If the Oceans Were Ink

by Carla Power

February 24, 2017


A Map for the Journey

When I was eleven years old, I bought a tiny book containing a verse from the Quran from a stall outside a Cairo mosque. The amulet was designed to be tucked into a pocket to comfort its owner throughout the day. I was neither Muslim nor literate in Arabic; I bought it not for the words inside but for its dainty proportions. The stall’s proprietress watched me bemusedly as I cooed over the matchbox-sized book. My family and I were living in Egypt at the time, and back at home I taped a bit of paper over the cover and crayoned a woman in a long blue dress, writing on top, “Jane Eyre by C. Bronte.” I then placed the book in the waxy hand of my doll, which sat stiffly on a high shelf in my Cairo bedroom.

The little book outlasted the doll: I found it over a quarter century later, one sticky summer afternoon in St. Louis, wrapped in a jewelry box in my parents’ house. It was a minor miracle that such a flimsy item from a market stall had endured so long. It was a major miracle that I’d found it at all, in a three-story house so crammed with exotic souvenirs that friends called it Aladdin’s Cave. But somehow I did find that booklet, amid the spoils of my father’s avid collecting from the Middle East and Asia: mosque lamps from Cairo, stacks of Indian brocades and embroideries, Bokhara samovars, lapis lazuli boxes, mounds of tribal jewelry, and hundreds of carpets.

Amid all this, my Quran chapter survived. By the time I found it, I knew enough to be embarrassed for having wrapped someone else’s scripture in my own childish concerns. The summer I rediscovered it, during that bleak time after 9/11, shrill voices proclaimed a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and the West. With suicide bombings in Kabul and Baghdad and the horrors of Abu Ghraib still fresh in my mind, my juvenile game seemed insensitive.

By then, not only had I inherited my father’s immersive interest in the Islamic world, but my childhood fascination had been seasoned by studying and reporting on Muslim societies. Over the years, I’d also acquired several more Qurans. As an undergraduate, I bought a $5.99 paperback for a survey course on Islam. It sat on my bookshelf, its pages cheap and grainy, its spine barely cracked. In my twenties, when I was working at an Islamic think tank in Oxford, I received a Quran for free, courtesy of the Saudi Arabian government. Bound in blue leatherette, stamped in gilt with calligraphic script, it was one of millions of copies distributed across the globe in the 1990s as part of an official Saudi campaign. A third Quran was parrot green, with pink flowers on its cover. Inside: a pressed rose, withered jasmine blossoms, and two ticket stubs from the Cairo opera house—relics from a romantic summer studying in Egypt. On my bookshelf alone, there were three translations of the Quran, with as many symbolic meanings: one copy a textbook, another an instrument of state-sponsored propaganda, the third a repository of personal memories.

But my Qurans only hint at the book’s symbolic possibilities. Since Muslims consider it the word of God, a Quran not only offers comfort and inspiration as a text, but commands reverence as an object. This power has also led to the text’s politicization. Waved before a crowd, it can inspire revolutions and wars. Burned or besmirched, it triggers diplomatic incidents and deaths. Quoted or misquoted, it’s been used to justify mercy, and mass murder. In an age when migration and technology have spread its message far beyond its traditional homelands, the Quran has impressive influence in Europe and America. At times, it has been the target of displays of intolerance. Dutch politicians have tried to ban it. A Florida preacher burned it, streaming the destruction over the Internet. News that American soldiers in Afghanistan had burned several copies of the Quran sparked protests and killings. And when the University of North Carolina put excerpts from it on a summer reading syllabus, right-wing groups launched lawsuits, claiming reading the Quran would interfere with students’ religious freedom.

The Quran began as a series of revelations to Muhammad, a caravan trader, in the seventh century. In two decades, these words grew into a spiritual, social, and political force in the Arabian Peninsula. Today, the Quran’s impact is global. Over fourteen hundred years after the Prophet Muhammad heard the first revelation, the text continues to transform geopolitics as well as personal worldviews. As the scripture of the planet’s fastest-growing religion—with 1.6 billion followers, Islam is second in global popularity only to Christianity—it stands as a moral compass for hundreds of millions. Studied alongside the words and deeds of Muhammad, the Quran has been a bedrock for constitutions, leadership styles, and laws. Its words have lent legitimacy to regimes—and to resistance to them. Reading it should be a prerequisite for understanding humanity.

And yet, as I’d later discover, surprisingly few people do. Like any rich and complex text, the Quran is invoked more often than read, and read more often than its meanings are agreed upon. Hostile and casual readers have accused the Quran of being chaotic. Even pious Muslims concede that while its majesty and lyricism overwhelm, some verses confuse as much as clarify. In fact, many students of the Quran don’t understand the classical Arabic they stumble through, and even top madrasas frequently overlook the book in favor of classical works on Islamic law or philosophy, texts that came into being centuries after the Quran’s revelation. Many—good Muslims and curious non-Muslims alike—simply never attempt it. Even the Quran proclaims its own limitless possibilities:

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. (Chapter 18: Verse 109)

Revered by a population as diverse as the umma, or worldwide Muslim community, the Quran can refract in dazzling ways. The San Francisco civil rights lawyer may discover freedoms in the same sura, or chapter, in which a twelfth-century Cairo cleric saw strictures. A Sudanese mullah, or religious teacher, may read a command for wifely obedience; an Indonesian wife may interpret the same passage as a call for equality and compassion. The Marxist and the Wall Street banker, the despot and the democrat, the terrorist and the pluralist—each can point to a passage in support of his cause.

Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, the Islamic scholar who taught me the Quran, once told me an old Indian joke. A Hindu goes to his Muslim neighbor and asks if he could borrow a copy of the Quran. “Of course,” said the Muslim. “We’ve got plenty! Let me go get you one from my library.” A week later, the Hindu returns. “Thanks so much,” he said. “Fascinating. But I wonder, could you give me a copy of the other Quran?”

“Um, you’re holding it there,” said the Muslim. “There’s just one Quran, and you’ve got it.”

“Yeah, I read it,” replied the Hindu. “But I need a copy of the Quran that’s followed by Muslims.”

“The joke is right,” said Akram. “All this talk about jihad and forming Islamic states, that’s not what the Quran says!”

We were sipping tea in an office in Oxford, a couple of years after 9/11. I was a correspondent at Newsweek magazine then, and had dropped by to see him at the think tank where I first met him in the nineties and where he was still working, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. We’d been talking that day, as so many millions of pairs of friends had been, of angry young men with pilot’s licenses, of grizzled criminals hiding in caves, of daisy cutters and blood begetting more blood.

Crowded with desks, strewn with papers, the room where we sat resembled the headquarters of some ramshackle militia. The walls were hung with maps of South Asia, crisscrossed with arrows and studded with little red X’s, from north of the Khyber Pass to down south below Bombay. On the bookshelf, spines glittered with gold-embossed lettering in Arabic and Urdu. Rows of binders labeled in English, Urdu, or Persian filled shelf after shelf.

I recognized my own handwriting on some of those binders. A decade before, I’d worked with Akram to help fill them. We’d researched together on a team of scholars—some Muslim, some Western, all male except for me—mapping the spread of Islam through South Asia. To distinguish him from all the other Mohammads who worked at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, my colleagues and I called him “the Maulana” or “the Sheikh,” traditional honorifics for an Islamic scholar.

And what a scholar he was. Just twenty-seven years old when we first met, he was already a rising star in the global network of traditional ulama, or Muslim religious authorities. Though he was raised in an Urdu-speaking village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the Arabic he learned at a small-town madrasa was so good that he’d begun writing grammars of the language as a teenager. He went on to the prestigious Nadwat al-Ulama, a madrasa in Lucknow, India, where he later stayed to teach and write. His earliest specialty was hadith, or the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, which form the basis of Islamic laws as well as guidelines for the daily life of devout Muslims. At Oxford, he would begin the work that would gain him fame far beyond madrasa circles: a forty-volume collection of biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, a work that would reilluminate Islam’s lost history of women as religious authorities.

That day at Oxford, the mood was bleak. More than a decade after we’d been colleagues, we were both grayer. Since 9/11, we’d watched relations between Muslims and non-Muslims fray in ways destined to remain unrepaired during our lifetimes. All the sweet optimism of our days spent researching India’s Muslim scholars and mystics seemed quaint. When the Twin Towers fell, the world had cleaved in two, we were told. “You’re either with us,” intoned my president, George W. Bush, “or against us.” In a single sentence, President Bush had dismissed the Sheikh, me, and scores of millions more. His worldview had no space for nuance or equivocation. It didn’t recognize Americans who questioned the invasion of Iraq, or Muslims who deplored both the jihadis and the policies of the U.S. government.

Most of the media echoed President Bush’s black-and-white vision, pounding out a steady drumbeat of declarations about two cultures, airtight and separate: “the West” and “the Islamic world.” When the twain met, they assured us, trouble followed. It had been this way since the days of the Crusades and it would continue in this way until those Muslims got modernity like the rest of us. But “Islamic world” was always a flabby term. It grows increasingly useless in an era in which migration and conversion mean that Muslims now live everywhere, from Peking to Sydney to Patagonia. Equally meaningless: the statement “Muslims believe.” Those pronouncements about a group that encompasses 1.6 billion people fall dramatically short in describing an umma that embraces people as diverse as Pathan tribals and Kansan surgeons.

But fear favors the crude stereotype, and those were fearful times. When I worked at Newsweek, a respected writer emailed a memo disparaging Muslim culture in terms so sweeping and vulgar that all I could think of—as I stared at his words with hot, red eyes—was anti-Semitic rhetoric out of 1930s Germany. The Sheikh heard parallel rants from his fellow Muslims. “When people say things against Americans or Jews, I tell them I’ve worked with both kinds of people, and that not all of them are like the ones we read about,” he said.

In such a climate, our friendship felt freakish. It had always been an oddity: I’m a secular feminist, Jewish on my mother’s side and Quaker on my father’s; Akram is a conservative alim, or Muslim scholar. When we’d met, I’d been a miniskirted twenty-four-year-old, unsure of anything except her own importance. For the two years we worked together, we had found common ground in the commonplace, sipping tea, grumbling gently about our boss and sodden English winters. He was soft-spoken and gracious, quoting liberally from his beloved Persian poets, sharing homemade biryanis. Growing up, my family lived in a range of places in South Asia and the Middle East. In Akram, I recognized the effort it took to create familiarity in an unfamiliar place. In time, we would grow from friendly colleagues into friends.

When I visited him that day in Oxford, we sat, two bookish types, bewildered at the blood and vitriol of the battles being fought in his name and mine. Every Islam-related bit of news seemed to be bad. Every Muslim depicted in Western papers seemed to be extreme. “Nobody wants to interview Muslims like you, Sheikh,” I sighed. “Pick up a Kalashnikov! Start calling for sharia law! Then you’ll get some airplay!”

The conversation petered out, and our cups of tea grew tepid. The pale lemon sun had faded, giving the room an antique feeling. For some reason—perhaps the Oxford dusk, perhaps my sense of being swept aside by the zeitgeist—I suddenly remembered a World War I recruiting poster I’d once seen. A chiseled man in a three-piece suit and one of those T. S. Eliot hairdos, slicked and center-parted, was shown at home in a cushy armchair, looking glum. His blond daughter was on his knee, and his son marched toy soldiers across the floor. The caption read: “Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?”

Designed to spur an earlier generation of Britons onto the battlefield, the poster had precisely the opposite effect on me. It rallied me, sure. It made me worry about how my kids would look back and ask me what I’d done during these dark times, during this so-called War on Terror. It made me want to run out there, armed only with my keyboard, and attack prevailing stereotypes. I was ready to lead a charge into transcivilizational dialogue. The blithe generalizations about “the Islamic world” and “the West” were fictions, lazy catchalls employed by headline writers and zealots.

“What did you do in the war, Daddy?” the Sheikh repeated slowly. “That’s very good, really. It is incumbent on us to work hard, in these times, to make people understand one another.”

Read the full excerpt here.

Copyright © 2015 by Carla Power
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Carla Power writes for TIME and was a foreign correspondent for Newsweek. Her writing has appeared in 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.