This article is extracted from my book The Historical Jesus: The Messiah in the Qur’an, the Bible, and Historical Sources.
I have discussed in detail elsewhere the story of Mary’s miraculous conception of Jesus in various traditions, as well as the arguments made against and in support of it. I have also explained The Qur’an’s Affirmation of Jesus’ Virginal Conception. I will review here quickly the virginal conception before I present the account of Jesus’ birth in the Qur’an. There are some similarities with the story in the New Testament, but the differences are much more. I will focus here on the Qur’anic account.
Mary, who had been living a particularly pious life, was one day visited by Gabriel, the Holy Spirit:
She put a veil between herself and them (her family). Then We sent to her Our spirit, and he assumed for her the likeness of a human being in all respects. (19.17)
This mysterious being must have appeared in the shape of a man, because Mary addressed him in the masculine. Seeing a man appear suddenly in her secluded place, Mary was scared:
She said: “I seek refuge in God from you, if you are dutiful [to God].” (19.18)
Gabriel reassured Mary that he was in fact a messenger from God:
He said: “I am only a messenger of your Lord, that I may bestow on you a pure son.” (19.19)
After receiving the amazing news and regaining her composure, Mary asked how she could bear a son when she was never married or involved in an illicit sexual relationship:
She said: “How can I have a son when no man has touched me, neither have I been unchaste?” (19.20)
Gabriel replied that this miracle was easy for God to do, and that it had already been ordained to happen, confirming that her conception was not going to involve a man:
He said: “Thus Your Lord has said: ‘It is easy for Me. And so that We may make of him a sign for people and a mercy from Us, and it is a matter that has been ordained.’” (19.21)
Having found herself with a miraculous pregnancy she could not explain to people, Mary chose to live alone and away from her family:
She conceived him and she withdrew with him to a far place. (19.22)
When she later was in labor in what looks like a public rather than private place and about to give birth to what people would consider an illicit child, Mary found herself in an extremely distressing situation. Her feeling of despair is reflected in her wish for a death that would leave no trace of her and make people forget about her:
And the pangs of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said: “I wish I had died before this and had become something totally forgotten!” (19.23)
Almost immediately after Mary gave birth, her newborn miraculously spoke to her. Moreover, the child already knew the psychological state of his mother, so he comforted her by asking her not to grieve and informing her that God has made a stream beneath her so she can drink and wash. Mary was not only in bad need for water, but she was also very hungry and exhausted and in need of energy, so her newborn went on to reveal to her that God has also made food available for her:
Then he called her from beneath her: “Do not grieve! Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you. (19.24) And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward you, and it will let fall fresh dates upon you. (19.25)
The fact that Jesus told his mother about the stream and the dates means that neither had been there before, otherwise Mary would have noticed them. This is also confirmed by the newborn’s description of the stream as something that God has placed beneath Mary: “Your Lord has placed a rivulet beneath you.” Mary was so weak having just delivered, so being able to shake the trunk of the palm tree must have also been a miracle.
Jesus then asked his mother to eat, drink, relax, and not worry about what would happen. He asked her to tell any human being she meets that she had vowed to God to abstain from speaking to any person. This fast was temporary, as indicated by the word “today,” and was intended to spare Mary the trouble of having to argue with her people, to whom she was going to go back with her child, and to instead leave her miraculous son to speak in her defence:
So eat, drink, and be consoled. If you meet any human being, say: ‘I have vowed a fast to God, so I will not speak today to any human being.’” (19.26)
The Qur’an then goes on to talk about what happened when Mary went back with her son to her people.
Typical of its style when recounting historical accounts, the Qur’an contains very limited information about Jesus’ birth. The reader who is interested in learning more about the Qur’an’s style in narrating history may like to consult my article on History in the Qur’an.