If the Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power


The subtitle of this book is An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran. The friendship is between the author, an American journalist who has worked all around the world and a former colleague of hers, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a Muslim scholar from India who eventually studied at Oxford. The author spent a year studying with the Sheikh, including attending day-long lectures he gave.

Power's father had been an unfulfilled law professor in St. Louis, and had taken every opportunity to spend as much time as possible in locations such as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan as she grew up. Ms. Power recognized that they were tourists, and though her father worked to be immersed in the culture, her family enjoyed the beauty of the exotic locations while living apart from them. Her time with the Sheikh made her realize that her view of herself as a tolerant person with a pluralist outlook had not been tested. 

Although the Sheikh followed tradition that he learned growing up in India, he has written extensively of the Islamic women scholars. Power says he is "A traditionally trained scholar who scandalizes conservatives and disappoints progressives. And sometimes just the reverse. A champion of women's rights who accepts that Islam allows polygamy." He says repeatedly that the repression that women suffer is cultural rather than Islamic. 

He says a distinguishing characteristic of Islam is that their spirituality does not come through abstract ideas, "like closeness to God, and being a good neighbor, and loving one another." "Christians are not concerned about what Jesus did. They're not concerned with the details of the way he led his life. Our spirituality comes through doing the five prayers, as the Prophet Muhammad did. Or through giving charity, just as the Prophet did." You can see how that could be problematic:  what is known of the actions of a single individual who lived in the the seventh century may not always be the best guide for today.

The Sheikh saw polygamy as "an acknowledgement of male weakness, and an efficient system for minimizing its damage. 'Many men cheat,' he said. 'It's so easy for them to fool a woman, and leave her, maybe with a child.' Marrying a second wife, he argued, gives women protection:  the relationship is made public, and the man's responsibilities to provide for the woman are, too. 'A second marriage is better for the woman,' he said. 'They get a house and they get expenses.' The logic here is worrying:  the possibilities of societal accommodation for other "male weaknesses" could be problematic. And there's the human weakness for the illicit. 

Over the course of the time Power studied with the Sheikh, he revised his position on the issue of the marriage of minors. The Prophet's most articulate and respected wife had been a child bride; they were said to have been very happy. Two women students brought to his attention the oppression and injustice occurring within child marriages today. He was then moved to find the writings of an eighth century jurist who argued that women's right to autonomy was abrogated if they were married before puberty. 

On the passage that many Muslims say allows husbands to hit rebellious wives, the Sheikh said the key word "daraba" does in fact mean "to beat." He outlined many conditions that must be met before a husband can beat his wife and said that the limits were so stringent that no husband was hitting his wife according to Islamic law. 

Power says, "I'd always been taught that justice was the cornerstone virtue of Islam, occupying much the same position that love does in Christianity." There are exhortations to polygamists to be just with their wives, merchants to make fair deals in the marketplace. "A just leader," the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said, will be "the most beloved of people to God." When Power asked the Sheikh about the idea of justice, he noted that it was important to note that it may not arrive in this life. Well, this sure makes Christianity look good.

And on the subject of the afterlife, Power attended an intense eight-hour lecture that rivaled the hellfire sermons of movies. "The next world is our destination. This one is for travel," the Sheikh said. Paradise is a cool lush garden with shade trees and low-hanging fruit. When more gingery drink is wanted, the shiny goblets would be refilled by young boys, all "so nice-looking, you will think they're sprinkled with pearls!" according to the Sheikh.

It has taken me a long time to read this book. That was caused partly by the upheaval related to my town becoming a hashtag (#Charlottesville), but it was hard to attend to these ideas quickly. I can well understand why the author acknowledged that her previous experience had not tested her view of herself as a tolerant person.

Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink, Henry Holt and Company, 2015, 336 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon.

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