Historical Problems in the Quran


Mary, Sister of Aaron & Daughter of Amram

In several Suras the Qur'an confuses Mary the mother of Jesus [Miriam in Hebrew] with Miriam the sister of Aaron and Moses, and daughter of Amram which is about 1400 years off.

At length she brought (the babe) to her people, carrying him (in her arms), They said: "O Mary! Truly a strange thing has thou brought! "O sister of Aaron, thy father was not a man of evil, nor your mother a woman unchaste!"

-- Sura 19:27-28

And Mary, the daughter of `Imran, ...

-- Sura 66:12

I am aware what Muslims claim to be a solution to this problem. Yusuf Ali for example writes in his footnote 2481 commenting on the above verse: "Aaron the brother of Moses was the first in the line of Israelite priesthood. Mary and her cousin Elisabeth (mother of Yahya) came from a priestly family, and were therefore, 'sisters of Aaron' or daughter of `Imran (who was Aaron's father)."

This is faulty reasoning. Only Aaron became a Priest of the Lord and in fact the first High Priest. And only Aaron's descendents became priests. Neither Moses nor their sister Miriam are ever understood to be in "priestly lineage." Amram is definitely not a priest. If Mary's lineage of being part of a priestly family should be stressed then necessarily she would have to be called a daughter of Aaron, since all of Israel's priests are descendants of Aaron, while his brother and sister are not counted among the priestly line.

I do agree that "father", "daughter" and "sister" might be used sometimes rather losely and only indicate a "general family relationship." Therefore we have to carefully read in each mentioning to see what is meant. And the Qur'an makes clear that the narrow, physical meaning of daughter and (hence) sister is meant in this case as I will demonstrate below. Even if there were no concern about the issue of "priestly" but only such a wider family relationship was in view, why does the Qur'an not say "daughter of Aaron" who is her most famous forefather? Even though "sister" might be used in a wider meaning than a sister within the same immediate family, isn't it the use even in Islam that "brothers and sisters" live on roughly the same generational level (like cousins) while "father and daughter" signifies a generational difference between the two persons compared? Why are the wives of Muhammad not called the "sisters of the believers" but "the mothers of the believers"? [Today's believers! - Aisha certainly was not called the mother of 'Uthman, Umar, Abu Bakr and the other believers of Muhammad's life time.] For what reason call her sister of the famous Aaron (being 1400 years older than Mary) but daughter of `Imran (Bible: Amram) of whom we know nothing at all apart from the fact that his name is mentioned in the genealogical tables in Exodus 6 and 1 Chronicles 23? This is perfectly clear if the two Miriams were indeed confused. But the attempts of harmonization don't really sound very logical.

The above points are just some "minor questions". The big problem is that the Qur'an is explicitely not talking about wider clan relationships as we see in the following verse.

Behold! wife of `Imran said: "O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service ... When she was delivered, she said: "O my Lord! Behold! I am delivered of a female child!" ... "... I have named her Mary ..."

-- Sura 3:35-36

Muslims are usually very particular about whose wife a woman is and it is definitely not allowed that just anybody can have sex with a woman only because he is a "wider relative of hers." If Mary is the female child that came out of the womb of the wife of `Imran, then she is the direct daughter of `Imran and there is no question that the theory of "far descendency" is contradicted by the Qur'an itself.

Yusuf Ali in his footnote 375 to Sura 3:35 even goes so far to invent (?) a second `Imran by claiming that "by tradition Mary's mother was called Hannah ... and her father was called `Imran," in order to somehow save the Qur'an from this contradiction. But the same tradition that calls Mary's mother Hanna, also gives the name of her husband as Joachim. Why would Y. Ali accept one part of this tradition (e.g. in the Proto-Evangelion of James the Lesser) and reject the other? Yusuf Ali does not give any reference for this "tradition" he refers to. Until I see any reference to that, there is no reason to accept this theory. As to my current knowledge there is no such tradition that predates Muhammad. Some Muslim commentators might have made something up later to explain this very problem, but such a late theory / "tradition" is not very credible.

And a last question: Is there any other instance in the Qur'an where a person is consistently called daughter [son] or sister [brother] of people which are only wider relatives? Even if there was to be one name in the clan so overpowering that everybody is named in his or her relationship to that one person, it is doubly improbable that anybody would be named always after two distant relatives in the place of "father" and "brother", and never be mentioned in relationship to his or her real parents' or brothers' names. If this is the only instant then the Muslim explanation is even more strained since ad hoc explanations, i.e. explanations which serve no other purpose than to explain away this one problem but are not used anywhere else are not very credible. It does appear to be such an artificial reasoning in this case. And the fact that Aaron is indeed `Imran's son and this is a direct and correct genealogical relationship, also indicates that the rest is understood as daughter and sister in the normal everyday sense.

Thomas Patrick Hughes in his "Dictionary of Islam", page 328, writes on this issue that "it is certainly a cause of some perplexity to the commentators. Al-Baidawi says she was called `sister of Aaron' because she was of Levitical race; but Husain says that the Aaron mentioned in the verse is not the same person as the brother of Moses."

As always, conflicting explanations are evidence that there is indeed a problem and no one clear and satisfactory solution is available.

Note: Moses and Aaron are called "Musa ibn `Imran" and "Harun ibn `Imran" in the Hadiths, just the same way as Mary is called "Maryam ibnat `Imran" in Sura 66:12.