Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Mariya: Mohammed's Christian Wife

This is post is an edited version of a message I sent a while ago to a seminar I am part of.

B. asked me about some things I said last night about one of the wives (although even her spousal status is, apparently, disputed) of Mohammed. She was known as Marya al-Qibtiyya (or Mariya/Maria the Copt) , i.e. a Coptic Christian, and is believed by some scholars to have played a role in the origin of Islamic reverence for Isa, a.k.a. Jesus. I can't remember where I first learned about this but I'll provide a couple of sources for anyone interested in pursuing this line of inquiry. For one brief (pro-Western) Islamic perspective, see "Maria The Copt" . Another brief Islamic perspective can be found here.

For an anti-Muslim, pro-Zionist, anti-Roman Catholic, fringe, evangelical Christian perspective that mentions Marya, see Jack Chick's comic/graphic novel The Prophet which is described as follows: "Part VI of Alberto Rivera's testimony. Learn how the papacy helped start Islam, only to have this new daughter rebel against her. You'll understand the Arab's place in Bible prophecy." Chick's stuff is nothing if not interesting and you can learn a lot from it but it's poison, too. So, be careful.

Using a search engine you can find other online sources. Google turns up two scholarly articles that may or may not bear on the influence of Marya on the Qur'an: "A Possible Coptic Source for a Qur'anic Text" by Wilson B. Bishai and a review of Women in the Quran, Traditions, and Interpretation by Barbara Freyer Stowasser. These are both in JSTOR.

I may have learned about Marya in The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam by Fatima Mernissi but I doubt it. I can say for sure that I recommend the book to anyone interested in Islam and feminist perspectives on Islam from an Islamic and feminist point-of-view. Yes, there are feminists in Islam and Mernissi's book has some wonderful stuff in it about A'isha, another wife of Mohammed and another remarkable Muslim woman, Sukayna, who married five or six husbands and "never pledged ta'a (obedience, the key principle of Muslim marriage) to any of them." I also heartily recommend Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left by Susan Buck-Morss.

Correction: Jack Chick's comic/graphic novel The Prophet does not mention Marya. According to the narrator, Alberto Rivera, Mohammed's first wife Khadijah, not Marya, was a devout Roman Catholic who was sent on a mission to influence Mohammed.

Addendum: FWIW, there appears to be no widely-accepted standard English-language encyclopedic reference work on Islam. The 17-volume Encyclopaedia of Islam is apparently edited exclusively by Western non-Muslims (?) and, according to one review, it is "In many ways ... a quintessential expression of traditional European orientalism, with all that it implies for both good and bad." In any case, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Doctrine (2:163) lists Marya among the wives of Mohammed with the following after her name: "suriyya (concubine)". This is the only mention of her in the 7-volume work.

Last revised: 01/05/2008

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Maria the Copt was a black slave of the Roman Christian empire. The Roman emporer, Heraclitus, gave the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) a gift of two slave girls (Maria and her sister) and some kind of drug (opium or hash most likely). The Prophet returned the drugs and kept the women. He told the women they were free to go but they didn't want to go. So he married the sister to his friend and married Maria for himself. She was 30 and he was over 60. The Quran was already revealed by then so it is unlikely that she had much to do with the Islamic reverence for Jesus. She bore Mohammed one child, Ibrahim, his only son, who died as a baby. Soon after the baby died, Mohammed died. For the rest of her life Maria stayed in seclusion, only leaving her home to visit their graves. She died in her 30s as a Muslim and the Caliph performed her funeral.
There was no Roman emperor Heraclitus. You are probably referring to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. None of the sources I know of implicate the Byzantine emperor, except possibly indirectly. The other facts of Maria's life are in dispute, too: Was she ever a slave or not? Did she ever marry the Prophet or not? As the sources I mentioned in the post indicate, Islamic scholars disagree on these points.

My remark about "Islamic reverence for Issa, a.k.a. Jesus" makes no direct mention of the Quran, which--although primary--is not the only source of Islamic beliefs and practice. In any case, according to Sahih Bukhari, the earliest full authoritative recension of the Quran was not completed under Uthman until about 20 years after the Prophet's death (see Sahih Bukhari 6:60:201 and 6:61:510). Read the Sahih Bukhari online at
i have also read about the influence of Rome in the formation of Islam through one of his wives particularly from Professor Walter Vieth dvd's and a book by Uriah Smith called Daniel and Revelation. I would like more information on this topic if possible
Sorry, I said about everything I know on the subject in the blog post. You may want to consult the Encyclopaedia of Islam and the somehwat dubious sources listed in the Chick publication.
I would like to comment on Fatima Marnissi's book. I don't believe it could be used as a reference to learn about women in Islam, since most material featured in that book is to be douted, as much as Marnissi's beliefs and political motivations. Unfortunately, most reliable references haven't been translated into other languages than Arabic, which gave more advantage to many writers to say whatever they wanted in order to manipulate non-muslims, and even muslims who cannot read the language.
(A Modern Arab Muslim Woman)
''There was no Roman emperor Heraclitus. You are probably referring to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius.''

Could someone explain to this person that Byzantium was a.k.a The Eastern Roman Empire...
I can see why you were confused but the point is there was no Western Roman, Eastern Roman, Roman, or Byzantine emperor named "Heraclitus". The issue is the emperor's name, not the empire's name.

It is completely accurate, in the Western context, to refer to Heraclius as a Byzantine emperor (that does not imply he is not also accurately described as the Roman/Eastern Roman emperor). Nevertheless, Heraclius' imperial capital was Constinople (Byzantium), not Rome, and he made Greek, not Latin the imperial language. So, he is conventionally (in the West) referred to as a Byzantine emperor.
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