Looking to understand a faith that has been shaped and transformed by tradition, cultural baggage, and power struggle, journalist Carla Power takes the challenge of reading the Quran with a muslim scholar living in England. In their journey, they debunk myths and find historical context for some of the most controversial verses found in the holy book.
If The Oceans Were Ink
by Carla Power
Holt Paperbacks (2015)
Chances are that your Facebook or Twitter feed have been populated with videos about the crazy things muslims plan to do to overtake the world and subject it to sharia law. Chances are, also, that you have sometimes doubted the veracity of the information, but don’t have the time to fact-check it. To make matters worse, the news help feed the fear with their reports about the atrocities of Isis and the eminent risks of a terrorist attack. There are a few voices reassuring that not every muslim hates the west, and that extremists are not good representatives of the faith, but their efforts are silenced by the actions of a few. On top of that, there are still lots of myths about Islam and its beliefs. Do they want to establish sharia law wherever they go? Does the Quran mandate to kill all the infidels? Does it allow men to beat women? What about polygamy? Do they really believe that everyone other than muslims will go to hell?
Where to start looking for the truth?
In the last 15 years, hundreds of books about Islam have been published. A few have been written to confirm people’s fears, but most attempt to offer clarity about the muslim faith. There are also the brave souls that read the Quran on their own in an attempt to sort things out. Carla Power, an American journalist living in England, is one of those looking for the truth. Her first impressions of muslim societies were formed in Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran and India, where she lived as a child; as a seasoned journalist writing about muslim societies for magazines such as Time and Newsweek, she developed a wider understanding of the culture and the religion. However, the events that lead to 9-11 and the consequences of the attacks ignited the need to read firsthand the Quran, thought to be the source of all contention.
If The Oceans Were Ink is the memoir she wrote after studying the holy book with a muslim scholar for a year. Muhammad Akram Nadwi, a former colleague at Cambridge, accepted her proposal to study the book that 2 billion people consider holy, and that is also blamed for violent actions against western society.
Powers and the Sheik, her scholar friend, found in their monthly meetings at a coffee shop in Oxford the spirit and the historical context of polemic verses (suras) that excite both fear and rage.
They studied, for instance, the verse of the sword (9:5) that calls for “killing the idolaters wherever you find them.” While jihadists and islamic opponents find in it the argument for armed confrontation, the Sheik contends that it was written specifically for the people in the times of the prophet Muhammed. Where some read in it a call for imposing Islamic law, the scholar rejects any call for participation in politics or power struggle. Instead he finds an exhortation for personal piety and submission.
Another time, during a tense conversation at a coffee shop in Oxford, they discussed an infamous verse called “the women’s passage.” It states that men are superior to women, and that they can impose their authority even by force. Instead of contradicting the text (to the author’s surprise), the Sheik offers specific examples taken from the Prophet’s life on how to read, understand, and live this mandate. With relation to the women’s subject, Power narrates an unusual set of events that caused the scholar to change his mind on child marriage, a practice still common in some muslim societies. The book includes also a thorough explanation on the history behind the use of burkas, niqabs, hijabs, and veils.
With a detailed and entertaining narrative, Power included details about the lives of the Sheik’s family and other muslims in England. She visited the scholar’s hometown and madrasa in India, and even contemplated the idea of going for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Together they explored the power of culture and tradition in establishing rules and law in different muslim countries, and openly debated traditions such as child marriage and the concept of martyrdom. The account of this unique friendship between a pious muslim and an inquisitive secular is not only entertaining, but informative and revealing about the different shades and currents of Islamic thought.
The Dallas Morning News chose the memoir ‘If the Oceans Were Ink’ for its Summer Book Club. Carla Power participated in a Q&A in Dallas.
Biviana Marin McAfee has kept the habit of writing (just about anything) from her journalism days in Colombia. Like many other authors -published and not- she teaches during the day and indulges in reading, writing and talking about it the rest of the time. Some of her writings can be found at bivmar.blogspot.com