[Originally published in Islam Online]
In their recent books entitled Mary: The Mother of Jesus and Mary: A Dogmatic Journey, two “Catholic” writers, the journalist Jacques Duquesne and the theologian Dominique Cerbelaud, display an overt disbelief in the virginity of Mary the mother of Jesus Christ. Mr. Duquesne argues that it is a belief that is “not compatible with science.” Mr. Cerbelaud asserts that the faith in the virgin birth came about “for reasons that spring from collective psychology.”
I believe both arguments to be inconsistent and based on a flawed understanding of science. Before explaining these, however, let me elaborate on why the virgin birth matters for me — since some non-Muslims might wonder why a Muslim cares about this controversy at all.
The Virgin Birth According to the Qur’an
As a Muslim, I am a passionate defender of the virgin birth of Christ, and all Muslims should be so. Why? Because this is one of the very important themes in the Qur’an.
The Qur’an tells a great deal about the birth, works, and miracles of Jesus (`Isa in Arabic). His story starts with the angels’ call to Mary (Maryam in Arabic) by which they declare the miracle of God — a son without a father. Mary is surprised:
She said, “My Lord! How can I have a son when no man has ever touched me?” He said, “It will be so. God creates whatever He wills. When He decides on something, He just says to it, ‘Be!’ and it is.” (Aal `Imran 3:47)
There are many passages in the Qur’an in which Mary is highly praised. We read that angels said to her, “Maryam, God has chosen you and purified you. He has chosen you over all other women” (Aal `Imran 3:42)
In another surah, An-Nisaa’ 4:156, those who propose “a monstrous slander against Maryam” are cursed. Actually, there is quite a long surah in the Muslim Scripture titled “Maryam” (Mary) in which the nobility of Mary and the virgin birth is told in detail. In another surah, we read,
“Maryam, the daughter of `Imran, who guarded her chastity — We breathed Our Spirit into her and she confirmed the Words of her Lord and His Book and was one of the devout.” (At-Tahrim 66:12)
These verses make clear that Mary — along with Jesus himself — is a sacred figure for all Muslims. Thus, any disrespect, insult, or attack on Mary or Jesus Christ is directed also toward Islam. We can add Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Job, and many other Old Testament figures to the list — they are all praised in the Qur’an.
I suspect this will be news to some non-Muslims. But what is stranger still is that it will be news to some Muslims, too. Unfortunately, we see a lack of passion in the Islamic world when it comes to the defense of prophets other than Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). He is, of course, the Prophet of Islam and very dear to us Muslims, but the Qur’an in Surat An-Nisaa’ 4:152, orders that Muslims should not “differentiate between any of [God' Messengers].”
We Muslims should rediscover that Qur’anic principle. We should also realize that defense of faith is not done by slandering or assaulting its critics in barbarity, but by refuting their arguments in civility. Let me now concentrate on the latter.
Are Miracles “Unscientific”?
I have said that the arguments put forward by Jacques Duquesne and Dominique Cerbelaud about the virgin birth are inconsistent. The reason is that the earliest sources that tell us about the virgin birth — the Gospels — are also the earliest sources from which we learn that a woman named Mary actually lived. Mary is the devout Jewish woman who gave birth to Jesus Christ without a biological father, according to the Gospels — and from a Muslim point of view, according to the Qur’an.
One can reject the Gospels, of course, but how can one then be rightfully called a Christian? If one proclaims to be a Christian — as Duquesne and Cerbelaud apparently do — then how can one question the virgin birth? British writer A. N. Wilson, in his book Jesus, which is “written with a profound skepticism about Christianity,” points out that, “there is no logical justification for dividing the infancy narratives of the New Testament from the rest.”
Not surprisingly, in fact, the doubts and denials about the virgin birth come not from any internal evidence in the Gospels — or any historical account, for that matter — but from an incredulity that derives from its supposed clash with “science.” This would seem most probably to be the real prime mover of Duquesne and Cerbelaud. The virgin birth is obviously a miracle, and they take it for granted that a belief in miracles is “unscientific.” In fact, this is a common trait among modern thinkers when faith in any miracle is expressed.
Yet, that is also exactly where they are wrong. In fact, science doesn’t tell us that miracles can’t happen. It only tells us that miracles don’t happen now. It shows that the natural world around us is operating within constant laws of physics and chemistry. Thanks to these laws, fire always burns, the dead never arise, and nobody walks on water. However, science can’t tell us that this was always the case in history nor that this necessarily will always be so in every instance in the future.
The belief that this was always the case in history does not come from “science,” but from a philosophy called naturalism. Naturalism holds that nature is all there is and there are no supernatural entities, such as God, to have influence over nature. This philosophic view is a belief, not a testable, observable fact. Therefore, when people object to the virgin birth or other miracles told in the Qur’an, they are doing so not because of science, but because of their faith in naturalism.
The Demise of Naturalism
However, there would seem to be some very bad news emerging for the naturalists. Science, which they used to see as their main instrument and ally, has turned against them in recent decades. The more we learn about the natural world, the more we come to realize that what might be legitimately termed “miracles” really happened in the past.
One big nail in the coffin of naturalism has been the Big Bang theory, which showed that the universe had a beginning. The discovery of a genesis of the natural world was a major blow to atheists such as Carl Sagan, who used to reiterate the naturalist dogma, “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” as if it were a scientific fact, in his TV series Cosmos, which was nothing more than atheist indoctrination.
A second big nail has been the Anthropic Principle, as scientists call it.
This means that virtually all the constants of the physical world, including the structure of our galaxy or the Solar System, are constructed in the best possible way to accommodate human life. This “fine-tuning” of the universe speaks for a supernatural design and intervention in the natural world — a more technical definition of what we call a “miracle.”
Yet a third big nail in naturalism’ coffin has been the discovery of greater and deeper complexities of life. These complexities refute the widespread myth that Darwinism is an adequate explanation of the origin and diversity of life on earth. That’ why the late Francis Crick, an atheist and co-discoverer of DNA, had to use the “M-word” when he declared, “the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.”
The more we learn about the natural world, the more naturalism looks incredible and miracles look factual. The most recent and spectacular testimony to this fact has been the conversion of arch-atheist Anthony Flew to theism. At age 81, after decades of fierce atheism, Anthony Flew has concluded, “some sort of intelligence or first cause must have created the universe.” He added, “A super-intelligence is the only good explanation for the origin of life and the complexity of nature.”
Christians, Be Christians!
In a world where dedicated atheists come to realize the existence of “a super-intelligence” that shaped the natural world, it is surprising to see “Christians” who deny that the “super-intelligence” in question has intervened in history.
Here, then, we have mainly a theological problem, but also a practical one. As a Muslim, I see Christianity as my ally in the effort to redeem this misguided world — misguided by many forms of materialism, hedonism, lust, and arrogance. But I want to see my allies firm in their faith. And, of course, many of them are. But for those who are not, may I point out what the Qur’an says about Christians:
“The people of the Gospel should judge by what God sent down in it. Those who do not judge by what God has sent down, such people are deviators.” (Al-Ma’idah 5:47)
The denial of the virgin birth and other miracles is such a deviation. We Muslims have to — and definitely will — stand against it.