Listen to an audio presentation of If the Oceans Were Ink


A Conversation with Carla Power and Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi

Sheikh Akram: How is it that you chose me to be your guide through the Quran?

Carla Power: Well, I chose you, first of all, because we have a history together, as work colleagues and later friends, stretching back over twenty years. But I approached you, too, because this book had a larger goal behind it. We too often find ourselves immersed in communities of like-minded people. There are other Muslim scholars whose outlooks are closer to my own, who are, say, from the West or from progressive mosques. But to study with you, a traditional madrasa-trained scholar, was a listening exercise—a year-long attempt to really understand someone whose worldview was profoundly different from my own.

Sheikh Akram: And why did you decide to study the Quran in the first place?

Carla Power: I’d studied Islamic societies in graduate school, and had written about Islamic issues as a journalist. But in both cases, I wrote about Muslims as part of a social or political group, rather than a people bound together by their belief in a scripture. I wanted to go deeper, and to examine the book that motivates millions. But I didn’t merely want to study the Quran alone, in a vacuum: I wanted to see how it shaped the life of one Muslim family—yours!—and how its words guided your life.

Carla Power: Was there anything you learned from taking on a secular American, the daughter of a Quaker and a Jew, as a student?

Sheikh Akram: We’ve learned from each other over the years. In the beginning, as colleagues at Oxford, you made an effort to improve your Persian, which I helped with; and you had reciprocated by helping me improve my English. More recently, I have been most impressed by your dedication to finding things out for yourself, and then making your own judgments. I hope that some of your ability to get around the cultural baggage that we all carry has rubbed off on me, on how I approach my research and how I bring up my children. I have also learned from you that we are living in a time when there is a lot of misunderstanding and suspicion between peoples, and we need to stop merely complaining and start doing more to really understand and respect one another.

Sheikh Akram: When you came to my public lessons, what was your impression of them?

Carla Power:: I was amazed at the range of roles a sheikh takes on—advice columnist, historian, marriage counselor, philosopher, and more—and I’ve watched students ask you to pronounce on everything from veiling, to the nature of the Divine, to whether they can order take-out from a pizza place that serves alcohol, a banned substance.

I also admired how brave you were in supporting women’s rights and in speaking against the politicization of Islam. At one lecture you gave on Jihad and Sharia Law, it was rumored that there men from an Islamist political group who had all come to give you a hard time. Later, I heard from one of your students that you face this kind of harsh questioning often when you lecture to very conservative audiences at mosques.

Carla Power: Were there any parts of the journey–either of the lessons, or the trip home to Lucknow and Jamdahan in India—that surprised you?

Sheikh Akram: Your journey to my village in Jamdahan was certainly a surprise for me. I did not expect that an American lady would go through the time and trouble of visiting a little village in India, especially in the summer when it was too hot even for local residents. But your determination to visit impressed me and proved that you were very serious about your research, and doing it first-hand. You managed to meet the people of the village and engage with them, and your visit is still very fondly remembered by all.

Sheikh Akram: Do you think the concerns of Muslim women in the West are being addressed?

Carla Power: I think there’s a sea-change underway, but there’s still a long way to go. Muslim women today are also increasingly vocal about their rights and viewpoints, spurred on by various reform movements. I admire your daughters, and also some of your women students, who are now going out and writing and speaking with authority about Islam from a women’s point of view. But as you’ll be the first to remind me, the situation on the ground for many Muslim women is still difficult. Too many families are structured around cultural norms that restrict women’s rights. But you, and your students, are doing your part to chip away at them.

Carla Power: You’re famous among Islamic authorities for many things, but you only came to the attention of a broader audience through your rediscovery of 9,000 historical women scholars. They were extraordinary women, and your work proves that there is nothing Islamic or traditional about shutting women and girls out of schools and public life. Are you surprised to have emerged as an advocate of women, having begun your career as an expert in hadith, the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad?

Sheikh Akram: My study of women scholars in Islam happened really by accident: as I worked on other projects, I kept on finding information about the rich tradition of scholarship among women. I admit I was shocked by the scale of it. My own views also evolved. There are of course existing cultural traditions on the role of women, but I insist that one must follow the evidence without that cultural baggage.

There is not much serious effort in the Muslim world to improve the condition of women using the perspective of experts on the Quran and hadith. That is a good reason for me to continue because my work contributes something to the cause of securing women’s rights and access to education and social justice.

Sheikh Akram: Do you think my teachings benefits Muslims in the West?

Carla Power: I think there’s such a hunger among young Western Muslims to learn from a sheikh like you. You’ve shown your students that Islam doesn’t conflict with being a good citizen in the West; there is no need, as some other sheikhs have suggested, to cut themselves off from Western societies. Many madrasa-trained scholars are also used to traditional hierarchies, and few allow their students to question and challenge them, but you encourage it. Two of your female students even persuaded you to change your position, and you now oppose child marriage. You even credited them when you announced your new understanding in class. For a contemporary sheikh to state publicly that he’s learning from his pupils—it’s astonishing.

Carla Power: You have six daughters, growing up Muslim, British, and with strong roots in India. What do you hope they will bring from each of these cultures?

Sheikh Akram: I am not keen on the dominance of any culture or over any other; it is best if people interact in normal situations and whatever emerges from that emerges. Rather than focusing excessively on one cultural identity or another, their main focus should be to love and worship their Lord, to love their neighbors, to make a positive contribution to the societies in which they live. Also, if they are able to do so, I hope for my daughters that, through their words and their lifestyle, they convey to their society and their own children that the true happiness is the happiness promised hereafter to those who believe in God and the last Day, and do good deeds.

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