The Environment in Which the Story of Devotion is Revealed – SECTION ONE – III
The first section of chapter 3 in the Quran consists of 32 verses and was revealed right after the Batt le of Badr, as understood from the content of these verses. Verse 33 as well as approximately 80 other verses that explain the story of devotion are revealed years later than the first section. The later verses came in the ninth year of the Islamic calendar. The reason for these verses’ revelation was the appointment of a committ ee of ambassadors from Najran to Madinah. This event must have been the most important event of that year, because the year was known as the “year of ambassadors” (amu’l-wufuud).
Najran is a region in the Arabian Peninsula between Hijaz and Yemen. The inhabitants sett led along the migration paths. When the message of Jesus arrived in the region, the people in the region were suff ering under oppressive, racist, and theocratic rule. The Jewish dictator at that time tried to stand in front of the message of Jesus, which spread by the eff orts of self sacrifi cing people. He went to such extremes in this case that his decree is mentioned in chapter 85. He went so far as to order people to be burned alive in trenches. As time passed, the pure teachings of Jesus were distorted here as in other places, and the principle of oneness of God was lost.
It is here that the history of Christians in Najran is summarized. Although its history is short, Najran was one of the most powerful countries of the area when Medina’s Islamic government was established. The Najran Confederation consisted of 73 regions of sett lements, and its army had the capacity of 120,000 men. During this time Medina’s Islamic government became more and more of a political power in the area within a considerably short period of time and – with the conquest of Mecca – extended its weight even further.
No one was courageous enough to stand in front of this new power because they feared that they would suff er a crushing defeat. Meanwhile the Najran leaders, like the other regional powers of the Arabian Peninsula, sent a large committ ee of ambassadors in order to know this new power more closely and possibly sign a political non-aggression pact.
Sixty people were in this delegation, which occurred in the ninth year of the Islamic calendar.(4) Fourteen of these people were from the leading staff . They chose three leaders from amongst their delegation to represent them. These three representatives carried out the discussions with the messenger of God. Between the messenger and the leaders of the delegation, debates took place in regards to Jesus.
The messenger of God narrated to them the miraculous birth of Jesus and initiated thought provoking questions against the delegation’s defense of the polytheism of trinity by lett ing them rethink their position. It is in this environment that the verses consisting of our subject were revealed. “And (all) such parables We propound unto men, so that they might (learn to) think.” (Chapter 59, verse 21)
Chapter 3, verses 33-45: “Behold, God raised Adam, and Noah, and the House of Abraham, and the House of Imran above all mankind. (They are spiritually and ethnically) in one line of descent. And God was all-hearing, all-knowing when the woman of Imran prayed: ‘O my Sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow (the child) that is in, my womb, to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me: verily, Thou alone art all-hearing, all-knowing!’ However, when she had given birth to the child, she said: ‘O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female’ – while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and (fully aware) that no male child (she might have hoped for) could ever have been like this female – ‘and I have named her Mary.
And, verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her off spring against Satan, the accursed.’ And thereupon her Sustainer accepted the female child with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in a splendid way, and placed her in the care of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her provided with food. He would ask: ‘O Mary, whence came this unto thee?’ She would answer: ‘It is from God; behold God grants sustenance unto whom He wills, beyond all reckoning.’ In that same time and place, Zachariah prayed unto his Lord, saying: ‘O my Sustainer! Bestow upon me (too), out of Thy grace, the gift of goodly off spring; for Thou, indeed, hearest all prayer.’ Thereupon, as he stood praying in the sanctuary, the angels called out unto him: ‘God sends thee the glad tiding of (the birth of) John, who shall confi rm the truth of a word from God, and (shall be) outstanding among men, and utt erly chaste, and a prophet from among the righteous.’ (Zachariah) exclaimed: ‘O my Sustainer! How can I have a son when old age has already overtaken me, and my wife is barren?’ Answered (the angel): ‘Thus it is: God does what He wills.’ (Zachariah) prayed: ‘O my Sustainer! Appoint a sign for me!’ Said (the angel): ‘Thy sign shall be that for three days thou wilt not speak unto men other than by gestures. And remember thy Sustainer unceasingly, and extol His limitless glory by night and by day.’ And lo! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Behold, God has elected thee and made thee pure, and raised thee above all the women of the world.’ O Mary! Remain thou truly devout unto thy Sustainer, and prostrate thyself in worship, and bow down with those who bow down (before Him).
This account of something that was beyond the reach of thy perception We (now) reveal unto thee: for thou wert not with them when they drew lots as to which of them should be Mary’s guardian, and thou wert not with them when they contended (about it) with one another.Lo! The angels said: O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, (of a son) who shall become known as the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, of great honor in this world and in the life to come, and (shall be) of those who are drawn near unto God.’ ”
Let’s take a look at the last quarter-century of the era before Christ. The region is the Middle East, the birthplace of all the divine messages. Location is Palestine. Imran, son of Masan, is a scholar who committ ed himself to knowledge and worship. According to the Matt a Bible, his father’s name is Yashahim (1:1-16).
He is respected in the community. He earned this respect by his knowledge and moral maturity, and for being a descendant of Aaron. The fact that he was named after Imran is also not accidental. The father of Moses and Aaron, who lived approximately 18 centuries before him, also was named Imran. This name is mentioned in the Gospel as “Amram.” So, Imran, son of Masan, is a “sayyid,” or descendant of prophets, in the eyes of his society. He is also one of the top leaders of the temple that only the scholars among the descendants of Aaron could serve in.
Imran, whose sincerity in God-consciousness and scholarship is well known, married Anna, the daughter of Fakuz. Like her husband, Anna was also a true believer, conscious of her place in creation. For many years, the two did not have a child. One day, while Anna was resting under a tree, she saw a bird feeding her babies, and she contemplated the perfection of God’s creation. Then despite her and her husband’s age, she could not resist praying for an off spring. She prayed, asking her Lord to bestow on her a child. Her sincere request found its reply by the Lord.
When Anna found out she was pregnant despite her old age, she knew her prayer was accepted and her wish granted by her Lord. She believed it was her turn to be thankful then, so she vowed to dedicate to her Lord the beloved child for whom she had longed for years and now was blessed to receive by a miraculous grace.
“O my Sustainer! Behold, unto Thee do I vow (the child) that is in, my womb, to be devoted to Thy service. Accept it, then, from me.” While all these things were happening, her husband Imran was serving as a religious leader. When his wife Anna told him that she had vowed to dedicate the child in her womb for God, Imran became pale from shock and said to
Anna: “Are you aware of what you’ve done? Do you know the gender of the child in your womb? What if it is a girl and not a boy? Then what will we do?” (5)
The reason for Imran’s reaction was that until that day, those dedicated to serve in God’s house had always been boys. At the time, devoting a female child to religious service was out of consideration. Imran’s worry lasted until his death. Anna was left a pregnant widow and her unborn child fatherless. Under these conditions, Anna delivers her baby. Her husband’s worries were valid; the baby is a girl. This situation causes Anna a little worry too, mixed with sadness. “She said: ‘O my Sustainer! Behold, I have given birth to a female’ – the while God had been fully aware of what she would give birth to, and (fully aware) that no male child (she might have hoped for) could ever have been like this female – ‘and I have named her Mary. And, verily, I seek Thy protection for her and her off spring against Satan, the accursed.’ ” (Chapter 3, verse 36)
Anna does not turn away from her promise and submits the devotee to her place of devotion. After her delivery, Anna pronounced the prayer above. Wrapping her baby with her sweater, she went to the temple and handed her over to the servants, who were called “ahbar,” saying, “Here is the child I have devoted.” Not long after that day, Anna passed away.(6) The child was born without a father now was without a mother too; the baby was left an orphan.
The ahbar had to accept her; in fact, they were happy to accept this exceptional situation because she was the daughter of their leader. Furthermore, they knew the remarkable situation of this child and believed her special position as a devotee to God’s service. Then a discussion began in regard to who would be undertaking her care. Every one of them wanted the honor of taking care of this special devotee. Zachariah, who had a respected position among the scholars of the temple, said, “Undertaking her care would be more fi tt ing for me than any of you. Let me do it.” Zachariah was right. This is because his wife, Aisha, was Anna’s sister and therefore Mary’s aunt.7 However, the other staff in the temple did not fi nd this enough reason for him to get the guardianship of Mary. They also did not want miss the opportunity themselves. They said to Zachariah, “Didn’t the mother of Mary know this reality? If she did want you to take care of her, she would have counseled us so.” When discussions produced no results, they all agreed to draw lots to select which family would be entrusted with Mary. They went altogether to the river of Jordan. Applying a longstanding tradition of drawing lots, they threw their pens into water. Zachariah’s pen – with God’s will – passed all the others. The Quran mentions this event: “When this account of something that was beyond the reach of thy perception We (now) reveal unto thee: for thou wert not with them when they drew lots as to which of them should be Mary’s guardian, and thou wert not with them when they contended (about it) with one another.” (Chapter 3, verse 44)
Zachariah took Mary to his house. He submitt ed her to his wife Aisha. Aisha, who had never had a child, embraced Mary fully. She treated her just like a mother would have, had Mary’s mother lived. She raised this devotee as her sister’s keepsake and God’s trust until Mary grew to be a youth. When Zachariah received signs that it was time to give the devotee back to her true guardian, he made a special place at the temple for her and sett led her there. Since Mary was a girl, Zachariah was afraid something might happen to her, and he always watched out for her safety. He skillfully designed her dwelling place and took special precautions in order to protect her from any evil-intentioned ones.
People of the region in these years were suff ering through famine and drought that utt erly aff ected them.8 Even the richest people had diffi culty fi nding food. During these years, Zachariah grew old. He was having quite a hard time with the duties he had taken upon himself, but he did not hesitate to make any sacrifi ces. He began to worry whether someone would emerge to carry out these duties for Mary in the event of his death.
He gathered the leaders of the society and spoke to them thus: “As you see, I am an old man. I am no longer able to take good enough care of Mary, who is God’s trust. After me, whoever is going to take care of her should come out now and help me.” Those people who had competed with him for Mary before did not go near such great responsibility now during the famine. Finally, Yusuf, who was Zachariah’s nephew and Mary’s cousin, took the position upon himself.
The famine made Yusuf’s task extremely diffi cult. He tried his best to keep up with his duty, but he still worried whether he was doing enough. When Mary noticed his worry, she said to him, “Oh Yusuf, trust in God. No doubt God will provide for us.” Yusuf began to fi nd enough provisions. He was bringing sustenance to her every day from what he had earned. God did give abundance to what he brought.
When Zachariah came for a visit, he would fi nd food different than what Yusuf brought there, and he would ask: “Where are these from?” Sustenance appeared for her with no clear explanation, and he was amazed. Witnessing this exceptional situation, Zachariah suddenly felt a desire for off – spring. For a long time, seeing Mary, he had admired her parents, thinking what a grace it was to have such a devout child. When he also witnessed God’s exceptional treatment to Mary, he asked God for a child despite of his old age and his wife’s barrenness; his prayer was accepted and John was presented. In the end, Zachariah and his son John would be killed by a very cruel tribe. This is the basic historic framework of the event.
We will discuss it in more detail later, but the main thing that interests us in this event is not the details of the story or the historical dimensions of it, but rather the message that it conveys. The Quran tells us that this story so that we learn its lessons and model our lives from it. Let us try in the light of the verses of Quran to discover the wisdom of its depth and continue to search for the message’s meaning in the events carried out to every individual, society, and time.