It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for a while now: If The Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power. A Pulitzer Prize finalist and named one of the ‘10 Titles to Pick Up Now’ in O, the Oprah Magazine, it is a book for readers across the social spectrum as the nominations themselves suggest. The tagline says it is about ‘an unlikely friendship and a journey to the heart of the Quran’.
The friends in question are author Carla Power and Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi. They are equal partners on this journey: on the one hand there’s the author’s interest in the Islamic world thanks to having spent a large part of her growing years in Tehran, Kabul, Delhi and Cairo, and her work as a journalist; on the other is the Sheikh’s remarkable scholarship and insight that took him from studying in a madrasa in a small village in Uttar Pradesh to the prestigious Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow where he also taught, to researching and teaching in Oxford. The beating heart of Carla’s quest to understand the Islamic world, particularly after 9/11, is the Sheikh’s quiet and consistent insistence on seeking the answers in the Quran itself. But, he points out, it is so rich and can sometimes be so complex that we often end up going only to interpreters. This complexity is acknowledged in chapter 18: verse 109: ‘Say, even if the ocean were ink / For (writing) the words of my Lord / The oceans would be exhausted / Before the words of my Lord were exhausted / Even if we were to add another ocean to it.’
Providing a gist of what the book says is quite frankly beyond my ability. However, there are many relevant and shareable moments that can illuminate our understanding. For instance, when Carla confesses to the Sheikh at their first official meeting to embark on their study (at the Nosebag Café off Oxford’s main shopping street, by the way) that she’s never read the Quran, he responds with, “Most Muslims haven’t read it either. And even if they have, they don’t understand it.” Much of what is commonly believed to be Islamic is based on systems of law and philosophy devised by scholars who came after the Prophet and who developed an elaborate system of fiqh or jurisprudence, based on interpretations of the Quran. These only took them away from the source, the Sheikh tells Carla.
Living in the West does not prevent a person from being a good Muslim. “Is any government stopping you from being pious?”
Take the subject of women scholars. During the time that Carla and the Sheikh were engaged in studying the Quran, he had begun researching the female scholars of the hadith, the Prophet’s sayings, expecting to find about 30 or so names to pop up. Instead, he found some 8,000! This eventually led to his compiling a 40-volume biographical dictionary in Arabic of the muhaddithat as the female scholars of the hadith are called. Currently Dean of Cambridge Islamic College, the Sheikh speaks of Umm al-Darda, a seventh-century jurist from Damascus. “Akram found that as a young woman, she used to sit with male scholars in the mosques, discussing theology. ‘I’ve tried to worship Allah in every way,’ she wrote, ‘but I’ve never found a better one than sitting around debating other scholars.’ Carla goes on to add, “Akram’s research suggested she was very much her own woman. An orphan, she’d go to mosque without covering her head, and for a time she could be found praying in the men’s rows rather than the women’s. In her classes in Damascus and Jerusalem, she counted men, women, and even a caliph among her students.”
Indeed, “during the Prophet’s era, women prayed freely in mosques along with men, but in time, many cultures began restricting their presence. Over the centuries, the scholars’ consensus that women didn’t have to go to mosques to pray, if they couldn’t get away from home and the kids, morphed into a cultural norm that said they shouldn’t”. The Sheikh helps Carla understand the difference between a custom or cultural practice, and faith. The practice of wearing the skull cap, for instance, he points out is not an Islamic requirement, it’s a South Asian custom that’s caught on. If the wearing of hijab is banned, that’s fine because nobody can take away your faith, and that’s what matters.
He tells Carla, “Some people think women shouldn’t cut their hair short because that is what Western women do. They think I am a liberal. But really, I am just going back to the sunna of the Prophet.”
He bases his position on a hadith that reported that after the Prophet died, his wives all cut their hair short. In another, certainly more contentious instance, a parent called the Sheikh wanting to know what to do with their unmarried daughter who was pregnant. He told them to help and support her and not to judge her in this world because she had already sinned and would face consequences in the afterlife.
As Carla writes, “Akram’s tolerance came from a belief… in a God-centred universe, nobody has freedom, and nobody has the right to judge others. That is God’s job. The Quran is not merely a guide, but a means to broaden the mind.” The book records that when Akram first came to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies in 1991, its director asked for his opinion about what should be done about The Satanic Verses. Salman Rushdie’s novel had caused a furore and Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa calling for the novelist’s death. Akram’s response to the director was, “Ignore it.” He pointed out that “protesting would only hurt Muslims. The Satanic Verses firestorm didn’t injure God or the Prophet, neither of whom needed defending. But it did great damage to the world’s view of Islam.” Further, he pointed out, “Khomeini was not very liked in Muslim countries. This was just Khomeini trying to get back respect in the hearts of the Muslims.”
Over the centuries, the scholars’ consensus that women didn’t have to go to mosques to pray, if they couldn’t get away from home and the kids, morphed into a cultural norm that said they shouldn’t.
Akram’s response to a fragmented world, Carla discovers, is prayer and acceptance: “The conscious practice of patience and faith lent dignity, comfort, and meaning to lives spent far from home.” In Akram’s words, “For a long, long time, Muslims have been very concerned with the space. We think, ‘If I had a better space, it would be better.’ The Muslim reformers think, ‘If we had the caliphate, it would be better. If we get a Muslim state, it will be better.’ We think, ‘If we go to Saudi Arabia, it will be a better country.’ Go to Saudi Arabia… and you’ll see there’s no freedom.” He exhorts his students: “When you come to the space given to you by Allah, don’t complain. Learn how to use it. Think!” Besides, he says, living in the West does not prevent a person from being a good Muslim. “Is any government stopping you from being pious?” he asks.
At the end of the year of study with Akram Nadwi, what Carla realises is that the Quran is not “merely a set of pages between two covers”; “it is a place to which the faithful return, again and again”. The act of return — to the prayer mat, to the Quran, to the classical texts — often affords an expansion of the worldview, not a restriction. That’s how faith works across the board. And maybe that’s what we need today — faith.
The columnist is a children’s writer and senior journalist.