We see in the life of Mary the pinnacle of motherhood and womanhood. Before she was a mother, she was a student – an exceptional student of her time. Of all the women mentioned in the Quran, only Mary is mentioned by name repeatedly.

An entire chapter is named after her. She has been chosen above all other women in the world as mentioned in the Quran:

{And when the angels said, ‘O Mary, God has preferred you, and made you pure; He has preferred you above all women of the worlds.} (3: 42)

Mary is honored worldwide for her virtue, for her courage and conviction in the face of great tribulation and is Islam’s ideal of womanhood. It is necessary for both women and men to reflect upon lessons from her life.

In this series, we will look at Mary’s role in seeking knowledge, her spirituality, her concern and contribution to the dawah of Islam, her mother and her own motherhood, her character, and finally some general lessons that we take from her story in the Quran. 

Honored Student of Knowledge

Mary was an honored student of knowledge. God says about her in the Quran:

{Her Lord accepted the child with gracious acceptance, and made her grow excellently, and Zachariah took charge of her. Whenever Zachariah went into the sanctuary, where she was, he found her with provisions. ‘O Mary’, he said, ‘Whence comes this to you?’ She said, ‘From God. Truly God provides for whomever He will without reckoning.} (3: 37)

Al-Qurtubi explains in his tafsir that the word kaffala means more than guardianship. Rather, Zachariah (peace be upon him) and the scholars would teach her the revelation in the mosque when she was young. The scholars would even compete to teach her, as she was a bright student and she was also the first female to be taught in the mosque.

As she grew older, they made a separate room for her described as al-Mihrab. The Muslim Scholar Abdel Kareem Zaidan explains that al-Mihrab is a special room or an elevated place.

There are many opinions describing why, but it suffices for us here to say, the best woman who walked this earth, in her young years, was someone who studied her religion, someone who had a connection with the revelation, and someone who impressed even her teachers.

Many times women are discouraged from pursuing studies that would be beneficial for themselves and the Muslim community. They are told that their greatest role in life is their role as wife and mother, so they shouldn’t focus so much on their Islamic education.

There is an inherent contradiction in this viewpoint. While these roles are extremely significant, other opinions provide a more comprehensive approach to the “most important role.”

Dr. Jamal Badawi’s “Gender Equity in Islam” discusses the spiritual equality of both women and men, and what is deemed “the best” according to the Quran:

{O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.} (49: 13)

These verses point to the role that both women and men play as devout servants of God. This may take different forms at different stages in life. I tend to lean toward this semantic approach in understanding what is the best role for a Muslim woman because it covers her entire lifespan, and includes women who never were able to get married or have children.

It concretely describes her goal as seeking God’s pleasure, while her contributions to her family are a means of achieving her goal. Also, scholars who use the former semantic approach of emphasizing a woman’s role as a wife and mother, equally stress the importance of woman’s education.

An Ideal Example of Motherhood

We see in the life of Mary the pinnacle of motherhood and womanhood. Before she was a mother, she was a student – an exceptional student of her time. Before mothers can give good breeding, they have to receive it. And seeking knowledge is a crucial component of a balanced rising.

The community only grows stronger when women are educated. In the words of Malcolm X: “Educate a man and you educate one person; educate a woman and you educate and liberate an entire generation!”

We also notice that the best of men in her time, Prophet Zachariah and the religious leadership of the Mosque took time to teach her. While there are those who refuse to teach women completely, this does not reflect the attitude of Zachariah and the scholarship of his time, nor the sunnah of the Prophet. 

The Role of a Wife

Women who understand the significance of Islamic knowledge and work are able to make personal sacrifices on its path and also be truly supportive to their husbands. They also aid their children in pursuing this path. How many husbands who are students of knowledge or busy in dawah cannot communicate their struggles or discuss their experiences with their wives because their wives simply do not have the Islamic vocabulary to understand such discussions?

Yet, I have seen the amazing example of some men who took the time to help get their wives ‘on board’ and make personal sacrifices to help their wives’ Islamic education and development. Such an investment has long-lasting effects in both worlds, and reveals deep sincerity for the cause of Islam.

A woman who shares the path of knowledge and service with her husband is able to relate to him and provide support at a different level, because of her deep personal appreciation for such a path…because she shares that path.

This does not mean both men and women have to be doing the exact same things at the exact same level, but it means both should at least share the path at whatever capacity they each are able to in accordance with their life circumstances.

We see in the seerah (biography) of the Prophet, as well as Islamic history, the importance given to the education of women. Just as the Prophet set aside a time to teach the women in his community each week, women should also be encouraged in learning and given time for education and development.

When women are encouraged and supported in learning the way that Mary was, at a community level, we will start to see the casual conversations of our women transition from personal hygiene tips, recipes, sales at the mall, back-biting, complaining, and story-telling of one’s family to conversations that reflect a mind and heart that is thoroughly concerned and busy with the priorities of the Muslim community, bettering the conditions of their societies and humanity at large, and other beneficial matters.

This doesn’t mean one can’t joke and relax with their friends. It simply means, beneficial speech would become the rule, not the exception, just as the education and Islamic development of our sisters would become the rule, not the exception.

So when we remember the honored place of Mary in Paradise, and reflect on her example to all women, let us never forget that she started as a student.

This article appeared at Suhaibwebb.com. It is republished with kind permission from the author with slight editorial modifications.

By Muslema Purmul