This book is part of a reading project, in which I am seeking to read only books written by women and minorities–and falling into a specific set of categories established by the popular book blog Book Riot in its 2016 Read Harder Challenge. You can see the full list of books I’ll be reading and reviewing here.
Assignment: Read a book about religion (fiction or non-fiction)
Of all the subject-matter in Book Riot’s 2016 challenge, this one would have been the easiest for me to cheat on. I have an ever-mounting backlog of books to read on religious history, culture, and philosophy, but they all have as their focus one faith in particular–my own faith, Christianity. And precisely because it would have been too easy for me, I chose none of them. Instead, I challenged myself by selecting a book written by a Jewish woman exploring the culture of contemporary Islam. In the end, I think I chose wisely.
The title, If the Oceans Were Ink, is taken from a Quranic verse that says the following:
Even if the oceans were ink for writing the words of my Lord, the oceans would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if we were to add another ocean to it.
This quotation provides the perfect framework for the book, as journalist Carla Power spends months interviewing a certain Sheikh and immersing herself in an Islamic culture completely saturated with the words of the Quran.
What I found most fascinating about Carla’s investigation into the way Muslims experience their holy book were the similarities with how Christians experience the Bible. As in Christianity, there are countless sects of Islam, but each believes they are interpreting their scripture in its truest sense. As much as I’m sure they’d despise the comparison, fundamentalist Christians have much more in common with Islamic extremists than they do with more liberal denominations within their own faith. For both faiths, it’s a matter of emphasis–do we focus on understanding the scriptures in such a way that helps us live more pious and honorable lives, or do we focus on understanding the scriptures in such a way that helps us justify lashing out at others with our righteous indignation?
Another similarity that I found between Christianity and Islam was the treatment of women within the two faiths throughout history. Contemporary Western society looks at Islam and sees a religion that is fundamentally in opposition to women. Much of the restrictions placed on women, though, have more to do with the culture than the scriptures. The sheikh that Carla interviews, in fact, is responsible for uncovering the work of thousands of female Islamic scholars early on in the movement. This scholarly research shares a remarkable relationship with what is being discovered about the role that women played in the early development of the Christian church–before patriarchal society relegated them to second-class citizens in the community of worship.
The Islam that I encountered in this book is, by and large, one of peace. Most Muslims interpret their holy scriptures as guides to living lives of purity. They’re focused on drawing closer to God and following in his ways, as is the plea in this verse:
Show us the straight path,
The path of those you have favored;
Not of those who are objects of anger,
Nor of those who wander astray.
There are far more “quietists” than “radicals.” But, of course, all we in the Western world see are the ones who are making a scene. Minding your own business isn’t all that newsworthy.
All of that being said, Carla Power does not paint a picture of Islam that is all sunshine and rainbows.The book does call attention to certain issues honored among mainstream Muslims that may make some of us Westerners uncomfortable. These include:
- The practice of old men marrying young girls (as was done by Mohammad, the prophet)
- The condemnation of homosexuality and general femininity in men.
- The double standard in women being expected to wear coverings/veils.
All in all, this was a great account that helped me understand a culture and faith with which I’m largely unfamiliar, but which I think is becoming increasingly more important to understand. One thing the sheikh stressed heavily in the interviews was the bias that Westerners have against eastern ideas. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I know there are human rights issues, but I also know I tend the see everything through culturally prejudiced eyes. Western women, for example, see their bodies as their own. Women in the Middle East, according to this account, see their bodies as belonging to God.
I don’t think there are easy answers to the clash of civilizations when it comes to relations between the West and the Middle East. But I think any semblance of peace will start by us listening to one another with open minds. At one point in her story, Carla recounts a speech she had delivered to an Islamic community. I’ll leave the reader with what she has to say, because I think it sums up the posture we need to take if we really want to live in a peaceful world:
Cultural dialogue is the world’s most powerful weapon against extremism of any kind. Genuine engagement between people holding different points of view is the best hope for making this increasingly polarized planet work.