December 25, 2016
There is something about Mary. Or, in this
part of the world, Mariam, Miriam, Maryam or Maryoom – and they are just a few
of the English spellings. In the UAE, Maryam has traditionally been the second
most popular girl’s name; a close second to Fatima. The many creative ways of
spelling Maryam have been encouraged by social media, where everyone needs a
unique display name. Looking at the 2016 social media data for the Arab world –
using multiple spellings in English and Arabic – we can see that there are at
least 41,000 unique Maryams on Twitter alone; 1,600 from the UAE.
Behind the popularity, is the woman and the
myth. Mentioned in the English translation of the Bible as Mary, Maryam is also
the leading figure in an eponymous chapter of the Quran – she is also the only
woman mentioned by name in the Islamic holy book. In fact, Maryam is more
frequently mentioned in the Quran than the Bible.
Quantitative comparisons aside, Maryam/Mary
is venerated and celebrated the world over by followers of both Christianity
and Islam. Christian scholars have poetically referred to her as the "rose
without thorns", while within Islamic tradition Maryam is considered one
of the four greatest woman of humankind. Some Muslim scholars even
controversially suggest that Maryam was a prophet.
Within Christianity extreme adoration of
Maryam has been called into question, with the derogatory term Mariolatry
(Mary-worship) occasionally being thrown around. One example of this excessive
devotion was termed Collyridianism. Collyria is Latin for a thin cake of bread,
something the Collyridians are reported to have offered to Maryam within their
symbolic rituals. The details of Collyridianism are pretty sketchy, it is
suggested that the movement arose in pre-Islamic Arabia, comprised mostly women
and was declared heretical by the Roman Catholic Church based on the group’s
excessive Marian devotions.
Ancient heresy aside, Maryam still seems to
have a special power over the hearts and minds of millions. For instance, no
other Biblical figure is so frequently associated with miracles in the modern
world. Marian apparitions (seeing visions of the virgin Mary) have been
reported everywhere from Guadalupe in Mexico to Kibeho in Rwanda. No fewer than
seven popes have claimed to have had Marian apparitions.
In general, reports of supernatural and
mysterious phenomena seem to have taken a hit in recent years. For sure, UFO
sightings are at an all-time low and, just as camera-phones have become
ubiquitous, the Loch Ness monster seems to have become a recluse. Despite the
apparent downturn in paranormal activity, Marian apparitions are enjoying a boom.
Michael O'Neill, author of Exploring the Miraculous, runs a website cataloguing
and detailing every alleged Marian apparition over the past 2,000 years; the
count currently stands at 2,500 with 500 of these reported in the 20th century
alone. The most recent Marian apparition was reported in Atlanta, Georgia this
On a more mundane note, we looked at the
Zayed University registration database, examining student records going back
more than 15 years. The second most popular name among Zayed students when it
first opened its doors in 1998 was Maryam (Fatima was first). The second most
popular name 15 years later remained Maryam. Despite the UAE’s rapid social and
economic development, the veneration of Maryam remains the same.
Maryam, of course, is also celebrated for
the birth of her son, Isa/Jesus.
For many people, December 25 is the date
that now represents the anniversary of this auspicious birth. In the Quranic
version of this nativity we read: "And the pains of childbirth drove her
to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, ‘Oh, I wish I had died before this and
was in oblivion, forgotten.’ " (Sura Maryam, Verse 23).
For me, the appeal of Maryam is that she
represents the mother. Wise, caring and compassionate: rosa sine spina (a rose
without thorns). There will always be Maryams.
Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University