Close encounters of the spiritual kind

IMAGINE this; a non-Muslim befriending an Islamic scholar and immersing herself into his teachings and trying to read and understand the Quran for a full year. Carla Power’s journey is unprecedented.

Her book, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran is engros­sing as much as it’s illuminating and thoughtful.

The scholar, Syeikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, from Jaipur, India was madrasah-trained and teaches at Oxford. He is a devout Muslim with all the trappings of a conservative cleric.

She, on the other hand is half-Jewish, a journalist and writing for Time, Newsweek, Vogue and other publications. Except for the fact that they have known each other for many years and she has lived in Muslim countries before, they seemed to have nothing in common.

With the background of post-9/11 and Islamophobia that followed, Power made a bold attempt at “cross-cultural conversation”. She learned from him what the Quran is all about and how it has been misinterpreted.

She wanted to understand how the Quran carved the Muslim worldviews. Or, as argued by Akram, the reason why Muslims should go back to basics, to the Quran.

They had arguments; they challenged each other’s perspectives and positions. They discussed verses from the Quran in cafes and in lecture halls.

She couldn’t go to the Holy City of Mecca but she followed Akram to India to learn more about him and the religion he professes.

Akram is better known for his ground-breaking study on Muslim women scholars. His most notable book, Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam, is colossal both in scope and vigour, covering 40 volumes containing nearly nine thousand women scholars stretching from the days of the Prophet to the twentieth century.

“I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” he wrote.

The prevailing perception is that Islam forbids women from learning. They are kept at home as wives.

Young girls are deprived of education in some Muslim societies. We hear horror stories about how women were treated by the Taliban or the fate of Malala Yousafzai who was shot for advocating education for girls.

When Power confessed to Akram, before their lessons began, that she had never read the Quran, his answer was classic: “Most Muslims haven’t read it either.”

If they do, they don’t understand it. It is a revered book no less, quoted almost everywhere, but few have read and fewer still understand it.

Power did not convert to Islam. Nor is she claiming to be an expert on the religion or the holy book.

But she has this to say, “Without a year trying to see the world from Akram’s vantage, I wouldn’t be able to make out the contours of my own.”

Learning from the Quran, she agrees that only through diversity can one really learn the shape and heft of one’s own humanity.

How I wish we had more of such encounters and conversations. Islam is under siege.

There are “others” who have preconceived ideas about the religion. How presidential contender Donald Trump views Muslims is not at all surprising, considering he is pandering to the views of Americans who have a jaundiced view about Islam and the ummah.

He is not alone. The pounding of the divide between “the West” and “the Islamic world” will be reaching feverish pace when there are incidents of suicide bombers and mass migration of Muslims. Sadly, Islam is portrayed as a religion trapped in medieval times.

Muslims, too, are setting bad examples of how the religion should be perceived by others. Rabid obsession about all things trivial is derailing the debate about what Islam stands for.

The great tradition of Islamic scholarship is seldom talked about; instead the airwaves and broadsheets in Muslim countries are obsessed with women’s bodies in advertisements, and issues of halal, haram and fatwa (decree).

We have our fair share of religious correctness of late. The latest debate pertaining to “should a hot dog be called a hot dog” is one example of how much energy is wasted on petty things.

Nothing should stand in the road to righteousness and perfection for these people. They questioned the image of an eagle in Langkawi. They are disturbed by the intention of a mother to surrender herself to the human-swallowing cave in the famous children’s story of Batu Belah Batu Bertangkup. And the list goes on.

Are we becoming a society less tolerant in the history of this nation? Muslims in Malaysia used to be the poster boy for tolerance and understanding.

Perhaps not anymore. Many of us have become agitated, worrying about the fate of our faith.

We used to be strong and more confident. But now many choose to be cocooned literally in a tempurung (coconut shell) we created for ourselves. Which is a pity.

As argued by Power in her book, Akram has his kiblat (direction of the Kaaba) to manifest his belief in his God. He lives in a modern world but his moral bearing has not wavered.

So, too, his tolerance, has in fact been pretty much reinforced. Power, on the other hand, a self-proclaimed sceptical secularist, learned many things from the adventure. One of which is, “to be fully human is to try to understand others.”

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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Opinion , Tan Sri Johan Jaaffar , columnist


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