Rachel Newcomb is associate professor of anthropology at Rollins College, where she also directs the Program in Middle Eastern and North African Studies.
By Carla Power
336 pp. Paperback, $19
Since Sept. 11, 2001, popular media has tended to represent Islam as monolithic and menacing, a faith whose adherents spend their time plotting to murder infidels, oppress women and instill sharia law in Western democracies. While the actions of groups like the Islamic State seem to confirm the worst stereotypes, the worldviews of extremists do not account for the belief systems of the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, who are, by journalist Carla Power’s account, “people as diverse as Pathan tribals and Kansan surgeons.”
Weary of the stereotypes and “blithe generalizations about ‘the Islamic world’ and ‘the West,’ ” Power, who holds a degree in Middle East studies from Oxford and has worked as a foreign correspondent in Muslim countries, decided to strike back. “If the Oceans Were Ink” is a unique account of the Islamic faith that focuses on the perspective of Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a scholar and imam whom Power has known for more than 20 years. It is an unusual book, simultaneously an exploration of faith and of Islam as it is lived by those who know it most intimately.
The journalist became acquainted with the imam in the 1990s, when both were conducting research on Islamic scholars and mystics at a think tank, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. Their paths crossed during the intervening years, as Akram achieved renown as a religious scholar and Power established herself as a successful journalist. After years of reporting on strongmen, politics and identity in Muslim societies, Power decided that she wanted “to explore the beliefs behind that identity and to see how closely they matched my own.” She asked Akram if he would take her on as a student. Over the years, Power had developed great respect for his scholarship, particularly his extensive biographical dictionaries on early Islam’s female scholars, whose lives have almost disappeared from the scholarly record. Through this work, Akram hopes to remind Muslims of the importance of women’s education and contributions to society.
Power turns what could have been a dry account of a series of interviews into a vibrant tale of a friendship and of her search for meaning through the contemplation of another religious tradition. Above all, her goal is to gain a deeper understanding of the importance of the Koran, whose “limitless possibilities” are best represented in the words of the Sura that give her book its name: “If the oceans were ink, for (writing) the words of my Lord, the ocean would be exhausted, before the words of my Lord were exhausted.”
Akram and Power meet regularly at Akram’s office, at an Oxford coffee shop, and at the study groups and lectures he leads for the local community. She gets to know his family and his followers well, and is particularly impressed by a group of outspoken, educated Muslim women who debate Akram and even cause him to change his position on controversial issues. Inspired by their time together, Power writes that “studying with a man who saw everything from tea leaves to algebra as gifts from God, I was struck by a new seam of gratitude running through me. I’d emerge from a lesson not with faith, but with what I suppose a fashionable guru would call mindfulness.”
Power skillfully navigates multiple layers of cultural interpretation that make subjects such as veiling so controversial in the West. Akram explains to her that, in Islam, modest dress is not meant to make women invisible but rather allows them “to be present and visible, with the power of their bodies switched off.” However, geopolitics has added additional layers of complexity. From the time of Algerian colonialism until 21st-century Afghanistan, Western military occupation has often been linked to the unveiling of Muslim women. “In the months after the Taliban’s fall, the Western press would rush to capture women shedding their veils. It was as though this transition from burqaed lump to woman was a 21st-century Pygmalion myth: a breathing of life into Afghanistan’s people.”
In contrast to some of his students, Akram eschews politics. He urges his students to focus solely on taqwa, or God-consciousness. Throughout the book, Akram disdains the idea of Islam as a tool to reach political ends, believing that those Muslims with the goal of a state governed by sharia law have a “deep envy of the West’s power and geopolitical supremacy.” Not all of his students agree with him, especially those espousing the need to participate in the revolutions against dictatorships that have wracked the Middle East since 2011. Yet to Akram, the concerns of this world are insignificant compared with the importance of becoming close to the divine.
As Power wraps up her studies with the imam, she concludes that they share many values, including ethics, democracy, equality and human rights. She envies Akram the feeling that prayer “could feel like returning to ‘the arms of your mother, when you are a child.’ ” For Akram, she writes, “existence was a circle, with God at its end, beginning, and every point in between.” For the pious individual, life, from birth to death, is a cycle of return, with the words of God at the center. Yet although the year leaves her with an enhanced appreciation of the complexity of the Koran — even to call the Koran a book is to limit it; “it is a place to which the faithful return, again and again,” she writes — she is ultimately unable to embrace Akram’s sense of religious conviction.
“If the Oceans Were Ink” should be mandatory reading for the 52 percent of Americans who admit to not knowing enough about Muslims. Years of anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media are beginning to take a toll on Muslims in the United States. According to a 2011 poll by the Pew Research Center, 6 percent said they had been victimized by hate crimes in the preceding year. FBI statistics for reported hate crimes against Muslims are five times higher since 9/11. Most recently, the killing of three Muslim students in North Carolina, ostensibly over a parking dispute, has also been alleged to be a hate crime. A Zogby poll released by the Arab American Institute in 2014 showed that only 27 percent of Americans reported favorable opinions of Muslims, down eight points from a poll in 2010. Yet among those polled who reported knowing Muslims firsthand, favorability was 33 percent higher.
Akram, steeped in religion but also thoughtful and open to dialogue, emerges from these pages as a complex and likable man, and it is hard to imagine readers not being moved by Power’s humanistic, evenhanded portrayal of him. “If the Oceans Were Ink” is a welcome and nuanced look at Islam through the eyes of an individual who lives his faith with every breath. It goes a long way toward combating the dehumanizing stereotypes of Muslims that are all too common in the United States today.