Saturday, October 03, 2015

Nonfiction Review: If the Oceans Were Ink

My neighborhood book group read If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power this month. Although I missed the discussion, I enjoyed the interesting and informative book, which was just nominated for the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Power is a half-Jewish (though non-practicing) journalist who spent much of her childhood in countries in the Middle East and Asia with large Muslim populations, as her father often took visiting professorships in other countries. She grew up surrounded by the culture of Islam and as an adult, often reported on Muslims in her job. She decided, though, that she wanted to know more about the source of Islam, the Quran, and whether it really supported some of the extremist views evident in the world today. For that education, she turned to an old colleague and friend, Sheik Mohammad Akram Nadwi, an Islam scholar whom she used to work with at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, often called just “the Sheik”.

The title of the book is taken from these verses from the Quran itself:
“Say, even if the ocean were ink
For (writing) the words of my Lord,
The ocean would be exhausted
Before the words of my Lord were exhausted,
Even if We were to add another ocean to it. (Chapter 18, Verse 109)”

Part of Power’s interest was in figuring out how such widely varied groups and people around the world – from terrorists to pious mullahs seeking peace and ordinary Muslims living their lives – could all claim to be living according to the Quran. She and the Sheik embarked on a yearlong journey together, debating the meaning of various verses in the Quran, discussing how those verses are interpreted by different groups around the world, and even delving into controversial subjects like the role of women in Islam. At the same time, the Sheik introduced her to his family, his friends, and his students, so she met and had the opportunity to talk to many Muslims with different perspectives.

Much of what she learned will be surprising to Westerners who believe in the view of Islam that terrorists have tried to spread. It’s only the extremists (on both sides) who make the news and rail loudly about the chasm between “the Muslim world” and the Western world. But there are Muslims living all over the world, including in the United States, and you can’t really lump them all together. She and the Sheik look at how Judaism, Christianity, and Islam fit together, as well as what their differences are. Much of their differences simply come down to the perspectives of different prophets, though they all study Abraham, Mary, Noah, Moses, and even Jesus. As the Sheik sums up beautifully, “God wanted to be fair with everybody. He’s sent different messengers, but the real differences are just about language, or culture, or history. The main message is the same: to believe in God.”

That is a theme that threads throughout the book – that there is a difference between religion and culture. According to the Sheik, much of what we Westerners think of as tenets of Islam are actually cultural rules or norms set down and carried through history, not parts of the Quran itself. As with the Bible, different people throughout history (including modern times) have interpreted the Quran and its related hadiths (rules) in vastly different ways. The situation is even more complex with the Quran because it was written in Arabic and can be translated into English in different ways. As for women in Islam, the Sheik has been working on a project to write about women Islamic scholars – it began as a pamphlet and ended up as dozens of volumes of books – so he has a broad view of women’s roles in the religion, both in history and now.

When my book group chose this book, I was afraid it would be dry and dull, a slog to get through, but it isn’t like that at all. The book is a memoir of Power’s year spent learning about the Quran with the Sheik, so it incorporates her own life and experiences, as well as his. I was particularly moved by her experiences in losing her father and her mother, since my own dad died this summer. This is not a dry analysis of the Quran but a look at how the holy book translates into every day life.

As you can probably tell from this lengthy review, I found Power’s book fascinating and informative. I was very sorry I couldn’t make my book group discussion because this book just begs to be talked about! There is so much content here, and all of it is thoughtful and thought-provoking, as the reader goes along with Power on her yearlong educational journey. As she works to understand another person and his religion and way of life, she learns more about her own life and brings us along for the eye-opening ride. The world would be a better – far more peaceful – place if we all took the time to understand those who are different from us.

300 pages, Henry Holt & Company

NOTE: I posted this review this week to accompany my review of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, a graphic memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution - the two books complemented each other and each helped me to better understand the other. 

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