Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Sura 3:33 and Mary, the daughter of Imran

Luke Plant

This article is intended to give further arguments about what the Qur'an meant by describing Mary as the daughter of Imran or sister of Aaron. I have tried not to duplicate any of the arguments found elsewhere (1, 2), but I'm assuming basic understanding of that material.

From Sura 3 (Âl 'Imran), Yusuf Ali translation, we read:

33. Allah did choose Adam and Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of 'Imran above all people,- 34. Offspring, one of the other: And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. 35. Behold! a woman of 'Imran said: "O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things."

As the Sura continues, it becomes clear that the child in the womb of this ‘woman of Imran’ is Mary the mother of Jesus.

The first of these three verses provides further compelling evidence that the author of the Qur'an mistakenly thought that ‘Maryam’ the mother of Jesus was the same as ‘Maryam’ the sister of Moses and Aaron, the names being the same in Arabic. (I will use the terms ‘Mary’ and ‘Miriam’ to distinguish these two from now on, as per normal Western usage).

“A woman of 'Imran”

First, we need to clear up who is being spoken of here in 3:35. My Arabic is extremely limited at this point in time, but the Arabic phrase used here seems to be identical to that used in 12:30, 12:51, 28:9, 66:10 (twice) and 66:11, where Yusuf Ali translates it as “wife of” in every case. It appears to be the normal phrase for “wife of” in the Qur'an. (Someone with better knowledge of Arabic please correct me if this is wrong.)

As in Biblical Hebrew, the word for “wife” can also mean “woman”, and I presume it has been translated so here because of the difficulty around translating it “wife”. If the translation is “a woman of Imran”, it could potentially mean “a female descendant of Imran”.

A parallel to this is found in the Bible, where a descendent of Israel might be called “a man of Israel”.

However, this is an extremely unlikely translation in this case because:

  1. A phrase which normally means “wife of” would not be used to mean “descendent of” without some other clue to this meaning.

  2. Imran was not a famous person or the head of a family or tribe. He is virtually unknown in the Bible, and outside these verses he is only mentioned only one other time in the Qur'an (in 66:12, where Mary is described as “the daughter of Imran”). In fact, in the Biblical usage of “man of Israel”, it is only because “Israel” has become the name of a large nation or tribe that it can be used in this way.

    Also, in the Biblical parallel, it is men who are called “a man of Israel”, where there can be no confusion. While phrases like “a man of Israel” or, more rarely, “a man of Benjamin” are used (e.g. I Samuel 4:12), it seems the female equivalent is “daughter of”, and not “woman of”, which could easily be confused with “wife of” (e.g. “daughter of Levi” in Exodus 2:1). One can only assume that the same would hold in Arabic where the vocabulary is pretty much equivalent. (Again, better information from those with more knowledge is welcome.)

So, it seems virtually inconceivable that 3:35 is talking about a descendent of Imran—it must be talking about the literal wife of Imran. This is confirmed by the fact that he is only ever mentioned in connection with this relationship to Mary.

Moreover, if you want to argue that Mary was a distant descendent of Imran, and not a literal daughter, then you have problems, because all of the data indicates that she was of the tribe of Judah, and not of the tribe of Levi.

This leaves us with the father of Mary having the name ‘Imran’. If you have followed me to this point in my argument, you still have the option of believing that the Qur'an is saying that Mary's father was called Imran, and this is a different Imran to the father of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. But Sura 3:33 makes that extremely unlikely.

Another Imran?

Problem 1

Sura 3:33 lists the four individuals or households that God has chosen above all others. This serves as an introduction to the story of Mary, who was obviously extremely honoured by God. Imran is the father of Mary, hence the connection to the story.

But the first problem is this: Why does the Qur'an list Imran, and not Jesus himself? This alleged second Imran is an otherwise unknown character, both in the Qur'an and in the Bible. He was not a prophet himself, or worthy of any special recognition. Even Mary, though visited by an angel, was not a prophetess, and her only significance in the Qur'an is as Jesus' mother. The Qur'an is adamant that both Jesus and Mary were both mere mortals (5:75). And the Qur'an does not know of any brothers or sisters of Jesus, certainly none of any significance.

We can understand the phrase the “house of Abraham”, which obviously includes Isaac, (Ishmael1), Jacob and the twelve sons of Jacob, all of whom are extremely famous and span four generations starting with Abraham.

But the list in 3:33 does not mention the grandfather or father of Noah, so why should it mention the grandfather of Jesus? This is a very strong clue that we have misunderstood the meaning of the author if we understand the Qur'an to mean that Imran was simply the grandfather of Jesus.

Problem 2

And there is a second problem with this list: where is Moses?

We are told of the four great figures or families from time past whom God has chosen above all others, and it is unthinkable that Moses could be omitted:

  • He was the recipient of the Torah.
  • He is far more conspicuous than Adam, Noah and Abraham in the Qur'an. In fact, by my count his name is mentioned more times than Adam, Noah, Abraham and Imran put together, and far more times than Jesus and Mary. (Compare: Moses = 143, Abraham = 66, Noah = 47, Joseph = 28, Jesus/Christ/son of Mary = 33, Adam = 25, Aaron = 21, Jacob = 17, Isaac = 16, Isma'il = 12, Mary = 11, Imran = 3; counts for Mary excluded the title 'son of Mary'; counts for Jesus included things like 'Jesus Christ' or 'Jesus son of Mary' as one item.)
  • Various hadith make him to be greater than Mohammad e.g. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 9, Book 93, Number 564

How could Moses be omitted when Adam, Noah, Abraham and Jesus (via his grandfather) were all included? Given the huge importance of Moses in the Qur'an, it is extremely difficult to account for his absence from this list.

However, there is one simple solution to these problems: the author of the Qur'an believed that this Imran was the father of Moses and Aaron as well as the father of Mary the mother of Jesus. In that case it makes perfect sense, since Moses, Mary and Jesus are included in the one illustrious family.

The only alternative to this is to argue that Imran here is the father of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. This leaves the sudden jump to the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus in 3:35 extremely difficult to explain. Even if you believe that Mary was a descendent of this same Imran (which is contradicted by all the evidence), there is a gap of 1500 years, and Jesus is just as much a descendent of Adam, Noah and Abraham, so why is this otherwise unknown figure singled out as the link to Mary?

For me, while I try to be as fair as I can to the Qur'an, the other evidence regarding this problem is extremely convincing that the Qur'an has made a very human mistake here. This additional evidence from Sura 3:33 is simply confirmation.

Further reading

The Fatherhood of Imran: Part 1, Part 2



1 From a biblical perspective, Ishmael does not belong into this line of election and promise. The Qur'an is ambiguous since there is an evolution of understanding on this matter between the earlier and later passages. See Masud Masihiyyen's article, The Fatherhood of Imran, Part 2.