What Is the Islamic Understanding of Maryam, the Mother of Prophet ‘Isa, Being Married?

Answered by Sidi Abdullah Anik Misra

Question: We know in the Christian tradition that Mariam (AS), the mother of Prophet ‘Isa (AS) was married to Joseph the carpenter.

What does the Islamic tradition relate of this and also is there any indication that she married and had children other than Prophet ‘Isa (AS)? In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious Most Merciful,

Answer: As salamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa baraktuh,

Thank you for your interesting question.   In short, the Islamic primary sources do not support the claim that Maryam married in her lifetime, nor the claim that she had children after the prophet Jesus (peace be upon him).  Rather, the view that she remained an unmarried virgin throughout her entire life seems more plausible from an Islamic viewpoint, as a few scholars clearly stated.  A detailed response follows below.

The Biblical Account The Christian tradition, from the New Testament, says that Maryam, the virgin mother of Jesus (peace be upon them both), was betrothed to Joseph the carpenter [Matthew 1:18].  Also, four men in total are named as Jesus’s “brothers” in the New Testament [Matthew 33:55, Mark 6:3].  The exact intended meaning and nature of the relationship is not expanded upon.

Between the various streams of Christianity however, there is a great difference of opinion regarding whether the virginity of Maryam was only valid for the time of the miraculous birth of Jesus (peace be upon him), or whether it was a “perpetual virginity” that lasted throughout her whole life.

From that difference stems another difference of opinion: whether the numerous references to Jesus’s “brothers” in the New Testament is to be taken literally or figuratively.  If taken literally, there is a debate on whether the brothers were full brothers, half-brothers or step-brothers.  Each view is the subject of its own debate and argument.

Hence, there is no consensus in the Christian tradition on these questions in the first place, such that one can say that the Bible clearly states its position on anything other than the [alleged] betrothal of Maryam to Joseph.

Also, due to the many discrepancies, changes and errors that crept into the Bible over the years, we cannot say that the betrothal to Joseph is authentic or something to be relied upon as true.

The Qur’anic ViewThe Islamic sources do not report a betrothal for Maryam, nor do they mention Joseph, nor a later marriage, nor any siblings for Jesus (peace be upon him).

In the Qur’an, there is an entire chapter named after Maryam that beautifully conveys the story of the virgin birth.  The mention of the betrothal could have easily been mentioned if it was true.

In the Islamic view, the Qur’an says that Maryam was a virgin; she had never been married before or during the time of the birth of Jesus (peace be upon him).   Maryam was quite shocked when the angel informed her that she would bear a son, saying “How can I have a son, when no man has ever touched me, nor am I a woman of loose morals?” [Qur’an, 19:20].

Imam Suyuti distinguishes the first reason Maryam gave [that “no man has ever touched me”] from the second reason because the first reason signified being “touched” in lawful wedlock, whereas the second reason meant she had never committed fornication.  Thus, her virginity at the time of the birth is established. [Tafsir al-Jalalayn, al-Suyuti]

The Claim of Betrothal

Some may argue that it still leaves room for the Biblical claim that Maryam was only betrothed to Jospeh but not yet sent to her marital home for consummation.  In ancient Jewish law, a betrothal was as binding as a marriage contract.  Thus, according to this claim, it was an unconsummated marriage because the bride-taking had not taken place.

It seems unlikely that Maryam would have reacted with such consternation when it was told to her that she would bear a son, if a natural way to conceive the child was actually so close at hand, plausible and moreover, lawful (ie. going from betrothal to consummation after the “bride-taking”).  After all, if she had a husband-to-be, wouldn’t she assume that the child would be given through him?

The Chastity and Celibacy of Maryam

Twice in the Qur’an, Allah Most High praises Maryam as “the one who guarded her private part” [Qur’an, 21:91 and 66:12].  The word for “guarded” in Arabic here is “aHSanat”, whose root word [HiSn] means “a fortress”, such that the active verb form of the root means “to make inaccessible” and gives a sense of actively guarding one’s chastity. [Arabic-English Lexicon, E.W. Lane]

Al-Baqa’i, the famous tafsir scholar, comments that:

“[Maryam] preserved [her private part] from that which was lawful [ie. marriage] and that which was unlawful [ie.fornication], with such a preserving that it deserved to be mentioned and spoken about [in the Word of God]…

[This is] because [she displayed] the highest level of chastity, abstinence, and disavowal of worldly pleasures, preferring to be cut-off from all creatures and being isolated in the worship of Allah Most High.” [Tafsir, Ibrahim al-Baqa’i]

It should be noted here that while actively guarding one’s private part from unlawful sexual relations is understood, how does one actively preserve their private part from lawful sexual relations?  Since betrothal eventually implies consummation,  the only way to avoid that would be to not get betrothed in the first place.

Hence, the verse implies Maryam’s abstinence from intercourse and its precursors, and even her refraining from the social contract of marriage in order that she could devote herself to worship.  Indeed, al-Baqa’i, nullifying the claim to betrothal or subsequent marriage, states:

“[Maryam’s abstinence] was like a great fortress, impenetrable to the enemy.  And she continued with her virginity until her death, and her marriage will take place in Heaven, as a reward to her, to the Best of Allah’s Servants, [our liegelord] Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him), the Seal of the Prophets and the Imam of the Messengers.” [ibid]

Here, al-Baqa’i makes clear the view that she was never married in her worldly life, and she died as a virgin.  The view that she will be married to the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) is based on hadeeth narrations found in al-Tabarani’s Mu’jam al-Kabir.  The validity of al-Baqa’i’s conclusion however (of perpetual virginity), is not dependent on the authenticity of the hadeeth.

Maryam’s Virginity as a Divine Miracle

The miracle of the virgin birth of Christ (peace be upon him) was to be an effective proof from Allah to the Children of Israel of that time.  However, the miracle wouldn’t have seemed as believable if such a significant element of doubt (in the form of a betrothal) could exist.

Had Maryam been engaged or married, and that was well-known in the community, would people not conclude that the child was from the one she was supposed to marry and write-off the plausibility of a virgin birth?  Indeed, some wicked people did insinuate fornication, but Qur’an’s purpose in speaking about Maryam is to clarify that their slander was baseless.

When she became pregnant, she fled out of fear that her people accuse her of fornication- perhaps the heaviest charge and greatest test for a woman who had spent her whole life in chaste abstinence and worship.   Also, she was worried that people would look down upon religion itself, because she was known as the most pious woman of her time.

Throughout her whole ordeal, she relied on no one other than Allah Most High- no man, whether husband or fiancée or guardian- and that is a powerful lesson we gain from this story.  Allah is telling us that His female servant could reach the heights of piety and make her a sign for others without the intervention of a man, and Allah Himself would defend her from all charges and slander.

Even thereafter, Jesus (peace be upon him) is quoted in the Qur’an as being enjoined upon by Allah to care for his mother (no father or siblings are mentioned), again, indicating that the two only had each other- and Allah Most High. [al-Quran, 19:32]

Accounts that Crept into some Quranic Exegetical Works

Despite the fact that the authentic primary sources of Islam (the Qur’an and hadeeth) do not mention the existence of Joseph the Carpenter or any other husband or children ascribed to Maryam, Joseph’s mention does come up in some exegetical [tafsir] works on the Quran [al-Tha’labi, al-Tabari, and others].

It becomes clear that these reports were taken from people relating Biblical accounts that they had heard through Christians who lived alongside them.

While the mention of Joseph is found in some tafsir works, no mufasir to my knowledge gave weight to the opinion that he was betrothed to Maryam, but would merely report it in the format of a weak claim.

Some opined that Joseph was Maryam’s cousin, and assigned to be her male guardian after the death of her uncle, the Prophet Zakariya (peace be upon him), and that he was also a servant of the House of God and the first to notice her pregnancy.  Others mentioned that he helped her to flee the tyrant Herod.

Thus, those who disbelieved in the divine miracle of the virgin birth were quick to create the slander that Joseph was the illegitimate father of the child, because he may have been seen helping Maryam.  Perhaps the Bible was adjusted and the claim of betrothal was introduced to avoid that charge.

The Main Source of These Accounts

Upon closer inspection, most of these accounts were introduced into the Islamic tradition through the early narrator Wahb ibn al-Munnabih, who was well-known for relating what are called the “Israeliyaat” from the People of the Book, or accounts from the Judeo-Christian tradition that do not have a basis in Islamic sources.

His narrations of this sort are taken with a grain of salt by scholars, because he was simply quoting the Christian tradition.  Some scholars of exegesis then simply copied the story from earlier exegeses, and this is how the speculation on Joseph’s existence crept into tafsir literature.  Interestingly, no one mentions marriage or other children for Maryam as a plausible opinion.

Al-Alusi Summarizes the Position of the Muslim Scholars

However, the great Quranic exegete and scholar, al-Alusi, whose famous tafsir work Ruh al-Ma’aani came later in the tradition, but had the benefit of analyzing all previous works of tafsir, said:

“[Allah] Most High said, ‘And We made her [Maryam] and her son a Sign for all the worlds.’ [Qur’an 21:91]… and thus, it is known that that which the Islamic scholars have come to consensus on is that Maryam had no other son save Jesus [peace be upon him].

And some of the Christians have claimed [..] that after she gave birth to Jesus, she married Joseph the Carpenter, and she bore him three sons.  The reliable position amongst them is that when she was in her childhood, she was betrothed to Joseph the Carpenter and he contracted marriage with her but did not go near her…

…and when she gave birth, she stayed in his care with Jesus (peace be upon him), so [Joseph] began to raise and be a guardian over [Jesus] along with children from another wife other than [Maryam], and as for her, [Joseph] never went near her at all [in marital relations].

[However] the Muslims do not concede that she was married to Joseph, nor that she was betrothed to him, nor that he supported her or supported Jesus (peace be upon him)… [rather, Allah says in the Qur’an 21:19:] ‘And We sheltered the two of them [ie.Maryam and Jesus, peace be upon them]…’’’ [ Ruh al-Ma’ani, al-Alusi]

Al-Batul, The Chaste One

There are many other considerations for why Maryam’s marriage would be implausible from an Islamic standpoint, such as the fact that she is eternally honored with the epithets “al-Batul” and “al-‘Adhraa’”, both of which are emphatic ways of saying “the chaste virgin”.

In Arabic, “tabattul”, means “to cut oneself off in worship…and in this context it means cutting off from marriage.  And from this meaning, Maryam was called, the virgin, al-Batul [an intensive form showing emphasis], because she completely cut herself off from [interactions with strange] men. [Mufradat alfadh al-Qur’an, Raghib al-Asfahani]

“Al-‘adhraa’” means “a young woman whom no man has touched, and she is a virgin.” [al-Nihayah, Ibn al-Atheer]

Maryam has been given these epithets by the Companions in authentic hadeeth narrations found in the collections of Ahmad, Hakim, al-Baihaqi and others.  They were expressed on the occasion when the Companions were on trial to explain Islam’s stance on Jesus in front of the Christian king of Abyssinia, Najashi.

No doubt, the Companions’ opinions were directly learnt from the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), and the use of the epithets showed Maryam was deserving of those titles for her whole life and for all time.

Returning to the Greater Lessons

We will not enumerate further proofs, as this is sufficient to prove Maryam was never betrothed or married.  The question of the historicity and exact role of Joseph in her ordeal, and how his false ascription as her husband crept in the gospels, remains a mystery.

While people of other faiths may disagree on this issue, one thing we can be sure of is that Allah Most High did not mention this in His final message to mankind, the Qur’an.
This means that it is not important for us to dwell on in light of the greater lessons that the story of this amazing woman of Allah, Maryam, has to offer us.  And Allah knows best.

Abdullah Anik Misra

Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani