“Ah, would that I had died before this, and had become a forgotten thing!”
This was the cry of an anguished young woman, who was close to Allah. So close, so loving and so trusting of Allah, in fact, that she could inspire even the Prophets. Literally, she could and she did. Who was she? What was her anguish? And most importantly, why did she have to bear this anguish despite her piety and trust for God?
She was Mary (Maryam), daughter of Imran, may peace and blessings of Allah be upon her.
She proclaimed these words of anguish as the Archangel Gabriel (Jibreel) gave her the glad tidings of a son, a miraculous son who was to be born without a father, by the permission of Allah alone. According to some traditions, her pregnancy took a few hours. As she felt the pangs of pain of pregnancy, and imagined the slander and humiliation she would have to face at the hands of the mischievous people of her nation, she cried out in pain.
Her torment must have been deep and unsettling. To her people, she was a role model, an inspiration, an icon of piety and a devoted worshipper. Most of her people, she knew, were mistrusting and bent on mischief; so much so that her mentor and the husband of her sister or maternal aunt (the Prophet Zechariah, who was also the nobleman of her people, and who had raised her under his guidance) had been worried about what would happen to his people after he died without a male heir. An heir who would inherit not his wealth, for Prophets of Allah do not amass or leave behind wealth, but his knowledge and his role as a guide to people.
Before Mary was born, her righteous mother, whose name is said to be Hannah, had vowed to devote the child in her womb to Allah. And Allah, seeing her sincerity, had accepted her prayer. But Hannah was to find, to her dismay, that the newborn was a girl, and it was not the custom of the patriarchal society to accept women for devout services. Little did she know that Allah had indeed accepted her prayer, and she had given birth to the most pious and exemplary woman of all times. The Book of Allah recounts this moving story of dedication and devotion to Allah in the following way:
“(Mention, O Muhammad), when the wife of ‘Imran said, “My Lord, indeed I have pledged to You what is in my womb, consecrated (for Your service), so accept this from me. Indeed, You are the Hearing, the Knowing. But when she delivered her, she said, ‘My Lord, I have delivered a female.’ And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, ‘And the male is not like the female. And I have named her Mary, and I seek refuge for her in You and (for) her descendants from Satan, the expelled (from the mercy of Allah). So her Lord accepted her with good acceptance and caused her to grow in a good manner and put her in the care of Zechariah.” – Surah Ali ’Imran, 3: 35-37.
As Mary grew older under his protection, the Prophet Zechariah — who was also the guide and nobleman of his people — was himself amazed at her trust and faith in Allah. Faith, indeed, is an unmatched blessing, the only enviable commodity in this ephemeral world.
This simple yet profound and unadulterated faith in Allah’s provision inspired the great Prophet Zechariah, who had greyed his hair and bent his back supplicating to Allah for an heir who would guide his people after him. Upon seeing Mary’s trust in Allah’s mercy, he prayed yet once again. Allah has mentioned his plea and prayer in the following majestic verses that open the surah or the chapter called Mary.
“Kaf, Ha, Ya, ‘Ayn, Sad. (This is) a mention of the mercy of your Lord to His servant Zechariah. When he called to his Lord a private supplication. He said, “My Lord, indeed my bones have weakened, and my head has filled with white, and never have I been in my supplication to You, my Lord, unhappy. And indeed, I fear the successors after me, and my wife has been barren, so give me from Yourself an heir. Who will inherit me and inherit from the family of Jacob. And make him, my Lord, pleasing (to You).” – Surah Maryam, 19:1-6.
Notably, Surah Maryam is the surah named after a person who is not a Prophet, but a marvelous woman. Mary’s anguish, scholars comment, was that of a chaste woman who is expecting to be tested with regard to her dearest asset, her immaculate piety. Her physical pain of childbirth must have added multitudes to her pain. The words of Allah are most apt in depicting her grief and pain:
“The pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She cried (in her anguish): ‘Ah! Would that I had died before this! Would that I had been a thing forgotten and out of sight!’” – Surah Maryam, 19:23.
But God is Most Merciful and All Knowing, so He consoled her immediately: “But he called her from below her, ‘Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.’” – Surah Maryam, 19:24
That voice, according to some scholars, was that of Archangel Gabriel, while others opined that it was that of Jesus, her newborn. In any case, the reader of these words of Allah is moved by His Mercy and Compassion for Mary. Such immediate attention is earned by only very pure hearts, and Mary’s was certainly one. Even the final Message of God, that was to be revealed five centuries later to an Arab in a far-off land, was to make such profuse and honorable mention of her name: “Behold! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you above the women of all nations.” – Surah Ali Imran, 3:42.