Book Review: If the oceans were ink: An unlikely friendship and journey in the heart of the Quran – Carla Power

How could you not be amazed by reading a book wherein you find that many of your private thoughts about Islam find a reference. As a non-Muslim who dabbles in Islamic history, life of the Prophet and some Islamic theology, one is likely to develop an opinion about Islam and its believers, but you don’t want to voice it openly, one, for the fear of being ‘wrong’ and second considering the sensitivity of trying to pontificate on a religion which would classify you as a non-believer! It is kind of voyeuristic as well as ‘begani shaadi mein abdullah deewana’! But suddenly you read a book and find that its central character is a renowned Islamic theologian and many of his views find resonance with you. Wow! a Eureka moment indeed. So I would indeed take the liberty to write a more personalized review and also pontificate! 

Getting back to the book, it details Carla Power’s personal journey wherein she seeks to discovery and learn the Quran from her friend and colleague Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadvi, an Indian Muslim from Uttar Pradesh who teaches and researches in the Centre of Islamic studies at Oxford University. Sheikh Nadwi is a graduate from Nadwatul Ulama madrassa in Lucknow, India. Sheikh Nadwi speaks English, Urdu, Persian and classical Arabic. He specializes in hadith, and is bound to the Prophet Mohammed by ‘isnad’. Interestingly, in his research on women scholars in the 1400 years of Islam, which he later brought out as a biographical dictionary, Nadwi found 9,000 women scholars who raced across Arabia on camel back to give lectures, issued their own fatwas and in some cases wrote fatwas on behalf of their less talented husbands. I was especially amazed at the reference of one woman scholar who lectured to the caliphs standing and leaning against the tomb of the Prophet. I was like wow! So much for Islam repressing women!

The book starts with an interesting joke narrated by Sheikh Nadwi. A Hindu asks his Muslim neighbor if he could borrow his Quran. The Muslim gladly gives one to him. After sometime when the Hindu comes back and returns the book he again asks his neighbour for another copy. The Muslim asks him as to why he needs another copy for all copies of the Quran remain the same. The Hindu responds saying he wants not this Quran, but the Quran that the Muslims actually follow! This joke sets much of the tone of the book!

Since I said that this review will be more personal (with apologies from my Muslim friends (who will excuse my limitations of knowledge in the subject) as well as rabid secularist left liberal friends (who would find my study of religious texts a waste of time and a sign of my bigotry)), I find Muslims today so caught up with the semantics of their faith (reflected in the debates drawn from their ‘fiqhas’) that they probably seem to have forgotten the two major sources that define their faith ie Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. If Islam is indeed a way of life, and like Hinduism it indeed is IMHO, in these two sources one can find many answers to the questions that plague the Muslims. The beauty (and I would say constraint too) of Islam is that the past is also the present. It is a faith which lays much emphasis on precedent, so the importance of Sunnah and Hadith! My dabbling in religious texts of various religions has taught me that to discover/judge the true meaning of the text, one needs to understand the times and the context in which it was written. To judge it in the context of the present, and that too literally, would be an exercise in futility. Similar is the case with the Quran. It is many things to many people, some brand it as an ultra reactionary book where as for the believer in it can be found answers to all questions of human existence.

Sheikh Nadwi however asks. “Is it really a book?” A very pertinent question indeed, for unlike a book which begins, links events to give meaning to a narrative and has an end, Quran does not follow any such pattern. It is also not arranged sequentially in a way the Prophet received his revelations. Many of its verses can be surely classified as rabid and are therefore prone to many uncharitable interpretations. To such critics I just plead for some indulgence and some reference to the context and historical setting/time in which the verse is said to have been revealed. Why only for the Quran, I would seek the indulgence and understanding of the critics for all religious texts. Anyone trying to understand Shankaracharya without understanding the context and historicity of his times ie the conflict between a declining and corrupt Buddhism being practiced in the subcontinent and the reaction of the Vedantists to it is unlikely to do justice to Shankara’s philosophy. Similarly, can the tenets of Buddhist philosophy be understood divorcing them from the needs of the time when it rose?

I might very well be wrong, but it is my view that the nature of Islam changed completely post the period of Khulafa-e-Rashideen. Since then has been the period of Islamic empire, not Islam (the primacy of of ‘taqwa’ and ‘iman’) as the prophet had envisaged. I might well have been the heydays of Islamic political power but definitely not of the pristine Islam of the prophet. The level of violence that was subsequently seen in Islamic history, the marauding, destruction and pillage that these so called Islamic rulers unleashed, when contrasted with the nine wars that the Prophet fought would make the latter look like skirmishes. During the Prophet’s victory in Mecca while the believers lost 14 men, the Meccans lost 70. In the earlier battle which he lost, the total casualty was 65. Surprisingly, many Muslims around the world today take so much pride in these marauders and much of the nostalgia is not for the days of the Prophet but the glories of the empires. (Was badshahat envisaged in Islam?)

At the drop of a hat Jihad is bandied as a solution, the distinction between the ‘greater’ and the ‘lesser’ Jihad completely forgotten. Also are forgotten the strict rules of Jihad. When judged against these these rules (as defined in the Quran), most of what goes in the name of Jihad would surely be deemed un- Islamic. I mean, how on earth was an Engineer (Bin Laden), a medical doctor (Al Zawahiri), a bouncer in a bar and a womanizer (Al Mishri) declaring a Jihad? Who gave them the authority? As per the Islamic law it is only the legitimate Islamic state (based on this Maudaudi had refused to declare the tribal invasion of Kashmir as a Jihad, for the state of Pakistan had denied its involvement) which can declare a Jihad. Further, Jihad can only be resorted to after all attempts at reconciliation had failed and the enemy continues his illegal and tyrannical ways. Even in my Sanatan dharm, righteous war or Dharm Yudh is justified, and I am no apologist for pacifism. Do the Hindus need to be reminded of Krishna’s sermon to Arjun in the Geeta asking him not to sigh away from a just war?

When one reads the life of the Prophet, one cannot but be amazed at the stress he placed on sabr, dawa and reconciliation. What was the treaty of Hudaibiyah, if not accepting an unjust treaty for peace? Not only did the Prophet stoically accept the unfair terms to give peace a chance but also never broke the terms of the treaty. Sadly, his followers today are more inspired by faux philosophers like Iqbal, Qutb and Maudaudi instead of him. The state of India pleads for peace but the maulanas of Kasmir would rather incite violence. And they are the custodians of moi e muqaddas! The decadence of Islamic scholarship is heartbreaking, with even those that are mentioned as Prophets in the Quran like Jesus and Moses are today being openly abused by the Islamists. For a true believer, Islam is all about quiet stoicism and submission to the will of God even in the face of extreme adversity. Reference: Hazrat Yusuf Alahis Salam and his stoicism.

While it might be difficult for the Sheikh to acknowledge, for me, whatever little I have understood of the Quran, I find its philosophy markedly similar to my Sanatanti philosphy (as reflected in the Vedants and the Geeta). For example, when a person dies and a Muslim reads the verse, “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un”, “We belong to God and to God we shall return”, isn’t it uncannily similar at a philosophical level, to Krishna’s manifestation of his ‘viraat roop’ or to Shankara’s “Aham Brahmasmi’?

For the readers, this book will answer many questions about Islam’s treatment of women, the true faith and how Islam is a way of life. For the non Muslims it will help clear many misunderstandings of Islam. I would end this review by mentioning the beautifully pertinent question that the the Sheikh asks to the Muslims (and I believe it to be true for my sanatan dharmis too); “Is Muslim a verb (one who surrenders to the will of God) or a noun (identity)?

We all need to reflect on this question, for in its answer lies if the fractious religious battles that we witness today, will continue or end?

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