If the Oceans Were Ink

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

by Carla Power (2015) along with Islam – A Short History by Karen Armstrong (2000)

If the Oceans were Ink

I have a copy of the Quran, one given to me by a friend in Cairo. I’ve thumbed through it but I honestly don’t have any interest in reading it cover-to-cover. The language (in my English version) is so stiff and formal, and the passages seem so obscure and irrelevant to modern day challenges. I occasionally open it to read a passage that comes up in conversations with friends from Gaza.

The Quran finally opened up to me — or I opened up to the Quran — when I found Carla Power’s book “If the Oceans were Ink“. This memoir of her journey to understand the Quran with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi as her guide is a very engaging story that asks (and answers) many of the questions I’ve had about Islam and the Quran.

The two met in the UK but were from very different backgrounds. He was raised in a small Urdu-speaking village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, went on to study at a prestigious madrasa in Lucknow, India where his earliest speciality was hadith. He ended up at Oxford and gained fame for his forty-volume collection of biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars.

Carla is an American journalist whose father was a law professor who felt more comfortable living abroad. He took long sabbaticals and the family spent many months living in South East Asia and the Middle East. As a young child, her world view was opened wide to different cultures and religions. Her mother was Jewish, her father a Quaker, and today she describes herself as a secular feminist.

Carla and the Sheikh met at Oxford a few years after 9/11. He was a 27-year old scholar and she was a 24-year old reporter for Newsweek.

The book chronicles their reconnection years later when the Sheikh agrees to mentor her on the Quran.  She attends some of his lectures, she meets him in the local teahouse for private Q & A, she gets to know his family and travels with him back to India.

The very first word in the Quran is “Read”. I appreciate this beginning very much and my understanding of the Quran as a scholarly guide has grown considerably after reading “If the Oceans Were Ink“. The author began her journey with a basic foundation of Islam so that her questions to the Sheikh were insightful and illuminated the core truths as a practicing Muslim scholar experiences his faith.

While Carla Power’s book was a personal journey in the 21st century, Karen Armstrong’s book “Islam – A Short History” is a historical account of the religion, placing it in context of the major events happening in the world from which Islam sprang. I read both books together because the history was more digestible this time around. I know I won’t remember names and dates but now I have a good understanding of how Islam came to lead millions of people.

According to a recent Pew poll, Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2015 and 2060 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.

Given the rising Islamophobia in the U.S., and the ignorance and fear that many (including some of my personal friends) have about Muslims and Islam, both these books should be mandatory reading and discussion in high school classrooms.