Mary is a Many-Splendored Thing
Mary Magdalene is an anomaly in Christian hagiography for her varied, and sometimes contradictory roles. The earliest texts elevate her to the status of the Companion of God, the mouthpiece of the Gnostics, Apostola Apostolorum (the apostle of the apostles), the New Eve, and the Sweet Friend of God. She is named in the Bible and is one of the most frequently depicted saints in Catholic history. After an analysis of numerous texts devoted to her, Mary Thompson points to Magdalene’s centrality to Christianity stating, she “appears repeatedly with the chosen disciples; she is given the leading role in the dialogs; she is singled out as a primary disciple; she is, more than once, in direct conflict with Peter from which conflict she emerges as the stronger.” Her relics have been dispersed across Europe, and monasteries dedicated to her name have shaped pilgrimage routes and trade networks. Artistic depictions of her lead to her rise as the favourite female saint of the Middle Ages, and her role as an intercessor lead the famous poets of Europe to call on her for forgiveness. Her name has persisted in modern literature such as comic books, novels and films where her mythology has been used to garner popular success and raise questions about the Church’s treatment of women in history. An enormous corpus of work has been dedicated to Mary Magdalene over the centuries – volumes of hagiographical texts, poetry and plays that could fill library shelves, and paintings and sculptures that could fill museums. And yet, a simple glance into the realm of Islam and Mary Magdalene vanishes. Jesus assumes a very prominent role, as does his mother, the Virgin Mary; however, his companion, his apostle, his happy penitent friend is gone. There is not a single mention of Mary Magdalene in any of Sunni Islam’s accepted literature and this leaves me with a nagging question about why. Given how much of orthodox Islam continues from mainstream Christianity, the influence of which is well-documented at the time of Muhammad’s revelation, how can there be no evidence whatsoever of Mary Magdalene’s existence from the Muslim perspective? The work of this paper is to answer this question. In order to understand her absence, I must first look to the Islamic construction of Jesus as a man and a prophet. Her absence also hinges on Islamic orthodox interpretations of the crucifixion, the resurrection, attitudes towards ascetic practices, attitudes towards repentance and salvation, and the problem of intercession. Throughout this article, I will uncover her many and varied roles in Christianity, weighing their relevancy in Islam. Ultimately, I will be left to question her very existence along with the historical sources which are used in Christianity to justify it.
Before beginning, a note about methodology is in order. Due to the fact that I am dealing with the absence of a religious figure in a cross-religious comparison, the construction of the dossier of this saint is tricky, to say the least. On one hand, I will be looking at the Christian dossier to determine her many roles. The purpose of this is to assess which roles are in contradiction with orthodox Islamic principles and might explain the lack of crossover. For these purposes, I will be relying mainly on accepted scriptural texts from Christianity and Islam: namely, the New International Version of the New Testament, an acceptable (and heavily scrutinized) English translation of the meaning of the Holy Qur’an, authenticated historical sources from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and tafsir or Qur’anic exegesis from celebrated, mainstream Islamic scholars. In doing this, however, I am not seeking to determine what can be said to be true about Mary Magdalene. As such, my analysis is not preoccupied with historical verification of this individual (at least not at first), but rather centers on what about her elevation in Christianity is either problematic or not relevant in Islam to warrant not a single mention in 1400 years.
 Thomas, Mary R. Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader. Paulist Press: New York. 1995. Pp. 102.
Magdalene, The Intercessor
If, in Islam, there is no original sin and no single figure can absolve a person of their sins except God Alone, then what role do intercessors play? In the mid 13th century, Petrarch referred to Magdalene in a poem, stating: Dulcis amica dei, lacrymis inflectere nostris: atque meas intende preces, nostraeque saluti consule, namque potes. This particular inscription was said to hang in her grotto and Petrarch fashioned her as his very own mediatrix – something enabled by the close relationship Magdalene had to Christ. While Magdalene was increasingly invoked for these purposes in Christianity, this is a concept completely foreign to orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, intercession implies a kind of prayer called duaa or supplication which is something reserved for Allah Alone. Any supplications made to a figure other than God is considered major shirk – the association of another in worship with God and the only unforgivable sin in Islam. The Qur’an states, “And they worship other than Allah that which neither harms them nor benefits them, and they say, “These are our intercessors with Allah ” Say, “Do you inform Allah of something He does not know in the heavens or on the earth?” Exalted is He and high above what they associate with Him” The role of Magdalene as having any remote influence on the knowledge or influence of God amounts to blasphemy in Islam.
It is interesting to note that the figure of Mary Magdalene would have collided with the Islamic world in a very big way during the Crusades. According to Haskins, it was around this time that the crusaders’ fervor for recapturing the Holy Sepulchre reignited an interest in the Passion and Magdalene’s role in it. As illustrations of the dramatic scene increased, as a way to build up religious zeal, depictions of Magdalene in the Holy Land rose in numbers. In Jerusalem alone, there was a convent founded in her honour and a church dedicated to her in the Jewish sector. Due to the religious battles being fought, the Church’s emphasis turned to those characters who had suffered along with Christ in his last, horrific days as a way to build solidarity and remind followers of the sacrifices of those who followed him. Magdalene was edified in literature and imagery surrounding the crucifixion and the resurrection again and again. Though impossible to track, I wonder how the visual impact of Magdalene as a sort of battle banner during the Crusades would have impacted those Muslims targeted by the animated Christians – possibly serving as a deterrent for adopting her into later Islamic narratives because of her status as a visible representative of the Crusaders.
Mary the Desert Ascetic
The last point of divergence between the Christian and Islamic faiths that can account for the absence of Mary in the latter is her representation as a desert ascetic. I have included this last as I do not feel that it represents a scriptural depiction of Magdalene such as those above – whether those scriptures are considered legitimate or heretical like the Gnostic gospels. This is because Magdalene, the desert ascetic, is a much later, improper conflation of the woman we have seen so far with Saint Mary of Egypt and is not based on Scripture but rather the inventions of hagiographical authors and pure accident.
The concept of zuhd or asceticism in Islam is far different than what is found in medieval Christianity. The retreat of individuals to solitude in the desert, particularly single women such as Mary of Egypt, is forbidden in Islam. Other points of Christian asceticism such as excessive fasting, celibacy, nudity or scruffy clothing, impure states of being such as uncleanliness, self-flagellation, and wanton displays of poverty are all either forbidden or discouraged in Orthodox Islam as well. In fact, abstinence from any activities that are permissible or fard (obligatory), such as sexual intercourse within a marriage, is forbidden in Islam. Real zuhd in Islam is the renunciation of what is forbidden and utter contentment (qana’ah) with the portion that Allah has given you, including accepting abundances. Spiritual poverty, a Muslim’s most prized attribute, signifies his utter dependence and submission to Allah but is not represented by outward excesses such as those found in medieval Christianity. It is a full understanding of the Qur’anic verse: “O mankind! You are the poor in your relation to Allah. And Allah is the One free of all wants, worthy of all praise.” Another verse strictly forbids asceticism: “O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion; nor say of Allah aught but the truth.” This is further qualified by the following hadith:
Anas bin Malik narrated: A group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet asking how the Prophet worshipped (Allah), and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said, “Where are we from the Prophet as his past and future sins have been forgiven.” Then one of them said, “I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever.” The other said, “I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast.” The third said, “I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever.” Allah’s Apostle came to them and said, “Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers).
One could make the argument that asceticism merely differed between the two religions, except that the Qur’an further charges the Christians with the invention of asceticism and monastic life, something “not prescribed for them by Allah.” Thus, Magdalene’s conflation with Mary of Egypt and her excessive ascetic actions in the desert would have been foreign, even condemned, behavior for most Sunni Muslims – something abnormal, not to be edified or celebrated and actually contrary to the teachings of Islam.
This analysis has uncovered that the many roles of Mary Magdalene in scriptural, artistic and hagiographical sources embody key theological considerations that are unique to the Christian tradition. They do not translate to Islam, despite the figure of Jesus and other biblical characters being of exalted status in the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad. With many prophets not being named, and other prophets’ wives or lady companions only being named out of didactic necessity, it is reasonable to assume that if Magdalene was, in fact, the wife or companion of Prophet Jesus, she simply did not warrant a mention in the Qur’an or hadith sources. The fact that the crucifixion and resurrection are not accepted in Islam renders her most crucial roles in Christianity irrelevant. Further to this point, certain ascetic practices that were absorbed into the character of Saint Magdalene are considered forbidden religious innovations for Muslims as well. In this way, the single figure of Mary Magdalene is the point around which many crucial divergences between the two faiths orbit. While this conclusion might seem obvious to readers, it is further complicated by the prominent position that Magdalene enjoys in the Baha’i Faith – a religion that comes after both Christianity and Islam, accepting the teachings of both. Future research is necessary to establish reasons for her being “skipped” by Islam. In this way, we are offered a method of understanding not concerned with the real historical woman of Mary Magdalene, but the faiths in which she is either exalted or ignored.
For Part One, click here. For Part Two, click here.
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- Pistis Sophia
- Gospel of Mary
- Gospel of Phillip
- Second Treatise of Seth
- Apocalypse of Peter
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 Sweet friend of God, bend to our tears : and direct my prayers, and upon our salvation reflect, for you are able to do so. Haskins, p 192
 Qur’an 10 :18
 Haskins p.192-3
 Qur’an 35 :15
 Qur’an 4:171
 Sahih Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 62, Number 1
 Qur’an 57 :27, “Then, in their wake, We followed them up with (others of) Our messengers: We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary, and bestowed on him the Gospel; and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him compassion and mercy. But the monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them: (We commanded) only the seeking for the good pleasure of Allah; but that they did not foster as they should have done. Yet We bestowed, on those among them who believed, their (due) reward, but many of them are rebellious transgressors.