In all patriarchal systems you always have women who have been considered exceptional because of their spirituality, because of their accomplishment," she said. "Then they have been considered analogous to men, as some interpretations have done with Mary. They say, 'She's pious, she's exceptional, she's like a man.' . . . That doesn't necessarily dismantle the patriarchal system."
Muslim feminists are more likely to draw upon Aisha, one of the prophet Mohammed's wives, as a model for female leadership. Aisha is remembered as a source of many of the sayings and practices of Mohammed and a great scholar of Islam.
Muslim women are also uncovering a lost history of women in Islam who were scholars and teachers, whose students included both men and women.
"Not only is patriarchy immoral now, but it's not even an accurate reflection of the tradition," Azeezah said, "because traditionally women were afforded the opportunity to gain an education and gain the certification to teach."
Christian tradition upholds Mary as an example for all - men and women. All are called to be open to God, willing to nurture Christ in their own lives. Mary's obedience amounts to something much more than bowing to authority. It is a revolutionary act that dethrones the powerful and takes refuge in God's mercy.
In Christian tradition patriarchy may be just one more measure of our failure to live the communion with God demanded by our Baptism.
In southern Turkey there's a home that welcomes all, whatever our failures, hopeful we can be more than our sins. Whether or not Mary ever lived there, that welcome and unity is of Mary.