Author(s): Carla Power
Report Published: 21st June 2016
QUAKE Books Bonus: Exclusive interview with Carla
Author Carla Power achieves in one 350 page book more than any UN peace treaty ever has, simply by looking at Islam through a kaleidoscope that blurs the line between the “us” and “them”, defies labels and as a result sketches out a richer more intricate portrait of what it means to be human.
If the Oceans Were Ink is an intriguing book that isn’t focused on a deconstruction or an alternative interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts, as there are plenty of better books out there – libraries of them – that do just that, but rather acts as a guide to a reader taken by the hand and invited to look at a gravely misunderstood religion, through the lens of the personal.
Power’s skill lies in her commitment to listen, without judging, and to unpack content to create meaning through one pious Muslim’s personification of his faith. In her book, boundaries are broken down, not by force but by showing them to be a mere mirage that hides the fact that commonality, more so than difference abounds, when one frames the dialogue between a Muslim and non-Muslim on a God-centred universe, outside of the notions of “self” and “other”.
If the Oceans Were Ink is a rare and much needed contribution to the debate because it is precisely this, a debate between a secular journalist and a world recognised Madrasa trained scholar. It is a timeless masterpiece for all who question and seek to find. Ultimately and most promisingly, it casts a bright light in an otherwise shameful episode of western politics, clearly identified as such in Arsalan Iftikhar’s Scapegoats: How Islamophobia Helps Our Enemies and Threatens Our Freedoms.
“If Muslims rarely make it into the papers as three-dimensional human beings, there is also scant appetite in the mainstream Western media for what their scripture actually says.”
“Too often the meaning of the hijab is taken as clear and unequivocal, like an on-off switch, a neat binary code. A Muslim woman is “traditional”, if she wears one “modern” if she doesn’t.”
“It’s quick work to allow modern tensions between Muslims and Jews in Gaza, or between Muslims and Christians in Egypt, to infuse a reading of the Quran. But to do so is to place the self, rather than God at the center…”
As a white Western Muslim, I straddle the gap between the East and West, much like Kristiane Backer describes in her memoir From MTV to Mecca. Occupying the gap between two tectonic plates means that I am subject to every shift. Sometimes this results in head on collisions, other times you get a sense of being pulled apart at the seams.
To some, no matter what you do, you will always be that treacherous black societal sheep who traded democracy for barbarism. To them, my acceptance of Islam is an act of folly or defiance, a rejection of all that is good in the world and with a little luck, a temporary chemical mismatch in the brain. To them, my PhD education and western identity means little, as I obviously only embraced Islam as a means to force my daughter to wear a piece of cloth on her head. Let me tell you, if I could force her to do anything it would be to clean her room and respect her mother!
To those who are now part of my “community”, I am with a naturally ginger beard a curiosity, a welcome addition to the clan but certainly not suitable marriage material for their daughter, denying me access to family, due to my skin tone more than anything. Friends, open enough to come to the mosque to take a look around, are rejected by ignorant leaders for not wearing the right attire instead of embraced and lent an item to cover up, as our scriptures instruct.
It sounds ridiculous, and believe me it is, but over such silly issues, wedges are placed that quickly turn into battle lines. In Islam more so than anything else, one voice, one mislaid opinion can speak for 1.7 billion people. Can you imagine if we took one voice as the absolute authority on diet and exercise or contemporary art?
And that is why Carla’s work is so important to me, causing a bookquake that closes the gap and offers me a friendly hand in the trenches. It encourages me to pursue my faith deeper and gives me hope that the narrative can be flipped. It challenges the mythical creatures painted in the media that scream Islamophobia and make Islam and its followers out to be 2D cut outs who cannot question interpretations of the Quran or Hadiths. Her willingness to open up the floor for dialogue demonstrates that whilst we all follow one perfect God, He is the only element that remains truly the same amongst us and the myriad of imperfect shades that constitute the Muslim community. And for that I will remain truly thankful.
Carla states that all humanity should read the Quran for the benefit of humankind and the weakening of the “other” term that manipulates our media and informs our “fact” based beliefs. That may be true but I would argue that they should start with hers first…
Now I don’t have to argue when someone decides that my religion gives them the right to state a position based on their “reading” of a Quran they have never held in their hands. I can simply reply that if they really want to know what I think, instead of just telling me what I think, they should buy a copy of If Oceans Were Ink. Problem solved!