Before we continue Mary’s story of timeless beauty, let us pause to think about an important aspect of her inspiring story.
We may wonder why, despite her piety and devotion to Allah, was Mary tested with such physical and emotional pain?
Pain, in fact, is taken in today’s vocabulary as an unmitigated evil, an absolutely, totally bad thing. That may have been so, if our existence were to end with our last breath, but it does not. For those who believe in an afterlife, an unending afterlife, the calculations of this life are very different. Upon some reflection we learn that Allah, the Most Merciful, does not cause us to suffer without reason. In other words, for every pain we suffer, the benefit is ultimately bigger than the apparent or immediate loss. Indeed, it is the Sunnah of Allah (i.e., manner, way or law of Allah) to test His beloved servants with pain of different kinds. “Alif. Lam. Meem. Do the people think that they will be left to say, ‘We believe’, and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars.” – Surah al-Ankabut, 29:1-3.
Upon further reflection, we learn even more about the purpose of pain.
Pain, whether physical or emotional, has a profound meaning and indispensable function in our lives. Without pain, pleasure and happiness become meaningless. And when there is no pain and no pleasure, humans can no longer have any motivation. For all human activity, the basic motivation is to avoid pain and achieve happiness. But how would we avoid something we do not know, or something we have never experienced? It would be like frightening a two-year old toddler with news of plummeting stock prices! Isn’t this meaningless?
Pain is a necessary experience for all human beings for their life to have any enduring meaning and motivation. So, although we avoid pain, we would not have any meaning in life without it. God has placed pain as the basic motivating force in this life. Imagine if one has an injury but felt no pain, and therefore did nothing to cure it. Say you cut your finger while slicing carrots for a salad, but you don’t notice it. Even minor injuries would expand and rot until the entire body is destroyed.
Similarly, the emotional pain that results from loss and deprivation, social pain that results from differing levels of wealth, political pain that results from loss of freedom and from tyranny, etc., all have essential functions for humanity.
What an irony, we live to avoid pain, but we could not have lived at all without it.
Those who are truly faithful in Allah, take occasions of pain as gifts of Allah, and through their patience over calamities, not only earn great reward from Allah, but also increase the depth of their eeman. A famous hadeeth from the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), says: “Strange indeed are the affairs of the believers, for all their affairs are good for them. If good things happen to them, they are thankful, and that is good for them, and if bad things happen to them, they remain patient, and that too is good for them.” – Muslim
Mary’s pain and anguish, her loneliness and fears of agonizing slanders of her people, and pangs of pregnancy and childbirth, must have deepened her faith and gratitude beyond bounds.
Amazingly, the pangs of unbearable pain that a woman bears during childbirth have been so differently interpreted in Islamic and Judeo-Christian traditions. In the Biblical tradition, childbirth is portrayed as a punishment to all women for Eve’s tempting Adam into eating the forbidden fruit of Eden, and thereby being condemned to live this life of punishment. In Islam, God mercifully responds to Mary’s childbirth pain, and consoles: “But he called her from below her, ‘Do not grieve, your Lord has provided beneath you a stream. And shake toward you the trunk of the palm tree, it will drop upon you ripe, fresh dates. So, eat and drink and be contented …’” – Surah Maryam, 19: 24-26.
For the Muslims, particularly the Muslim women, Mary, may Allah’s blessings be upon her, is a role model, an ideal. She is the model of chastity and devotion, a high example of how God responds to pure souls. In fact, many righteous Muslim women remember the example of Mary when undergoing labour pains themselves, and this gives them a profound sense of connection to Allah, and Allah responds to the desperate call of His pained servants, particularly during labour.
The intense pain experienced by a woman during childbirth is considered an expiation for her sins, and a means of earning extra rewards with Allah, according to the hadeeth: Abu Saeed al Khudri reported that the Prophet, (pbuh), said: “Whenever a Muslim is afflicted with a hardship, sickness, sadness, worry, harm, or depression, even a thorn’s prick, Allah expiates her or his sins because of it.” (Bukhari). According to another hadeeth, a woman who dies in childbirth is considered among the seven categories of martyrs who do not die on the battleground, but are rewarded as such due to other painful afflictions.
Of course, the reason for this different (and fair) interpretation in Islam of woman’s role and their motherhood is that according to the Qur’anic story of creation, Eve did not mislead Adam, may peace be upon both of them. Rather, they both committed a mistake together, and felt guilty and repented together, and most importantly, they were forgiven by Allah, the Merciful and Forgiving Lord. The story of creation is a lesson for human beings to recognise their enemy, the Satan, and his deception, to learn that seeking forgiveness and repenting is the key to success, and to learn that Allah’s commandments are not there to keep us from progress or pleasure, but indeed only for our eternal as well as short-term benefit.
But imagine, once again, Mary’s heroic patience and obedience to Allah’s commands, for at one moment, her agony is so great that she calls out: “Ah, would that I were dead and forgotten!” but right after that she is told to fast, which in the Shari’ah of the Israelites meant not talking to any human being. Just as her desire to defend herself is the greatest in front of a distrusting and malicious mob accusing her of fornication and cheating, she holds on to Allah’s decree:
“So, eat and drink and be contented. And if you see from among humanity anyone, say: ‘Indeed, I have vowed to the Most Merciful abstention, so I will not speak today to (any) man. Then she brought him to her people, carrying him. They said, ‘O Mary, you have certainly done a thing unprecedented. O sister (i.e. Descendant) of Aaron, your father was not a man of evil, nor was your mother unchaste. So, she pointed to him. They said, ‘How can we speak to one who is in the cradle a child?’” – Surah Maryam. 19: 26-29.
By Allah’s permission and mercy, the newborn spoke miraculously and vindicated the chastity of his mother. “(Jesus) said, ‘Indeed I am the servant of Allah. He has given me the Scripture and made me a prophet. And He has made me blessed wherever I am and He has enjoined upon me prayer and zakah as long as I remain alive. And (made me) dutiful to my mother, and He has not made me a wretched tyrant. And peace is on me the day I was born, and the day I will die and the day I am raised alive.” – Surah Maryam, 30: 33.