How Many Angels Did Speak to Mary?

Revisiting the Quranic Account of Jesus’ Birth In Light of one Muslim’s Response

Sam Shamoun

The website Load Islam has published a response to the contradiction in the Quran regarding how many angels appeared to Mary to announce the birth of Christ. Here, we will examine this response to see if the author has been able to reconcile the discrepancies.

After examining our claims and quoting the references the author, Ansar Al-'Adl, says:

Revisiting The Quranic Account

1.There is NO indication that these verses refer to the same event.

On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that these texts are referring to the same event. First, the story in Q. 3 and 19 appears at the same point in the overall narrative. In both Suras, the birth of Jesus follows right after the announcement of the birth of John to his father Zachariah (cf. Q. 3:37-41; 19:2-15).

Second, Mary gives basically the same response in both accounts, i.e. how could she have a son when no man has touched her, with the answer being essentially the same, e.g. it is easy for God to create since all he has to do is say be (cf. Q. 3:47; 19:20-21).

The author thinks he has an answer for this last point since he says:

An objection raised to this explanation is that Mary must be forgetful if she asks the same question having already recieved[sic] the answer. This is not necessarily the case. An event so surprising and unusual as this would easily explain her persistence in trying to understand how this is possible. Often people may be so bewildered by some news that they may repeat their inquiry in their surpirse[sic], and that is not unusual.

The author wants us to believe that Mary was so surprised by this unusual encounter that she had to repeat her question and objection on another separate occasion despite the fact that the author believes that Allah answered her the first time through his angel:

  1. After the angels depart, Mary pbuh expresses her surprise in her prayer to God. (verse 3:47). The verse makes it clear that she is no longer talking to the angels because she says, "My Lord.."
  2. An angel sent by God informs her that God is able to do all things (verse 3:47, "So (it will be) for Allh creates what He wills.")

This makes Mary look pretty bad since she is pictured as doubting the message twice for exactly the same reason with almost exactly the same words! Note carefully what the texts in question have her saying:

She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me." He said: "So (it will be) for Allah creates what He wills. When He has decreed something, He says to it only: "Be!" and it is. S. 3:47 Hilali-Khan

She said: "How can I have a son, when no man has touched me, nor am I unchaste?" He said: "So (it will be), your Lord said: 'That is easy for Me (Allah): And (We wish) to appoint him as a sign to mankind and a mercy from Us (Allah), and it is a matter (already) decreed, (by Allah).'" S. 19:20-21

What this basically indicates is that the author, in order to save the Quran from an error, basically has no problem impugning Mary by presenting her as an unbeliever since she failed to believe and trust God when he told her the first time that he was able to cause her to conceive a child. It is here that the author's harmonization really falls apart.

There are additional problems with the above claims which we will address shortly.

He continues:

If we examine the Qur'anic verses we can come up with an interpretation of the chronological order of events.

  1. The angels announced to Mary pbuh the glad tidings of Jesus pbuh without giving any further details. (verse 3:45)
  2. After the angels depart, Mary pbuh expresses her surprise in her prayer to God. (verse 3:47). The verse makes it clear that she is no longer talking to the angels because she says, "My Lord.."
  3. An angel sent by God informs her that God is able to do all things (verse 3:47, "So (it will be) for Allh creates what He wills.")

RESPONSE:

The author has indicated his awareness of the other problem raised by these texts, namely that Mary addressed an angel as her Lord! To explain this problem away the author must argue that Mary was no longer addressing the angels but Allah. Yet his own comments in c. soundly refute him since it shows that he is aware that the same person whom Mary addressed as her Lord in Q. 3:47 is the one who responds back to her. In order to help the readers understand the problem we will post the text:

She said: "O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man has touched me." He said: "So (it will be) for Allah creates what He wills. When He has decreed something, He says to it only: "Be!" and it is. Hilali-Khan

It is evident from the passage that the one who answered Mary is the very one she addressed as her Lord. Yet the one who responded to her is someone distinct from Allah since he explains to her what Allah is able to do. This means that it was one of the angels who was answering Mary and whom she called Lord!

Notice all of the assumptions that the author brings to the verse in order to avoid the obvious and plain meaning of the text:

The author has to read all these things into the text in order to avoid admitting that there are definite problems with the Quran’s version of the annunciation. As these assumptions weren’t bad enough the author makes some further assumptions:

  1. After a period of time, Angel Gabriel is sent by God, and appears personally before Mary to inform her of the birth of Jesus pbuh (verse 19:19).
  2. Here she asks the Angel directly (verse 19:20) how it is possible for her to have a child. And the Angel Gabriel replies as seen in verse 19:21.

The author has assumed, without any exegetical proof, that Gabriel appeared to Mary in Q. 19:17-21. Yet the text nowhere mentions Gabriel, but plainly says that Allah sent his Spirit:

And mention in the Book Mary when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place, and she took a veil apart from them; then We sent unto her Our Spirit (Ruhaana) that presented himself to her a man without fault. She said, 'I take refuge in the All-merciful from thee! If thou fearest God’ … He said, 'I am but a messenger come from thy Lord, to give thee a boy most pure. She said, 'How shall I have a son whom no mortal has touched, neither have I been unchaste?' He said, 'Even so thy Lord has said: "Easy is that for Me; and that We may appoint him a sign unto men and a mercy from Us; it is a thing decreed."' S. 19:16-21 Arberry

Given that the Quran mentions the name Gabriel:

Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel - for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by God's will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe, - Whoever is an enemy to God and His angels and apostles, to Gabriel and Michael, - Lo! God is an enemy to those who reject Faith. S. 2:97-98 Y. Ali

If you two repent to God, yet your hearts certainly inclined; but if you support one another against him, God is his Protector, and Gabriel, and the righteous among the believers; and, after that, the angels are his supporters S. 66:4 Arberry

We would have expected to find his name mentioned in Q. 19 if in fact the author of the Quran wanted the readers to know that he was the one who appeared to Mary.

Moreover, since the author believes that Allah’s Spirit is Gabriel then we expect that he will be consistent and apply this definition in other verses where the Spirit is mentioned such as in the following example:

When thy Lord said to the angels, 'See, I am creating a mortal of a clay. When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit in him, fall you down, bowing before him!' S. 38:71-72 Arberry

Allah breathed his Spirit into Adam, and did the same thing with Mary:

And Mary, daughter of 'Imran, whose body was chaste, therefor We breathed therein something of Our Spirit. And she put faith in the words of her Lord and His scriptures, and was of the obedient. S. 66:12 Pickthall

Applying the author’s hermeneutic to these texts would mean that Allah literally breathed Gabriel into Adam in order to animate him, as well as into Mary in order to (presumably) cause her to conceive her son!

What the author needs to do is to produce good evidence to show that Gabriel and the Spirit are one and the same entity, especially in the case of Q. 19:17. To quote the opinions of later exegetes will not be good enough as they were writing hundreds of years later from a prior theological position and commitment which they were all too willing to read back into the Quran. The author has to prove his case by presenting examples from the Qur'an itself; but, alas, there are no verses to prove this point. We have documented in other articles that the Spirit is not Gabriel according to the Quran, and to claim otherwise is to simply distort the message of the Muslim scripture:

http://answering-islam.org/Quran/Contra/gabriel_spirit.html
http://answering-islam.org/Shamoun/gabriel.htm
http://answering-islam.org/Responses/Abualrub/spirit.htm

The author continues:

The basis of this explanation is the usage of the words yubashiroke in Sura Al-Imran which means to give glad tidings of a coming event. On the other hand, the verse in Sura Maryam uses the words le ahaba lake which means to "present you with", implying that the event is to happen there.

First, the author’s argument doesn’t resolve the discrepancies but simply introduces some additional problems. If the author is indeed correct that there is a difference in meaning due to the use of different expressions then this is just one more contradiction between the narratives. One account has the angels announcing a future event, yet the other version of this same episode has God’s Spirit giving her a son right at that precise moment!

Moreover, these different words can be harmonized with one another on the basis that both expressions were uttered (supposedly) in regard to the birth of Jesus, which was both a present and future event. It was present in the sense that Mary’s pregnancy may have occurred precisely at this juncture. Yet it was still future because the birth of Christ would take place about nine months later. Thus, yubashiroke would refer to the future birth of Christ whereas le ahaba lake refers to his conception in Mary’s womb. But again, this only introduces an additional contradiction since in one version it is the angels that give the glad tidings whereas in the other account it is God’s Spirit who appears to announce Jesus’ birth.

Yet all of this is presupposing that the word yubashiroke necessarily refers to an upcoming event, which is not at all the case as even one Muslim writer noted in his response to this very same contradiction:

In Surah Aal Imraan, the angels (plural) have used the word "yubashiroke" i.e. God gives you the good news of giving birth to a boy child. We know that the words "glad tidings" or "good news" MAY OR MAY NOT relate to an immediate happening. Thus, Mary could have perceived the "good news" to relate to an event that would take place at some future date, after her marriage. On the other hand, in Surah Maryam, the Spirit uses the word: "le ahaba lake' " (to deliver you with; to present you with). These words, under the circumstances, imply that the referred gift was being presented at that particular instance, and this is what surprised Mary. (Moiz Amjad, How Many Angels Visited Mary?; source; bold and capital emphasis ours)

The author himself realizes yubashiroke doesn’t have to point to the future and is further aware that these words do not, in and of themselves, necessarily prove that two events are in view since he will say:

2. Another simple and logical explanation that can be offered is that the it is not uncommon for the action of a single member of an organization to be attributed to the whole organization. In a hockey match, we may say that so-and-so scored the final goal, or we could say that such-and-such a team scored the final goal. It would not be a contradiction. So when Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and he gave her the glad tidings of a son, the action may be attributed to the angels, whether they were present or not, visible or not. This interpretation is supported by verse 3:47, which says that Mary asked how it could be possible and he (Angel Gabriel) replied, and not they (angels).

The author’s explanation here contradicts his claim above. After all, if the difference between the words yubashiroke and le ahaba lake imply that these are two separate events then he cannot posit the argument that the angels in Q. 3:45 refers to Gabriel’s appearance to Mary in Q. 19:17. Either these are two separate occasions, which means that Gabriel’s actions cannot be attributed to the angels of Q. 3:45, or the author must admit that his argument regarding the difference in meaning between yubashiroke and le ahaba lake holds no weight. He must concede that these different expressions do not prove that these are separate visitations. The author cannot have his cake and eat it too, which is what he is trying to do.

Moreover, the author repeats his error of assuming that Gabriel appeared to Mary when neither version ever mentions him. In one account it is the Spirit who appeared to Mary, whereas the other version says that God sent the angels.

3. Another way to understand the verses is to examine a similar verse of the Qur'an:

41:30. In the case of those who say, "Our Lord is Allah., and, further, stand straight and steadfast, the angels descend on them (from time to time): "Fear ye not!" (they suggest), "Nor grieve! but receive the Glad Tidings of the Garden (of Bliss), the which ye were promised!

Here we are told that those who stand firm in Islam will have angels surrounding them and telling them not to fear. Obviously, this does not mean that the righteous people expect to hear these voices speaking to them, but rather it is the general feeling of peace and good inspired into the righteous person by these angels. The presence and words of the angels invoke a feeling of security.

Likewise, when we read the first passage about Mary, the angels speaking to her may just have been a general inspiration or notion that she would bear a child, and she continually wondered to Allah, as to how this was possible. And the answer given in 3:47 is Allah's answer inspired to her through the angels in the same fashion. Naturally, when the event was to occur and the Angel Gabriel physically appeared to her in the form of a man, she would voice this same concern to verify the inspiration she had been recieving[sic].

Each of these three explanations is sufficient to answer the allegation.

What the author assumes to be the obvious meaning isn’t as clear-cut as he thinks. The reference itself doesn’t make the qualification that the author seeks to impose upon it, i.e., it doesn’t say that the righteous people do not hear the angels audibly but simply receive a feeling of peace. The author has to erroneously assume all of this. If anything, this verse presupposes that all the righteous will see and hear from the angels at least once in their lifetime, something which most (if any) of the righteous never experience. This, thereby, provides another clear-cut example of an error since the Quran makes a promise that fails to happen!

Moreover, the author conveniently forgot to quote the immediate context:

As for Thamood, We guided them, but they preferred blindness above guidance, so the thunderbolt of the chastisement of humiliation seized them for that they were earning. And We delivered those who believed and were godfearing. Upon the day when God's enemies are mustered to the Fire, duly disposed, till when they are come to it, their hearing, their eyes and their skins bear witness against them concerning what they have been doing, and they will say to their skins, 'Why bore you witness against us?' They shall say, 'God gave us speech, as He gave everything speech. He created you the first time, and unto Him you shall be returned. Not so did you cover yourselves, that your hearing, your eyes and your skins should not bear witness against you; but you thought that God would never know much of the things that you were working. That then, the thought you thought about your Lord, has destroyed you, and therefore you find yourselves this morning among the losers.' Then if they persist, the Fire shall be a lodging for them; and if they ask amends yet no amends shall be made to them. We have allotted them comrades, and they have decked out fair to them that which is before them and behind them. So against them has been realized the Word concerning nations that passed away before them, men and jinn alike; surely they were losers. The unbelievers say, 'Do not give ear to this Koran, and talk idly about it; haply you will overcome. So We shall let the unbelievers taste a terrible chastisement, and shall recompense them with the worst of what they were working. That is the recompense of God's enemies -- the Fire, wherein they shall have the Abode of Eternity as a recompense, for that they denied Our signs. And the unbelievers shall say, 'Our Lord, show us those that led us astray, both jinn and men, and we shall set them underneath our feet, that they may be among the lower ones. Those who have said, 'Our Lord is God.' then have gone straight, upon them the angels descend, saying, 'Fear not, neither sorrow; rejoice in Paradise that you were promised. We are your friends in the present life and in the world to come; therein you shall have all that your souls desire, all that you call for, as hospitality from One All-forgiving, One All-compassionate.' S. 41:17-32 Arberry

Since the entire context deals with heaven and hell, rewards and punishment, one may gather from this that this either refers to the time of death, that when believers die the angels will be there to comfort them, or to the Day of Judgment. As the two Jalals noted:

Truly those who say, 'Our Lord is God!' and then remain upright, [adhering] to the affirmation of [God's] Oneness and to whatever else has been enjoined on them, the angels descend upon them, at the point of death, [saying to them], 'Do not fear, death and what will come after it, nor grieve, for any family or children that you have left behind, for we will look after them after you, and rejoice in the good tidings of the paradise which you were promised. (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Another commentary writes:

(Lo! those who say: Our Lord is Allah) they professed Allah’s divine Oneness, (and afterward are upright) in faith and do not revert to disbelief; it is also said this means: those who are upright in performing the five daily prayers and do not play tricks, (the angels descend upon them) when their spirits are taken away, (saying: Fear not) the chastisement which is ahead (nor grieve) about what you have left behind, (but bear good tidings of the Paradise which ye are promised) in the life of the world. (Tanwr al-Miqbs min Tafsr Ibn ‘Abbs; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)

Ibn Kathir quoted the opinions of some Muslims who said that this refers to the Day of Judgment, to the believers’ death, or to both:

<on them the angels will descend>. Mujahid, As-Suddi, Zayd bin Aslam and his Zayd's son said, "This means, at the time of death, …

((The angels say to the soul of the believer, "Come out, O good soul from the good body in which you used to dwell, come out to rest, and provision and a Lord Who is not angry.")) It was said that the angels will come down to them on the Day when they are brought out of their graves. Zayd bin Aslam said, "They will give him glad tidings when he dies, in his grave, and when he is resurrected." This was recorded by Ibn Abi Hatim, and this view reconciles all the opinions; it is a good view and it is true.

<We have been your friends in the life of this world and are (so) in the Hereafter.> means, the angels will say to the believers when death approaches: "We have been your friends, i.e., your close companions, in this world, protecting you and helping you by the command of Allah, and we will be with you in the Hereafter, keeping you from feeling lonely in your graves and when the Trumpet is blown; we will reassure you on the Day of Resurrection and will take you across the Sirat and bring you to the Gardens of delight." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged)(Surat Al-Ahzaab, Verse 51 to the end of Surat Ad-Dukhan), abridged by a group of scholars under the supervision of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh, Houston, New York, Lahore, First Edition: September 2000], Volume 8, pp. 539-540; bold and underline emphasis ours)

As it stands, this particular reference provides no support for the author’s assertion that Mary may have been given general inspiration. In fact, Mary no more felt the inspiration as opposed to seeing and hearing the angels, then did Zechariah who, in the very same chapter, also encountered the angels and was commanded not to speak for three days because he doubted the possibility that he and his wife could be given a son in light of their situation (cf. Q. 3:39-41).

We must conclude that none of the three explanations provided by the author sufficiently answer the problems and contradictions in the Quran’s retelling of Jesus’ birth.

Here, now, is a summation of the contradictions between these two versions as well as the data showing that the two Suras are narrating the same event:


Further reading

Contradictions in the Annunciation Accounts of the Quran is our response to Moiz Amjad's attempt of resolving the same contradiction.


Contradictions in the Qur'an
Answering Islam Home Page