As an agnostic, reading Carla Power’s “If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” was immersive. Throughout a year, the author sets out to read and understand the Quran, the central religious text of Islam – and critically, guided by Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, an Islamic scholar – in a bid to go beyond “Muslims as headlines” and the associated stereotypes. “I wanted to go to the book at the source of the faith and to begin to understand how it guided one learned believer’s life”, she wrote. “I hoped to understand the Quran’s impact not just on culture and politics, but on an individual as well”.
It was immersive, because not only was I familiar with the reductive representations of Muslims and their faith in the media, but also – more importantly – I identified with the many questions that Power had, and was eager to hear the perspectives of the madrasah-trained sheikh. They include, “What did he think was ultimately going to happen to me, somebody who believed in some sort of God but was nowhere near ready to submit to a faith?”, and other controversial topics such as child marriage, the veil, and homosexuality. And as Power moved from part two to three of the book, the chapter detailing the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), umra (minor pilgrimage to Mecca), and itikaf (spiritual retreat in a mosque, usually during the final 10 days of Ramadan) was incredibly moving.
The sheikh’s thesis is a straightforward one: That the messages of the Quran were poorly understood, further “buried by a mountain of academic debate”. He explained that Muslim scholars have historically been developing a system of fiqh (jurisprudence), “a man-made legal scaffolding based on interpretations of the Quran and hadith [words or deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, the second source of knowledge for Muslims after the Quran]”. Over the years contemporary Muslims, as a consequence, have been obsessed with the minor details of these laws, even using them to justify their own wrongdoings, when they should be reading the Quran properly, more closely. More often than not, the Sheikh’s responses to the aforementioned questions were tied to this thesis.
And through “If the Oceans Were Ink”, in addition to the newfound knowledge of Islam and its practices, assumptions of the faith are also challenged. They include the “rigid categories” and “labels” oftentimes applied to scholars, as to whether they are progressive or conservative, theories about terrorism and radicalisation, and the perception that Islam is “a matter of cast-iron rules, of binding fatwas and unforgiving bans” (in the context of the Sheikh revising his position on child marriage, after discussions and arguments with two of his students). In fact, the notion of true worship and taqwa – or God-consciousness – was perhaps the most important takeaway for me:
“The problem with many Muslims today: they were too concerned with their immediate conditions, and not concerned enough with their taqwa. “For a long, long time, Muslims have been very concerned with the space. We think, ‘If I had a better space, it would be better’. The Muslim reformers think, ‘If we had the caliphate, it would be better. If we get a Muslim state, it will be better’. Are there Muslim states? … Are we better?”