As a journalist for Newsweek and Time, London-based American journalist Carla Power, author of If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship And A Journey To The Heart Of The Quran, covered hotspots like Afghanistan and Egypt. Her frustration with the media’s depiction of Islam as a violent, repressive faith led her to seek out a madrassa-trained scholar and researcher at Oxford University, Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi. In a series of conversations spanning a year, they studied the Quran together, discussing everything from jihad to nail polish. What she discovered upended many of her, and our, preconceptions and showed how violent organisations like ISIS have perverted the truth about Islam. Talking from Brooklyn during her book tour, she describes how the discovery of a childhood memento spurred her quest to study the Quran, how female Islamic scholars once rode horseback across Arabia preaching to men, why Islamic suicide bombers will not be greeted in heaven by a harem of virgins, and the two things she and the sheikh could not agree on.
Your journey begins with the discovery of a miniature book in your parents’ home in St. Louis. Put us inside that moment.
Amidst the chaos of stuff that had been hauled back by my Dad from our various times living in the Middle East, I found a tiny, two inch by two inch book, which turned out to be a verse from the Quran. I was 12, we were living in Cairo, and I had bought this book off a stand outside a mosque and decided to make it a book for my doll. So I covered it and made it into a miniature edition of Jane Eyre, which I had just read and become obsessed with for my doll, Cathy, [Laughs] I was slightly embarrassed, but also excited. It seemed a good omen.
The book is the story of a yearlong series of conversations with a renowned Muslim scholar in Britain, Sheikh Mohammed Akram Nadwi, “the sheikh” for short. Tell us about him.
He was born, a couple years before me—he’s now about 50—in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, India. He went to the local madrassa and did so brilliantly that he ended up in a very prestigious madrassa in the state capital, Lucknow, called Nadwat al-Ulama, where he became a star professor. This is an extraordinary leap for a guy who was leading the buffalo to the water of an evening, and raised in a household that was so conservative that even after reaching puberty, brothers and sisters would not speak to one another. His professors in India then sent him to Oxford University in England, where we met at a think tank, where we were both working on an atlas trying to map the spread of Islam through South Asia.
Tell us a bit about your career as a journalist and how it led to this book.
I got frustrated that I was mostly writing about the stereotypes of Islam we are encouraged to think of in the West.
I had been very interested since my early 20s in writing journalistically about Islamic societies. But I got frustrated that I was mostly writing about the stereotypes of Islam we are encouraged to think of in the West, because of the news cycle and events in the Middle East. The only things that make the news pages are violence and oppression. There’s very little attention given to men like the sheikh, who is quietly studying and, in his very small voice, influencing many Muslims with his groundbreaking work on women in the Islamic world.
Set the scene for these discussions with the sheikh. You met at a place called The Nosebag, right?
[Laughs] We met in various places. The Nosebag was a student café off the High Street in Oxford. The first time we met, I was slightly embarrassed to be sitting there with a Quran between us, surrounded by ladies rustling their Marks and Spencer shopping bags [Laughs]. But the sheikh was completely unflustered. He abides by the notion, as the Prophet Muhammad said, that the whole world is a mosque. This notion that religion is something one tucks away into houses of worship is something he was not used to. Our talks were also incredibly wide-ranging. We talked about sex and death, nail polish and menstruation. He didn’t bat an eyelid. For him, Islam has ideas about all aspects of life, and sexuality and bodily functions were nothing to shy away from.
You say “the sheikh’s work...challenges bigots of all types.” Tell us about the Eight Thousand Hidden Women – and your contribution to this groundbreaking project.
About 15 years ago the sheikh and I were having coffee at a café, and I asked him what his next project was. I had just come back from Afghanistan, reporting under the Taliban, and was feeling quite gloomy about the prospects for women there. He said, “I’m doing a project on women; I want to go back and look at women hadith scholars. I think it’s going to be a pretty slim pamphlet. I’m expecting to find about 30 or 40 women.” A decade on, he had a 40 volume work with over 8,000 women doing things that would boggle the mind of anyone looking at Muslim women today. He found 12th century [female] scholars who were riding horse and camel back across Arabia giving lectures. He found women who led cosmopolitan lives travelling from China to Spain, teaching the male heads of the Muslim community, and leaning on the Prophet’s grave, something unheard of for the modern sensibility.
A lot of what you expect to find in the Quran is not there. The famous 72 virgins promised to suicide bombers is not in the Quran.
How is his work received in the Muslim world?
Ever since his late 20s, he has been very highly regarded within the network of traditional scholars that stretches from Damascus to Baghdad to Turkey. He lectures all over the Islamic world, from Al-Azhar, the great university in Cairo, to Indonesia. But his refusal to align himself with any group or talk about politics explicitly has frustrated some of his students. The book on women got him another audience, and he now has a very loyal group of students, many of them women. There are a lot of “tele-sheikhs,” who have global followings because they’re on Al Jazeera TV and fly first class with an entourage. But the sheikh is incredibly humble. He’s controversial in the Muslim world because he’s riled people on both sides. He’s had fundamentalists fomenting against him for being too liberal, and Islamic feminists saying he is far too conservative. So he gets it from all sides [Laughs].
You point out that many customs and practices often associated with the Quran are in fact the result of later interpretations. Explain.
Two or three hundred years after the Prophet received his revelations, medieval scholars came up with a body of Islamic law. But a lot of what you expect to find in the Quran is not there. The famous 72 virgins promised to suicide bombers is not in the Quran. Over and over again, the sheikh would say that what the hadiths say is a far cry from the image of strict and unyielding sharia law, which we have unfortunately been exposed to today.
After the murders at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Bill Maher said of Islam: “If there are this many rotten apples, there must be something wrong with the orchard.” He’s got a point, hasn’t he?
I think it’s glib and facile to say of a faith of 1.6 billion folks that because of Charlie Hebdo and Isis and all these other horrible things, that’s Islam. There are so many forces causing the wild misinterpretations and misuses of Islamic language. I always argue that they need more Islamic education, not less. Because the more you read and study with scholars like Akram, the more you realize this is a distortion of Islam. The sheikh dismisses all this jihad mania as “the Islamization of violence.” He thinks anybody who’s fighting for power or the caliphate is just trying to prove to Western-educated Muslims that they can have what the West has. He doesn’t see it as Islamic at all, but very Westernized.
Every Westerner knows the words fatwa or jihad. But few of us know the term taqwa, which for the sheikh is the central tenet of Islam. Can you define it for us?
Taqwa translates roughly as awe and fear of God, God consciousness. That notion of bringing humility and awareness both of God and of death with you on a daily basis is, for him, much more important than issuing fatwas. He once cracked a joke: “ If you’ve got taqwa, you don’t need fatwas.” [Laughs]
You found common ground with the sheikh on many subjects, but on two you remained irrevocably divided. What were they? And why?
In the kindest way possible, he thinks I’m going to hell [Laughs]. Not necessarily for not being a Muslim. But for not accepting the Prophet as a prophet. We had a long, slightly painful conversation at the end. I kept saying, I believe there is a God, but I’m not ready to make the leap. I did not convert during the course of this book, which many of my non-Muslim friends thought I might. He said, “You just have to keep reading the Quran and your love for God will grow.” He also said it was incumbent on him to warn me about the fires of hell. He very much believes that hell is a real place, with manacles and chains, and flames. We also could not see eye to eye on homosexuality. During the course of our studies together, there were amazing changes in the Western world’s view of homosexuality. When I was born, homosexuality was illegal in Britain. Now you can marry. But he was having none of it. He didn’t deny that people might have same sex urges. But he regarded that as a test from God. Homosexuality was not something that he could accept. We absolutely differed.
How did writing this book change your life and your view of Islam?
So much of what we hear, whether from the Muslim world or the West, are these shrill voices talking about jihad and banning music and beheadings.
I think, two things. I was incredibly curious about his life, and so I wanted him to be slightly curious about my worldview, as well. Our last lesson took place at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. We were walking by a Michelangelo. I was hoping he would stop and say, “Wow! Western civilization does have some pretty cool stuff!” But he didn’t. When I pushed him on this, he said: “Look, where I came from, nobody would believe that I’d even be sitting here talking with a woman, let alone a Jewish, secular, American journalist. That would be unthinkable.” So, in his most polite way, he was saying, “I’m here aren’t I?” My lessons with the sheikh also taught me that this notion of Islam as a strict, unyielding body of law, which is what both Islamists and Islamophobes are keen for us to think, is absolutely not grounded. So much of what we hear, whether from the Muslim world or the West, are these shrill voices talking about jihad and banning music and beheadings. But when you talk about the Islamic tradition, you can’t forget Sufi poets who called for wine, Pakistani mystics who were bisexual, or women lecturing at the Prophet’s tomb. All these voices have been muffled by today’s geopolitics and modernist interpretations of Islam, which stem from anger at Western domination and the collapse of their own societies. And when civilizations get scared and pissed off, they are not at their best. So it’s really important that we listen to the quiet men and women who are confidently and quietly showing us a humane Islam.
This interview has been edited and condensed.