Muhammad and Mary, Up from Common Ground

Today, as Muslims begin fasting for the month of Ramadan, Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Christians are breaking a fifteen-day fast for the Virgin Mary. This morning was a rare coincidence of lunar and solar calendars, of moon and sun passing in the almost light—the first pre-dawn meal prepared to get believers through a long August day of abstaining from food, the last candles lit for a vigil at the end of a fast. No meat, no milk, no oil, not even water. Hunger is God’s food, say the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: I pass the night with my Lord. And Mary is Theotokos, the “God-bearer,” in orthodox liturgies offered up to her this morning.

Muhammad and Mary are vessels of God’s word, according to Muslim and Christian theologies of the body. The Qur’an came down from Allah to the Prophet, via Gabriel, the same angel who made the famous annunciation to Mary, not long before the Word-made-flesh descended on her virgin womb. Bereft of the holy words and exemplary lives they bore, the dead bodies of Muhammad and Mary went up to heaven from Jerusalem.

Musn’t everything that rises converge? Surely the mother of Jesus and the prophet of Islam have crossed paths up there. Though they were assumed into heaven six centuries apart, they are resting eternal now, from the long, glorious way up from the foot of the Mount of Olives, after lives of carrying the holy freight of God.

Looking up from the steps leading down to Mary’s tomb at Gethsemane, you can see the sun blazing white on the copper-colored Dome of the Rock from which Gabriel took Muhammad up to heaven. The Prophet and the Virgin bodies rose just a few stone’s throws apart from each other, a crow’s flight from the garden where Jesus knelt down and prayed Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me, so anguished, according to the Gospel of Luke, that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” That ground is a grove of ancient olive trees—the silent witnesses, according to tradition, to the dark night of Jesus’ prayers. His disciples were asleep, “exhausted from sorrow” (Luke 22:45).

If only there were a gospel according to the olive trees at Gethsemane. Surely they witnessed Muhammad and Mary going up to heaven. And olive trees live long enough to tell the spectacular secrets of the afterlife—the miracles of rising bodies. But that would break the silence of the olive trees. Better to “accept what comes from silence,” as Wendell Berry reminds himself “How to Be a Poet:”

Make the best you can of it. Of the little words that come out of the silence, like prayers prayed back to the one who prays, make a poem that does not disturb the silence from which it came.

Let’s not disturb the silence from which Muhammad and Mary went up into heaven. Let’s observe quiet early mornings, when our stomachs are empty, our minds cloudy enough to raise our bereft heads, to look to the sky for the dead.

Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.