By Carla Power
6 November 2015
When I was eleven years old, I bought a tiny book containing a verse from the Quran from a stall outside a Cairo mosque. I was neither Muslim nor literate in Arabic; I bought it for its dainty proportions. The stall’s proprietress watched me bemusedly as I cooed over the matchbox-sized object.
I found it over a quarter century later, one sticky summer afternoon in St. Louis, wrapped in a jewellery box in my parents’ house. By then, not only had I inherited my father’s interest in the Islamic world, but my childhood fascination had been seasoned by reporting on Muslim societies as a journalist at Newsweek and then Time magazine.
Yet, until 2012, I’d never done more than dip into the Quran – the source of the faith the jihadists and extremists I was writing about claimed was driving them.
The Quran began as a series of revelations to Muhammad, a caravan trader, in the seventh century. These words grew into a spiritual, social, and political force whose impact is now global.
As the scripture of the planet’s fastest-growing religion— with 1.6 billion followers, Islam is second in popularity only to Christianity— it stands as a moral compass for hundreds of millions. Reading it should be a prerequisite for understanding humanity.
I was surprised to discover that the Quran can refract in dazzling ways. The San Francisco civil rights lawyer may discover freedoms in the same chapter in which a twelfth-century Cairo cleric saw strictures.
The Marxist and the Wall Street banker, the despot and the democrat, the terrorist and the pluralist—each can point to a passage in support of his cause.
Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, the Islamic scholar who taught me the Quran, once told me an old Indian joke. A Hindu goes to his Muslim neighbour and asks if he could borrow a copy of the Quran.
“Of course, “said the Muslim. “We’ve got plenty! Let me get you one from my library.”
A week later, the Hindu returns.
“Thanks so much,” he said. “Fascinating. But I wonder, could you give me a copy of the other Quran?”
“Um, you’re holding it,” said the Muslim.
“Yeah, I read this,” replied the Hindu. “But I need a copy of the Quran that’s followed by Muslims.”
“The joke is right,” said Akram. “All this talk about jihad and forming Islamic states, that’s not what the Quran says!”
We were sipping tea in an office in Oxford, a couple of years after 9/11. I was a correspondent at Newsweek then and he was working at a think tank, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. A decade before, I’d worked with Akram as part of a team of scholars mapping the spread of Islam through South Asia.
That day at Oxford, the mood was bleak. Since 9/11, we’d watched relations between Muslims and non-Muslims fray in ways destined to remain unrepaired during our lifetimes.
When the Twin Towers fell, the world had cleaved in two, we were told. “You’re either with us,” intoned my president, George W. Bush, “or against us.”
In such a climate, our friendship felt freakish. It had always been an oddity: I’m a secular feminist, Jewish on my mother’s side and Quaker on my father’s. Akram is a conservative alim, or Muslim scholar. Yet we both sought connections between our seemingly divided worlds.
Educated in India and Saudi Arabia, with twenty years in Britain and seasons spent studying in Damascus and Medina under his belt, the Sheikh has a cultural scope that spans continents.
My own cosmopolitanism was born of a childhood being towed around the world by a restless father, a man who yearned for minaret-studded skylines lit by scimitar moons.
I had lived in Tehran, Kabul, Delhi, and Cairo growing up; I was a well-trained little nomad, comfortable most places as long as I had my parents, a Laura Ingalls Wilder paperback, and the occasional playmate.
My earliest lessons in cultural difference were crude: in Qom, the Iranian city of seminaries and scholars, every female, even five-year-olds like me, wore a black cloak called a chador. In Afghanistan, you never went sleeveless, never photographed someone without permission, and never refused a cup of Chai.
When I told a Muslim friend of mine that I was to be studying the Quran with a sheikh, she had one request. “Ask him, “she said, “why Muslim men treat women so badly.”
When I did, he said it was because men weren’t reading the Quran properly.
All too often, people read the Quran selectively, the Sheikh explained, taking phrases out of context.
“People just use it for whatever point they want to make,” he shrugged. “They come to it with their own ideas and look for verses that confirm what they want to hear.”
In 1998, I went to Afghanistan to report on life for women under the Taliban. During their five-year reign in Kabul, the Taliban’s major policy initiative was to ban anything that they deemed to be un-Islamic, including kites, nail polish, and the public display of women’s faces.
The most devastating of the Taliban edicts, however, was the ban on women’s education.
At one point during my trip I asked the father of a ten-year-old girl whether she ever went out. His answer: “For what?”
In the years that the Taliban were busy keeping women at home and uneducated, Akram was uncovering a radically different version of Islamic tradition. Its luminaries included women like Ummal-Darda, a seventh-century jurist and scholar who taught jurisprudence in the mosques of Damascus and Jerusalem.
Her students were men, women, and even the caliph. Another woman in Akram’s research discoveries: the fourteenth- century Syrian scholar Fatimah al- Bataihiyyah, who taught both men and women in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina, drawing students from as far away as Fez.
It had begun by accident, he explained. Reading classical texts on Hadith (the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), he kept running across women’s names as authorities. He decided to do a biographical dictionary—a well-established genre in Muslim scholarly culture—that included all the women experts of Hadith.
“A short book, then?” I teased.
“That’s what I thought, too,” said Akram. “I was expecting to find maybe twenty or thirty women. I was planning to publish a pamphlet. But it seems there are more.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, like how many more?”
Akram’s Work, Al-Muhaddithat:
The Women Scholars in Islam, stands as a riposte to the notion, peddled from Kabul to Mecca, that Islamic knowledge is men’s work and always has been. “I do not know of another religious tradition in which women were so central, so present, so active in its formative history,” Akram wrote.
Women scholars taught judges and imams, issued Fatwas, and travelled to distant cities. Some made lecture tours across the Middle East.
At first, I assumed that these women’s names had been forgotten in much the same way that Western women’s lives had been ignored. For most of Western civilization, men wrote history, and they wrote what they knew. Until feminist historians began unearthing women’s achievements after the 1960s, women’s contributions were left unsung.
In the context of Islamic culture, the erasure of women was rather more complex. “Muslim society prizes female modesty,” Akram explained one day on the phone. “Traditionally, many Muslim families didn’t want the names of their wives or their daughters published.”
Keeping women’s names out of classroom, madrasa, or mosque records was just a broad interpretation of the concept of hijab. The term, commonly used to refer to women’s head coverings, in fact referred more generally to the modesty required by both men and women. In an effort to keep women shielded from public view, the lives and works of learned women were simply left unrecorded.
The broad interpretation of hijab persists today, he said.
“Once, I wrote an article about going on hajj [the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca] for an Urdu newspaper,” Akram told me. “I wanted to include the names of the people in my pilgrimage party, but all the men told me not to use the names of the women in their family.”
“So how did you refer to them?”
“As ‘the wife of so-and-so’ and the ‘daughter of so-and-so.’ ”
A generation ago, my own mother had done the same. Her address labels from the 1960s read “Mrs. Richard W. Power.”
Given the tradition of the unnamed woman, the nine thousand women the Sheikh had found were probably just a fraction of the female Islamic scholars through history.
“You know when Islamic scholars get really against women?" the Sheikh asked me. "When they start studying philosophy.” Aristotle, a man who held that the subjugation of women was both “natural” and a “social necessity,” influenced key Muslim thinkers who shaped medieval Fiqh, the theory of Islamic law, argued Akram.
Before Aristotle became a core text, and before the medieval scholars enshrined their views on gender roles in to law, men and women were accorded far more equal freedoms in Islam.
“I tell people, ‘God has given girls qualities and potential,’ ” he said. “If they aren’t allowed to develop them, if they aren’t provided with opportunities to study and learn, it’s basically a live burial.”
Adapted from IF THE OCEANS WERE INK by Carla Power, published by HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY, LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Carla Power. All rights reserved.