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If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

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"Carla Power's intimate portrait of the Quran captures the extraordinary, living debate over the Muslim holy book's very essence. A spirited, compelling read."-Azadeh Moaveni, author of Lipstick Jihad

If the Oceans Were Ink is Carla Power's eye-opening story of how she and her longtime friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi found a way to confront ugly stereotypes and persistent misperceptions that were cleaving their communities. Their friendship-between a secular American and a madrasa-trained sheikh-had always seemed unlikely, but now they were frustrated and bewildered by the battles being fought in their names. Both knew that a close look at the Quran would reveal a faith that preached peace and not mass murder; respect for women and not oppression. And so they embarked on a yearlong journey through the controversial text.

A journalist who grew up in the Midwest and the Middle East, Power offers her unique vantage point on the Quran's most provocative verses as she debates with Akram at cafes, family gatherings, and packed lecture halls, conversations filled with both good humor and powerful insights. Their story takes them to madrasas in India and pilgrimage sites in Mecca, as they encounter politicians and jihadis, feminist activists and conservative scholars. Armed with a new understanding of each other's worldviews, Power and Akram offer eye-opening perspectives, destroy long-held myths, and reveal startling connections between worlds that have seemed hopelessly divided for far too long.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2015

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About the author

Carla Power

4 books86 followers
A finalist for the Pulitzer and National Book Awards, Carla Power began her career at Newsweek, where she was a foreign correspondent. Her writing has appeared in Time, 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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Profile Image for Beth.
616 reviews24 followers
April 20, 2015
I will admit that, coming into this book, I was extremely naive about Islam and the Quran. My sole hard-core belief was the same belief I ascribe to any serious religion - that there will always be those who pick and choose parts of their belief to harm others, whether it is gays in Christianity or "Westerners" in Islam. I'm not sure if my ignorance on this topic helped or hindered the reading of this book, but it certainly gave me a sense of peace about what could be possible between the 3 religions that are more similar than different.

Carla Power makes a strong case in this book that Islam and the Quran are much more than what many (including most jihadists) have been told. Repeatedly, the point is made to "Think!" - not just follow rote memorization. The Sheik, Mohammad Akram Nadwi, makes it his goal to try and teach people to think about the Quran - study and ask questions and *always* go back to the sources. This sort of encouragement to not just follow blindly is far different from my own Protestant upbringing. Power ties together her studies with Akram, as well as current and past events, to demonstrate that Islam is not a static religion, but one that can grow and learn in accordance with the Quran.

For those like myself with little or no knowledge of the Quran, this book is an elegantly written way to get a basic understanding. For those who are more well-versed in Islam and/or the Quran, this book is a way to "think" and to study and to learn more about the basic sources from the past. And for those who believe Islam is evil, this should be required reading. I firmly believe people are entitled to their own opinions, but I do believe that those opinions should at least be based on the further gaining of knowledge. A few half-truths, left unresearched, leads to nothing but stunted growth and rotten ideas.

Please do not think this book is a boring text - it is the furthest thing from it. It is interesting, and even comforting - sort of like the meetings over tea that Power often had with Akram during her year of studies. It is extremely well-written and her background as a journalist definitely shows. Something that could have been boring, dry or pushy ended up being much more intriguing than I anticipated. I find myself having finished this book and interested in learning more, so a hunt for further reading is in order.

Long story short? Read this. Knowledge is important, and should never stop. Islam is one of the fastest-growing religions in the world today, and it is imperative that we strive for a mutual understanding based on facts rather than panic and fear.
Profile Image for jordan.
190 reviews45 followers
March 25, 2015
"If the Oceans were Ink” weaves together two narrative threads, either of which could have made for an interesting read. Unfortunately, neither narrative proves very satisfying. Carla Power, the author, decides to seek to understand the Quran. Given our world, one can hardly imagine a more useful intellectual pursuit. She forms a close relationship with an Islamic scholar, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, with whom she can study the text. Here then are those two threads: one, the friendship between an erudite Islamic scholar and a western secular woman journalist and the other an exploration of the Quran. And Islam. Neither story, however, ever develops sufficient power to become compelling. The story of the friendship lacks any tension whatsoever. As for the Quran, far from oceans of ink, Power offers an understanding of the text that is instead a narrow swimming lane.

No doubt Sheikh Akram is an engaging and erudite man of extraordinary learning. I would be eager to read more of his work. Islam is a rich tradition and it is interesting how he reaches back into that tradition in order to argue, for example, for gender equality. When it comes to learning with Akram, however, Power takes on the role of the empty vessel to be filled. Instead of offering any challenge to Akram’s understanding of Islam, she continually accepts his interpretation as if it were the “right” one. Yes, she more than once pays lip service to the diversity of Islam. As she correctly points out, there simply can’t be one reading of the Quran – or any sacred text with a group of believers --that is valid for 1.6 billion people. Yet time and again she circles back into the same paradigm: that Akram’s views, because she can without much difficulty square them with her western secular and liberal views are in some sense “right.” On the page, her passivity and acceptance makes for relationship that I can only describe as dull.

As you can imagine, this acceptance of Akramin turn runs into the book’s second shortcoming. Her exploration of the Quran never runs very deep. Nor does she seriously engage the inherent contradictions of the text. In reality, there are Muslims who read the Quran as a text advocating peaceful coexistence AND those who read it as requiring terrible violence. Both can make arguments from the text. Nor is the latter argument as easily dismissed as Power tries to assert, simply a failing to read the second half of a particular sentence. No they read the text. They read the whole text. Their conclusions arise out of differences of interpretation not a shortness of attention.

As it happens, Power’s approach is curiously ironic. Power at one point explains the influence of the late Edward Said’s paradigm of Orientalism on her understanding of Islam. Her approach to Islam, however, resembles nothing so much as the liberal side of the Orientalist coin (if you’re unfamiliar with Said’s thesis, you can find a synopsis on Wikipedia). Instead of applying any analytical method to Akram’s narrative, she simply accepts it as true. Consider for example her presentation of the life of Mohammed and the Companions: Power merely accepts it as a historical truth, rather than as a source that would likely exhibit an obvious bias. There are no shortage of scholars who might have helped Power unpack the traditional narrative, but for her these are of little interest. Imagine if instead she had decided to study either the Hebrew Bible or the Christian Scripture with a rabbi or priest. It is almost impossible to imagine she would simply accept the narrative of Moses or Jesus as, you’ll pardon the pun, Gospel. Yet here she does just that. In so doing, she fails her reader on multiple levels.

On the textual level, her approach misses the Quran’s complexity. Really, it is almost impossible to explain why the Quran is a text like no other. Unlike other religious texts, the Quran follows no particular narrative thread. Instead, the Quran collects the Surahs without regard for sequential order. If you know the Bible, imagine Chapter 1 as Israel at Sinai and Chapter 2 being the rules of property and chapter 3 being the story of King Saul and chapter 4 as the rules of sacrifices and you’ll get an inkling of what this might look like. Oh, and also sprinkle the psalms through the text as well.

Further complicating Quranic study, the text itself is written in an extremely esoteric Arabic. Crucial aspects of the Quran contain language so obscure that it can only be understood through analogy, often tortured analogy. Consider for example the famed notion of the virgins of paradise. The word understood as virgin, “hur,” isn’t a noun at all, but an adjective meaning “white.” While it has come to be understood as meaning “virgins,” that isn’t at all clear in the text. (Indeed, one recent scholar, writing under the pseudonym Christoph Luxenberg, went so far as to argue that Syriac, not Arabic is the original language of the Quran, and that “hur” actually refers to white raisins. Fascinating to scholars, the idea went over in Islamic quarters about as well as you’d expect). Power’s belief in the supremacy of Akram’s understanding, however, denudes the Quran of such complexity. If the Quran contains much that conflicts with Power’s ideas of ethics or proper living, it doesn’t get much play here.

In the end, Power’s accepting of one view of Islam as true – and the one of which she can most easily approve – does a grave disservice to the faith she expresses a desire to understand. In some Christian quarters it has become fashionable to assert that events like the Crusades or the Blood Libel pogroms were “unchristian” and that therefore the perpetrators weren’t “real” Christians, and thus absolve Christianity of any responsibility. In the same vein, one hears great Islamic scholars like George Bush and Barak Obama opine that ISIS doesn’t represent “true Islam.” This of course if nothing more than prettifying hogwash. Muslims who engage in actions that we might find reprehensible draw from the same well as Power’s teacher. I may find some communities of my faith tradition wholly deplorable but writing them out would be intellectually dishonest. That she finds Sheikh Akram’s reading more attractive doesn’t make them any more true. Those who murdered Anwar Sadat and behead people in Iraq read from the same Quran Akram reads in Britain.

For the most part, westerners remain painfully ignorant about Islam. Power does a real service pointing out the depth of that ignorance. Whether one accepts or rejects the “clash of civilizations” narrative, there are countless reasons – practical, intellectual, aesthetic – for people to seek a deep understanding of Islam in all its richness. Clinging to ignorance should be unforgivable. Unfortunately, Power doesn’t so much as bring in the sun of understanding to banish this ignorance as use a candle to offer a tunnel of light to a destination she prefers. Rather than presenting Islam, she presents the Islam she as western intellectual happens to prefer.
Profile Image for Tom LA.
595 reviews223 followers
May 18, 2023
I picked up this beautiful-looking book hoping to understand a little more about Islam - but I am hugely disappointed. The author is reporting the interpretation of the Quran by one erudite scholar as the correct interpretation, because he’s highly respected and because he’s written droves of books about female muslim scholars.

First important note: the “unlikely friendship” of the subtitle is the friendship between the author Carla Powers and the scholar Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, who BOTH studied and lectured at Oxford University. Such an incredible and unlikely friendship between people of such different circles. Just think about the billions of people who belong to the Oxford elite.

Second note: this book will tell you more about the author herself than about anything else. The tone is very self-referential. And it will tell you more about this specific Sheikh / scholar, his life and his thoughts, than about the Quran. So, the second part of the subtitle, which is: “a journey to the heart of the Quran”, which was THE reason why I purchased the book, is really misleading.

In fact - if you are wondering: “Should I read it if I want to get a better understanding of the Quran?”, DON’T. Because you won’t. The percentage of this book dedicated to the Quran is relatively small. And it’s not about the Quran, but about sheikh Mohammad Akram.

Even a person as ignorant as I am about Islam knows that this is not how you should approach Islam if you’re looking for some sort of “objective overview”. If the Catholic Church, with its centralized authority, has always had and still has lots of discording opinions within itself, what about a religion with no centralized authority, that gives the highest authority to a book written in ancient and difficult Arabic?

Shouldn’t you acknowledge the multi-faceted nature of a 1.8 billion people religion that has thousands of discording interpretations on every single line of its holy book? Isn’t Islam a MIX of 1) the religion of peace of the moderates (I guess for the most part) AND 2) the various aggressive brands of anti-infidel philosophy, since both types of Islam are rooted in the Quran?

No - the author does not acknowledge that. Any possible negative connotation (by “negative” I mean “not conforming to the author’s NewYorker-magazine-worldview”) is denied or ignored in favor of an interpretation of Islam as purely a religion of quiet, global harmony, universal equality, full and utter emancipation of women, whispered words and inner wisdom.

One thing is to break stereotypes, which is what I was hoping the book would set to do. And, partially, it does. It is so important to do that if you want to positively contribute to your culture!

But a whole other thing is to write a one-sided apology (if not a passionate celebration) of Islam and its prophet, which this book absolutely is. And a hagiography of sheikh Akram.

I honestly feel like I completely wasted my time.

And this was a candidate for the Pulitzer?

Talk about milking the zeitgeist.

Are there really any Muslim moderates?” asked my friend
“Of course there are!” , I said
“But what about Saudi Arabia?”, he pursued.
“They aren’t practicing Islam”, I replied.

Seriously? How can she say that? Based on what? The Saudi “wahhabism” brand of islam could really not be presented with a trifle more subtlety than that?


One of the problems is that she writes SO DAMN WELL. God, her sentences are so elegant and beautiful. That might easily distract from the book’s shortcomings.


p.32: “ Up to now, the lesson had been going well. Akram’s reading of Al-Fatiha (first verses of Quran) described a just and expansive worldview. The verse’s emphasis on the individual’s direct association with God, unbrokered by clerical middlemen, was REASSURINGLY democratic.”.
(capital letters are mine)

Have you noticed the open minded approach there? No? Me, neither. Here is, in a nutshell, this work’s main flaw: despite presenting this work as “a journey to the heart of the Quran”, the author is clearly not working on an objective research. She is looking for validation of a perfect match between Islam and her own “progressive, feminist and tolerant” worldview.

This is NUTS. Am I making this up? No no - read what follows:

His elaboration - “Those whom God has favored” - was a narrower demographic than I’d been HOPING FOR. Wondering how broad the definition of “righteous” was, I found a clue in the next line:

Not the path of those who are objects of anger, nor of those who wonder astray .

“And what kinds of people are they?” I asked.
“Well, some people say that “those object of Thine anger” refers to the Jews.” Akram’s calm suddenly grew unnerving. “God became angry with the Jews after they rejected Jesus Christ. God’s favor can be taken away from you at any time”.
“Jews” STRUCK LIKE A PEBBLE. “ (note: the author’s mother is Jewish. Again, me, me, me)

From here, the author recounts her distress in rushing away from her lesson with the great scholar. Her deep anxiety at the chance that her narrative might be cracked drove her into a frenzy of research that lasted 24 hours, until, almost furious, she finally found a text by a “ great 20th century muslim reformist”:

“In “Major Themes from the Quran”, he cites a verse from the second sura: [......] he concludes that these words have an obvious meaning, which is simply that those from any section of mankind - who believe in God and the Last Day and do good deeds are saved.


This is written without any irony, at the end of a chapter.

Again, and this time please pardon my French: ... and this was a candidate for the f—- Pulitzer price???

I hear one potential objection to my line of reasoning: “She never set up to explain the Quran objectively, she only told her own personal experience”. Well, that is certainly not the case, given her flippant dismissal of Saudi Arabia as an islamic society. But even if that was the case, that is never clarified in the book (see the subtitle). An honest subtitle should at least have acknowledged that this is a personal journey into one interpretation of the Quran. But then, what would have been the point of such a book? And without any recognized overarching authority, isn’t the Quran really “whatever one thinks it is about”? (p.s.: I now understand the Muslim scholars' "consensus" opinion is crucial in this interpretation process. Please see the comments to this review. This fundamental point was not explained in this book.)

Over and over she writes about the sheikh’s teachings as if they were the way the Quran has to be read if you are right / highly educated. Never once she mentions the fact that his interpretation might be just as valid as a terrorist’s, given that technically the book is above anything or anyone else. In fact, the sheikh does hint at precisely that concept, towards the beginning of the book, but then what’s the value of one interpretation if it’s not applicable to the whole of Islam? Why should we care about what one person - and the author - think ? I do not care. I would like to understand more about “islam”. Is that asking too much?


A couple more notes here:

1). p. 32: Akram: “Islam - meaning “submission” - is required of a muslim. That’s why we have to bow in prayer. Before God, we require extreme humbleness. While Christianity and Judaism drew their names from people, the word “Islam” refers to a relationship rather than a single figure : that between every believer and God”.

It’s clear how this is not a casual mention of the other two religions (unnecessary in the context of the paragraph) but a not-so-subtle declaration of superiority. Paradoxically, in reality it is Islam the only one of the three that ends up worshiping a man (Mohammed), by imitating even his trivial hand gestures.

It’s the same pettiness that I found once in a catholic priest who made a comment about how christians pray standing up, and they are “better” because they never prostrate themselves in front of God. Pure childishness: “Me, me, me”. Nothing else.

2). p. 53 - always Akram talking: “in Christianity, they emphasize abstract ideas, but we don’t want spirituality to come through these big ideas [interesting concept, but unclear]. Christians are not so concerned about what Jesus did. They are not concerned with the details of the way he led his life”. This sounds weird until you realize that Akram follows the prophet Mohammed’s example even in small behaviors like for example entering the kitchen with his right foot first, because that’s how Mohammed did it, or comb the right side of his hair first.

Here you have my thoughts. Step 4 in my short path towards a better understanding of Islam is yet another complete failure.
Profile Image for Salam Ch.
115 reviews45 followers
July 15, 2015
"وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِن بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ "- سورة لقمان
" And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [was ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise." -Surat Lukman.

Carla Power presents in "if the oceans were ink" a memoir for her encounter to study the Quran with the Islamic scholar sheikh Akram Nadwi a muhaddith of the highest calibre and author of a monumental 57 volume work on the lives of female scholars of haddith in Islamic history ( it was a big surprise for me to know that these female scholars exist in Islamic history and thousands of them !!!), he is currently a research fellow at Oxford centre for islamic studies .
while the mass media showing only extremists and terrorist s like IS and the growing islamophobia among the westerners, spotting light on the moderate Islam via a traditional Muslim scholar was a great idea.
Power goes through many debatable issues : women's right , niquab, politics in Islam , and jihadist.....
the book came mainly as a report where Power expresses the point of view of the sheikh without engage in chellenging discussions or a deep understanding of Islam and the Quran !!!
it is an easy read, a good choice to know the true Islam spirit away from the current propaganda, but it s not a satisfying read for those who wish to dig deep into the subject !!!
Profile Image for Roger DeBlanck.
Author 6 books121 followers
September 20, 2021
In her yearlong study under the guidance of renowned Islamic scholar Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, journalist Carla Power gained profound insight and clarity of the Qur’an’s humane message of peace and inclusiveness. Her memoir is a remarkably moving tribute to the great knowledge and compassion that echo forth from the true teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Through her experiences, we can gain a deep appreciation for the beauty, complexity, and humanity of the Qur’anic verses. Power highlights how the Sheikh’s studies bear testament to the manifold contributions and significant influences women have made throughout the history of Islam. In fact, no religion has women playing so vital a role in its development than Islam. Too often over the centuries, it has been radicals and extremists who have polluted the true message of the Qur’an. In doing so, they have chosen to exploit laws and customs to carry out oppression, violence, and terror.

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 Qur’an. 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 words and deeds, the hadith and sunna. 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 Qur’an stresses how no singular group has exclusive salvation, and it questions any group that claims only a singular path exists to reaching paradise.

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 Qur’an 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 on prayer and honoring God. Extremists 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 radical 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 Qur’an reveals a great humanity based on reason and tolerance. Islam began with a command to recite and 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 teaches: 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 an enlightening book that offers us knowledge and insight about the great humanity of Islam.
Profile Image for Tim.
295 reviews290 followers
March 21, 2016
There was much that was relatable in both Carla and Sheikh Akram. In Carla, I recognized the desire to understand, and even the desire for immersion that she inherited from her father when she observes that “I saw the transformative effect that crossing cultures had on him: it went beyond a value to become a survival strategy.” (location 567) Later, she alludes to the focus and clarity that is possible in displacement, not only in the obvious benefits of seeing something “foreign” up close, but also in the view it gives to the home culture: “For me, distance has always spurred engagement, if not enchantment. I was most attentive to Western culture when I was far away from it.” (location 3394)

In the Sheikh’s view of Islam the theme that most struck me was his focus on kindness and compassion and how he draws a line from that to the justice of Islam. Justice is ultimately a form of love, of a desire for a universal good past all lesser agendas. It goes past politics, culture and “religion” in its institutional form and extends to God Himself.

For if God is bigger than we can imagine, then God must truly transcend. It’s where we see the universality of Islam. My own attraction to the faith started as an intellectual search through a discarding of the past. I was stepping away from what I’d been taught early in life in a search for the authentic. I discovered something on my own terms, and that discovery has resonated in the sense that I am now able to embrace the new as well as the old. Like anything that has truth at its essence, the focus on the particular grants clarity to the universal. God is closer than we can imagine, yet transcendent. One God, many manifestations. The truth in Islam is reflected for me just as much in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. The Real is reflected precisely because I’m seeing it in one focused way rather than trying to glimpse it from all possible vantage points. The Sheikh says at one point “If Allah had pleased, He would have created all people alike, yet Allah has bestowed on man the potential for intellect and will, hence people have diverse beliefs, thoughts, and tendencies.” (location 3479) This comes from the Qur’an itself in 5:48 among other places. Where the Sheikh and I would disagree is his belief that only Muslims (capital M) carry the ultimate true religion.

The Qur’an speaks to Muslims in the lower case “m”...muslim meaning “One who submits to God”. Islam as an institutional religion with its centuries of accumulated history wasn’t around when the Qur’an was revealed. This, the Sheikh too acknowledges, and he sees this as a call to get past culture and politics to a focus on God, which for him means a focus on character. There is a chapter where he is challenged on this by Mona, a student who sees justice as extending to the here and now in the sense of fighting corrupt leaders, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring. The Sheikh didn’t see this as important as a focus on improving the self. I would take a bit of both – fight corruption but don’t let it consume you, transcend it or you’ll become what you’re trying to avoid.

Carla wanted to see Islam through the Qur’an as interpreted by the Sheikh, who she was drawn to from his remarkable studies on the influence of women in Islamic history. She too hoped for more truth in universals through a focus on particulars. For the Sheikh, his plan was to take her back to “basics” with Islam as focused first on the Qur’an and then the Sunnah of the Prophet. The Sheikh is not a Salafist in this sense, but would have more of a traditional approach as seen by someone like Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Sheikh Akram respects the work done by classical Islamic scholars, but also challenges that work in his recognition of the impact of culture, even in his own habits. To him, it’s about a return to The Qur’an and Sunnah, and Carla acts a bit shocked when she is told that so many Muslims don’t study the Qur’an or even read it as they should, instead relying on others to interpret it for them.

The book has an amazing tone of openness and a willingness to learn from both parties and is not afraid to express disagreements, uncomfortable ideas, traditions or facts, including the age of Aisha, whether or not the Qur’an authorizes domestic abuse, issues of women’s rights and of course jihad. It’s a healthy discussion, and one that is encouraged by Islam itself. “The term that appears most frequently in the Quran, after “Allah,” is ilm, or knowledge. Islam began with the command, “Read.” And the Sheikh’s own message was not a call to arms, but a plea to his students: “Think!”” (location 4206)
Profile Image for Josie.
191 reviews5 followers
May 18, 2015
A very thoughtful book. A secular journalist befriends a traditional Islamic scholar, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi. For a year she meets with him to learn about the Quran and his faith. Surprisingly, his view is very broad in places where a Westerner might expect it to be narrow; women, education, reason, etc...His thoughts on veiling of women was fascinating. It should only be the woman's choice. Veiled, a woman becomes more than just her body or a sexual object for someone else. It seems surprisingly feminist in that way. Also, his emphasis on placing sacred text in the context in which it was written is necessary for a faithful reading. Educated clergy are a gift to the faith, not a detraction. He even changes his mind on a matter of theology by the arguments of two of his female students (to the astonishment of his male students!)
I've heard it said that when you learn of religions different from your own, you learn about your own religion in the process. While I admired and was humbled by aspects of this man's holiness, I found his faith to be utterly otherworldly, concerned largely with personal piety and fear of hell. At times it seemed the reason for good deeds and submission to Allah's will was in hopes of afterlife rewards. This world was just a way station to something greater (or grimmer) and a pious Muslim wouldn't get too involved in it. This may be good advice, but I find those "pie in the sky" theologies disturbing in any faith, including my own. It seems unloving and without compassion. A narrowing of vision perhaps that excluded too many and focused so much on the self and the self's spiritual scoreboard. The Sheikh seemed a very caring family man and a gentle friend to the author, but in the end, he concludes that because she is an unbeliever, she is bound for hell - and he says it nicely, with a smile.
Like the author, I found myself hoping he would present a more "modern" sensibility on certain topics. Indeed on some matters, he was amazingly egalitarian and enlightened. Much of his scholarly research has been to reclaim the heritage of women teachers and spiritual leaders in Islam's past. On other issues like homosexuality and the legitimacy of other religions, he remains very hard line with little of his fluid thinking on other matters. His condemnation of my faith, while kindly given, was very difficult and hurtful. We really have no authority to say these things to another, even in a "kind, I'm trying to save you" way.
All in all a fascinating peek at this holy book and faith which has something beautiful and challenging to say to us all.
Profile Image for John Kaufmann.
629 reviews54 followers
July 27, 2015
Very mixed about this book. I could have given it 2-stars or 4-stars. I enjoyed reading it, and it challenged some of my preconceptions/prejudices. That's what a good book is supposed to do, right?

But at the same time, I found it hard to accept much of what the protagonist (the Muslim cleric the author befriended) said about Islam - I was questioning and critiquing a lot of what he said and what the author accepted, at least on the surface. I couldn't help wondering at times whether the author was condoning some of the comments (she is/was quite open and even sympathetic toward Islam), or whether she was just a journalist reporting on what her friend was teaching. (She did voice her own skepticism on a few issues, such as over how women are treated and the reflexive anti-Jewish attitudes expressed even by this cleric.)

In any event, I couldn't help thinking that if this cleric that she befriended is among the most liberal and Western that Islam has to offer, well, it's still quite conservative by contemporary western standards (and many Muslims probably prefer it that way). (The author reminds us that it's only 200-300 years ago the West was much the same, and is still no paragon of liberalism or tolerance.) Furthermore, as liberal and open and accepting as this cleric is, much of what he had to say is, by his own admission, not even accepted within his immediate family and faith community, much less by Islam as a whole. That doesn't mean most Muslims are terrorists, of course, or even that they are supportive of the extremists; but it does suggest that there remains an inherent tension between Muslim religion/culture and the West. The author didn't go there.

The protagonist argues that the Quran (and in particular the Hadith, the direct commentary and teachings of Muhammed and his immediate companions) is more liberal and tolerant than common perception, and that the more intolerant and extreme positions that have come to be identified with Islam in recent years are interpretations that have accrued by clerics over the centuries and contradict Muhammed's message. I'm not sure that's accurate based on other stuff I've read, but I'm also not sure it's even relevant.

All-in-all, it's a good book and worth reading. It is a more enjoyable way to learn about Islam than many of the drier, more "scholarly" books. Just don't enter it thinking it is the "truth" about Islam, or even that it's accurate or representative (maybe it is, but maybe it isn't). It does portray, however, one piece of the mosaic that makes up Islam, and deserves our attention.
Profile Image for Edwin Setiadi.
270 reviews12 followers
May 19, 2016
This book is a perfect book for Ramadan reading, written by Carla Power, a secular Jewish journalist whom has 20 years+ unique friendship with a renowned Muslim scholar in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi.

It is an enlightening book, written with the mission to 1. Debunk the [negative] myths and stereotypes surrounding Islam and Muslims 2. To differentiate between local customs (like burqa-wearing Taliban) and the religion 3. And more centrally for the book, to interpret the verses in the Holy Quran and show, for instance, why the so-called "verse of the sword" that Osama Bin Laden used to justify his actions was being misinterpreted.

It is a personal book, built around the personae of the Sheikh, following his amazing journey from a simple madrassa student in his village in India, to researcher in Oxford University, and to world renowned expert on Hadith. It is also a personal book for the author, where she can relate a lot of major historical events with her own story - from her childhood in Tehran, Delhi, Kabul, Cairo, to her work in an Islamic Think Tank and as a journalist covering the Middle East.

It is also a beautifully written book, with the highest respect dedicated to Islam and the Holy Quran. The title of the book itself is a testament to this, which is a poetic reference from a Quran verse:

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. (Al Kahf 18:109)

Reza Aslan's No God But God was enlightening, so did Karen Armstrong's Islam: a short story. But this book is different, it moved me, humbled me and able to connect me to the solemn and peaceful [real] religion of Islam, one verse of Quran interpretation at a time. The Sheikh's wisdom and teachings about Islam is very calming and reassuring, while the author's worldly knowledge gave me a new perspective on how to see the so-called "Islamic World" from a different light.
Profile Image for Khairul Hezry.
688 reviews117 followers
November 5, 2022
The lessons I gained from this book is that Muslims should return to the Qur'an and the example of the Prophet. Forget identity politics and focus on piety and the only way to do that is to understand the lessons in the Qur'an and how the Prophet (the 'walking Qur'an ') practised it.
Profile Image for Zainab Bint Younus.
202 reviews242 followers
September 23, 2020
Y'all. This book. Made my heart feel so full.

I'd heard of this book a few years ago, when Sh Muhammad Akram Nadwi was first catapulted to somekind-fame thanks to his work on Al-Muhaddithaat, the female hadith scholars of Islamic history. (I took his class on the topic!) This book has been on my TBR list ever since.

Finally having acquired it, unexpectedly and on sale (always a perk!), I have enjoyed every minute of this read.

Carla Power is a secular Jewish feminist, a journalist, and Sh Akram's colleague for over twenty years. In this book, she documents the time that she spent studying the Qur’an with him, traveling to India to visit his hometown, and the many philosophical questions and queries that arose over their time of study and discussions.

As a Muslim reader (and somewhat familiar with Sh Akram's views), the book served as a touching insight into the shaykh's life - his humbleness, his wisdom, and his rather unique perspectives on various topics. Whether discussing women's rights and roles in Islamic scholarship, or political activism (or rather, lack thereof), or living as a Muslim in the West, I can appreciate his takes even if I don't always agree with them.

Most of all, however, what shines through - beautifully, thanks to Power's personal fondness for Sh Akram and her not insignificant talent at writing - is Sh Akram's depth of sincerity and truly awe-inspiring love and awareness of Allah. I am not much to wax lyrical about the praises of scholars, and tend to roll my eyes when people get over excited in doing so, but Sh Akram is the closest I will get to feeling that rush of respect and love and sense of being gently, lovingly, drawn to the Deen and love for Allah. (Basically: I am a Sh Akram fangirl and make no apologies for it.)

I genuinely appreciated Power's own personal reflections, her admission to biases and assumptions, and the way that she found herself growing and exploring a new way of seeing Islam, the Qur’an, and the world itself. Her honesty was refreshing, though her conclusion - where she does not, after all, convert to Islam (lulz) - was mildly disappointing, though not unexpected.

5/5 stars!!! 🌟
Profile Image for Ina Cawl.
92 reviews287 followers
December 20, 2015
i honestly enjoyed this book although it will be diffcult for non muslims to fully understand many words in the book
Profile Image for Eressea.
1,423 reviews56 followers
February 26, 2021




Profile Image for Lyana Khairuddin.
95 reviews22 followers
September 20, 2017

I was born a Muslim, and was taught to recite the Quran from a very young age, where I first completed (what is called "khatam Quran" among Malays in Malaysia) my recital of the Quran in full, at the tender age of 12. There was a ceremony and everything. Yet, I did not know what I was reciting, apart from the fact that I was told that I have learnt the right way to recite it.

It took age, soul-searching, and yes, Islamophobia for me to return to finally read the Quran, this time. While over the years and struggling with teenage angst I have found solace in reciting verses and Surahs, with my favourites being the verses called "Ayat Seribu Dinar" and the surah Ar-Rahman; my solitude was merely superficial where the rhythmic recital can be considered as therapy. I returned to the Quran in a nation where the Muslims have used/still are using the religion as political tool, as a mode of control, and using the Quran as a divisive, almost oppressive tool where discourse is considered dissent, thus silenced.

Having had these experience, I envy Carla Power her friendship and tutorship with an alim who is conservatively muslim, yet with the deep understanding that islam is a faith of the heart. Yet, I also say a prayer of gratitude for my own journey that came to me purchasing and reading this book. If the oceans were ink, indeed. This book is an apt reminder of the need to return to seeking knowledge, of appreciating differences, of allowing/participating in/encouraging vibrant discourse in the muslim world and of truly believing in compassion, kindness, and love.

Profile Image for Lindsay.
1,124 reviews
January 13, 2017
It took me one whole month to read this because it is a sitting and thinking book, though not in an inscrutable way...just so much food for thought. And I chose to pick it up in time for holiday/life madness.

As a non-believer who happens to love Islam (as well as hailing from St. Louis), I enjoyed much of Carla Power's perspective going into a year long study with her friend and colleague, Sheik Mohammad Akram Nadwi. She had a foundation and was curious, and she often calls herself out on her own ignorance, privilege, and assumptions. It was so enlightening to hear the Sheik's point of view--in these days of strict black and white, it was awesome to hear confident yet humble lessons from a conservative (though progressive--in the ways traditional Islam has always been historically) Muslim. I felt Power's friction, too, on the moments they did clash, but always it roots down a deeper exploration. After a chapter or two reading the e-book on loan from the library, I realized I just needed to buy the dang thing--this is the first book in forever that prompted me to highlight the text and put in stickies. I am so excited to explore all the feminist and otherwise progressive Muslims referenced throughout...marked up the bib quite well, too. While the book was not without some detractors, it provided me a beautiful reading experience (in the end, I was tearing up a bit) and no doubt has developed my own understanding of Islam a little more.
1 review
May 6, 2015
Carla Power writes with a novelist's elegant eye, taking readers on an intimate, personal journey into the heart of a religion that has been an enigma to most Western readers. Refreshingly open and honest, Power neither seeks to defend Islam nor to malign it; rather, she unpacks elements of the religion that we may have heard reference to but with little context. And she does it with the help of a companion, Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi who grew up steeped in it. Together they peel away layers of meaning from the text of the Quran and the cultures that have evolved around it. Who was Mohammad and how did the book get written? Do women really count less than men in Islam? Why is the Quran open to such widely divergent interpretations? What's the deal with the 72 virgins? Power weaves her own story of growing up American, secular and nomadic across the Middle East and South Asia in the 1970s and 80s with Nadwi's upbringing in a village and then a madrasa in northern India. Their personal histories converge in Oxford, England where, against a global backdrop of war and cultural barriers, they work together to tease out a deeper understanding of the world's fastest-growing religion. This book is a must-read for policymakers, journalists, community leaders, and anyone (Muslim or non-Muslim) who is interested in a clear, humanist picture of what Islam is all about.
Profile Image for Yasmin.
59 reviews
July 9, 2015
Far from an in depth study, more like a memoir but nice to see the views of a genuinely interested non Muslim. Lovely insights into the Sheikh as a son, father, husband as well as the scholar and teacher he is so renowned as.
Profile Image for Dana Al-Basha |  دانة الباشا.
2,174 reviews784 followers
Shelved as 'to-buy'
November 28, 2020
قُل لَّوْ كَانَ الْبَحْرُ مِدَادًا لِّكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّي لَنَفِدَ الْبَحْرُ قَبْلَ أَن تَنفَدَ كَلِمَاتُ رَبِّي وَلَوْ جِئْنَا بِمِثْلِهِ مَدَدًا (109) سورة الكهف

وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِن بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ (27) سورة لقمان

Profile Image for Asmara.
117 reviews46 followers
November 22, 2019
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.

Profile Image for Quo.
284 reviews
December 12, 2018
There are essentially two books within If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power, a curious blending of Islamic scholar Sheik Akram's interpretation of the Qur'an (Koran) and an embedded autobiographical sketch of the author's childhood & family, with the profile of the sheik being much more compelling. In fact, I wished that Carla Power had been much less personally involved in the book itself and simply had let Sheik Akram act as the driving force. That said, I suspect that the editorial mission was to allow this book to serve as a preamble for those with no previous exposure to Islam or the Middle East. The author takes on the task of experiencing or interpreting the Qur'an as a "cultural cartographer" with Sheik Akram, an Indian-born Muslim scholar living in the U.K. as her guide.

My point of discontent is that I felt that Carla Power was never fully invested in a thorough exploration of the Qur'an as opposed to merely completing her assignment of spending most of one year with an Islamic scholar. Power's view of the Qur'an seemed simplistic at best & with reference to the most important Islamic book, she indicates: "I had no clue", an odd admission for someone with considerable journalistic experience who spent parts of her childhood in various Islamic countries and who has a degree from Oxford. We learn that the author's father was a depressive law professor in St. Louis & a Quaker and her mother an English professor & a "cultural Jew". And like her father, someone whose view of Islam was that of an "Orientalist", someone with an aesthetic appreciation of Islam rather than viewing it as a living tradition, Carla Power expresses that both were "most at home when farthest from it."

We do learn that prior to Muhammad, pilgrims made an annual visit to Mecca to worship the 360 idols or tribal gods contained in the Kabba much as the ancient Druids made pilgrimages to the area that now is said to serve as the repository for St. Stephen's bones & the Christian pilgrimage site at Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain. Also, initially Muhammad led a multi-faith community at Medina that included Jews & pagans. In 632, 10 years after the flight to Medina, the Hejira & after battling the Meccans & building the first mosque, Mohammad returns to Mecca in triumph & smashes the idols within the Kabba. These are fundamental details to a comprehension of the Qur'an and Islam.

Sheik Akram is from a small town near Lucknow in northern India & is viewed as a liberal cleric because he is has a less doctrinaire reading of the Qur'an and Islam in general, particularly as relates to women. Akram's view is that "the whole world is a mosque" and calls for a "muscular submission to Allah". He states that "whether in Lucknow or Liverpool, pray and change yourself & not the system". Thus, Akram laments both the American focus on individualism (vs. the Muslim focus on continuity) and those Muslims who attempt at all costs to recreate the age of Muhammad rather than to use the Qur'an as a guide to a living faith. Akram has written a controversial book, based on extensive research, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam with coverage of Muhammad's 11 wives & in particular, wife #3, Aisha, who was a jurist, a military commander & an Islamic scholar. Meanwhile, wife #10, Saffiya, was a Jewish convert to Islam.

At a seminar aimed at young British Muslims seeking spouses, the sheik is asked about feminism, child brides & the role of women within Islam but not about the absence of female imams or sheiks. It seems that Muslim women today are better educated & better-off in general but still secondary to men, though there has been a gradual evolution according to Akram, whose own views seem to be evolving. According to the sheik, Islam is "not just an identity but a means of knowing (cultivating) God's presence", for "Allah demands faith & action." In spite of a seeming openness to other religions, Sheik Akram suggests that Jews & Christians must accept Muhammad as a prophet in order to reach heaven. And, the Christian concept of the Trinity represents the ultimate sin against Islam as "God doesn't need any partners".

The segments of If the Oceans Were Ink that I most enjoyed were those when Akram speaks of his own relationship with Islam, including his views on how Islam has allowed cultural aspects to change since Muhammad's time. especially with relation to the role of women. Sheik Akram is described as an "extremist quietist" & is firmly apolitical. He tells Muslims to "change yourself & not the system!". Akram cites the assault on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and the reaction to that attack, the so-called "War on Terror", suggesting that both the bombers and the responders were obsessed with external threats, with both seeming as symmetrical as the Twin Towers, blaming each other instead of developing Taqwa, or God-consciousness.
The jihadis blamed the west for the ills of the Muslim world, while the American hawks exaggerated the threat from the jihadis. Neither was willing to look at what was really ailing their societies, thought Akram. In the Muslim case, it was their mistaken turn away from piety to identity politics. In the United States, it was a moral decline & an unquenchable desire for eating, drinking, money & sex. True freedom means freedom from desire. True freedom means freedom of thinking and if your mind just follows your desires--how to make more money, how to eat more, drink more, have more things--it's really worse than slavery.
The sheik, who also has a degree from Oxford, has described his own life as a "deft shuffle between tradition & exploration." Late in the book, the former nun & British author, Karen Armstrong, is quoted as stressing the need to "focus on reconciliation & not retaliation."

There are indeed insights into the Qur'an within If the Oceans Were Ink but I thought that the book often resembled a transcribed author's journal, "Travels With Carla" as it were and I had expected a more in-depth interchange between Carla Power & Sheik Akram. *If permitted, I would have rated the book as 3.5 vs. just a 3. (Thus, perhaps a 4* rating for Sheik Akram and a 3* rating for Carla Power.)
Profile Image for Joko.
350 reviews6 followers
March 13, 2021
Very well written! Interesting, fresh perspective for me. Even when Power disagrees with Islamic teachings or can't relate to certain practices, she deals with the topics non-judgmentally and honestly. She recognises her privilege at key moments.

Love the recognition of both the "Islamic world" and the "West" as being mythical places.
Profile Image for R Nair.
122 reviews52 followers
May 10, 2017
Islam is a beautiful religion in itself, unfortunately it also may be the most misinterpreted one at the present times. Not only westerners but also many easterners still remain largely ignorant of what Islam truly is. I don't claim to be an expert, but having grown up in a country where one can peacefully study in a catholic school that stands about 5 meters away from a Hindu temple while most of your friends in the said school are Sikh and Muslim kids reciting morning prayers from the Bible, gives you a unique perspective about the internal structure of faith and how easy it is to not be butthurt over what a book or a polititian says. This book provides that perspective but unfortunately not in real depth. If the book had gone into the deeper contentious issues in Islam along with the innumerable ideas in it that are a klaxon of peace and tolerance instead of the chapters dealing with the cultural and socio-economic background of the Islamic Scholar and the author's friendship with him, then this would have been a far more interesting book. But as it is, it is compelling reading and can work as a candle in the dark for those looking to understand the scholarly secular philosohpical interpretation of the Quran in greater depth.
Profile Image for Niki.
55 reviews
July 2, 2015
This is a smart, funny, and touching book. It provides a marvelous dip into Islam that is more than an introduction, but less than a deep study, by a narrator who lets you into her heart and mind. The author is smart, funny, self deprecating and quite endearing. Her conversations, over the course of more than a year, with a widely respected Imam who lives in Britain, are truly a peek into the mind of a knowledgeable believer. He tells wonderful stories about Mohammed and about Islam in general.

Sure, the book would’ve been more sensational if the Imam were a little more radical, but I that’s what makes it great. It’s not sensational and really asks the reader to walk with a man who teaches about Islam without trying to convert or win over or – to do anything else sensational.

There are many moments that just require a conversation. It would thus make a great book for a book club.

By the end, I not only wanted to also have tea (as the author did) with the Imam but also with the author herself, whose own story is woven in with her study sessions with the Imam and which is almost as intriguing as his story.
Profile Image for Erica.
30 reviews
June 17, 2015
(4.5) Definitely worth the read. Power walks the reader through her year-long journey with a Sheikh and their collaborative navigation through the Quran. While it reads, at times, like a history textbook, I found it necessary for the reader to understand the context in which Power and the Sheikh were arriving at their conversations. The commitment it took Power and the Sheikh to complete this work is undeniable. I walked away with important knowledge; hijab, for example, has two meanings; it is the Muslim term for dressing modestly and also the scarf used to cover a woman's hair. Although there were phrases that I was familiar with; Alhamdulillah, for example, is Arabic for "Thanks and praise to God" and inshallah meaning God willing (a term used by Muslims when referring to a future event), there were so many others that I didn't know, or know the context of, in Arabic or the English translation. This reveals in me a desire to study the Quran further.
Profile Image for Wade.
172 reviews15 followers
June 21, 2016
Honest, humble exploration of Islam and Western secular thought

Too often we think of Islam and the West as separate, distinct, and opposing. This book layers a secular American liberal point of view with an honest and respectful exploration and a gentle, yet firm view of the Quran in Muslim life. The narrator willingly acknowledges her own limits and blind spots, a rare glimpse of humility from an American point of view. She is matched by the graceful, clear-speaking, and thoughtful scholar. Rather than a textbook or a history, this book is a meditation on the meaning of spirituality itself, and of a pious, carefully considered life. I appreciate the way the author and her friend illuminate the limits of secular, Euro-American imagination when it comes to understanding the Quran and the cultures and communities of those who follow it.
Profile Image for Afshan.
Author 1 book17 followers
January 4, 2021
Enjoyable read filled with nuance and depth. I found this book to be a wonderful journey - accompanying both an acclaimed journalist and a traditional Islamic scholar in a respectful, professional engagement. Sitting in on their conversations about the Quran was enjoyable and a unique exploratory view. The academic and personal foray into Shaykh Akram's personal Islamic upbringing, in addition to examining verses and concepts found in the Quran, made the book a compelling read. As someone who has studied Quranic sciences as a student, this book proves to be a resourceful tool in reflecting on one's own relationship with the historical context and passages. This book also helps contextualize the idea of studying the Quran - providing both perspectives of introspection and external study. Highly recommended read.
Profile Image for Affad Shaikh.
97 reviews10 followers
March 19, 2016
I enjoyed reading along this journey by Carla to practice what she preaches- recognizing diversity by understanding and appreciating the differences, not rejecting them or living a life skirting those issues. I think that is a powerful lesson to draw upon, however, as a Muslim I was particularly drawn to the lessons Carla was drawing from reading the Quran. I admit, I found myself quite challenged by some of the lessons Sheikh Akram was advancing, and I found myself equally interested in Carla's pursuit of countering or differing opinions to the traditionalist view Akram presented. Overall I am fairly content at reading the book and see myself thumbing threw chapters further as I process and think and reflect on the book.
Author 1 book62 followers
June 14, 2020
wonderful wonderful book, and sumptuously written. a western feminist, carla power, learning Islam from one of the best scholars in the world - Akram Nadwi.

I will recommend everybody this book. but will specifically say that this is a must for every western reader.
Profile Image for Suraya (thesuraya).
567 reviews144 followers
July 2, 2021
"There's reading the Quran properly and reading it sloppily. All too often, people read it selectively, taking phrases out of context. People just use it for whatever point they're trying to make. They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses they want to hear."

I went into this fully expecting that this book will solely focus on the discussions on the Quran between a Believer and a non-Believer. What I get, is more than that.

Of course, there are some discussions on the controversial verses of the Quran that are often misinterpreted, on the backstory of why certain verses were revealed, on the importance of the Quran. How the Quran differs to the rest of the Scriptures. But theres also discussions on the controversial or hot issues regarding the Muslims, such as the wars in Muslim countries, on the hijab, on polygamy, and even those lost voices of extraordinary women in Islam.

These views, they came from Syeikh Akram. And to understand where his views came from, we're also introduced to his background, his family, his personality. While I agree with most of his views, theres also some of his view that I disagree with, to some extent. But ultimately, I love that his main message is to go back to the Quran and Hadith.

I have to say again that this book isnt exactly what I hoped it would be, because what I really want is in-depth discussion of the Quran specifically (which i thought what was promised, when i read the introduction part). I'd have to read a different book for that since it didnt occur to me until a quarter in that this is a book of discussions between a Believer and a non-Believer. so this is some sort of a "introductory to the basic of Islam for non-Believers" kind of thing.

Nevertheless, this is a very enlightening read that are full of new knowledge and reminders, and it may change your view/perception on one or two things.

"Think for yourselves, but don't change Islam's God-given Truth."
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8 reviews17 followers
September 27, 2021
I wasn’t looking forward to finishing this. It’s been such an uplifting and enlightening read, I didn’t want it to end! I felt like I was there throughout the whole journey of Carla Power and Sheikh Akram Nadwi’s friendship, joining in and listening to their introspective conversations about the Qur’an over a cuppa in a small London café.

Carla Power, a journalist who grew up familiar with the Middle Eastern culture, was on a quest to delve deeper into the Qur’an and understand Allah’s words. She decided to learn from her colleague, the traditional Islamic scholar and Dean of Cambridge Islamic College, Sheikh Akram Nadwi, who comes across as truly endearing, erudite, humble and often striving to emulate the character of our our Prophet (S). I would love to learn from a teacher like him too.

She eloquently wrote about the beauty of Islam by referencing relevant Qur’an verses yet she didn’t shy away from acknowledging her discomfort and disagreements with the Sheikh on certain issues, whilst still respecting his views. Two unlikely individuals — a secular, liberal feminist and a traditional Islamic scholar — bridging and understanding differences in worldviews through a wholesome and necessary dialogue.. we love to see it. We need more of it.
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