Book Review: If The Oceans Were Ink by Carla Power

Carla Power, a journalist, was motivated to write this book because she realized that although she wrote a lot about the Muslim world she had no idea about the Quran and what the scripture meant to the Muslims she reported on. She decided to study the Quran under the guidance of Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, a notable scholar at Oxford, who is best known for his research on the women scholars of Islam. Through his research, he found that women played a crucial role in the studies of the Hadith and that their contributions have been largely forgotten or willfully suppressed. His 57-volume book, chronicling the lives of nearly 10,000 women scholars, is only available in Arabic, but an English translation of the preface to the book, which alone is over 300 pages long, is available.

If the Oceans were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, has been on my to-read since 2015 and it was one of the books that inspired this year’s theme. I added it because I wanted to get another perspective on Islam than the one I was getting from the news outlets. Back then there seemed to be a lot of debate about the different interpretations of the Quran and I felt compelled to read it myself.

I think it is important to mention that this book is not an aid for studying the Quran, it is a memoir. However, I am glad I started reading this book at the same time I started reading the Quran. This book is by no means meant to be a guide on how to read the Quran, but I found that the passages mentioned in the book were a good place to start.

The Quran is a series of revelations from God delivered to the Prophet Mohamed by the archangel Gabriel. And just like any other religious scripture, it too is open to interpretation. Power tells us that “Revered by a population as diverse as the Umma, or world-wide Muslim community, the Quran can refract in dazzling ways.” The same chapter in the Quran can be interpreted and approached in so many different ways, seemingly supporting diametrically opposing world views.

The book touches on several issues such as child marriage, women’s rights, extremism, Islamophobia, among others. This book was very eye-opening for me. For instance, on the issue of women’s rights, it became clear to me that “it is often patriarchal culture, not Islamic tenets restricting women.” Another important lesson for me was that context is everything. When reading the Quran it is very important to have an understanding of what 7th century Arabia was like, as well as the collective history of Judaism and Christianity.

Written with empathy and nuance, I would recommend this book to anyone trying to gain an insight on the Quran in an apolitical way. For me personally this book was eye-opening because, not only did I get a glimpse of the life led by the Prophet Mohamed, I also gained an understanding of what it means to be a good Muslim.

Further Resources:

Carla Power Interview:

Online Quran:

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