Mary, daughter of Amram, sister of Aaron: A Qur’anic error or deliberate allusion?

An interesting phenomenon that has gained much attention in contemporary Qur’anic studies is the regular allusion to Judeo-Christian tradition and biblical material. This essay explores the terminology surrounding Mary, the mother of Jesus, and explains how the Qur’an is applying a particular Christian literary genre to this New Testament figure. The primary purpose of this exercise is to dispel the idea that the Qur’an may have mistaken Mary for an Old Testament character of the same name, and to explore how the it interacts with its wider Christian context.

In attempting to censure Mary for what they assumed to be an act of impiety, the Jews called Mary “sister of Aaron” – “Sister of Aaron! Your father was not an evil man; your mother was not unchaste!’ (Qur’an 19:28).

Another verse titles Mary the “daughter of Imran” – “and Mary, daughter of ‘Imran. She guarded her chastity, so We breathed into her from Our spirit. She accepted the truth of her Lord’s words and Scriptures: she was truly devout.” Q66:12

Finally, Mary’s mother is titled “wife of Imran” – “the wife of Imran said, ‘My Lord, I have pledged to you what is in my womb, consecrated, so accept from me – indeed, you are the Hearing, the Knowing.”

It is no secret to readers of the Old Testament that there is another Mary, who is the actual sister of the biblical Moses and the daughter of a man named “Amram”. On a superficial reading, this seems to be some sort of gross Qur’anic error or confusion[1]. How could the Qur’an make such a simple mistake? The charge of error seems wholly unsatisfactory. The Qur’an regularly demonstrates very close interaction with Jewish and Christian tradition as well as the Bible. I have written about these in other places on my blog, some examples I provide as follows:

“The Dye of God”

“Inter-linguistic Pun”

A lengthier and more concrete example is found on page 8 of my essay, The Prophet Muhammad and Isaiah 42. Here the Qur’an seems to have a deliberate and sustained allusion to a certain chapter of Isaiah. This sort of paraphrase is only expected if the author had close familiarity with the Old Testament.

Any critic alleging the Qur’an “confuses” the two Marys must explain how it could contain such highly specific information about Jewish and Christian scripture and religious terminology while simultaneously making such a silly mistake. Furthermore, no actual Qur’anic story portrays Moses and Aaron interacting with Jesus, or her mother Mary, despite the accounts of Moses being one of the most prominent and oft-repeated stories of the Qur’an. Clearly, an alternative explanation is required: and that is found within the early Christian phenomenon of “typology”.

A ‘typology’ in the Christian sense refers to a theory where earlier figures – typically Old Testament characters – pre-figure (or allude to) later persons, usually Jesus. This sort of reading is found even in the New Testament; Adam is called a “type” of Jesus (Romans 5:14). It was fairly popular among early Christian authors, who often applied it to Jesus in order to prove that he was somehow present in the Old Testament even if not explicitly so.

Mary, allegory and typology.

In line with the very poetic nature of Syriac literature, symbolism, allegory and allusion were very heavily applied to the revered Virgin. An important description applied to Mary was her priestly connection, and her allegorical portrayal as the “temple” of God.

The following passage comes from St Ephrem’s (306-373) Hymns on the Nativity:

The Rod of Aaron flourished, and the dry wood bore fruit. Its symbol today received its explanation: it is the virginal womb that bore.[2]

Several other Syriac texts refer to Mary as the “Rod of Aaron”[3] in the same phraseology as the above. Thus, “sister of Aaron” is not unusual – In Arabic, Aramaic and Hebrew, “sister” can more generally mean kinswoman, or religious affiliate. Similarly, “daughter of Amram” would actually mean descendant of Amram. This much has been written about previously by Muslim apologists. But there is more.

Church fathers typologised Mary the mother of Jesus with Mary the sister of Aaron and Moses. Aphrahat (d. 345), in On Persecution, writes:

aphrahat

 

 

 

Mary stood on the shore of the river as Moses floated on the water; and Mary bore Jesus, after the Angel Gabriel announced to her …”[4]

Here the name Mary (or Mariam as is said in Syriac) is enclosed in red, to highlight the fact that the same name is used for two different figures, one after another, with the difference between the two in actuality understood by the informed audience.

To an audience steeped in early Christian literature this would not be out of the ordinary. Typology on the basis of a shared name was not an uncommon technique in the writings of Church fathers: Indeed, the usage of the common name bolstered the typology. Origen employed it prominently between Jesus and Joshua, on the basis that they bear the same name in Hebrew: יֵשׁוּעַ (Yeshua). This typology was to be popular, and Eusebius (d. 339) applied it to such an extent that he argued that Moses merely named the Old Testament Joshua after Jesus!

“His successor, at any rate, had not been furnished with the name Iesu previously, having been called by another name, Ausei, which his parents had given him. He (Moses) proclaimed him Iesu, bestowing the name upon him as a gift of honour and even respect, much greater than any kingly crown. And indeed, Iesu son of Nau (ie. Joshua) himself bore the image of our Savior; he alone, after Moses and the conclusion of the symbolic service offered him by that person, he received the leadership of the true and pure religion.” Farber 2016, p. 325

Zeno of Verona (d. 380), in line with the usage of the typology by other church fathers, wrote in his Sermons:

“In reality, Iesu son of Nau (ie. Joshua) — in deed and name — represented a type of Christ (ie. Jesus), who is known to be the true saviour of all.” Farber 2016, p. 334

It seems there is some parallel here – particularly with the Mary typology of Aphrahat – and the Qur’an. Church fathers would typologize between Jesus and Joshua, Mary and Miriam, and the Qur’an functionally does the same for the latter. What could be thought to be an “error” to those unfamiliar with the wider literary context which the Qur’an operated in actually seems to be a very natural typology. The question of why this typology is being made is certainly a topic in and of itself[5]. Is it possible that the Qur’an is demonstrating its knowledge of wider Christian tradition? There could be a message being communicated here – but this is outside the scope of this post.

Reading the Qur’anic text – “wife of Imran”

Now, with this typology in mind, we shall comment on the common response to the so-called Qur’anic “error.” The Islamic-awareness team have written out a decent response (see here). I would encourage reading this to become familiar of the context in which I write below. For this essay, I quote Suleiman Mourad who has published on this topic.

Qur’anic applications of “sister of Aaron” and “daughter of Amram” can easily be read in light of the wider meaning of kinship terminology. Mourad points this out succinctly:

In the Qur’an, too, the terms ibn and bint (and their derivatives) do not only mean “direct child,” but are also used in the sense of “descendents,” as in the cases of Bani Isra’il in verses 2:246, 3:49, and 5:72, which indicates the Israelites as a people, and not only Jacob’s direct children, and Bani Adam in verses 7:35, 17:70, and 36:60, which refers to all human beings, and not strictly Adam’s direct children.…the Qur’anic akh and ukht (and their derivatives) do not always indicate a sibling relationship. In twenty-eight cases, they refer either to a tribal relationship (e.g. verse 7:73: And to Thamud We sent their kinsman [akhahum] Salih), a religious bond (e.g. verse 3:103: He united your hearts, so that you are now brothers [ikhwanan] through His grace), or an ancestor/predecessor relationship (e.g. verse 7:38: As it enters, every community will curse the one that went before it [ukhtaha]). Thus one cannot argue on the basis of the most common meaning of the terms bint and ukht that their use in the Qur’an indicates only daughter and sister; clearly they are not limited to these two meanings… (Reynolds, p.165)

One problem still remains, however – the expression “wife of Amram”. I believe the gap in the typical response to this question is where Mary’s mother is called “wife of Amram.” One can explain “sister of Aaron” and “daughter of Amram” by appealing to terms of genealogy and kinship found in Arabic and Hebrew, however, calling Mary’s mother the “wife of Amram” simply cannot be dealt the same answer.

Imran’s wife said, ‘Lord, I have dedicated what is growing in my womb entirely to You; so accept this from me. You are the One who hears and knows all,’ Q3:35

Mourad does attempt to provide an explanation:

Moreover, the reference to Mary’s mother as Amram’s wife is a reference to biblical Amram in the sense that Mary’s mother was married to a descendant of his.

This is plausible; however, one would expect an example of this sort of usage to be truly convincing. Nonetheless, this interpretation is unnecessary. If a typology is at play here, then it makes complete sense for Mary’s mother to be titled “wife of Amram.” There is no need to find a linguistic basis for a non-literal reading of the term “wife of Amram,” because this is already implied in the fact that a typology is operating.

Narrations and traditional opinions.

Now we turn to historical interpretations of the discussed verses. An interesting Hadith appears in Sahih Muslim which bears further discussion:

حَدَّثَنَا أَبُو بَكْرِ بْنُ أَبِي شَيْبَةَ، وَمُحَمَّدُ بْنُ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ بْنِ نُمَيْرٍ، وَأَبُو سَعِيدٍ الأَشَجُّ وَمُحَمَّدُ بْنُ الْمُثَنَّى الْعَنَزِيُّ – وَاللَّفْظُ لاِبْنِ نُمَيْرٍ – قَالُوا حَدَّثَنَا ابْنُ إِدْرِيسَ، عَنْ أَبِيهِ، عَنْ سِمَاكِ بْنِ حَرْبٍ، عَنْ عَلْقَمَةَ بْنِ وَائِلٍ، عَنِ الْمُغِيرَةِ بْنِ شُعْبَةَ، قَالَ لَمَّا قَدِمْتُ نَجْرَانَ سَأَلُونِي فَقَالُوا إِنَّكُمْ تَقْرَءُونَ يَا أُخْتَ هَارُونَ وَمُوسَى قَبْلَ عِيسَى بِكَذَا وَكَذَا ‏.‏ فَلَمَّا قَدِمْتُ عَلَى رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم سَأَلْتُهُ عَنْ ذَلِكَ فَقَالَ ‏”‏ إِنَّهُمْ كَانُوا يُسَمُّونَ بِأَنْبِيَائِهِمْ وَالصَّالِحِينَ قَبْلَهُمْ ‏”‏ ‏.‏

Mughira bin Shu’bah said, “When I reached Najraan, they question me, saying “you [Muslims] read ‘Oh sister of Aaron’, but Moses was before Jesus, and so on. So when I went to the Prophet, I asked him about this, and he said, “They used to be marked (alternatively: “called,” “branded”) by their prophets and righteous ones before them.

In this article I have argued that the Qur’an is operating on typological grounds where describing Mary in genealogical terms. This does not negate the historical reality behind the verses, nor does it contradict the Hadith above. It is not historically implausible that the Jews, in their alarm, appealed to Mary’s reputation and lineage, corresponding to the Qur’anic account (and the corresponding Hadith) where they called her “sister of Aaron.”  On the other hand, the Qur’an does not say that the Jews called Mary’s mother the “wife of Amram” – rather it applies the epithet to her in passing, and not in the context of describing a historical event. This can be seen as purely typological and should be understood allegorically.

Another Hadith on this topic involves ‘A’ishah, narrated in Tafsir al-Tabari:

حدثنـي يعقوب، قال: ثنا ابن علـية، عن سعيد بن أبـي صدقة، عن مـحمد بن سيرين، قال: نبئت أن كعبـا قال: إن قوله: { يا أُخْتَ هارُونَ } لـيس بهارون أخي موسى، قال: فقالت له عائشة: كذبت، قال: يا أمّ الـمؤمنـين، إن كان النبـيّ صلى الله عليه وسلم قاله فهو أعلـم وأخبر، وإلا فإنـي أجد بـينهما ستّ مئة سنة، قال: فسكتت

Muhammad bin Sirin said, I was informed that Kaʿb said, “The [Qur’anic] saying, “oh Sister of Aaron” does not refer to Aaron, the brother of Moses. ‘A’ishah said to him, “you have spoken falsely.” [Kaʿb] said, “oh mother of the believers, if the prophet, peace be upon him, said this (ie. contrary to my opinion), then (I concede because) he knows more and is better informed, but as for me, I find between them (ie. Aaron and Mary) 600 years. She did not say anything more.

Rather unusually, this has been taken as evidence by polemicists to support the idea that the Qur’an actually intends to say that Mary, the mother of Jesus, actually is the sister of Aaron. Even if this narration is authentic[6], it does not suggest this at all. Here, ‘A’ishah held the interpretation that Mary really was the sister of Aaron, which Ka’b corrected. That ‘A’isha stayed silent shows that she did not source her opinion from the Prophet himself; it was merely a personal interpretation. Given that the subtext of the story of Mary is Christian, it is expected that a proper understanding of what the Qur’an intends here requires some knowledge of the biblical and patristic tradition. Ka’b’s opinion seems to also source from his own understanding of Israelite tradition. Were he of Christian scholarly background, it is possible he would have read the verses typologically rather than suggesting an alternative Aaron.

Conclusion

The Qur’an deliberately melds Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary of the Old Testament, through genealogical terms in order to produce a typology between the two figures. “Sister of Aaron,” “Daughter of Amram,” and “[daughter of] the Wife of Amram” are thus to be understood typologically, rather than in a literal sense. Far from an “error”, this demonstrates an acute awareness of the patristic genre of typology employed by earlier church authors for the same figures.

Bibliography:

Marx, M. (2009). Glimpses Of A Mariology In The Qurʾan: From Hagiography To Theology Via Religious-Political Debate. In The Qurʾān in Context (pp. 533-564). BRILL.

Murray, R. (2006). Symbols of church and kingdom: a study in early Syriac tradition. A&C Black.

Schaff, P. NPNF-213. Gregory the Great (II), Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat. CCEL.

Brock, S. P. (1973). Mary in Syriac Tradition. Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Reynolds, Gabriel Said, ed. The Qur’an in its historical context. Routledge, 2007.

Reynolds, G. S. (2010). The Qur’an and its biblical subtext. Routledge.

Farber, Z. (2016). Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (Vol. 457). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.

Al-ʿAmeri, Yusuf Muḥammad (1992). Kaʿb al-aḥbār marwiyātuhu wa-aqwāluhu fil-tafsīr bil-māthūr – jamʿan wa-dirāsah.

Parisot, Aphraatis Sapientis Persae Demonstrationes, vol. 1. Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1894

Footnotes

[1] This is a common argument employed by mostly Christian apologists, and some earlier orientalists. I do not need to refer to any examples, due to the abundance of videos and articles on this topic.

[2] Marx 2009, p.553.

[3] Ibid, p553-554

[4] “XXI. On Persecution”, Demonstrations of Aphrahat. Syriac Text taken from Parisot (see bibliography).

[5] The church fathers seem to have employed this polemically against their Jewish interlocutors to demonstrate how well Jesus fit into the (Hebrew) biblical tradition, and therefore was its natural culmination. I would highly recommend Marx’s essay as found in the bibliography.

[6] Yusuf Muhammad al-ʿAmeri writes, “The narrators in this chain are authentic, however, I do not know whether this is in the sayings of ibn Sirin.” Whether this narration is authentic seems indeterminate. See al-ʿAmeri (1992), page. 85.

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6 thoughts on “Mary, daughter of Amram, sister of Aaron: A Qur’anic error or deliberate allusion?

  1. But the Quran says that the Jews not early christians referred to mary as ‘sister of aaron’

    This parsitic device is only used in christian literature not in jewish literature and hence it makes no sense for jews during mary’s era to be using a chrisitan typological method for calling mary the sister of aaron.

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    • I believe that there is a historical reality behind the verses, however the way that the Qur’an EXPRESSES it is in a Christian genre.

      Calling Mary “sister of Aaron” is still broadly plausible because Jews of that period may have possibly used “sister” in that sense.

      However, terms such as ‘wife of imran’ are obviously intended typologically – the Qur’anic verses do not say the Jews called Mary’s mother that – the Qur’an merely does it itself, in passing. So there’s no historical event being referred to here, rather a typology.

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