The Absent Hagiography: Investigating Mary Magdalene’s Disappearance in Islam (Part Two)

Mary is a Many-Splendored Thing

Mary_magdalene_caravaggioMary 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.”[1] 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.

[1] Thomas, Mary R. Mary of Magdala: Apostle and Leader. Paulist Press: New York. 1995. Pp. 102.

Part Two

The Crucifixion Through Muslim Eyes

If the following excerpts recounting the crucifixion of Jesus sound similar to the reader, they ought to:

I was not afflicted at all. Those who were there punished me. And I did not die in reality but in appearance, lest I be put to shame by them because these are my kinsfolk. I removed the shame from me and I did not become fainthearted in the face of what happened to me at their hands. I was about to succumb to fear, and I <suffered> according to their sight and thought, in order that they may never find any word to speak about them. For my death, which they think happened, (happened) to them in their error and blindness, since they nailed their man unto their death. For they did not see me, for they were deaf and blind. But in doing these things, they condemn themselves. Yes, they saw me; they punished me. It was another, their father, who drank the gall and the vinegar; it was not I. They struck me with the reed; it was another, Simon, who bore the cross on his shoulder.[1]

The Savior said to me, “He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me.”[2]

They said, “We killed the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah.” But they neither killed him nor crucified him but it was made to appear so. Those who differ in it are full of doubt with no knowledge except conjectures to follow. They did not kill him of surety. Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself and Allah is exalted in power, wise. And there is none of the people of the book, but must believe in him before his death and in the Day of Judgment he will be a witness against them.[3]

The first account of the crucifixion of Jesus is from the Second Treatise of Seth and is a Gnostic text dating from the 3rd century. The second account is from the Apocalypse of Peter and is also a Gnostic text. The third excerpt comes from the Qur’an. All three texts assert that Jesus was not crucified but only appeared to be to the people who crucified him. Some scholars improperly conflate the presence of “Christian” ideals or “Gnostic” ideals that are also found in Islam as being a sign of historical influence. Some even go so far as to assert that the finding of Christian-like or Gnostic-like doctrine in Islam is a sign that Muhammad either did not exist or had false myths attributed to him.[4] However, I have yet to find actual historical evidence of this beyond conjecture with poor intentions. Additionally, the finding of similarities between Islam and Christian traditions (or heresies) is not unusual as Islam regards itself as a continuation and purification of these traditions; the Qur’an is a correction of corrupted texts such as the Bible and other scriptures. While the historical influence of this unique Gnostic divergence from the Church over Islam is not clear, it is safe to say that both assertions directly contradict the most central point of Christianity: the Passion of Christ and his Salvation by dying for the sins of humanity.

mary            Before I look into why this subversion of the centrality of the crucifixion is crucial for our purposes, I want to establish the presence of Magdalene at this event. For the Church, her presence at the foot of the cross is very significant in the account of the crucifixion in the Gospel of John. In John 19:25-27, the Gospel states, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.”[5] Theologians are divided on what is meant by the term “the disciple whom he loved”, with many dismissing its possibility that it could be Magdalene because of the use of the masculine term uios, highlighted in the above quote. However, still others claim that uios refers to a spiritual son and could technically refer to either a man or a woman – particularly compelling because in naming the four people standing by the cross, John names only women.[6] Regardless of whether or not Magdalene is being named as the disciple whom Jesus loved, her presence at the crucifixion is noted here and elsewhere.[7] The fact that she and other women were the only witnesses to this historic event (from the Christian camp) is significant.

Magdalene’s role at the crucifixion was beyond a mere spectator. According to Benedicta Ward in Harlots of the Desert, the character of Magdalene became a composite of several figures including unnamed women and Mary of Bethany, Martha’s sister. In the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Mark, an anonymous woman comes to anoint Christ before the Passion begins, for “his burial”,[8] “whom all the evangelists number [to be] Mary of Magdala.”[9] This theme of being the anointer would continually follow the picture of Magdalene when in most images of her she is depicted with the anointing oil or resin. The earliest visual depiction of her comes from a wall painting circa 240 AD and, even in this early account, she is carrying the anointing oil.

Now that I have established Magdalene as a primary witness to the single most important event in the Christian religion and potentially as an anointer of Jesus just prior to the Passion, one would think that such a crucial role would warrant a mention in Islam. However, as I have established, in the Islamic narrative, the centrality of the crucifixion is undermined. In the Islamic framework, Jesus did not die for the sins of humanity; in fact, according to the Qur’an, he did not even die (though this point is disputed by some peripheral Islamic scholars). The authenticated Qur’anic exegesis from Ibn Kathir (which has been accepted by most Sunni scholars) points to the process behind the substitution of Jesus prior to crucifixion:

Ibn Abbas said, “Just before Allah raised Jesus to the Heavens, Jesus went to his disciples, who were twelve inside the house. When he arrived, his hair was dripping with water (as if he had just had a bath) and he said, ‘There are those among you who will disbelieve in me twelve times after you had believed in me.’ He then asked, ‘Who among you will volunteer for his appearance to be transformed into mine, and be killed in my place. Whoever volunteers for that, he will be with me (in Paradise).’ One of the youngest ones among them volunteered, but Jesus asked him to sit down. Jesus asked again for a volunteer, and the same young man volunteered and Jesus asked him to sit down again. Then the young man volunteered a third time and Jesus said, ‘You will be that man,’ and the resemblance of Jesus was cast over that man while Jesus ascended to Heaven from a hole in the roof of the house. When the Jews came looking for Jesus, they found that young man and crucified him. .. Ever since that happened, Islam was then veiled until Allah sent Muhammad. [10]

The crucifixion, then, was an illusion to those enacting it and serves as a relatively moot point for Muslims who believe it to be one small part of the story of Jesus. As mentioned, Muslims believe that Jesus’ story will continue just prior to the End of Days. In the Qur’an, it is stated that “There shall not be anyone from People of the Book [Christians and Jews], but shall believe in him before his death and on the Day of Resurrection, he (Jesus) shall be a witness against them.”[11] Additionally, the Qur’an states, “And he (Jesus) shall be a Sign (for the coming of) the Hour (of Resurrection); therefore have no doubt about it (the Hour). And follow me (Allah), this is a Straight Path.”[12] With crucifixion relegated to the status of peripheral unimportance, being mentioned in one, singular ayah (verse) of 6236 verses, it is hardly surprising that witnesses to it, such as Mary Magdalene, would warrant little mention in the Islamic theology.

The Resurrection

st-mary-magdaleneThe necessary finale to the spectacle of the Christian crucifixion is the Resurrection in which Mary Magdalene plays her most important role: apostola apostolorum. First of all, she had been a direct witness to his burial, with Mark 15:47 proclaiming that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw where he was laid.”[13] After the Sabbath passed, it is related in all the Gospels, that Mary Magdalene (sometimes accompanied by two other women – thought by some to be the widow’s mourning entourage) was the first to venture to the tomb in the dark. This is portrayed in the earliest visual depictions by having Magadalene hold a burning torch for light. In the other hand, she holds myrrh to anoint the body of Christ. Related in Mark, Magdalene finds the tomb open and “a young man dressed in a white robe” who tells them that Jesus has risen and implores her to tell the others.[14] Later, Jesus “appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven devils.”[15] John offers a bit more detail when he relays that Magdalene visited the tomb alone and upon finding it empty, she ran to Simon Peter and another disciple to tell them. After the tomb was seen to be empty, they returned home, leaving Mary there crying. In this moment, two angels appeared to her and ask her why she is crying to which she replies that Jesus has gone missing. He then appears to her but she mistakes him for a gardener until he says “Mary”, when she turns to him and cries out “Rabboni!”[16] She is then charged with the honorific task of relating the good news to the other disciples.

While this is considered to be one of the most prestigious incidences in Christian history, no mention of it is made in Islam at all. This is understandable considering what I have already covered about the Islamic crucifixion being an illusion and the death of Christ being false. As he did not die, he could not be resurrected. Had the incident happened – in the Islamic viewpoint – and Magdalene was indeed the bride of Jesus, it would make sense for her to be the first visitor to the tomb and that she be the first to whom he appeared resurrected. Such is not the case in the Qur’an though, which makes no mention of this secondary event post-“crucifixion.” The Islamic silence on this goes even deeper than a superficial level though and harkens back to a more disparate theological chasm between Christianity and Islam.

The role of the Apostle of the Apostles was celebrated and given literary fame in the commentary of Hippolytus of Rome on the Canticle of Canticles. Through the story of Solomon and Shulamite, Hippolytus invokes an allegory for Magdalene seeking out Jesus. The crucial point to take from his famous elaboration or embellishments is his overt reference to Eve and his linking of Magdalene with her. Having found Christ in the garden (and not-so-subtlely mistaking him for the Gardener), Magdalene becomes the New Eve, the first sign of the reversal of the fall of Adam.[17] This link was not lost on other theologians as well, such as Gregory the Great, who stated “Lo, the guilt of the human race is cut off whence it proceeded. For in paradise, a woman gave death to man; now from the tomb a woman announces life to men and tells the words of the Life-giver just as a woman told the words of the death-bearing Serpent.”[18] In Christian mythology, the Fall from the garden is related in Genesis, Chapter 3, where the serpent tempts Eve with fruit that will obtain her knowledge stating, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[19] After Eve is tempted and eats some of the fruit, she brings it to Adam who eats it also. Immediately following this, they realize the shame of their nudity and are rebuked by God for their deviancy. The punishment of the snake is to be cursed above all other animals; women will be ruled by their husbands and suffer in childbirth; and finally, because Adam listened to his wife, he is condemned to a life of toil to obtain his food from the land which he came. Both Adam and Eve, thus named in that moment, were banished from the Garden of Eden.[20] This story accounts for the dogma of Original Sin, which claims that because of this transgression and banishment from the Garden, the rest of humanity suffers under the weight of this guilt. This doctrine necessitates the crucifixion of Christ as the sacrifice to absolve all of humanity of this original sin.

While the Qur’an too relates the story of the fruit in the Garden,[21] there is no snake tempting Adam and Hawwa (Eve). Rather, this role is filled by Shaytan (satan) – a creature from the world of the jinn, those creatures made from fire by God who remain unseen. Like mankind, they possess reason and freewill, and existed before the creation of mankind. ‘Iblis (Satan) was considered the most righteous of the jinn to the point that he was elevated among the angels. However, when God created Adam and ordered the angels to prostrate to him, Satan disobeyed and “refused to be among the prostrators.” He became cast out and cursed by God.[22] In the Islamic tradition, satan did not operate his evil by whispering temptations about fruit to Hawwa, but rather planted waswasi (whispers) in the hearts of both Adam and Eve so that their thoughts became consumed by desire for the fruit. When they became preoccupied with their own thoughts, forgetting the warning of God, they ate the fruit and were reprimanded by God. There is nowhere in the Qur’an that singles out Hawwa as the lesser or weaker sex that convinced Adam to give up Paradise for a fruit. In the Islamic tradition, both Adam and Hawwa are to blame for their mistake, bearing equal responsibility. Remarkably, they are also both immediately forgiven by God in His infinite Wisdom and Mercy – a sentiment echoed by the opening of every single chapter of the Qur’an except one: In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. Therefore, in Islam, there is no original sin, no need for crucifixion or resurrection, and no need for the New Eve, embodied in Mary Magdalene.

For Part One, click here. For Part Three, click here.

[1] The Second Treatise of Great Seth, Roger A. Bullard and Joseph A. Gibbons trans. The Nag Hammadi Library.

[2] The Apocalypse of Peter, Roger A. Bullard and Joseph A. Gibbons trans. The Nag Hammadi Library.

[3] Qur’an 4 :157-159.

[4] Spengler. “Scandal Exposes Islam’s Weakness.” Asia Times Online :: Asian News, Business and Economy. November 18, 2008. Accessed December 16, 2014.

[5] John 19 :25-27

[6] Hooper, Richard. The Crucifixion of Mary Magdalene: The Historical Tradition of the First Apostle and the Ancient Church’s Campaign to Suppress It. Sanctuary Publications: Sedona. 2005. P217.

[7] Mark 15 :40, Matthew 27 :56

[8] Matthew 26 :6-13 and Mark 14 :3-8.

[9] Matthew 28 :1, Mark 16 :1, Luke 24 :10, John 20 :1

[10] Al-Nasa’i,  6:489

[11] Qur’an 4 :159

[12] Qur’an 43 :61

[13] Mark 15 :47

[14] Mark 16 : 4-7

[15] Mark 16 :9

[16] John 20 :10-18

[17] Haskins p. 65 ; Ward, Benedicta. Harlots of the Desert. Cistercian Publications Inc. Kentucky.1987. p 14

[18]Ward p.14, originally quoted in Gregory the Great, Homilies on the Gospels, Hom. Xxv, PL 76, col. 1189.

[19] Genesis 3 :5

[20] Genesis 3 :6-20

[21] Qur ‘an 2 :35, 7 :20

[22] Qur’an 15 :30-35

1 Comment

  1. that article has helped me to have an insight about Marry Magdalene. thats really good one to explain about her position in two religions, that has actually been left on readers to conclude :).


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