Books: If the Oceans Were Ink

I have several times thought about reading the Koran for myself, rather than just depend on what I have read about it. But each time I pick up a copy in a bookstore or library and leaf through it, I find it so inaccessible that I decide to wait until I find some kind of guide to it. (And since such a guide would naturally reflect the religious/social/political perspective of its author, I still wouldn’t know whether I was getting a proper understanding of the subject.)

So when I saw If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power in the library, I thought this could be a very helpful book. Power spent a year studying the Koran with Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi, an Islamic scholar. Along with Power, I would learn from the Sheikh some rudiments of his holy book.

It is a fascinating book, describing the roots of their friendship, Akram’s personal history, and his views on a variety of topics, including the role of women, the meaning of jihad, and other religions. But except for a few verses here and there, we see very little of the actual text of the Koran.

Those verses that are discussed are some of the more controversial texts, and the Sheikh’s interpretations allow for an Islam that can co-exist peacefully with Western culture. Trained in a madrasa – but not the kind that turns out suicide bombers – he has arrived at his beliefs because that is what he finds in the text, unlike those (of whatever religion) who mine their scriptures for text to support their culturally influenced beliefs.

The Sheikh sees much of traditional Islamic practice as cultural traditions that have become so closely associated with the culture’s religion that people assume they are an actual part of Islam. But the Sheikh, focusing on the Koran as his authority rather than much of what was written later, separates cultural traditions from Islamic teaching and finds that much of what the West objects to (particularly how women are treated) is actually counter to what the Koran itself teaches.

I have a friend at church who asks sometimes why the moderate Muslims don’t do more to stop the violent extremists who give Islam a bad name. According to this book, there are plenty of Muslims speaking out against the violence, but it doesn’t make the news that we read because what makes the news is the sensational and horrific.

The Sheikh himself believes that doing violence in the name of Islam is wrong, but his approach is to live as a good Muslim himself and teach others to do so, not organize protests against those he disagrees with. If people mock Islam or Mohammed, likewise he advocates just ignoring it and going about his life being a faithful Muslim.

Those who engage in violence against the West, he says, are actually envious of the West and its power, and want to have the same thing – but an Islamic version of it. “Islamic political programs were overwhelmingly negative, he said, far more focused on getting power than governing effectively. When they did get into power, they governance was often disastrous.”

Of course, as one of the book reviews on amazon.com points out, who is to say that the Sheikh’s version of Islam is the correct one? Certainly Power would, but as other reviews point out, Power’s book has a feel of “hero worship” about it.

I have read conservative Christians arguing that the “fundamentalist” Muslims (i.e. the violent jihadis) are the true Muslims because they are faithful to a literal reading of the Koran. Power’s book convinces me that those like the Sheikh she studied with have a legitimate claim to be true Muslims, but is theirs the only correct view?

Power doesn’t address that. So I guess I’m still looking for a good guide to what the Koran really says.

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