Comparative theology is just what it sounds like: a dialectic between two or more religions based on their doctrinal solutions to the great problems of human existence rather than on their external forms of organisation and worship etc. The easiest way to do some comparative theology is two find two religious texts that are writing about the same thing and assess the similarities and differences.
We did something very similar near the start of these sessions when we contrasted a Babylonian creation myth with the Old Testament ones. Here, near the end of these sessions, we are going to look at the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary the mother of Jesus that she is to have an important son. We are going to read a couple of pieces from the Muslim scripture (the Qur’an) alongside an account from the New Testament.
“In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May your word to me be fulfilled.’ Then the angel left her.”
The Qur’an, 19:16-21:
“Mention in the Qur’an the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place to the east and secluded herself away; We sent Our Spirit to appear before her in the form of a perfect man. She said, ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’
But he said, ‘I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’
She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste.’ This is what your Lord said: ‘It is easy for Me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.’ And so it was ordained: she conceived him…”
The Qur’an, 3:45-49:
The angel said, ‘Mary, God gives you news of a Word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, who will be held in honour in this world and the next, who will be one of those brought near to God. He will speak to people in his infancy and in his adulthood. He will be one of the righteous.’
She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me?’ [The angel] said, ‘This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, ‘Be’ , and it is. He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel, He will send him as a messenger to the Children of Israel…”
What similarities or differences do we find between Luke and the Qur’an?
- After what many find as a surprise that the Qur’an even mentions Jesus, let alone Mary, it is even more shocking that the Qur’an agrees that Jesus was conceived by a virgin and was an exceptional prophet, “whose name will be the Messiah”, “a sign to all people”, expounding both Jewish and Christian teachings.
- The Qur’an is more like a discussion with the reader while the Bible is more an account of events (the Bible also has more historical/geographical detail).
- In the Qur’an Mary is presented as having a more defensive demeanor towards the angel (while the first Qur’anic passage suggests it may be God’s Spirit the second confirms it was an angel).
- Only the Bible uses language of the Trinity (though not the explicit post-biblical terminology).
- In the Bible Mary has a personal relationship with God -she identifies herself as one who wishes to serve him- while it appears from the tone of the Qur’an that this is only about God.
- The Bible emphasises that Mary is a partner of God rather than an object of his will. God’s plan for us is dependent upon her chosen speech “May your word to me be fulfilled” just as it is dependent on God’s chosen speech in Genesis 1. In this sense she is a co-redeemer as well as a co-creator.
- The Qur’an has a strong emphasis on purity and seclusion (e.g. ‘going off to the east’). This could be seen as one of several parallels between Mary and the Muslim view of Muhammad. Muslims say that they both had ‘knees like camels’ because they were knelt in prayer so often. It was the angel Gabriel who spoke to Mary in the Bible who is purported to have dictated the Qur’an to Mohammad when he was in prayerful seclusion. The most significant parallel, however, is that God’s Word (Christ and the Qur’an) comes into the world through each of them (indeed Muslims treat copies of the Qur’an in the way in which Catholics treat the Blessed Sacrament).
- Incidentally, the first of these Qur’an passages is the one Muhammad read to the (Christian) King of Yemen which resulted in his being allowed to live safely there for a time.
Does this help you to see anything more deeply in the Christian Story?
The translation of the Qur’an is by M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, ©2004.