I anticipated reading this sura since I thought it would be another chapter similar to Joseph. You know, a narration of people and events familiar to me already from my reading of the gospels. It was pretty interesting to read the Quranic version first of Zachariah and his longing for a son and later of Mary as she was told she would have a child though unmarried! The sura ended with mention of other Bible characters - Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Ishmael and others.
So Zachariah first.
Immediately in the sura we see him asking God for a son, a successor and heir to himself and the house of Jacob (vs. 6). We see God agreeing to this and promising Zachariah a son, however, as similar to the biblical account Zachariah questions how this can happen. I suppose he wanted his prayer to be answered, but forgot the example from his own Scriptures of how God gave the elderly parents, Abraham and Sarah, a child in their old age. Zachariah has the same lack of faith as often we do perhaps. God rightly declares He can accomplish whatever He chooses -- advanced age is no match for the Creator.
I liked the fact that the naming of John was pointed out in the Quran's version as this was also a point in the Bible. John was not a family name and it seemed to be custom to name your child - especially a firstborn son - after someone in the family. However Zachariah insisted the child would be named John as the Lord instructed.
John meaning "God is gracious" was one of only a few people God named in the Bible. Others include Ishmael ("God will hear"), Isaac ("laughter") and Jesus ("Yahweh is salvation"). Can you think of someone else named by God whom I missed?
In the Quran, Zachariah asked for a sign that this miracle birth would happen and the angel said for three days Zachariah would be unable to speak. This differs a bit from the Bible's version which reads in Luke 1:
18Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."
19The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."
The Quran has these nice words to say about John. I am curious, though about the Book John is supposed to hold onto. Did John get a Book revealed to him, too?
12. (We said:) "O John, hold fast to the Book;" and We gave him wisdom right from boyhood, 13. And compassion from Us, and goodness. So he was devout, 14. And kind to his parents, neither arrogant nor disobedient. 15. So peace on him the day he was born, the day he will die, and the day that he will be raised from the dead.
And here is what the angel Gabriel said to Zachariah about the son God would give them. Notice the powerful position of John.
13But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1)
Even after John was in prison and sent his disciples to question Jesus whether or not Jesus were the promised one to come, Jesus sent words of assurance for John with John's disciples. (Oh wow, can you follow that?! :-O) As they were leaving Jesus said this as recorded in Matthew 11,
11I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
When John was born the Bible records a song of praise from his father. Notice especially verses 76 through 79.
67His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68"Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come and has redeemed his people.
69He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
72to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace."
So as you can gather, John's birth was celebrated and he was the forerunner of the Christ as foretold by the prophet Isaiah (40:3).
3 A voice of one calling:
"In the desert prepare
the way for the LORD ;
make straight in the wilderness
a highway for our God."
The story of Mary was kind of interesting though the details were quite different from the Bible's version. The Quran reports her leaving town for a far place after having conceived. It seems she was alone. And then when she goes into labor, she finds herself birthing Jesus under a tree and almost wishing she could die rather than birth this special baby whom God foretold (Q 19:27) and conceived supernaturally!
Mary's curious words:
23. The birth pangs led her to the trunk of a date-palm tree. "Would that I had died before this," she said, "and become a thing forgotten, unremembered."
Well, I hear that women sometimes say crazy stuff while laboring so maybe that's all it was. :)
So she had Jesus and later returned to her people who were astonished that she had a child! They say something about Mary having a brother named Aaron, but biblically it was Miriam from the Old Testament who had a brother Aaron and both Miriam and Aaron were siblings of the famous Moses. But maybe Jesus' mom had a brother Aaron that we never heard of before. Mary is accused of fornication, but Jesus comes to her defense.
The remainder of this sura dealt with remembrances of former prophets, thoughts of Paradise, words about casting people into hell and adamant statements about God not having a son.