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If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

by Carla Power

Paperback(First Edition)

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PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • Named A Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Denver Post Praised by Fareed Zakaria as “intelligent, compassionate, and revealing,” a powerful journey to help bridge one of the greatest divides shaping our world today.

If the Oceans Were Ink
is Carla Power's eye-opening story of how she and her longtime friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi found a way to confront ugly stereotypes and persistent misperceptions that were cleaving their communities. Their friendship-between a secular American and a madrasa-trained sheikh-had always seemed unlikely, but now they were frustrated and bewildered by the battles being fought in their names. Both knew that a close look at the Quran would reveal a faith that preached peace and not mass murder; respect for women and not oppression. And so they embarked on a yearlong journey through the controversial text.

A journalist who grew up in the Midwest and the Middle East, Power offers her unique vantage point on the Quran's most provocative verses as she debates with Akram at cafes, family gatherings, and packed lecture halls, conversations filled with both good humor and powerful insights. Their story takes them to madrasas in India and pilgrimage sites in Mecca, as they encounter politicians and jihadis, feminist activists and conservative scholars. Armed with a new understanding of each other's worldviews, Power and Akram offer eye-opening perspectives, destroy long-held myths, and reveal startling connections between worlds that have seemed hopelessly divided for far too long.

Praise for If the Oceans Were Ink

“A vibrant tale of a friendship.... If the Oceans Were Ink is a welcome and nuanced look at Islam [and] goes a long way toward combating the dehumanizing stereotypes of Muslims that are all too common…. If the Oceans Were Ink should be mandatory reading for the 52 percent of Americans who admit to not knowing enough about Muslims.”—The Washington Post

“Journalist Power writes about her year studying the Quran with a Muslim scholar she befriended while working at a think tank in London. For some, this will be a strong introduction to Islam. To others, it's fodder for discussion on the Sheikh's views, how Westerners (such as Power) interpret those views and the interplay of culture and religion.” The Denver Post

“For all those who wonder what Islam says about war and peace, men and women, Jews and gentiles, this is the book to read. It is a conversation among well-meaning friends—intelligent, compassionate, and revealing—the kind that needs to be taking place around the world.”—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World

“Carla Power’s intimate portrait of the Quran, told with nuance and great elegance, captures the extraordinary, living debate over the Muslim holy book’s very essence. A spirited, compelling read.”—Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad

“An inspiring story of two [people] from different worlds who refuse to let religious and cultural differences, prejudice, and ignorance get in the way of their friendship, If the Oceans Were Ink is as thought-provoking as it is elegantly written. It takes a difficult, highly charged topic and puts it into terms that are not only understandable and eye-opening, but beautiful.”—Bustle (11 Beautifully Written Memoirs by Women)

“Unique, masterful, and deeply engaging. Carla Power takes the reader on an extraordinary journey in interfaith understanding as she debates and discovers the Quran’s message, meaning, and values on peace and violence, gender and veiling, religious pluralism and tolerance.”—John L. Esposito, University Professor and Professor of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, and author of The Future of Islam

“A thoughtful, provocative, intelligent book.”—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds Of Paradise and The Language of Baklava

With a journalist’s mind for the story, a born traveler’s heart for the adventure of crossing borders, and a seeker’s yen for the poetry and mysticism of belief, Power creates an exceptional record of a timeless quest.”—Merritt Tierce, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and author of Love Me Back

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805098198
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 556,238
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Carla Power
writes for TIME and was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times Magazine, and Foreign Policy. Her work has been recognized with an Overseas Press Club award, a Women in Media Award, and the National Women's Political Caucus's EMMA Award. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford, as well as degrees from Yale and Columbia.

Read an Excerpt

If the Oceans Were Ink

An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

By Carla Power

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2015 Carla Power
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9824-2


The Quran in Twenty-Five Words

A few days before my lesson on the Quran's first sura, I went to a Sunday lunch party in North London. At the table, I met a man—I'll call him Hans—with crisp graying hair, brushed apple-green tweeds, and a languid Continental accent. Born in Vienna and educated at Cambridge, Hans had pronounced on subjects from primary school pedagogy to F. Scott Fitzgerald's prose before he'd even finished the first glass of Prosecco. After he told me about the book he'd published, on a literary journal in wartime Paris, he learned I was a journalist and asked what I was writing about. When I told him, he looked as though he'd just swallowed the backbone of his sea bream.

"The Quran," he spluttered. "But, why?"

An awkward pause. On hearing this daring dismissiveness from so refined a man, I felt as flummoxed as he seemed. A year or so earlier, a British Muslim politician had charged that Islamophobia "passed the dinner-party test" and was now, disgracefully enough, an acceptable form of discrimination in polite society. I'd hoped she'd been exaggerating, since I hadn't come across it in my tiny, tolerant circle until now. I swallowed my fish and ran through the reasons. They seemed so self-evident that I restrained myself from reciting them in the singsong tones I use to chide my children to brush up to the gum line: A lifelong personal interest in Islamic societies. A worldwide population of 1.6 billion Muslims and counting, a number that was ever-growing, Islam being the planet's fastest-growing faith. Post-9/11 wars. A crucial new issue in European parliaments and American elections. The text's power, its poetry. I felt vaguely silly as I rattled off the list. Until a minute ago, I'd assumed that the sort of person who rereads Tender Is the Night and writes on twentieth-century intellectual history would deem reading the Quran a worthy pursuit. I finished my monologue, triumphantly forked some kale into my mouth, swallowed, and parried. "Why? What do you think about Islam?"

"They're living in the medieval ages," Hans said breezily. "They need to get up to speed with the rest of the world."

I'd heard this dozens of times before—from London taxi drivers, on Midwestern talk radio, and even from cultivated types like Hans. Had it not been for the din of kids bickering over whether to watch Peter Pan or Snow White, perhaps I would have retorted that fundamentalists can't be dismissed as medieval. That they don't exist outside modernity but are very much a part of it, with their use of technology, their sophisticated global networking, and their keen sensitivity to media cycles. Had I not been on my second Prosecco, and conscious of other guests waiting for us to tie up the strands of our conversation, I might have told Hans what various scholars have posited: that the anti-Western, antisecular rhetoric of Muslim fundamentalists is a response to the fraying social fabric in fast-changing, increasingly polarized societies. That for new migrants to big cities or foreign countries, the mosque provides shelter from loneliness. That for people unmoored from home or family, a prescriptive faith provides an anchor. I didn't launch those arguments, deciding that they were a shade heavy for a Sunday afternoon, what with our hosts taking advantage of the rare winter sunshine and opening the sliding doors onto their deck. I took an easier tack. "Well, of course, you're probably just going by what you read in the papers," I nodded. "Believe me, I know, as a journalist: Who makes the best stories, who gives the best quotes? The extremists, the crazies. So who do we tend to hear from? The people who shout the loudest."

"But where are the moderates?" he asked. "Why aren't they speaking up?"

"Well, they're there—they just don't make the headlines," I answered. "Quietism doesn't make for news. Sometimes they're writing op-eds, or working with interfaith groups or NGOs. But you're not going to hear about them, since they're not blowing things up or blowing off steam."

"But are there any Muslim moderates, really?" he asked. "I mean, real moderates?"

"Of course there are!" I said. "You've got millions and millions of Muslims who view their faith in much the same way that most Christians or Jews or Buddhists do—as a private matter. And if you're looking for Muslims trying to square their faith with universal human rights, you've got mini reformation movements going on: women and gays and minorities going back to the Quran and reading it for themselves, not letting the local mullah tell them what to think. You've got lots of scholars, and lots of ordinary Muslims, trying to take back their religion from the radicals who've styled themselves as leaders without any training in Islamic law or tradition. There are Sufis, reacting against the strictness of the mullahs ..."

"But what about Saudi Arabia?" he pursued, pushing his chair back from the table with the air of a wrestler limbering up before a match. "What about the Taliban? What they do to women ... In Saudi Arabia, women can't drive. Under the Taliban, they couldn't go anywhere without covering up ..." The other guests, sensing a low hum of tension, began to gather their plates and ferry them to the sink.

"They aren't practicing Islam," I replied, perhaps a tad too smugly. "That's local or tribal custom made into national law. Yes, those laws and restrictions are terrible, but they're not Islamic. All you have to do to find out that it's got universal values—ones very much like yours and mine—is go back to the sources."

Our hosts had returned to the table bearing chocolate cake, so we came to an uneasy truce in the interests of gluttony and good cheer. Together we stepped, a bit shakily, onto the safer conversational turf of the dangers of Iranian nukes and the virtues of Neapolitan pizzas. I knew I hadn't swayed him, but I had complete confidence that the sources, as read by Akram, would reveal a just and humane faith. I left the party troubled by Hans's prejudice, but charged with righteousness, and braced by my own certainty.

* * *

I carried this clean, bright feeling to Oxford with me a few days later, where it only grew on seeing Akram again. As we walked up the steep stairs to the Nosebag, he talked about how he'd spent the day before in Leicester, meeting with women and Muslim community leaders to talk about allowing women to pray in mosques. 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. In many parts of the Muslim world, women stopped going to the mosque—or were prevented from doing so.

Pointing to Islamic history, Akram challenged this. "The women were so happy, really," he said, allowing himself a nanosecond of quiet triumph. "Not everyone was convinced, but it was a start." Since news of his work on women scholars began to spread, Akram had been called out on scores of such diplomatic missions. The man who began his career as an expert on hadith has become a celebrated defender of Muslim women's rights within a traditional Islamic framework.

In Leicester, he'd told the mosque authorities about his work assembling the names of historical women who didn't just pray in mosques, but debated and lectured in them, teaching male students as well as female ones. I hoped that he also told them, as he had me, of the tenth-century Baghdad-born jurist who roved around on lecture tours, teaching women in Syria and Egypt; and of Umm al-Darda, a prominent 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."

That quote alone made me want to adopt Umm al-Darda as an unofficial patron saint for this project: I loved the image of her sitting in the mosque with men, secure in her knowledge that debate was a holy thing. 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—a Muslim leader—among her students.

* * *

When we reached the café cashier, there was a gentle tussle over who would buy the tea. The bored blonde behind the register watched our friendly match of "allow mes" and "no, reallys" and "next time, it's mines." As elaborate as calligraphy, as old as our acquaintance, the ritual was particularly reassuring today, after my jarring conversation on Sunday. Hans's knowledge of Islam was shaped by the news of fundamentalists and extremists. Their certainty and anger came from a brittle interpretation of Islam, not from adab—the suppler, subtler concept of a humane and educated manner. The Prophet Muhammad once declared that adab nearly "equals two-thirds of religion." The Sheikh's own adab went beyond graciousness. I suspect it also had something to do with the quiet of certainty. He enjoyed the profound peace of a man who observed his duty as a Muslim: being a "slave of God." Over the course of the year, I would watch, not a little envious, as I saw how this enslavement brought him considerable calm.

Reverence for the Quran doesn't always confer calm. Earlier in the year, the news had been full of riots and protests, after American soldiers at the Bagram Air Force Base outside Kabul had been discovered burning Qurans with trash. The books had been confiscated from prisoners on suspicion that they were being used to pass on extremist messages. President Barack Obama apologized, but that hadn't prevented a furor, and the deaths of thirty Afghans and six American soldiers. This tragedy was one of several following rumors—some true, some false—of the Quran's destruction by American troops in the tense post-9/11 world. Adab, like truth, is a casualty of war.

The reading for the day was short but powerful: "Al-Fatiha," or "The Opening," the Quran's first sura. It's been called Umm al-Quran—the Mother of the Quran—since the key themes of the Quran are packed into its twenty-five Arabic words. Some non-Muslims have likened it to the Lord's Prayer, but it is more than that, so tightly knotted are its words into the fabric of Muslim life. Pious Muslims recite it seventeen times a day: twice during dawn prayers, three times while praying at sunset, and four times apiece in the three other prayers. "Al-Fatiha" can greet good news, seal a contract, or smooth bazaar negotiations. Some Muslims carve it on tombstones; others say its words while undressing to protect them from the prying eyes of jinn, or spirits. One hadith holds that the chapter is "a source of healing for every ailment except death," which is perhaps why its words make for a popular amulet, rolled up, encased in gold or silver, and worn around the neck. It hangs on the wall in Muslim homes across the world, protecting the inhabitants from harm. Once, the verse saved a woman I know during a robbery. She calmed a pair of thieves holding her at gunpoint in her bedroom by pointing to the words of Al-Fatiha, framed and hanging on the wall. She swore on it that she wouldn't scream if they left quietly. At the sound of her words—and the sight of the Quran's—one man slowly lowered the gun he had held to her head. They left soon afterward, leaving her unharmed.

I opened my Quran to the first verse and began reading: In the Name of God, the Benevolent, the Merciful, Praise is Proper to God, Lord of the Universe, The Beneficent, the Merciful. Ruler of the Day of Requital, It is You we serve, to You we turn for help. Show us the straight path, The path of those You have favored; Not of those who are objects of anger, nor of those who wander astray. (1:1–7)

"It is You we serve." With this phrase—which in some translations is "Thee alone we worship"—the old polytheism of the Arab tribes of the Arabian Peninsula was to be replaced with one God, uniting individuals from a collection of tribes into a community of faith. For the pagan Arabs of Mecca and Medina, the Quran brought not merely a new faith, but a reimagined social order. No longer were you just a member of your tribe or family, but of something much larger: a community of people called Muslims, united by worshipping a single Supreme Being. No longer would there be the scrum to worship hundreds of minor gods and goddesses, as Mecca's pagans had done until Islam arrived. In its place, there was utter submission to the all-powerful Creator.

But this statement didn't simply declare monotheism. The line proved even more radical. In four short words lay the concept of the dignity of the individual, bestowed on him by his creator. "When it says 'Thee alone we worship,' it means people aren't allowed to worship any angel, any man of money, or any man of power," explained Akram. "A Muslim submits only to God."

There. Right there lay the justification for everything from the Arab Spring revolts to the Islamic women's movement. With breathtaking linguistic economy, sitting just inside the first verse of the Quran, lay the words that punctured tyranny. They were gentle weaponry against husbands who ruled over their wives, or presidents who tortured their people. In a God-centered universe, no person had the right to rule over another person, since all were equal before their creator. It gave people an inherent dignity vis-à-vis their fellow humans. Such a satisfying sura. I wondered what Hans would make of it.

Akram pointed out that the line "to You we turn for help" is an indication of Islam's central tenet of submission. "It shows mankind asking how to worship," he noted. "It is saying, 'We are helpless people. We need more of your favor. We need to know how to worship You.'"

Here again was the surrender that Islam—derived from the same Arabic root word as "peace," but literally meaning "submission"—demands of a Muslim. "When you see the word 'worship,' or ibada in Arabic, this is the sort of extreme humiliation that is only allowed in the case of God," observed Akram. "That's why we have to bow in prayer. Before him, we require an extreme humbleness." While Christianity and Judaism drew their names from people, the word "Islam" refers to a relationship rather than a single figure—that between every believer and God.

Up to now, the lesson had been going well. Akram's reading of "Al-Fatiha" described a just and expansive worldview. The verse's emphasis on the individual's direct association with God, unbrokered by clerical middlemen, was reassuringly democratic. The concept of extreme humility before God felt familiar, and admirable. It was only in the last three lines that I felt any disquiet:

Show us the straight path, The path of those You have favored; Not of those who are objects of anger, nor of those who wander astray.

"The Quran wants you to walk in the path of God," the Sheikh explained. "The path of God is the straight path."

"And who are those whom He's favored?" I asked, assuming it would be pretty much anyone who stuck to the straight path. It was rather more specific than that. "God has bestowed His favor on four types of people," said Akram.

I sat up straight, ever the eager student, fingers hovering above the laptop keyboard. "Prophets," I transcribed.

"Siddiqeen. These are people who aren't prophets, but whose true nature is so powerful that it puts them on the straight path, like Maryam—the Bible's Mary, who followed God's instructions, with a pure and clean heart."

Oh. Then: "Martyrs."


"Other righteous people."

I hoped it was a catchall category.

His elaboration—"Those whom God has favored" —was a rather narrower demographic than I'd been hoping for. Wondering how broad the definition of "righteous" was, I found a clue in the next line: "Not [the path] of those who are objects of anger, nor of those who wonder astray."

"And what kinds of people are they?" I asked, fully expecting to hear a list roughly similar to that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with A for adulterers and ending with U for usurers.

The list was far shorter than I expected. "Well, some people have said that 'those who are objects of Thine anger' refers to the Jews," said Akram, whose calm suddenly grew unnerving. "God became angry with the Jews after they rejected Jesus Christ. God's favor can be taken away from you at any time."

"Jews" struck like a pebble. It is a hard, small, unyielding word. It always seems to jam the conversation in a way that the adjective "Jewish" doesn't. I thought of that famous line from the British director Jonathan Miller. "I'm not a Jew," Miller said. "Just Jewish. Not the whole hog, you know."


Excerpted from If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power. Copyright © 2015 Carla Power. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Map for the Journey 1

Part One: The Origins
1. The Quran in Twenty-Five Words 25
2. An American in the East 36
3. A Muslim in the West 47
4. Road Trip to the Indian Madrasa 73
5. A Migrant's Prayer Mat 97

Part Two: The Home
6. Pioneer Life in Oxford 113
7. Nine Thousand Hidden Women 128
8. "The Little Rosy One" 138
9. Veiling and Unveiling 156
10. Reading "The Women" 175

Part Three: The World
11. A Pilgrim's Progress 197
12. Jesus, Mary, and the Quran 214
13. Beyond Politics 229
14. The Pharaoh and His Wife 240
15. War Stories 259
16. The Last Lesson 272

Conclusion: Everlasting Return 290

Author's Note 301
Glossary 303
Notes 307
Bibliography 319
Acknowledgments 323
Index 325

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