‘He said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’’
(Surah Maryam 19:30-33)
According to the Quranic account, these are the first words that beloved Jesus (as) spoke in this world, uttered miraculously from his cradle as a new born baby. With these words, our beloved Master began his mission of mercy, healing and redemption. As such, there is much we can learn by reflecting on these words a little more closely.
Firstly, some context is in order. The setting for these words is a gathering of Mary’s people, who express their surprise and consternation at the return of an unmarried woman with a child. ‘Mary! You have done something terrible’, they say (19:27), ‘Sister of Aaron! Your father was not an evil man: your mother was not unchaste!’ (19:28). Beloved Jesus then speaks, a miraculous event showing Mary’s innocence and his spiritual significance.
Jesus’ first words here are: ‘I am a servant of God’. In Arabic this is Abd Allah. To be a true servant of God is an exalted thing, which is why the Islamic tradition understands it as the most exalted rank that a human being can achieve. This is also why the Prophet (as) described the name Abdullah as beloved of God:
‘Name yourselves with the names of the Prophets. The names which Allah Almighty loves most are ‘Abdullah and ‘Abdu’r-Rahman. The most truthful names are Harith and Humam. The ugliest names are Harb and Murra’ (Imam Bukhari, Adab al-Mufrad no. 814)
We cannot truly serve God if we are insincere, or without turning our whole focus towards the Divine. Jesus’ sincerity is encoded into his very first words. Not only that, but it is a status bestowed upon him by Divine gift. If we wish to receive God’s grace, we too must strive for sincerity.
‘He has granted me the Scripture’. Our beloved Master was given a scripture, known in Arabic as the Injil (an Arabisation of evangel I believe), in which there is ‘guidance and light’ (5:46). Who among us has ever read the beatitudes without being deeply touched?
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you
and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,
for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you’.
‘Made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be’. Jesus was one of God’s mightiest messengers, sent to a world in desperate need of his teachings of compassion, mercy, kindness and love. And is our world today in any less need of such mercy?
Prayer and charity were ordained upon Jesus (as) by God. According to the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 6:1-13), when his disciples asked him how they should pray, his response again focused on the need for sincerity, and not praying to be seen by others:
‘“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’. (Matthew 6:5-6)
It is a prophet’s duty to teach his people how to pray, what words and actions to use, and how to focus themselves and gather their intentions. In Luke’s Gospel, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray ‘just as John taught his disciples’ (Luke 11:1). Jesus then taught his disciples the following, famous prayer:
‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done; on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.’ (Source).
Jesus’ instructions regarding charity similarly focus on sincerity:
‘“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you’. (Matthew 6:2-4)
The Quran says much the same thing:
‘Those who spend their wealth in God’s cause, and do not follow their spending with reminders of their benevolence or hurtful words, will have their rewards with their Lord: no fear for them, nor will they grieve’ (Quran 2:262).
‘To cherish my mother’. I find it beautifully profound that the Quran has Jesus (as) explicitly say that God has commanded him to cherish his mother. Among the very first words of this beloved Messenger of God was a statement of love and respect for his mother, and through her, for all women. We are told that paradise lies beneath the feet of our mother. I find it a beautiful point for the infant Jesus to make, especially in this day and age.
‘He did not make me domineering or graceless’. These words remind me strongly of the Quranic description of Muhammad (as). In Surah Al-i Imran, we read the following words:
‘By an act of mercy from God, you [Prophet] were gentle in your dealings with them – had you been harsh, or hard-hearted, they would have dispersed and left you – so pardon them and ask forgiveness for them. Consult with them about matters, then, when you have decided on a course of action, put your trust in God: God loves those who put their trust in Him’. (Quran 3:159)
Harshness turns people away, and it is definitely not a prophet’s task to turn people away from seeking God. Jesus is a merciful gift to humanity from God, just as beloved Muhammad (as) is. The Quran’s description of Muhammad (as) as a ‘mercy to all the worlds’ (21:107) is also an apt description of Jesus (as). They are both mercies to the world in themselves, and the traditions that have grown out of their respective teachings have lead many to God’s overflowing mercy.
‘Peace was on me the day I was born’. Although the date of Jesus’ birth was only fixed on 25th December several centuries later, I personally have no problem honouring the day. It is a maqam in time, a moment we can set aside to remember and honour our beloved master, teacher and prophet Jesus, upon whom be peace and blessings.