If the Oceans were Ink

No Comments | October 2018

In Conversation with Carla Power – Author of ‘If the Oceans were Ink’ sits down to speak to The Review of Religions.

Carla Power exudes a radiant vibrancy personifying a fusion of East and West. When we meet in the café of the National Library on the Southbank in London, she appears in a rich maroon dress splashed with paisleys finished with a bottle green cape and a pair of traditional Indian earrings. I am not surprised. In her seminal work If the Oceans Were Ink – a book espousing an external observer’s viewpoint on the verities of the Qur’an and one she wrote having spent a year studying with an Islamic law scholar based in Oxford – Power speaks of how she inherited ‘an immersive interest in the Islamic world’ from her father. The family was posted frequently in the Middle East through her father’s occupation as a law professor and friends referred to her parental home in St. Louis as ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ for its formidable collection of exotic artefacts from across the Middle East and Asia.

Carla Power

To be sure, Power emulates perfectly the hospitality and generosity often found in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. I have yet to come across a journalist who is so generous and giving of their time. Our meeting is solely a consequence of her continued patience and willingness to make herself available – notwithstanding her frequent travels and other commitments she has still very kindly agreed to see me on an afternoon she is otherwise spending with family in London away from her home in Brighton.

Power is a former correspondent for Newsweek where she produced award-winning stories focusing on Muslim communities and reported from Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She currently writes for Time while her book If the Oceans Were Ink has been long listed for the National Book Award and was the Pulitzer Prize finalist for general non-fiction in 2016. With her childhood infused with memories of archaic lamps, quaint marketplaces and intricate calligraphy, and her adult life dotted with stories of Muslim communities she had spent years reporting on, Power felt a palpable urge to delve deeper into the scripture wherefrom spring its 1.6 billion followers worldwide. She decided that before she could continue to comment, understand and investigate Muslim lives, she needed to educate herself on their principal source of inspiration – the Qur’an. Her book was the result. And while it explores everything from the Verse of the Sword to Maryra, it was her chapters on women that I wanted to probe her on.

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As we settled down to a coffee on that brisk December afternoon, a bustling Southbank sketched the background against which Power sat, her back towards the café’s tall windows. I thought to start in the most ‘traditional’ of places and referred  her to page 138 of her book where she writes:

When I asked her to define what in her view was a ‘traditional woman’ she looked immediately concerned and prompted me for the context in which I had asked. I pointed her to the relevant passage in the book and added that she had placed the word in inverted commas. I sensed relief as Power responded, ‘Oh okay, that makes me feel better. We should say that I put that in quotes as it gives it a completely different cast.’

Her initial perplexity over having potentially generalised the notion of ‘traditional’ is delineated well by the answer she provides: ‘The prevailing – and highly politicised, I would add – notion of what makes a traditional Muslim woman, it depends on who you ask I would say. It’s like beauty is in the eyes of the beholder…the notion of a traditional Muslim woman has been, shall we say, recreated by all sorts of patriarchies and all sorts of political agendas and it serves all sorts of purposes.’

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This last sentence is bold and refreshing, a break from the mundane rhetoric of stereotyping and pigeonholing Muslim women found too often among Western thinkers, journalists and writers. Power continued by narrating an incident she speaks about in her book as well – the time around the run-up to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq where saving Muslim women was a ‘leitmotif’ – the thinking that we had to ‘free these women from their burqas.’ She describes remembering a scene when a storm of photographers gathered to capture the moment the women of Kabul were to lift their burqas and said it made for a ‘dramatic picture.’ Yet, she is quick to point out the irony ‘of course now…around 15 years later, they’re [Afghan women] still in many ways forced to live traditional lives in part because of the chaos.’ Her answer also serves as an adequate precursor to my next question that refers to a passage in her book on Aishara on page 139, where Power writes:

Reading about Aisha – how she’d fret over the Prophet staying out too long in the sun, or how she’d recite scores of poetry verses from memory – I was exultant. So much of Aisha’s life closed the gap between Islamic traditions of womanhood and my own feminist sensibilities.’

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The gap Power speaks of – one between Islamic traditions of womanhood and a Western woman’s feminist sensibilities – lies at the heart of the debate between Islamic feminism and Western feminism. The substantive elements of the debate having been exhausted in mainstream discourse, I am intrigued to learn Power’s views on how she thinks this gap actually came to be. Personally, I tell her that the gap was created, broadly speaking, by a gradual deterioration of Islamic legal tradition into something antithetical to its source with Muslim-majority countries leading that charge and partly by misplaced views on the Islamic faith being entrenched by the mainstream media. I wondered if she agreed with this?

‘I think that’s a sound analysis,’ she begins. ‘I think everything from the moment Napoleon steps on shore in Egypt in 1798 and gathers the imams around and lectures them and says, “we are the true Muslims, you can learn from us,” you’ve got a colonial situation; where in intellectual and practical ways you were not having the best and the brightest go to madrasa. If you were a thrusting young man in 19th-century India, say, you would want to go to British school. You know, because that way lies the ICS [the Indian Civil Service], that way lies success…Or that you were encouraged to relegate Islamic learning to this “Western learning”, much of which, of course, ironically derives from the texts that were translated in 12th and 13th-century Baghdad. The sadness with which I see this kind of brittle and shrill and insecure Islamic tradition being trumpeted by extremists on both sides, and what’s left is flexible, thoughtful people who are like the sheikh I was lucky enough to have a friendship and a scholarship with. You know that that kind of quietist tradition just is not seen.’

Watch out for next month’s edition, in which we continue our conversation with Carla Power to talk about her year studying the Holy Qur’an.

An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran – Carla Power (2015)

Carla Power’s exploration of Islam, entitled If the Oceans were Ink, references verse 110 from chapter 18 of the Holy Qur’an: ‘Say, “If every ocean became ink for the words of my Lord, surely, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even though We brought the like thereof as further help.”’

If the Oceans were Ink was written as Power attempts to really understand those words of Allah which have been preserved in the Holy Qur’an. Having grown up with itinerant parents who would spend semesters teaching in predominately Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Egypt, Power grew up comfortable in and familiar with Muslims in general. And in her career as a journalist, she found herself reporting on ‘mosque design and yuppie Muslims, headscarves and punk bands, Islamic hedge funds and halal energy drinks,’ along with the required foray into bin Laden and the Taliban, extremism and atrocities.

And yet: ‘Never, in my seventeen years of writing magazine stories on the Islamic world, had an editor asked me to write about, or even cite, the Quran, and how Muslims understand it.’

In order to remedy this lack of knowledge, Power reaches out to an old friend – Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a graduate from a well-known madrasa in Lucknow, India, by the name of Nadwat al-Ulama. The two met in the early 90s at Oxford’s Centre for Islamic Studies, where they worked on a research project which explored how Islam had spread throughout South Asia.

Power explains how essential it is that the Qur’an be understood by both Muslims and non-Muslims:

‘Since Muslims consider it the word of God, a Quran not only offers comfort and inspiration as a text, but commands reverence as an object. This power has also led to the text’s politicization. Waved before a crowd, it can inspire revolutions and wars. Burned or besmirched, it triggers diplomatic incidents and deaths. Quoted or misquoted, it’s been used to justify mercy, and mass murder’.

In the year that follows, Power attends weekly sessions with Nadwi, discussing all of the topics that those in the West might struggle with – veiling, jihad, polygamy, and homosexuality – while also going deeper into issues such as prayer, Hajj and umra (a pilgrimage to Makkah, similar to Hajj, but which is optional and can be undertaken at any time of the year) .

But Power doesn’t just discuss these issues with Nadwi himself. Rather, the book is full of fascinating conversations she has with his daughters – bred in the UK, intelligent and accomplished in their own right – about wearing the niqab (the Islamic face veil which only allows a slit for the eyes to show) and women’s education. She interviews two of the advanced female students from his classes, who challenge the Sheikh – successfully – on his stance on child marriage. And she makes the long journey to India, to Jamdahan, the village where the Sheikh grew up, to experience first-hand the complicated interplay between Islam and local cultures.

And as Power delves deep into Qur’anic scripture, she learns that Islam defies neat attempts of characterisation, that one can be both deeply religious and fully progressive, with a progressivism arising from a strict fundamentalism.

Take the first example: Nadwi, having studied the Qur’an over and over again, realizes that his aunts have been cheated out of their inheritance, because the village custom was to not allow women to inherit land from their fathers. He goes back to his father and uncle, explains the Islamic teaching on inheritance, and restores to the women their birthright. This comes about not from a new progressivism, but an approach that reflects the fundamentals of Islam.

Similarly, Nadwi, closely reading the Hadith (oral traditions of the Holy Prophetsa), realises that many have been transmitted by women. Researching further, he finds not just 20-30 female Islamic scholars, but over 8000, upending narratives from both within Islam and without about women’s place in Islamic scholarship, and leading him to pen a 40-volume – and as yet unpublished – magnum opus on these overlooked yet important women.

In addition, Sheikh Akram Nadwi emphasises to Power over and over again the central importance of taqwa (translated by Power as love and awe of God). Power writes, quoting the Sheikh, ‘When people come far away from the purity of the religion, the outer aspects of the religion become identity’ and again and again, she comes back to the spiritual aspects of the religion.

Indeed, several chapters deal with the relationship between Islam and political power. Indeed, Power’s study of the Holy Qur’an was partly motivated by trying to understand  (mis)interpretations of jihad. She quotes the Sheikh: ‘People think they can use Islam to fight for land or honour or respect or money. But these are not religious people.’  And they discuss the current quest for an Islamic state; as the Sheikh points out, secular governments allow Muslims to practice and worship as they please, so why do they yearn for a politically Islamic state?

This moderation can also be seen when they discuss the issue of the insults levied against the Holy Prophetsa. The Sheikh believes that Muslims should not issue fatwas or burn books in protest against those who defame the character of the Holy Prophetsa. Instead they should pray and invite them to the true teachings of Islam.

With Nadwi as her guide, Power takes the reader on an expansive journey. Her own open-mindedness, curiosity and flexibility of mind and her willingness to question not only the Sheikh’s worldview but her own, engages the reader and brings fresh insights to both Muslim and non-Muslim readers alike.


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