I started reading Carla Power’s ‘If the Oceans Were Ink’ immediately after I finished reading Fatimah Asghar’s ‘If They Come for Us’. One book ended as the azaan for Friday prayers settled over the air like a cool breeze, the other began just after I finished praying. My mind, still grappling with the troubles of queer Muslims and depressed Muslims and Muslims living through trauma, was calmed by the cadence of Carla Power’s conversations with Sheikh Akram on Islam.
Read, the first revelation of the Quran implores, and they do. Together, we read.
With almost a lifetime of journalistic experience in the Middle East, Carla Power’s foray into understanding the faith of three billion people is a brave portrayal of a narrative that has too often been relegated to the extreme, both liberal and conservative—either with us or against us, us being lost in the chaos. Sheikh Akram, who happily rejects labels like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’, has a simpler more effective take on why Muslims, not just their clerics, in their convoluted theocracies and theories, need to advocate for a ‘back-to-basics’ approach, using your heart and your compassion to guide you into a closer relationship with your Creator and His Creation, instead of rigid restrictions that stunt your thinking and close off your empathy.
Anywhere in the world, the conversation between a secular Jewish woman and a madrassah trained Muslim man would be a formula for disaster but it is perhaps a sign from above that this memoir is more educational than any fire-and-brimstone Friday sermon or FOX News talk-show could be. Told as a series of conversations that span one year in their decades long friendship, we begin with Carla Power taking lessons from the Sheikh on various chapters in the Quran while he was teaching at Cambridge University (I wonder-- did @aliabdaal ever see them?) in England. Where Carla Power would often gleefully grab a contentious verse, the Sheikh would equally joyfully show her the fallacy of her underlying assumptions, using, incredibly, the Bible and philosophy to strengthen his arguments. In fact, many of the conclusions that Sheikh Akram brought her to were shockingly compassionate, even to a lackadaisical Muslim like myself—when you’ve learned to tune out the noise of dogma for so long, hearing the cool clarity of wisdom is like stumbling into an oasis from a desert.
My favorite aspects of the book were how gently Carla Power could steer the narrative from laying out her argument in the beginning to having the Sheikh re-frame it, using the Quran and instances from the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and then contrast that with the reality of Muslim life. Her empathy for Muslims and the very real dilemmas facing us in the world, whether in Egypt, the UK or India, is heart-warming and admirable.
I loved how the Sheikh repeatedly pointed out the disastrous mixing of culture and faith had resulted in the subjugation of women in every sphere of life. As a scholar at Cambridge, his research into the Seerah (the life of our Prophet, peace be upon him) led him to remarkable discovery of thousands of unnamed female scholars, who had systematically been erased. His training in Arabic as a young man in India, and his encounters with Western culture, hone him into an academic who is more than willing to share his finding while never losing faith in his religion.
Sheikh Akram points out how instrumental women have been in the history of Islam, from Hazrat Khadija to Rabia al Basri, yet a cruel mix of culture and custom, have led to women being denied education all together. “Denying women access to the mosque, like denying them other rights, was simply clinging to customs, not faith, said Akram. In the case of education, he'd gone further: preventing women from pursuing knowledge, he said, was like the pre-Islamic custom of burying girls alive.”
There were so many instances in the book where I simply wanted to put my head down and cry. Here, finally, was someone who had articulated what is in the heart of millions of Muslims, like myself: to learn from our Prophet, a man who had been born an orphan, ostracized from every power structure in Arabia, lost an infant son, yet still taught through his life to heal, not hurt. Our reward for our difficulties lies in how we face them, the Sheikh teaches, the true compensation for which lies only in the Hands of our Creator.
This emphasis on Taqwa, the faith and awe of the Creator, is a teaching he returns to throughout the book, whether it is the political situation of Palestine and Israel, or the kidnappings of protestors in Egypt. When the sister of a victim confronts him about it, his response is something that even she realizes later on in the course of her life. It’s an eye-opening chapter, one that resists the familiar tropes we’ve let ourselves be bound by.
Recently, reading through the furor that occurred when one of my favorite bloggers, Anum @thespiceofadulting shared a post about her friendship with an Israeli lady, I thought back to this book, written between a Jew and a Muslim, a book that repeatedly told me that that way forward was not through hate or dogma, but through compassion and Taqwa.
Like the dismayed followers of the Prophet (peace be upon him) after the Treaty of Hudaibiya, many Muslims today are in a similar state of distraught anguish where we think to compromise or engage in dialogue with our oppressors is treasonous. Is our faith, our Taqwa, in Allah so weak that we forget that within a year of the Treaty, all of Makkah, the greatest enemies of our Rasul, peacefully accepted Islam? Have we so quickly forgotten the atrocities of Karbala, the sacrifices of Hassan (ra) and Hussein (ra)? It is a lesson Sheikh Akram says all Muslims must be reminded of, that true faith is trusting the Will of your Creator, no matter how dark the road ahead seems. Only the light of the kindness that we extend to each other offers us any redemption.
Indeed, when both Carla Power and Sheikh Akram lose their mothers within a few weeks of each other, we are reminded that there is more that unites us in our humanity then in our perceived differences. Iqbal’s elegy is as true for a Pakistani son mourning his mother, as an Indian daughter mourning her father: ‘Who would wait for me anxiously in my native place? Who would show anxiousness if my letter fails to arrive? I will visit your grave with this complaint: Who will now think of me in midnight prayers?’ Truly, to God we belong. And to Him we return.
This is a must-read memoir, not just for people looking for a more open-minded introduction to Islam, but for Muslims as well. In being reminded of so much of our own history, perhaps we can re-write the present into a better future for our children. Read, the Quran implored over the centuries, a call we’ve criminally reduced to an echo.