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If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran    by Carla Power order for
If the Oceans Were Ink
by Carla Power
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2015 (2015)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

When I started reading If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by journalist Carla Power, I immediately thought of Rudyard Kipling's Ballad of East and West - 'Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'. But this author shows that there can be a meeting of at least moderate minds, given some effort.

In the book, she talks about her long term friendship with Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a devout and widely respected Muslim, who explains how many (though not quite all) practices of Muslim societies that Westerners find archaic and/or disturbing are actually cultural additions based on (often conservative and punitive) interpretation, rather than part of the original teachings of Islam. Indeed, the Sheikh has been writing 'a forty-volume collection of biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, a work that would reilluminate the lost history of women as religious authorities.'

Power reminds us that 'The Quran began as a series of revelations to Muhammad, a caravan trader, in the seventh century' and that now Islam 'stands as a moral compass for hundreds of millions ... Its words have lent legitimacy to regimes - and to resistance to them. Reading it should be a prerequisite for understanding humanity.' Yet, she tells us that surprisingly few people do. She also reminds us how meaningless a statement that 'Muslims believe ...' must be given that it encompasses 1.6 billion people 'as diverse as Pathan tribals and Kansan surgeons.'

The author arranged to immerse herself in the Sheikh's teachings, in order to discuss topics 'taken from the standard playbook of Western obsessions with Islam' as well as the 'Quran's most important themes, and how they'd shaped his life.' One of the many fascinating insights that he shares with her is that 'Modern Muslims often simply cling to the external signs of their faith' (like beards and headscarves), 'while the soul inside is forgotten.' And that this happens in every culture and faith - how true.

The objective of their talks (and this book) was to 'to make people understand one another' and there's certainly room for improvement in the understanding of peoples of both East and West. If the Oceans Were Ink is an enlightening read that should have a wide audience. It also gives some cause for hope that the two peoples might eventually truly find a way to meet.

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