Book review: If Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power is an engaging memoir about faith and friendship

In the wake of her father’s murder, the author - a former journalist - is led to an understanding of Islam and the Quran by Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a teacher and friend.

Carla Power with Mohammad Akram Nadwi. Courtesy Carla Power
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Carla Power’s father was murdered in Mexico in1993, in a case of mistaken identity.

A gang of thugs broke into the rental property where he was staying and claimed they were owed money for a drug deal. When he protested that they had the wrong guy – Power’s father was a law professor from Missouri – they beat him to death.

Power was living in Oxford, England at the time. Reeling from the news, she ran into a colleague, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi and told him what had happened.

He stood up in the office of the think tank in which they worked, put his hand on his heart and recited a poem by the Pakistani philosopher- poet Muhammed Iqbal. It was an elegy to his mother: “Who will wait for my letters now? Who will wait for me in the night to return now?”

It was the most comforting thing Power heard in the months of mourning and so began a life-long and unlikely friendship between American-born Power, a former Newsweek journalist of mixed Quaker-Jewish descent and Nadwi, a quiet Islamic scholar from Uttar Pradesh, India, who was then making his name in academic circles.

The accumulation of their "freakish" friendship, as Power describes it, is this warm and engaging memoir, If Oceans Were Ink, structured around a year the author spends with Nadwi learning the Quran.

The holy book, never far from the headlines, is back in the news and for all the wrong reasons. In America the controversial writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues in her latest New York Times best-seller, Heretic, that Islam needs a total reformation because it is not compatible with modern society.

In France, Stéphane Charbonnier, editorial director of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, who was assassinated by gunmen in Paris in January has posthumously published Open Letter to the Fraudsters of Islamophobia Who Play Into Racists' Hands, a book that was finished days before he was murdered. In Kabul, a young Islamic law student named Farkunda, falsely accused of burning the Quran, was beaten to death in March on the street by a mob of men.

Power steps back from the headlines. Writing with originality and nuance, she returns to the original sacred texts to find out what the Quran actually says, rather than what everyone from ISIL to Hirsi Ali to centuries of Muslim scholars claim it says.

"As a journalist for 17 years I wrote about Muslims as headlines," Power says in an interview. "I had seen the tremendous power of the text in action but I hadn't read the text. It seemed basic, akin to reading Homer or Hamlet if you were studying literature."

As a teacher, Nadwi’s credentials are impeccable. A graduate of the prestigious Nadwatul Ulama madrassa in Lucknow, India, where the curriculum included Sartre and Aristotle, he eventually studied at the University of Oxford. Nadwi speaks English, Urdu, Persian and classical Arabic and specialises in hadith, the thousands of deeds and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed.

What’s more, he is bound to the Prophet Mohammed by isnad, the chain of narrators that show the validity of a hadith by linking it across the centuries back to the original source. As a sort of dinner party trick that amazes Muslims and potential donors to Oxford, Nadwi recites a chain of scholars from himself to the Prophet. The pair find common ground as nomads, not totally at ease in the West or East.

Power’s interest in the Muslim world dates from the 1970s when her father took the family to live in Iran, Afghanistan and India as a relief from the boredom of teaching law in Missouri.

Nadwi’s life has similar echoes. The book takes the reader from Mecca to the lecture halls of Oxford, from rural India to cosmopolitan New York and the sheikh manages to effortlessly navigate these disparate worlds, serene in the knowledge that his faith transcends earthly societies.

The journey challenges many of Power’s assumptions as well as those held by many Muslims.

The most compelling chapters are about the female hadith scholars. About 15 years ago Nadwi decided to write a pamphlet about female scholars in Muslim history, assuming he’d find a handful. The most famous is Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, who preserved 2,210 hadiths.

But Nadwi found 9,000 women over the course of 1,400 years and later published a ground-breaking biographical dictionary. These women raced across Arabia on camelback to give lectures, they issued their own fatwas and in some cases wrote fatwas on behalf of their less talented husbands, Power writes.

“There was one woman who lectured the caliphs as she stood leaning against the tomb of the Prophet. This is unthinkable today,” says Power. In many cases, Muslim notions of female modesty prevented women academics from being acknowledged. Nadwi also believes that these women scholars were more reliable than their male counterparts, who were often under financial pressures to relate hadiths, whether the historical research stood them up or not, Power writes.

“Women scholars had no such pressures on them and the sheikh thinks because they were not in fact in the marketplace and making a living, they could keep their narrations pure,” Power says.

So did this make Nadwi a modern feminist? Not really, Power writes. In a highly polarised region torn apart by sectarian tensions Nadwi doesn’t fit into any category. Critics and supporters alike denounce and praise him as a Salafi, Sufi or feminist, a liberal, a traditional.

To a Muslim audience anxious for advice on how to defend Islam against the Danish cartoons or Salmon Rushdie's Satanic Verses his advice is to ignore it because that's what the Prophet would have done.

“No matter how much the Prophet had been abused by people who opposed him, did he protest? Did he burn their houses? Did he harm them? No! He went to do dawa (prayer),” he tells them. Besides, God and Islam did not need defending.

For those who hark back to Medina as the first Islamic state, Nadwi says they are “misguided”. Again, he turns to Mohammed’s life.

The Prophet had not wanted to leave Mecca in the first place but was forced to do so because he could not practise his faith. When he got to what would become Medina, it was to find a place where he could worship freely. It was not about pursuing political power. “He did not especially want to run a state,” explained the sheikh. “But when he got to Medina, he had to organise it properly.”

Power writes that Nadwi was driven “by a certainty that we are just passing through this earth and mundane quests for land or power miss Islam’s point”.

For Power, the year she spent learning from Nadwi in Oxford’s coffee houses, eating biryani with his family at home, the Indian village, or following him to the gym and lectures, also opened her eyes to her own views.

When she wonders why he spends years of loneliness away from his Indian family in rainy Britain toiling in a job that wasted his talents, Nadwi relates the story of the Prophet Yusuf, or Joseph in the Bible. Thrown into a well by his family, then sold as a slave, before being jailed and finally finding favour with a king who realises he can interpret dreams, Yusuf’s fortunes rise and fall. But he remains stoical and faithful to God.

“Akram was proposing an entirely different response to the challenges posed by a fragmented world: prayer and acceptance,” Power writes. As an American raised in the age of Oprah, indoctrinated with the belief she had the right to find happiness at whatever the cost, Power finds this unsettling.

But what did the Quran reveal to her? Power writes that she began the project assuming she’d read the holy book and learn what was in it, like a good student preparing for an essay.

But what she learnt was far more compelling. So much so, she nearly converted to Islam.

“The only way I could see it at the end was a return, a return again and again, like the 35 times a week prayers that many Muslims do. The Quran is a place you return to and learn of your God,” she says.

This book is available on Amazon.

Hamida Ghafour is an author and journalist specialising in the Middle East.