If the Oceans Were Ink—an Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran

By Carla Power

Henry Holt and Company | New York | 2015

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

book jacket

After studying theology for three years at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and then studying Islam independently for the next twenty years, in the year 2000 I published a book with Xlibris called Revelation! The Single Story of Divine Prophecy to Abraham and His Descendants—the Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

In it I argued that if one believes in the reality of divine Revelation (as opposed to revelation, spelled with a lower case “r”), that is to say, the times in human history when selected people have received messages from God (as recorded in the Old and New Testaments) then the Prophet Muhammed is either a Prophet within the Judeo-Christian tradition or he is not. And, if he is not, then he is a fraud.

Since this is one of those questions to which an answer cannot be given, I proffered the answer, YES, Muhammed is a Prophet within the Judeo-Christian tradition!

One can view Revelation from the time of Noah and Abraham to Mohammed as a succession of Revelations, each one improving on those which preceded it. The Revelation given to Jesus is an improvement over the Law given to the Israelites in the form of the Ten Commandments, in that Jesus summed up the entire law into two commandments, that we love God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbors as ourselves.

We might think that this would be the end of it, but then, 500 years later, along came Mohammed, in 570 AD to be precise, and to him was given the Revelation that came to be compiled into the Quran. Following this line of reasoning we might view the Quran as Revelation given to correct misconceptions created by the Jews and Christians.

Great are the implication of this, for then it is incumbent that Islam be reconciled with Christianity and Islam!

After having thoroughly studied the Quran and having made note of its Old and New Testament references, I analyzed their differences from comparable Biblical texts.

When recently, 16 years later, I noticed a book called If the Oceans Were Ink on the shelves of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, it rang a bell. I recognized the verse from the Quran:

“Say, even if the oceans 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.”

Surah 18: 109

The book’s subtitle, an Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, caused me to purchase it—I assumed that this was study similar to my own, and I wanted to see what Ms. Power had to say.

The following quote is from the book’s inner pages: “A former foreign correspondent for Newsweek, raised partly in the Middle East and boasting a graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford, Power spent a year reading the Quran with a longtime friend, Shiekh Mohammed Akram Nadwi.”

Please allow for another digression before reviewing her book. I have been anguishing over the war in Syria, beautiful Syria, a war that has been raging for the past five years and has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. This and other atrocities in the Middle East have caused me to ask several questions:

  • Aren’t there ANY great Muslim leaders who can help ease these situations?
  • And, why can’t the Sunni and the Shiite get along? They’ve been waging war since the 7th Century ad. Aren’t they all Muslims?

What I expected in reading If the Oceans Were Ink and what I got were two different things. I expected that Sheikh Akram would guide Ms. Powers through the 109 surahs of the Quran and would explain to her whatever she didn’t understand.

Instead, I got a portrait of the Sheikh and his family and commentary on some parts of the Quran.  Sheikh Akram may not be the powerful Muslim leader for whom I’ve been looking, but through Ms. Power’s intimate portrayal of him, he’s a man whom I came to respect.

He was born in a small Muslim village in India, in the Urdu-speaking village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. As one of the village’s brightest sons he was sent to further his studies at the prestigious Nadwat al-Ulama, a madrasa in Lucknow and then to Oxford in England, where he began work on a 40-volume collection of the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars. Though not famous, beyond the borders of England, according to Ms. Power, he is “a rising star in the global network of traditional ulama or Muslim religious authorities.”

“He enjoyed the profound peace of mind of a man who observed his duty as a Muslim: being a ‘slave of God.’” Sheikh Akram has not only studied the Quran, he has embodied it.

The Sheikh is not alone among Muslims in his critique of the West—how the culture of individualism dominates life. This is your life—you do what you want with it. We are a nation of strivers, founded on the right to pursue our own individual happiness.

All the stuff that secular adults tell their children are an anathema to good Muslims, who seek submissiveness to the will of Allah as the highest form of good.

Central to Akram’s belief is the centrality of family (he is married and the father of four daughters.) As a husband and father he feels his central duty is to provide financial support to his family. His wife’s central duty is the care and education of their children. (The sheikh doesn’t mind helping with the household chores.)

   Qiwamah—this word found in the Quran (in the controversial verse—4:34) means “the protection and maintenance afforded a wife by a husband.”

When I think about how far Western civilization has fallen from this ideal, which was a part of Western civilization until two generations ago, I want to cry. Early in my days living in New York City as divorced woman on her own, I realized that I was utterly without protection (all the men in my family lived elsewhere.) I was appalled and fearful. Since then I have been wary, and my heart has gone out to young women—the change in the attitude of men since women’s liberation, their lack of chivalry; women are now expected to be completely self-sufficient. How far we have fallen, and how great the price has been….

When I wrote Revelation! I subscribed to the theory which is also voiced by Sheikh Akram: That there is but one God, whether we call Him Yaweh or Allah.  The Quran says that Jesus is not God. He is a mortal like any other, even though as the Messiah, and his position among the Prophets is without equal.  Shirk is the Arabic word for ascribing partners to God and is considered to be a grave sin.

Sheikh Akram believes that many today are spiritual lost, that Jews and Christians, in turn, need to believe in the message of Muhammed. He even goes so far as to say the Jews and Christian who want salvation must acknowledge Muhammed as a Prophet.

This is heady stuff. There is much fear because of Muslim infiltration into European countries and the United States. Certainly the violence that has been perpetrated by Muslim terrorists, most recently in Paris and Brussels, cannot be condoned, but an integration of some of the values articulated in the Quran might help bring us back to happy lives and redemption.

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