Mary, the mother of Jesus, appears in both Christian and Muslim holy texts and she has been used as both a bridge and a barrier to dialogue between the two faiths.
In her latest book “Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History,” (Paulist Press, $27.95) Rita George-Tvrtkovic, assistant professor of theology at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, looks at the two faiths’ treatment of Mary as it relates to interreligious dialogue.
In honor of May, the month of Mary, the following is an email interview with George-Tvrtkovic, who is a former associate director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
Chicago Catholic: What do you hope people get out of reading “Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History”? Rita George-Tvrtkovic: I hope that the “shared Mary” inspires Christians to learn more about Islam, both its similarities to and differences from Christianity. If they do not know any Muslims personally, I hope they are inspired to make the effort to do so, because that will do much to increase learning and also trust between people of faith.
Finally, I hope that Catholics in particular, especially those with a devotion to Mary, will be touched when they witness Muslim piety more generally — not only their devotion to Mary, but also their faithfulness to praying five times a day, to fasting during Ramadan, etc., and will be inspired to practice their own Catholic faith more fervently.
Chicago Catholic: The Second Vatican Council document “Nostra Aetate,” “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” acknowledges that Christians and Muslims share a devotion to Mary. Was this the first time the Catholic Church officially used Mary to bridge the divide between the two faiths?
George-Tvrtkovic: Yes, this 1965 Vatican II document is the first official Catholic “theology of Islam” at the conciliar level, and therefore the first time Mary was mentioned as a figure of importance for both Catholics and Muslims. However, there were a few Catholic figures who stressed Mary as a bridge before that.
In the 1950s, Pope Pius XII commended the Turkish House of Mary shrine for being a pilgrimage destination for both Catholics and Muslims; the TV evangelist Archbishop Fulton Sheen believed that Mary might lead some Muslims to convert, while the French Islamicist Louis Massignon saw her as a bridge to deeper Christian-Muslim relationships.
The question in the 1950s was therefore: What kind of bridge was Mary, a bridge to conversion or a bridge to dialogue and friendship? “Nostra Aetate” went on to highlight her role as a bridge to dialogue and friendship between Christians and Muslims, due to a shared devotion.
Chicago Catholic: What are the major similarities between how Christians and Muslims view Mary? George-Tvrtkovic: The Annunciation story is found in both the Qur’an (Sura 3 and 19) and the Bible (Luke). I recommend that the stories be read side by side. You’ll be amazed at the similarities.
Both accounts describe a similar encounter between Mary and the Angel Gabriel, who announces that Mary, a virgin, will give birth to a son miraculously through the power of God. Also, both stories emphasize key Marian qualities: her purity, chosenness above all women and fidelity/responsiveness to God’s call.
Chicago Catholic: What are the differences and how are they barriers to dialogue?
George-Tvrtkovic: The most significant difference between the Muslim Maryam and the Christian Mary has to do with the identity of her son, Jesus.
Muslims believe that Jesus is a prophet, while Christians believe that Jesus is the son of God (this difference is highlighted in “Nostra Aetate”). Thus, only in Christianity is Mary called Theotokos, “God-bearer,” or the mother of God. Muslims stress that she is the human mother of a human prophet.
But differences aren’t necessarily a barrier to interreligious dialogue. Actually, spending time discussing our differences rather than focusing only on similarities often produces the deepest interreligious learning.
In the past, Mary was sometimes a barrier because Catholics at certain times and places — for example, in 16th century Western Europe — put her on battle standards in wars against Muslims and in wars against Protestants, calling her “Our Lady of Victory.” In fact, the annual feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, which is observed on Oct. 7, commemorates the Battle of Lepanto, Oct. 7, 1571, when the Catholic League miraculously defeated the Ottoman Turks, and attributed their victory to praying the rosary.
Oct. 7 was originally called “Our Lady of Victory,” but that name soon changed to “Our Lady of the Rosary.”
Chicago Catholic: From a Catholic perspective, do you have suggestions for how we can use Mary as a bridge in every day dialogue with our Muslimfriends or coworkers?
George-Tvrtkovic: Mary has the potential to be a bridge between Christians and Muslims, but it depends on who is involved. Catholics and Orthodox Christians have traditionally tended to stress Mary more than Protestants, but there is even a spectrum of belief and practice among Catholics, with some Catholics having more of a devotion to Mary than others.
Plus, recently some Protestants — especially Lutherans and Anglicans — have had a resurgence of interest in Mary. Likewise, there is a diversity of Muslim approaches to Mary, with some Muslims visiting Marian shrines, while others disapproving of such activity.
But most Muslims I know who are engaged in dialogue with Christians are eager to put forth Mary as a bridge. One example? I saw a billboard along Interstate 294 which suggested that the hijab Muslim women wear is similar to the veil worn by Mary.
Chicago Catholic: You also suggest that there are times we don’t need to share Mary. Would you explain that?
George-Tvrtkovic: Throughout the world there are many Marian shrines that are visited by Christians and Muslims alike — from Our Lady of Africa in Algeria, to Meryem Ana Evi in Turkey, to Mariamabad in Pakistan, to St. Clement Ohridski Orthodox Church in Michigan. It is beautiful to see how sacred spaces can bring ordinary Muslims and Christians “together in prayer.” This is the Assisi model of interreligious prayer, which is subtly different from “praying together”).
However, just like Mecca is reserved for Muslims only, to preserve and augment the unity of the worldwide Islamic “umma” (community) when they come there for the annual hajj, so too it is sometimes important for Catholics to underscore their catholicity — lowercase “c,” meaning universality — by spending time with their Mary, in their sacred spaces, alone with fellow Catholics.
There are times when it is appropriate to focus on spiritual practices building interreligious unity, while other times should be reserved for building intra-religious solidarity. Mary can help us do both.
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