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A Journey to the Heart

Carla Power. If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Qur’an. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

If the Oceans Were Ink ended up on the Read Me shelf because it was an accessible book about Islam, in particular (or so it said) about the Qur’an. I could stand to learn a lot more about the Qur’an.

In the event, it’s less about the Qur’an than it is about the way the Qur’an and the Sunna of the Prophet are lived by a pious, dedicated Muslim scholar and interpreted for a friendly but confirmed outsider who is also a journalist with a gift for telling a warmly human story. Not the worst bait-and-switch, from my perspective.

Power’s text ostensibly records the results of her year-long “Qur’an lessons” with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Muslim scholar perhaps most famous for having authored a monumental, multi-volume work on classical women scholars in Islam. What this record reads like, however, is an album of fascinating portraits: the origins of the Qur’an in the story of Muhammad, the Sheikh’s home in the Indian village of Jamdahan, the Nadwat al-Ulama madrasa in Lucknow, the Sheikh and his family in England, the itikaf (special overnight prayer and study retreat) in Cambridge during Ramadan, and many more. Along the way, Power takes care to investigate some of the issues embedded in the theory and practice of Islam that raise the most sensational difficulties for “westerners.”

Cover If the Oceans Were Ink
If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power

One chapter, for instance, begins with a description of Aisha, the beloved and controversial wife of the Prophet, and leads through a discussion of the practical gender sorting that occurs in college classrooms to a discussion of the problems of child marriage, and that discussion’s surprising conclusion: the evolution of the Sheikh’s own legal understanding of the status of child marriage in Islam, as a consequence of dialogue with two of his [women] students.

He said, “I have been talking to Arzoo and Mehrunisha over the last few weeks about the issue of the marriage of minors … and I’ve revised my position.” Having heard their arguments against the practice, he had gone back to the sources, and had found an eighth-century judge and jurist, Ibn Shubruma, with a sound fatwa against the practice of child marriage. … The classical legal argument, bolstered by the modern examples of injustice that Arezoo and Mehrun had brought to his attention, changed his mind: ‘I’ve learned from these girls,’ he said. (154)

It’s beautiful illustration of real-life religion in action: that is, an illustration of religion as the practical relationships of human beings with God and one another, and of the relational processes by which tradition – continuity and change – operates in flesh-and-blood people’s religious lives.

Other chapters take up the practice of hijab, whether or not the Qur’an authorizes husbands’ exercise of physical violence towards wives, the Qur’an’s portrayal of Jesus, and the meaning of jihad – all deeply informed by Power’s conversations with Sheikh Nadwi.

But what strikes me as the most valuable feature of this book are exactly the things non-Muslims don’t usually ask about, because we seldom know enough to ask about them. How a pious Muslim integrates the sunna of the Prophet into his or her daily life. The importance of adab, which Power defines as “a humane and educated manner” and which the Prophet Muhammad called “two-thirds of religion” (29), and the role it plays in the lived experience of Islam. The centrality of taqwa, “love and awe of God,” as the guiding mission in a life well-lived no matter what circumstances (105), as illustrated by Yusuf’s love and awe of God in all his circumstances, whether as a slave in Egypt, as a prisoner jailed unjustly on a false charge, or as Pharaoh’s second-in-command.

Power’s conversations with the Sheikh become a vehicle for transmitting resonant values (“Yes, Christians would call that …”) and nuggets of practical wisdom with implications for any religious path. The most memorable of these for me was the Sheikh’s distinction between faith and identity:

Modern Muslims often simply cling to the external signs of their faith: ‘People are busy worrying about their beards, or their headscarves,’ he observed. ‘So the faith becomes like their identity. It happens like this in every culture, every faith. The outer aspects become more important, while the soul inside is forgotten.’ … Religion hasn’t come to give people an identity! Its purpose is not so you can say, ‘We belong to this group.’ (222)

I can’t help asking myself now about some of my habitual “Christian” behaviors “Is this about my identity? Or about serving God?”

Carla Power’s If the Oceans Were Ink was supposed to be a book about Islam. What a surprise, then, that it turned out to be one of the more profound books of “Christian inspiration” I’ve read in a long time.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

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