Christians, Muslims, and Mary: A History

by Rita George Tvrtkovic

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



This book particularly interested me as Mary has been such an important figure in my Christian life. It also interested me as I’ve taught many very prayerful Muslim women who prayed frequently during the day. I’ve also experienced the Catholic girls out in the courtyard that have prayed in front of the statue of Mary. This book examines the complicated history behind Nostra Aetate’s affirmation of Mary. The author’s goal is not to be exhaustive but rather to sketch out the basic contours of a broad historical trajectory that has vacillated between two opposite ideas: Mary as interfaith bridge, and Mary as interfaith barrier. As the book moves through the years, we will examine in detail a select number of key historical moments. Each of the eight chapters will highlight pivotal texts, artworks, theologians, events, or shrines that have brought Christians, Muslims and Mary together in significant ways. The fundamental questions driving Tvrtkovic’s inquiry are as follows:


  1. First, given the variant details about Mary found in Islamic and Christian texts, in what sense can Muslims and Christians say they “share” Mary at all? (And should they?)

  2. Second, when and by whom has she been seen as a bridge, when and by whom has she been seen as a barrier, and “why” I would like to suggest that Christian views of Mary vis-a-vis Islam are in constant flux, depending on her polemical or irenic usefulness at a particular time and place.

  3. Third, how has the shared figure of Mary, as seen by believers at different times and places, influenced the development of a Christian theology of Islam (and to a lesser extent, a Muslim theology of Christianity), as well as popular practice?

  4. Fourth, how does knowledge of this history of Mary (full of fragmented, nuanced or revisionist), along with new ideas about her, affect Christian Muslims relations today?

This book begins with scriptural accounts of Mary from the Bible, Qur’an, and Christian Apocrypha: the stories are paced side by side for easy comparison. Chapter 1 also introduces some caveats when considering the possibility of a “shared” Mary. Chapter 2 covers the rise of Marian doctrine and devotion in early Eastern Christianity. Chapter 3 present traditional Muslims views of Marian doctrine and devotion: while all respect here as the virgin mother of Jesus, they disagree about her spiritual status and the proper ways Muslims should approach her. Chapter 4 spotlights the unusual positive view two medieval Latins, William of Tripoli and Nicholas of Cusa, had about qur’anic Mariology. Chapter 5 describes Mary’s emerging identity as “Our Lady of Victory” in the sixteenth-century fight against Turks and Protestants, while chapter 6 discusses the long history of Christians who imagined Mary as a tool for mission among Muslims –a history that stretches from medieval Spain to early modern India to modern Northern Africa. The last two chapters move into contemporary period. Chapter 7 centers on mid-twentieth-century changes in the Catholic theology of Islam that culminated in the 1965 Vatican II Council document Nostra Aetate. Chapter 8 concludes the book by returning to the four questions above, and then considering the problems and opportunities that arise when considering Mary as a model for dialogue—especially as she relates to feminism, ecumenism, and violence. What is Mary’s role (or lack thereof) in Christian-Muslim relations today? What should it be going forward? The author writes as a scholar and this invites us into the story in a very scholarly fashion. It is well documented. Take time to read this historical picture of Christians, Muslims and Mary.