From the time of the apparitions of the Blessed Mother at Fatima, Portugal, many have wondered about the possible significance of Our Lady choosing a location with such an apparent connection to Islam.
As a matter of historical importance, Fatima, the favorite daughter of Muhammad, was a woman considered of the highest dignity in Islam, save for only one person: the Virgin Mary. Indeed, after Fatima's death at around the age of 26, her father wrote to his dead daughter: “Thou shalt be the most blessed of women in Paradise after Mary.”
Is there a relationship between the appearance of Our Lady and the Muslim world? Surely, it was not a random choice by the Blessed Mother, and so how should we approach the possible message it sends to the world at this historical moment?
It is a surprise to many that Islam traditionally has thought so highly of the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is called by Muslims Miriam or Maryam in Arabic, and also Umm Isa, or “Mary, the mother of Jesus,” or simply, Sayyida, the Lady.
Mary is the only woman named in the Quran, and she is revered as a righteous woman in her own right and as the most pious, chaste and virtuous woman in history. The Quran affirms the virgin birth, but it also makes clear in its belief that her son was not divine. The 19th sura (chapter) of the Quran is both named after her and provides what it says are many details about her life, although scholars have long noted that much in the 19th sura bears a striking resemblance to the Gospel of Luke. She is also one of only eight people in the Muslim holy book to have a sura named after them.
The expression, “Jesus son of Mary” appears 13 times in the Quran, while “Jesus, the Messiah, son of Mary,” is found three times. There are also 45 other times in the text that there is a reference to Mary’s name.
There is a natural assumption that the village of Fatima was named directly after the daughter of Muhammad. In truth, its origins are a bit more complicated and romantic than that.
In the middle of the eighth century, Muslim armies from North Africa conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and established what became known as the Moorish Kingdoms. Gradually, Christian states were formed to resist the Moors, leading to what became known as the Reconquista, the centuries-long campaign to end Islamic domination in the peninsula. The Reconquista extended to what became Portugal, as well.
According to the early 17th-century Portuguese chronicler and Cistercian Bernardo de Brito, during the fighting in 1158, a knight by the name of Gonçalo Hermigues and his fellow warriors captured a Muslim princess named Fatima, daughter of the last Muslim ruler in the region. She had been named in honor of the daughter of Muhammad. Fatima and Gonçalo fell in love, and the two were married.
But first, Fatima was baptized into the Christian faith and changed her name to Oureana. As a wedding gift from her husband, she was given a nearby town that she called Ourem in recognition of her new name. She did not live long after the marriage, sadly, and to honor her memory further, her husband changed the name of another nearby village to Fatima.
It was in the very village named after a convert from Islam — a convert initially named after Muhammad’s daughter — that the Blessed Mother chose to appear to the three shepherd children May 13, 1917. What does it mean? What is Our Lady trying to teach us? Is she telling us that, just as she shows us the way to her Son, the path ahead in evangelization and overcoming the savagery of jihadism might also pass through her loving heart?
Venerable Fulton Sheen thought so.
In his 1952 book, The World’s First Love, he devoted a chapter to Mary and the Muslims. He prophetically observed, “At the present time, the hatred of the Moslem countries against the West is becoming a hatred against Christianity itself. Although the statesmen have not yet taken it into account, there is still grave danger that the temporal power of Islam may return and, with it, the menace that it may shake off a West which has ceased to be Christian and affirm itself as a great anti-Christian world power.”
Archbishop Sheen, however, did not despair. Instead, he looked to Fatima and to Mary. “Since nothing ever happens out of heaven except with a finesse of all details,” he wrote, “I believe that the Blessed Virgin chose to be known as ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ as a pledge and a sign of hope to the Moslem people, and as an assurance that they, who show her so much respect, will one day accept her Divine Son, too.”
“Missionaries in the future will, more and more, see that their apostolate among the Moslems will be successful in the measure that they preach Our Lady of Fatima. Mary is the advent of Christ, bringing Christ to the people before Christ himself is born. In any apologetic endeavor, it is always best to start with that which people already accept. Because the Moslems have a devotion to Mary, our missionaries should be satisfied merely to expand and to develop that devotion, with the full realization that Our Blessed Lady will carry the Moslems the rest of the way to her Divine Son. She is forever a ‘traitor,’ in the sense that she will not accept any devotion for herself, but will always bring anyone who is devoted to her to her Divine Son. As those who lose devotion to her lose belief in the divinity of Christ, so those who intensify devotion to her gradually acquire that belief. … The Moslems should be prepared to acknowledge that, if Fatima must give way in honor to the Blessed Mother, it is because she is different from all the other mothers of the world and that without Christ she would be nothing.”
We seek bridges to Islam. Mary is a way. Pope Francis said it very well at the Rosary and vigil for the centenary of Fatima on the evening of May 12.
“No other creature ever basked in the light of God’s face as did Mary; she, in turn, gave a human face to the Son of the eternal Father,” the Holy Father said.
Our task is to help others see her clearly, and in so doing see Christ for who he truly is.
Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor and a senior contributor to EWTN News.