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If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran Paperback – April 7, 2015
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PULITZER PRIZE FINALIST
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
Named A Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Denver Post
“A vibrant tale of a friendship.... If the Oceans Were Ink is a welcome and nuanced look at Islam [and] goes a long way toward combating the dehumanizing stereotypes of Muslims that are all too common.... If the Oceans Were Ink should be mandatory reading for the 52 percent of Americans who admit to not knowing enough about Muslims.” ―The Washington Post
“Journalist Power writes about her year studying the Quran with a Muslim scholar she befriended while working at a think tank in London. For some, this will be a strong introduction to Islam. To others, it's fodder for discussion on the Sheikh's views, how Westerners (such as Power) interpret those views and the interplay of culture and religion.” ―The Denver Post
“For all those who wonder what Islam says about war and peace, men and women, Jews and gentiles, this is the book to read. It is a conversation among well-meaning friends--intelligent, compassionate, and revealing--the kind that needs to be taking place around the world.” ―Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World
“With a journalist’s mind for the story, a born traveler’s heart for the adventure of crossing borders, and a seeker’s yen for the poetry and mysticism of belief, Power creates an exceptional record of a timeless quest.”― Merritt Tierce, a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35” honoree and author of Love Me Back
“An inspiring story of two [people] from different worlds who refuse to let religious and cultural differences, prejudice, and ignorance get in the way of their friendship, If the Oceans Were Ink is as thought-provoking as it is elegantly written. It takes a difficult, highly charged topic and puts it into terms that are not only understandable and eye-opening, but beautiful.”―Bustle (11 Beautifully Written Memoirs by Women)
“[Carla Power and Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi's] conversations break down stereotypes.... Power displays the diversity and intellectual richness of the practicing Muslim world, and shows how much we have to gain from mutual understanding.” ―Shelf Awareness
“Carla Power's intimate portrait of the Quran, told with nuance and great elegance, captures the extraordinary, living debate over the Muslim holy book's very essence. A spirited, compelling read.” ―Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad
“Engaging … Together [Carla Power and the Sheikh] explore … the significance of veiling and unveiling, the struggle against unjust rulers and jihad, and contemporary wars. Power's narrative offers an accessible and enlightening route into a topic fraught with misunderstanding.” ―Publishers Weekly
“Unique, masterful, and deeply engaging. Carla Power takes the reader on an extraordinary journey in interfaith understanding as she debates and discovers the Quran's message, meaning, and values on peace and violence, gender and veiling, religious pluralism and tolerance.” ―John L. Esposito, University Professor and Professor of Islamic Studies, Georgetown University, and author of The Future of Islam
“Lively … Intelligent and exceptionally informative.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“A thoughtful, provocative, intelligent book.” ―Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds Of Paradise and The Language of Baklava
“Their yearlong debates on issues ranging from the veiling of women to calls for fatwas challenged their own understandings of religion, culture, politics, and friendship and offer powerful new insights into Islam.” ―Booklist
“If the Oceans Were Ink opens a door to the power of the Quran's lyrical and complex prose to inspire, comfort, and ignite hearts everywhere. A must read for anyone wishing to understand a global community's central spiritual source.” ―Dalia Mogahed, Director of Research, The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and co-author of Who Speaks for Islam?
“A former foreign correspondent for Newsweek raised partly in the Middle East and boasting a graduate degree in Middle Eastern studies from Oxford, Power spent a year reading the Quran with a longtime friend, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi. Their experience led them beyond stereotypes to a constructive understanding for the text's call for peace and equality. Great for book clubs.” ―Library Journal
“There are many intriguing books that trace the encounter of Westerners with Muslims from traditional backgrounds. Some of these books are love stories, others are clashes. Carla Power's If the Oceans Were Ink is something more radical, magical, and much more relevant: a religious encounter mediated through a gentle friendship, one that is committed to a dialogue and a search for truth. In a world characterized by so much tension and polemic, Power offers what might be our best hope for a better tomorrow: an intelligent friendship. Most enthusiastically recommended.” ―Omid Safi, Director, Duke Islamic Studies Center
About the Author
Carla Power writes for TIME and was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Her writing has appeared in Vogue, Glamour, The New York Times Magazine, and Foreign Policy. Her work has been recognized with an Overseas Press Club award, a Women in Media Award, and the National Women's Political Caucus's EMMA Award. She holds a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford, as well as degrees from Yale and Columbia.
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Power learned from the Sheikh how to return to a close examination of the Prophet’s sage words and deeds, which reveal the inspiring faith and universal values of the Quran. In its essence, Islam advocates devotion to prayer, focus on charity, and closeness to God. Islam espouses equal rights and justice, and an empowering form of humanity can be found in the life of the Prophet’s wisdom and actions. To be a true Muslim one must show loyalty to the Prophet’s sunna, his words and deeds. Through the Prophet’s vision and message, one finds a call for moderation of actions, acceptance of others, equality of all people, and piety towards God. Muhammad’s community of Muslims was to spread peace, feed the hungry, and honor kinships. The Prophet preached never to force beliefs on anyone. His hopes were to bring learning and understanding. He knew his limits and he taught to avoid anger, power, and wealth. He also taught his followers to be generous and demonstrate a gentle character. These attributes will ultimately help people relate to the true message of Islam. In fact, nowhere in Islam do hierarchies or divisions exist. Nor does compulsion. Islam not only tolerates differences, it values them as part of God’s design. The Quran stresses how no singular group has exclusive salvation, and it questions any group that claims only a singular path to paradise exists.
So why is Islam viewed with suspicion and fear? The Sheikh explained to Power how obsessive rules and laws have too often devolved into punitive measures and acts of extremism, which directly defy what the Prophet taught and stood for. Sadly, abandonment of Islam’s true message occurred over centuries with the decline of the traditional madrasa system. The intellect and moderation of Islam slowly deteriorated into the harsh words and practices of radicals. Extremists now conduct misguided readings of the Quran and settle on reckless interpretations. The Sheikh explains how Islam is about justice and how all fighting and protesting should be redirected into time spent for prayer and honoring God. Islamists have made Islam about political struggle, when they should be focused on piety. By making political power the only goal of Islam, extremists abandon the way of the Prophet’s teachings. Their quest for sharia law destroys their piety towards God. Real piety requires a commitment to one’s individual belief in honoring God and following the Prophet’s message of peace and understanding. State-endorsed Islam is nothing more than hypocrisy. Problems arise when Muslims chose identity politics over piety.
Returning to a loyal reading of the Quran reveals a great humanity based on reason and tolerance. Islam began with a command to read, so any call to arms is misguided because Islam demands its followers to think, pray, submit, and be patient in their quest to gain a closeness to God. This knowledge of returning to God is the cycle of life that the Prophet pursued. Carla Power learned through her studies with Sheikh Akram that the piety rooted at the heart of Islam calls for the defense of human rights and a devotion to individual consciousness over laws imposed by the state. Power’s memoir celebrates exactly what Islam expounds: that to practice true humanity, one must learn to see the whole of the world and learn to accept and understand others. If the Oceans Were Ink is among the most enlightening and open-minded books on discussing the humane faith of Islam and the Quran.
Instead, she directly confronts her privilege. She calls out her past self for thinking that she knew a lot about other cultures and other religions even though she had never really engaged with them deeply. Throughout the book, she is constantly admitting her to own biases and beliefs and using them to challenge her own way of thinking–and the reader’s. Instead of feeling as though I was listening to someone who thought they were an authority on the subject, I truly believed I was listening to the genuine journey to understanding of someone with an academic background of knowledge in Islamic religion and culture. That, on it’s own, is priceless.
Then there is the nature of the man with whom she takes this journey, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi. There is never any moment when either of them use his opinions as an end-all-be-all answer for all Muslims. Instead, we are led to a deep understanding of how he views the Quran the way he does, but also how others view it in different ways. We are never made to feel as if his answers are the “best” ones, though I grew to have a deep respect for him and his ideas.
A great deal of this comes from the fact that, while there are a lot of surprising places where Power and the Sheikh are in harmony, there are many places where they are not. The book does not shy away from these things, and instead investigates them on both sides. Sometimes, it is Power who showcases a shift in her worldview. In others, the Sheikh himself changes his opinion. It is a genuine dialogue of give and take.
I took this class in order to deepen my knowledge of other religions, and for the first time with these books I feel like that has been accomplished. Not only do I feel educated about some of the finer points of Islam and the Quran, but I have also come to an understanding of how the Quran can be interpreted and what it means to a variety of different Muslims. I also recognized myself taking a similar journey to Power while I was reading. I appreciated her blunt honesty with herself and her worldview, because it kept me from narrowing mine. If this is a topic that you are interested in, I completely recommend picking this up.
I likened this book to my grandmother's fudge. My grandmother made fudge that was so rich, taking a bite would probably have put your system into terminal shock. You scraped little bits with your teeth, and let the richness melt in your mouth. This book, for me at least, was like that. I would read for a little, and then put the book aside to digest what I had read. It took me a while to get through, not because it was complex or difficult but because it was so rich, and provided so much stimulus for my own thought and reflection.
I continue to recommend this book, and this will be a book I will re-read several more times, I know. I am grateful to the friend who recommended it to me, and I am confident in recommending it to others.