‘In the whole Qur’an, which has more than six thousand verses, there is only one woman mentioned by name. There is even a long chapter named after her. Even more, there is an even longer chapter named after her family. And yet that woman is not Aminah, the mother of the Prophet Muhammad; or Khadijah, his first wife; or Fatima, his daughter, as one could have expected to see. She is rather, Mary, the mother of Jesus.”
Mustafa Akoyl, a journalist from Turkey, writes this in his recent book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims. He made me think ecumenically, and I cast back to the late William F. Buckley Jr., a Catholic and the founder of the magazine I’ve worked at for 20 years. “What disturbs me most about the opposition to Mary is that it is so unchivalrous,” Buckley wrote. He pointed to her as “an exemplary woman,” as does Akoyl, a Muslim.
Akoyl, whom I got to know at religious-liberty conferences over the last decade, goes on to write: “Mary is not just named repeatedly in the Muslim scripture — some thirty-four times, compared to nineteen times in the New Testament. She is also exceptionally praised. ‘God has chosen you and purified you,’ angels tell Mary in the Qu’ran. ‘He has chosen you over all other women.’” He writes of how “Mary became highly respected in all Muslim cultures.” Her Arabic name, Maryam, “has been given to countless baby girls.” The shrines to Mary in the Middle East are visited “by not just Christians but also Muslims,” he says. “Among the Sufis, the mystics of Islam, Mary has enjoyed an even deeper adoration, as a perfect example of devotion to God.”
Reading that, I remembered my own visit to the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, in Turkey, some years ago. You’re immediately struck by the state security in a Muslim-majority country reverently guarding the holy place where Mary is believed to have moved with St. John the Beloved, the apostle Jesus asked to care for his mother after the Crucifixion.
This is all quite relevant to Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president of the United States. Particularly on the day when he met with Pope Francis.
The two talked for a half hour. The president ended their time together by assuring the pope that he would not forget what he told him. The president looked impressed, called it a great honor, and tweeted a commitment to peace. It clearly wasn’t just another stop in a historic international trip, his first as president. But it was neither he nor Pope Francis who ultimately stole the show.
After meeting the pope and viewing Michelangelo’s Last Judgment on a wall of the Sistine Chapel, Melania Trump visited a children’s hospital owned by the Vatican. It’s just up the hill from the pope — next door, as it happens, to the North American Pontifical College, where American seminarians in Rome, among others, live. And outside the hospital, the first lady of the United States stood before a statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’m not sure the last time there was such a humble picture of someone so representative of worldly power. Dressed in black, she stood before the ivory representation of that woman so full of grace.
‘What disturbs me most about the opposition to Mary is that it is so unchivalrous,’ William F. Buckley Jr. wrote. He pointed to her as ‘an exemplary woman,’ as does Mustafa Akoyl, a Muslim.
It was a remarkable scene. Especially when you consider . . . everything. The anger in our country today. That Mrs. Trump, a former fashion model, exquisite in outward beauty, was paying silent respect to this linchpin of salvation history, if Christianity is believed. It was striking also in contrasts — inasmuch as Mary is a model of purity, and the Trump name has been known for the types of headlines that keep tabloids in business. And yet, Mary is all motherly love, pondering so much in her heart after her initial “yes” to God, assenting to become the mother of His incarnation, as the Scripture has it. She is a model for all during trying, overwhelming times.
It was only on this trip that it was asked and confirmed that Mrs. Trump is Catholic and that she will soon be the first Catholic living in the White House since the Kennedys. She, of course, is not living there, because she is caring for her son in New York, rather than yanking him from school mid-session to move to Washington. Presumably that is a sacrifice their family is making. In the middle of power and the opulence of Trump Tower and the lifestyle they are accustomed to, there’s a window into the kind of decisions all families are faced with on other levels.
But the reason for noting that the image was powerful is not to canonize Melania Trump or cast the Trumps as icons of the Holy Family. (Though if Donald Trump were to have angels appearing to him in dreams and keeping him from tweeting, the media might discover respite.) It is, however, to see some tremendous opportunity.
Only the week before, the security detail around Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan roughed up protesters in an assault on individuals’ rights of free speech and free assembly, hallmarks of life in the United States. The next day I listened to NPR analyze all the different ways president have referred to terrorism in the wake of 9/11 — so used to it have we become, the Manchester slaughter seemed to be treated as just another line in an unholy litany of death. (Trump’s new term for the perpetrators: “evil losers.”)
We can use all kind of words, but when do we meet with some commitment to love? Maybe when we find humility and a woman who will help us see the good life and the beauty of obedience to a loving God. She is anything but an “evil loser.” She is a refuge for us mere mortals tripping over the evils often of our own making. Whatever you think of the Trumps, the first lady gave us an image that can have an exemplary impact on our lives and and guide us as we look for a way out of our current miseries and uncertainties, looking to a guardian of peace and grace and life and love. Akoyl begins his chapter on “Mary and Her Baby” — that is, a Jewish woman whom Christians treasure as the Mother of God — by quoting from the Muslim holy book: “Remember the one who guarded her chastity. We breathed into her from Our Spirit and made her and her son a sign for all people” (21:31). May she be.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.