Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Imran's Fatherhood: Part I

Mary as “the daughter of Imran” in Surah 3:35 and 66:12

Masud Masihiyyen

In the Islamic scripture Jesus’ mother Mary (“Mariam” in Arabic) is identified as Aaron’s sister once (Surah 19:28) and Imran’s daughter twice (Surah 66:12 and Surah 3:35). When combined, these teachings astonishingly designate Jesus’ mother Mary in exactly the same way as the Old Testament prophetess Mary (Miriam in Hebrew), who is said to be Aaron’s sister in one verse (Exodus 15:20) and Amram’s daughter in a few verses (Numbers 26:59, 1 Chronicles 6:3). Unsurprisingly, Muslim scholars do their best to separate these two Mariams in order to stave off the polemics targeting the historical accuracy of the Qur'an.

In the process of isolating the Mary of the Old Testament from Jesus’ mother Mary, Muslim scholars mostly tend to interpret the word “sister” in the phrase “sister of Aaron” in Surah 19:28 metaphorically and talk of it in terms of racial or spiritual affiliation.1 However, both of these arguments fail to answer the simple question why the sense of the word “sister” must be taken metaphorically instead of literally. The particular context of the verses below does not make the literal sense of the word “sister” implausible or impossible:

Then she brought him to her own folk, carrying him. They said: O Mary! Thou hast come with an amazing thing. O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a wicked man nor was thy mother a harlot. (Surah 19:27-28 Pickthall)

Evidently, in Surah 19:28 Mary is designated as Aaron’s sister right before the reference to her BIOLOGICAL parents. This demonstrates that Mary’s folk made a connection between her relation to Aaron and her relation to her parents. Metaphorical parents? No! Biological parents! The same goes for her sisterhood. Ignoring the context of this verse, Muslim scholars struggle to construe Mary’s sisterhood symbolically and invent absurd theories that either go against logic through Mary’s designation as the sister of her forefather (!) or disregard the fact that of all the female figures of the Qur'an specifically and only Mary is identified as Aaron’s sister. Thus, it remains a mystery why particularly Mary is associated particularly with Aaron if the word “sister” expresses a spiritual or any kind of metaphorical resemblance between two people. At this point, a final attempt is made to affiliate Mary crucially with Aaron on the basis of Mary’s dedication to the service of the Temple, but this affiliation is not supported by the Qur'an, which by no means talks of the Levites nor draws a link between Aaron and the Jewish Temple.

Although Islamic scholars and commentators insist on interpreting the word “sister” as being metaphorical in Surah 19:28 with no good reason other than saving the Qur'an from the critique of a major historical blunder, they in general agree that it is impossible to construe Mary’s identification as the daughter of Imran in Surah 66:12 metaphorically, for the narrative of Mary’s nativity and infancy in Surah 3:35 presents Mary’s mother as Imran’s wife, excluding the possibility of Imran being Mary’s ancestor rather than her immediate father:

(Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said: My Lord! I have vowed unto Thee that which is in my belly as a consecrated (offering). Accept it from me. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Hearer, the Knower! (Pickthall)

(Remember) when the wife of 'Imran said: "O my Lord! I have vowed to You what (the child that) is in my womb to be dedicated for Your services (free from all worldly work; to serve Your Place of worship), so accept this, from me. Verily, You are the All-Hearer, the All-Knowing." (Hilali-Khan)

The wife of Amram said, "My Lord, I have dedicated (the baby) in my belly to You, totally, so accept from me. You are Hearer, Omniscient." (Khalifa)

When the wife of Imran said, 'Lord, I have vowed to Thee, in dedication, what is within my womb. Receive Thou this from me; Thou hearest, and knowest.' (Arberry)

When Imran’s wife said, 'Lord! I have vowed to Thee what is within my womb, to be dedicated unto Thee, receive it then from me. Verily, Thou dost hear and know.' (Palmer)

Remember when the wife of Imran said, "O my Lord! I vow to thee what is in my womb, for thy special service. Accept it from me, for thou Hearest, Knowest!" (Rodwell)

[Remember] when the wife of Imran said, Lord, verily I have vowed unto thee that which is in my womb, to be dedicated [to thy service]: Accept [it] therefore of me; for thou art he who heareth and knoweth. (Sale)

Ith qalati imraatu AAimrana rabbi innee nathartu laka ma fee batnee muharraran fataqabbal minnee innaka anta alssameeAAu alAAaleemu. (Arabic transliteration)

Quite interestingly, a few English translators replace “the wife” with “a woman” while translating the word “imraat” in Surah 3:35 into English. This replacement gives birth to the awkward phrase “a woman of Imran” and aims to challenge Mary’s direct affiliation with Imran. An objective reader coming across this phrase in Surah 3:35 may conclude that Mary’s mother was not Imran’s wife, but only a woman of Imran’s lineage in the sense that she descended from him. This controversial translation thus gains significance as it targets the literal interpretation of Imran’s fatherhood with regard to Mary by simply detaching Mary’s biological mother from a marital union with Imran.

Behold! a woman of 'Imran said: "O my Lord! I do dedicate unto Thee what is in my womb for Thy special service: So accept this of me: For Thou hearest and knowest all things." (Yusuf Ali)

When a woman of Imran said: My Lord! surely I vow to Thee what is in my womb, to be devoted (to Thy service); accept therefore from me, surely Thou art the Hearing, the Knowing. (Shakir)

Remember when a women of Imran said, ‘My Lord, I have vowed to Thee what is in my womb to be dedicated to Thy service. So do Thou accept it of me; Verily Thou alone art All-Hearing, All-Knowing.’ (Sher Ali)

The question that should be posed at this point of the discussion is whether this alternative translation is linguistically possible, having been allowed by the rules of Arabic language. The answer to this question is NO although the Arabic word “imraat” generically means “woman” and has to be translated as “a woman” in some cases, depending on grammatical construction in which the word is found. The reference to the queen of Sheba in the 27th Surah of the Qur'an (verse 23) exemplifies the use of the word “imraat” with the sense of “a woman”. In all the Qur'an translations below the Arabic word “imraat” in the original text is unanimously translated as “a woman” into English:

Lo! I found a woman ruling over them, and she hath been given (abundance) of all things, and hers is a mighty throne. (Pickthall)

"I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne. (Yusuf Ali)

"I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given all things that could be possessed by any ruler of the earth, and she has a great throne. (Hilali-Khan)

Surely I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given abundance and she has a mighty throne. (Shakir)

`I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given every necessary thing and she has a mighty throne. (Sher Ali)

"I found a woman ruling them, who is blessed with everything, and possesses a tremendous palace. (Khalifa)

I found a woman ruling over them, and she has been given of everything, and she possesses a mighty throne. (Arberry)

Verily, I found a woman ruling over them, and she was given all things, and she had a mighty throne. (Palmer)

I found a woman reigning over them, gifted with everything, and she hath a splendid throne. (Rodwell)

I found a woman to reign over them, who is provided with every thing [requisite for a prince], and hath a magnificent throne. (Sale)

Innee wajadtu imraatan tamlikuhum waootiyat min kulli shay-in walaha AAarshun AAatheemun (Arabic transliteration)

Now that we know “imraat” in Arabic sometimes means “a woman”, our next question must be which Arabic word corresponds to the word “wife” in English. While searching the Qur'an, we see that in many places where a man’s wife is in view, the word “zawja” is used. For instance, the accounts of genesis in the Qur'an define Eve as Adam’s “zawja”, which is the same word that recurs in the Islamic scripture whenever a reference is made to Muhammad’s wives. To compare:

We said: "O Adam! dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden.... (Surah 2:35 Yusuf Ali)Waqulna ya adamu oskun anta wazawjuka aljannata...

Then We said: "O Adam! Verily, this is an enemy to thee and thy wife... (Surah 20:117 Yusuf Ali) Faqulna ya adamu inna hatha AAaduwwun laka walizawjika...

Behold! thou didst say to one who had received the grace of God and thy favour: "Retain thou (In wedlock) thy wife, and fear God." (Surah 33:37 Yusuf Ali) Wa-ith taqoolu lillathee anAAama Allahu AAalayhi waanAAamta AAalayhi amsik AAalayka zawjaka waittaqi Allaha...

O Prophet! why do you forbid (yourself) that which Allah has made lawful for you; you seek to please your wives; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Surah 66:1 Shakir) Ya ayyuha alnnabiyyu lima tuharrimu ma ahalla Allahu laka tabtaghee mardata azwajika...

Still, our further search reveals that the Qur'an does not only use the word “zawja” to mean “wife”.2 Quite surprisingly, while referring to many unnamed female figures in relation to their husbands, the Qur'an always uses the word IMRAAT instead of zawja:

The Egyptian ruler’s (el-Aziz) wife: imraatu alAAazeezi (Surah 12:30 and 12:51)
Pharaoh’s wife: imraatu firAAawna (Surah 28:9 and 66:11)
Noah’s wife: imraata noohin (Surah 66:10)
Lot’s wife: imraata lootin (Surah 66:10)

The most interesting thing is that the scholars who oddly translate the phrase "imraatu AAimrana" in Surah 3:35 as “a woman of Imran” do not follow the same course while translating the five verses listed above. Instead of saying “a woman of El-Aziz”, “a woman of Pharaoh”, “a woman of Noah”, they confess and concede that the word "imraat" corresponds to the English word "wife" when used in possessive form before a proper male noun:

Surah 12:30 and 12:51 imraatu alAAazeezi :

The wife of the (great) 'Aziz and the 'Aziz's wife (Yusuf Ali)
The chief's wife (Shakir)
The wife of Aziz (Sher Ali)

Surah 28:9 and 66:11: imraatu firAAawna

The wife of Pharaoh (Yusuf Ali)
Firon’s wife and the wife of Firon (Shakir)
Pharaoh’s wife and the wife of Pharaoh (Sher Ali)

Surah 66:10 imraata noohin

the wife of Noah (Yusuf Ali)
the wife of Nuh (Shakir)
the wife of Noah (Sher Ali)

Surah 66:10: imraata lootin

the wife of Lut (Yusuf Ali)
the wife of Lut (Shakir)
the wife of Lot (Sher Ali)

Although exactly the same structure is used in Surah 3:35 (imraatu AAimrana),  we wonder why some translators (Yusuf Ali, Shakir, and Sher Ali) show aversion to the use of the English word "wife" when Mary’s biological mother is in view. Our analysis shows that the translations of these particular scholars lack consistency and cause doubts since their weird insistence on replacing the word "wife" with "a woman" only in Surah 3:35 points at their will to tamper with the Qur'an for the sake of avoiding a theological problem.

These translators do not also know that trying to obscure or conceal the true meaning of a Qur'an verse through inaccurate and misleading translation will be to no avail because even the alleged occurrence of the phrase “a woman of” in Surah 3:35 would not suffice to indicate Mary’s mother’s being a descendant of Imran. If the word "imraat" in that particular verse meant "a woman", it would be followed by the Arabic preposition "min", which signifies being part of a group/family/nation/race. More, the proper noun (Imran) would be followed by a word indicating race or nation. For example, the Qur'an talks of an unnamed man who was a believer despite his being an Egyptian. To express the man’s being a member of Pharaoh’s nation/people, the verse below locates the structure MIN ALI before the word Pharaoh:

A Believer, a man from among the people of Pharaoh, who had concealed his faith, said.... (Surah 40:28 Yusuf Ali) Waqala rajulun mu/minun min ali firAAawna yaktumu eemanahu....

If the Qur’an had actually pertained to Mary’s mother as a woman descending from Imran’s family, it would have used the same structure above and identified Mary’s mother as a woman (imraat) MIN ALI IMRAANA. However, the current form of the sentence in Surah 3:35 lacks both the preposition denoting source (MIN in Arabic) and the word “family/lineage” (ALI in Arabic).3 This is rather natural because the Qur’an talks of Mary’s mother as Imran’s woman, in the sense that she was Imran’s wife.

It should also be noted that Surah 3 first refers to Imran’s progeny (v. 33) and then relates Mary’s birth from Imran’s wife (v. 35), but this specific order does not suffice to validate the odd translation through which Imran’s wife is turned into a woman of his lineage. Imran’s identification as the father of a lineage/family in verse 33 does not mean that the woman who gave birth to Mary was a descendant of the same lineage. Although unusual, it is not unreasonable to talk of a man’s progeny in the first place and then explain how that progeny came into existence. Above all, the Quranic reference to Imran’s lineage in the same context as Mary’s birth in Surah 3 is the outcome of Muhammad’s faulty plagiarism from apocryphal Christian literature, which will be discussed in our second article on Imran’s fatherhood with regard to his presentation as an ancestor like and along with Abraham.

Finally, the second instance in the Qur’an where Mary is identified as Imran’s daughter is in Surah 66:12:

And Mary the daughter of 'Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of Our spirit; and she testified to the truth of the words of her Lord and of His Revelations, and was one of the devout (servants). (Yusuf Ali)

The theme and context of this chapter function as a key to the accurate interpretation of Imran’s fatherhood in the final verse. This is also related to the question how one can know with certainty that Muhammad regarded Imran as Mary’s biological father rather than an ancestor even if the verse referring to Mary’s mother as Imran’s wife in Surah 3 were missing from the Qur'an. Strikingly, an objective and careful reader of Surah 66 would conclude that Mary had been born of Imran’s wife even if the Qur'an did not talk of Mary’s mother in another instance. This conclusion is derived from the answer given to the question why Mary was identified as Imran’s daughter in Surah 66.

Although Muhammad did not talk about genealogies and ancestors in this short chapter, he felt the necessity to refer to Mary in association with Imran. Before examining the theme and context of Surah 66, we must remember that Muhammad did not refer to Imran in Surah 21 although he used a rather similar structure to the one in Surah 66:

And (remember) her who guarded her chastity: We breathed into her of Our Spirit, and We made her and her son a Sign for all peoples. (Surah 21:91 Yusuf Ali)

And Mary the daughter of 'Imran, who guarded her chastity; and We breathed into (her body) of Our spirit … (Surah 66:12 Yusuf Ali)

If we compare these two verses, we can first see that in both instances Mary is mentioned along with a male: her son in Surah 21 and her father in Surah 66. It was rather natural for Muhammad to talk of Mary’s chastity and her son’s miraculous conception in the same context as two related incidents since he endorsed the doctrine of Jesus’ birth from a virgin mother although he removed its Christian theological content. While devising Surah 66 at a later period, Muhammad replaced Jesus with Imran though. The reason for this replacement is understandable if we check the type of relation between the male and female figures occurring in chapter 66. The introductory verse gives the first signal that this Surah will contain divine commandments and judgments that will solve a big problem Muhammad had with some of his wives.

O Prophet! Why bannest thou that which Allah hath made lawful for thee, seeking to please thy wives? And Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Surah 66:1 Pickthall)

Thus, the central male character of Surah 66 is Muhammad whilst the central female characters are two of his wives, who incurred his wrath and hostility.

When the Prophet confided a fact unto one of his wives and when she afterward divulged it and Allah apprised him thereof, he made known (to her) part thereof and passed over part. And when he told it her she said: Who hath told thee? He said: The Knower, the Aware hath told me. (Surah 66:3 Pickthall)

Muhammad’s fury is instantly ascribed to Allah, who starts a heavy bombardment on those two women by threatening to turn them into divorcees. Allah supposedly says that those two women are dependent on Muhammad whereas Muhammad is not dependent on them since Allah’s omnipotence would provide new and better maids or widows for him:

If ye twain turn unto Allah repentant, (ye have cause to do so) for your hearts desired (the ban); and if ye aid one another against him (Muhammad) then lo! Allah, even He, is his Protecting Friend, and Gabriel and the righteous among the believers; and furthermore the angels are his helpers. It may happen that his Lord, if he divorce you, will give him in your stead wives better than you, submissive (to Allah), believing, pious, penitent, devout, inclined to fasting, widows and maids. (Surah 66:4-5 Pickthall)

We later discover in the same Surah that Muhammad needed some historical examples to prove his case and intimidate his wives. In verse 10 he refers to two prophets and presents their wives as examples for the tragic end of disbelievers:

God sets forth, for an example to the Unbelievers, the wife of Noah and the wife of Lut: they were (respectively) under two of our righteous servants, but they were false to their (husbands), and they profited nothing before God on their account, but were told: "Enter ye the Fire along with (others) that enter!" (Surah 66:10 Yusuf Ali)

The thematic link between this verse and Muhammad’s problem with some of his wives introduced in verse 1-5 is obvious and illustrates Muhammad’s wish to draw parallelism between two of his wives and the disobedient wives of the two former prophets. No matter what kind of theological implications this parallelism alludes to, it identifies the unnamed female characters in verse 10 as “wives”, affiliating them with male figures (Noah and Lot) on the basis of a marital union.

Two more men (Pharaoh and Imran) and two more women (Pharaoh’s wife and Mary) are referred to in the two final verses of Surah 66. Pharaoh’s wife is introduced as the first example of obedient and believing (married) women:

And God sets forth, as an example to those who believe the wife of Pharaoh: Behold she said: "O my Lord! Build for me, in nearness to Thee, a mansion in the Garden, and save me from Pharaoh and his doings, and save me from those that do wrong" (Surah 66:11 Yusuf Ali)

Like Pharaoh’s wife, Mary displays a sharp contrast with Noah and Lot’s wife in terms of faith and obedience. The interesting point is that of all the female characters referred to in Surah 66, only Mary is designated as a man’s daughter rather than as wife. This, of course, is a result of Muhammad’s wish to stress Mary’s virginity and include her into the category of the faithful virgins that his Allah would give him in case he divorced his naughty wives.4 Mary’s relation to her father, unlike the other female figures who are related to their husbands in Surah 66, indicates that Muhammad regarded Imran as Mary’s immediate father rather than her forefather. A married woman would naturally be affiliated with her husband instead of her father since marital union would form a new family for her, the head of which would be the husband. Unmarried women (virgins), on the other hand, would be linked to their biological fathers. Mary belonged to the latter group and was naturally mentioned along with her father.


Even though the Arabic word IMRAAT primarily means WOMAN in English, its particular use in possessive form with a male name corresponds to the English word WIFE. Since Mary’s mother is identified as Imran’s IMRAAT in Surah 3:35, it is impossible for Muslim scholars to deny the fact that the Qur'an regarded Jesus’ mother Mary literally as Imran’s daughter. The analysis of the context of Surah 66 makes it clearer that Muhammad never thought of a metaphorical or symbolic relation when he presented Mary as Imran’s daughter. Muslim commentators who think otherwise and try to support their interpretation with the help of their odd translation distort the Qur'an and disregard what their scripture actually teaches so that they can defend it against the charge of a major historical error.

Further reading

Continue with Imran's Fatherhood: Part II.



Zawja versus imraat

An Islamic article discussing the different words employed in the Qur’an with similar and related meanings provides further evidence that the word IMRAAT in Arabic does not only mean a woman, but also wife:

In the Qur’an we find, amongst others, two usages of the word “wife” in Arabic – zawjah and imraa. Although they seem completely synonymous at face value, there is one subtle difference that shows the extreme importance of word choice in the Qur’an. 

The aim of the author is to show that these two words in Arabic are not synonymous even though they both mean “wife”. The distinction is based on the notion of mutual compatibility. If both the spouses are perfectly compatible in regard to their characteristics in the sense that they are exact matches, the word “zawja” is used. If one of the spouses fails to fulfill this criterion, the word “zawja” is replaced with “imraat”. To our surprise, the article does not explain why the Qur’an has the word “imraat” instead of “zawja” in Surah 3:35 although nothing implicit or explicit is stated about Imran’s or his wife’s failing the criterion of compatibility.

Further, this linguistic analysis disregards the occurrence of another Arabic word for wife in the Islamic scripture. In a few verses the original language of the Qur’an employs the word “sahibat”, which is translated as spouse/consort/wife:

Wonderful Originator of the heavens and the earth! How could He have a son when He has no consort, and He (Himself) created everything, and He is the Knower of all things. (Surah 6:101 Shakir) (BadeeAAu alssamawati waal-ardi anna  yakoonu lahu waladun walam takun lahu sahibatun wakhalaqa kulla shay-in wahuwa bikulli shay-in AAaleemun)

And exalted is the Majesty of our Lord: He has taken neither a wife nor a son. (Surah 72:3 Yusuf Ali) Waannahu taAAala jaddu rabbina ma ittakhatha sahibatan wala waladan

 And his spouse and his son— (Surah 80:36 Shakir)  Wasahibatihi wabaneehi

Meaning of the word Zawja

It is noteworthy that the word ZAWJA, like the word IMRAAT, does not always correspond to the English word “wife”. This is because ZAWJA primarily means “pair” and signifies a wife only when it is used in association with a man and in a possessive form. For instance, it is impossible and unreasonable to interpret the Arabic word ZAWJA in the following verses as WIFE since these verses refer to two sexes or genders instead of particularly female spouses or mates:

Glory be to Him Who created pairs of all things, of what the earth grows, and of their kind and of what they do not know. (Surah 36:36 Shakir) Subhana allathee khalaqa al-azwaja kullaha mimma tunbitu al-ardu wamin anfusihim wamimma la  yaAAlamoona

In both of them are two pairs of every fruit. (Surah 55:52 Shakir) Feehima min kulli fakihatin zawjani.

Until when Our command came and water came forth from the valley, We said: Carry in it two of all things, a pair, and your own family-- except those against whom the word has already gone forth, and those who believe. And there believed not with him but a few. (Surah 11:40 Shakir) Hatta itha jaa amruna wafara alttannooru qulna ihmil feeha min kullin zawjayni ithnayni waahlaka illa man sabaqa AAalayhi alqawlu waman amana wama  amana maAAahu illa qaleelun

The use of the word “imraat” with a possessive pronoun:

As we have seen in the main section of our article, the word IMRAAT means wife instead of woman when used in possessive form before a proper male noun. The same rule is valid also for the cases where a proper noun is replaced with a pronoun in possessive form. For example, when the Qur'an refers to Abraham’s wife Sara – although it never names her –, it uses the word IMRAAT:

Then his wife came up in great grief, and she struck her face and said: An old barren woman! (Surah 51:29 Shakir) Faaqbalati imraatuhu fee sarratin fasakkat wajhaha  waqalat AAajoozun AAaqeemun.

And his wife was standing (by), so she laughed, then We gave her the good news of Ishaq and after Ishaq of (a son’s son) Yaqoub. (Surah 11:71 Shakir) Waimraatuhu qa-imatun fadahikat fabashsharnaha  bi-ishaqa wamin wara-i ishaqa yaAAqooba.

Islamic tradition depicting Mary as Muhammad’s virgin wife in paradise:

After I had written this paper, it was pointed out to me, that Muhammad apparently took the 11th and 12th verse of Surah 66 not only as hypothetical examples and illustrations (after all, being long dead, these women could not replace his wives on earth in case he were to divorce them), but he fell in love with the idea of equating Pharaoh’s wife with the widows and Jesus’ mother with the virgins  promised in Surah 66:5 and then claimed that Allah would actually marry him to these two exceptional women in the next life, in Paradise. This shocking claim is discussed in detail in Sam Shamoun’s article Mary the Mother of Jesus: A Houri in Paradise?



1 Ibn Kathir follows this strategy in his authoritative commentary on Surah 19 (*).

2 More information on the sense of the words “imraat” and “zawja” can be found in the appendix.

3 In the Qur'an another word used to express affiliation with a forefather is THURRIYYAT, which is translated into English as progeny/generation/descendant/seed (Surah 6:84, 6:87, 7:172). Surah 3:35 has neither the word ALI nor the word THURRIYYAT.

4 The specific hadith which states that Muhammad would get the wife of Pharaoh and Jesus' mother Mary as his wives in Paradise confirms the veracity of this interpretation. See the appendix.

Articles by Masud Masihiyyen
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