Non-Muslim Author spends a year with the Quran and discovers this…
Channel: Lauren Booth
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Go Live ladies. Well, so that when they come Rahmatullah who are better care to Bismillah AR Rahman AR Rahim, we praise Allah I testify there is no one who is God except for Allah alone without partners and that Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. It's the last and final messenger. I hope this finds you well and blessed salam alaikum. I'm really excited today to have the chance to have a lovely conversation with Karla Powell caulipower. If you don't know her, then do look up the book if the oceans were Inc, I first met Carla, about six months ago. Can you believe it in Cambridge, at a really nice meeting? What meeting about Cambridge, I should say, with Dr. Akram
nadwi. But your work had I'd come across before I'm not going to lengthen this introduction, just to say brothers and sisters and people of faith and none. We are going to be looking holistically at Islam and the Quran today from an external viewpoint from somebody who delved in welcome, Carla. Thank you. It's so lovely to be here. I mean, it is my bedroom. And
it's so lovely to be online with you. I feel like I should ask about the tapestry first and foremost. Oh, um, yes, it's one of my favorite things it's from it's from Pakistan. I think it's a it's a wedding quilt from the Kush region, I think or that's that's what the the folks I bought it from in Islamabad told me so amazing. You know, we're going to be looking today at living in the Muslim world and the Koran for non Muslims and that they encounter that you've had that is really extraordinary, scholarly and also
from the heart as well, because I've been listening to your book today.
I've been listening to it as an audio book. And it reads really beautifully. And if I can just describe to everybody the the first real chapter when you get going and you talk to Dr. Chef Akram nadwi. And you describe looking forward with with nervousness to actually opening the Quran in the translation, and how al Fatiha struck you. I'm gonna let you describe that moment. And then perhaps we can move into the moment when you went, Oh, it's not the same.
Yeah, because skimming, I think what a lot of us do, because remember, I wasn't Muslim. 10 years ago, we skim the shallows of diversity. We think we're diverse, but the minute we meet something challenging, we don't like it. Talk to us about opening the Quran with Dr. Akram and our fattier.
Well, I'm, I remember, we met in an Oxford cafe called the nose bag. And he, we started and I sort of approached it like, you know, the dutiful school girl I always was, and I had this image of like, we will open it at the beginning and we show we'll make progress through and we'll read it like a book. And his first question to me was, I was like, I can't wait to read this book. I mean, I know it's more than a book.
And he's like, yes. Is it a? Is it a book? Can you think about it that way? And I was, of course, stumped. And I think
what what I realized during this, this first encounter, this first proper lesson we had was that it was so to describe it as a book is to, you know, even as a scripture is to limit it so much there is the notion of, of when you really think about it, the Koran in especially in Muslim majority, communities can run through everything, it can permeate absolutely everything. And so, this notion of a dead a dead, you know, set of pages is is is not
it was something I had to move away from and instead to see it as more of a return and in terms of Al Fatiha. You know, the idea. I mean, he was like, Look this, the the entire the messages of the Koran are contained in this beautiful little capsule, and we read it very closely together. And I still, I still needed that sort of hermeneutics.
circle to circle back to it. Again, a circling back was a huge theme of our working together. Until I really felt that that I could understand how compressed and beautifully succinct, that opening chapter is Subhanallah you're so lovely and your your, your face has got this lovely natural light on it. I want to ask you, if you can look into your computer camera, so that we can really appreciate the the eye contact, it's a little bit of a, it's a little bit awkward because we have notes to one side. But I know that everybody watching it later on, but I appreciate that, like this, or like that. Look, look the the first way that you did the first way that you did, that's the one
thing. Yeah. Okay. All right. Sorry to interrupt your flow. I guess we should probably backtrack a bit because you spent a long time traveling, and I'm sure that that is why you became open to reading something that is so alien, because, you know, it's not everybody who gets the the honor and the grace to be quite frank, and the invitation of opening the quarter. And it's either
that there's going to be a revolution in that person. And they're going to fight Islam, or as very often happens, we, you know, people like
some of the far right leaders in the Netherlands have actually accepted Islam, you know, through the process of trying to disprove it. But you've gone another route, you had an invitation to read it. Because, well, because you traveled so much. Tell us about your childhood and how, how the Muslim lands were a part of your life.
Well, I was very lucky to grow up with a father, who was a law professor in St. Louis, Missouri, the absolute middle of the United States, and wasn't terribly fond of living in St. Louis, Missouri, but was passionate about travel and passionate about Islamic cultures. He felt very much at home there. So every couple of years he would pick me and my brother and my mother, my mother was also a professor and we all would, they would take leaves of absences or sabbaticals. And we would we ended up living in Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, India.
And, and Rome, which is not a Muslim country, obviously. But, um, but yeah, so So I was exposed very young, and we traveled a lot even during the summers.
And I was I was fascinated. And as an undergraduate, I studied Edward Saeed and as an English student, as a student of English literature and got very, very interested in the construction of Muslim cultures and the Orient through a colonial lens and how one needed to unpack that. So then went on to want to study Islamic cultures more closely. And through that met, met Sheikh Cockrum, when we were colleagues together
at met a think tank in Oxford.
yeah, so so that that was how
that was, that was definitely me, it must have made it really easy to be fascinated and to see other cultures as not lesser than our own, but perhaps partially free, because I don't think we're ever totally free of, of either white privilege, or are Orientalism to be quite honest. I don't think it ever is possible for it to fully go away. I think there's just a little glimpse, that's how I feel personally, you glimpse over the mountain top of your own, of your own, you know, innate arrogance. But what, what really, yes, sorry. Sorry, I was just gonna say, I mean, what kind of painful revelations I made while writing writing this was that, of course, my you know, my parents were
very, very, you know, believed in, in internationalism believed in the beauty of all different cultures were, were very much eager to expose us to it and to get out and to learn different languages and, and cultures. But I also realized that one of the reasons in hindsight that they were in places like Iran and Afghanistan was we were part of the foot soldiers of Americanization of the world during the 70s.
You know, it was very benign, um,
You know, as professors, my mother would teach American literature to Afghan students, my father would would teach law or advise ministers. But it was clearly the thing that got got us there was a kind of soft power colonialism. And that was something I very much had to think about and confront when, when I thought about my own complicity, and the layers of white privilege that were going into it. What do you what do you think was the effect of of that? And did they ever realize that that's what it was that generation?
Were they accidentally complicit? Or is it because I, you know, there is, you know, we look back at our history, and it's always a bit like, Let's go teach the natives how to live properly. Yeah, yeah.
They, I think they were, you know, they, they were apprised of sides views. You know, I mean, they read them later, after the after they left. And I certainly think they were incredibly skeptical about the American projects, with a capital A capital P, and very, very skeptical of all sorts of, we know bests
in the discourse, but at the same time, you know, they, if you're a Fulbright Scholar, or your, your, you know, you do, and, you know, you have to balance, what's getting you over there with, with
how sensitive, you've got to be when you get there. Now, because you went into journalism, you've had a long established career in journalism, Mashallah. And, you know, one of the things that really grabbed me about your opening chapters is very much that you described an experience that I recognize, which is that when you wanted to
do more than just write about my slums as either, you know, victims or a war crime happening, or in some generic form. There was a bit of resistance to that. Can you describe some of some of those moments for us?
Well, so I was at Newsweek magazine for about 10 years from in, sort of in it in the last of I think its glory days. I mean, I would say that, wouldn't I, but I really believe it.
And in the new, I found out that in the new when I wanted to write new stories, there was a kind of a relatively cramped view in terms of how one could could could talk about political Islam as being an outgrowth of frustration, or or any other way. I, I, I got, you know, and I, you know, I was set on, you know, writing Osama bin Laden's, you know, writing about Osama bin Laden or about terrorism, and that just seemed,
you know, like, a completely different set of issues from
so much of what I encountered firsthand, in, in Muslim Societies. So I got much more leeway when I wrote feature stories, and I suddenly decided, okay, you know, I want to write about, you know, Pakistani punk bands or, or about,
let's see other other or about the hijab economy in France, what women were doing to, to avoid the the latest you tape,
laws or so on. And that that allowed me a little bit, but I was still very frustrated, because it was still a kind of pendulum between, like, and difference. And I could write about, you know, look, this is amazing. They have Hello, Red Bull, they have a hello, hello.
And you were, I was kind of not, you need real space in scope and subtlety to be able to really want to dig down to somebody on their own terms, which is why I was so excited to get the chance to spend time with Sheikh Akram nadwi. Because I could, I could just sit there and try try to try to connect and understand someone whose worldview often diverged from my own, but happily more often we found commonalities. But that takes that takes a book rather than a magazine article. I think, though, you sat down with a chef, we're back, we're back to the beginning in that Oxford cafe. And you get to the end of Surah Fatiha and it's the last two of the last
Verse and a half, which talks about those who are led astray? And not you know, the Qur'an begins to make clear by the Grace of Allah to Allah that there, is there a win lose dynamic, is there a way of pleasing? Is there a way of going wrong, which is not a popular? Not a popular, popular religious
dynamic talked about much at the moment, is it?
Um, yeah, I mean, I, I would, that was a, that was a little bit of a shock to me, you know, the notion that,
you know, there are many different ways to interpret that, that particular verse and I've seen or that particular line, and I've seen it be very
narrowly interpreted and then very broadly interpreted as, as, you know, it could be about just just losing your way. And I remember,
he had one particular interpretation, and then I was a little panicked and I was sort of like, oh, okay, and I ran to to the so as library, and immediately looked up English translations of tough singers and found other other interpretations. So, it, it was the beginning of an exercise that I thought was really interesting in both being shocked at the flexibility of, of,
of Islamic classical thinking as he introduced it to me. And, you know, I mean to the outsider, when is always being had drummed in your head that this is a rigid religion, that there are rules that if one falls afoul of one cannot
come back from that there are that there are there are fatwas, which of course, end up just being religious opinions that have that, that, you know, except in very rare circumstances, one can find another religious opinion about and so this, I mean, one of the first beautiful lessons I learned is how, how tremendously rich and subtle and, and flexible so much can be, and, and then I would come across the sheiks certainty about some things. And can you give us a couple of examples of the certainties? Um, well, he's absolutely certain.
Well, I He's absolutely certain that his role is to obey Allah and to submit to Allah.
And but even when pressed, you know, he said, you know, you just have to believe I cannot show you. There is 100%, I cannot prove, you know, I was sort of like, well, where's the proof? And he's like, I cannot prove to you but if you are open to it, the signs will begin to show you will be you know, you know, what's interesting about the language you're using there, Carla, is that, to me? It sounds a little bit like you, you, you went in to write an article which became a book. You're a bit like a policeman undercover. Like I'm undercover. I'm going to find out what's really going on. And, you know, at some point, you get pulled in a different direction. It's like, Am I still undercover or am
I am I going to experience this? And how far did How far did the Koran reach you? What were the moments when you went? Well, you know, it's reaching out and feeling on a different level, or was it always scholastic? No, I mean, I was very very moved at at you know, I mean, I reading you know,
which what signs will Gosh, it's been a while but
what signs would you deny what signs you know, that beautiful, beautiful sewer rock man, which are you Lord sign so you know exactly which, and just going through that, I mean, still thinking about it. I have a very visceral moved experience. And I also, I mean, I should say that that, though, we looked at the Quran a lot together, what, what would consistently move me even more, was watching how the Koran impacted the sheiks lived reality and his endless sense of wonder and patience and connection.
All sorts of things that I find, particularly I have to say as an American, in this current moment, are very hard to sustain just because of this political moment.
But his, his sense of everything being connected of, of looking for the signs of God's grace in every day. And seeing that, and it giving him both strength and
an empathy with other people and, and, and nature and poetry.
That that I just found incredibly moving. I must, I mean, I will put my hand up and say,
there were there were portions of the scripture that completely moved me. But it was the living example of the Sheikh and his life and his
kindness and openness that made the most lasting impression on me, as Pamela. I first came across the Quran in 2006, I was given a copy by a young man in Jerusalem on the streets of Jerusalem. And I'd wanted a copy, not because I necessarily believe that it will be the word of God, because I thought it's just some Arabs who liked this book, or maybe a few Asian people. You know, it's like, it's a but I believed that it was a book of manners, because the people I met, knew how to treat human beings.
And a dog, but in the mean, in the most in the deepest sense of the term. Yeah, yeah.
I, I completely agree. And I think,
you know, the, and the same goes for, you know, then when I read the Syrah of the Prophet Muhammad, that was,
that was a revelation to me to a secular revelation in the lab, I'm gonna stop you there, we're gonna have to go on to that in a minute, because I didn't even know you'd got to the Syrah. Subhanallah you've actually done more studies than the vast majority of Muslims alive today. Subhanallah and I believe that check Akram actually said, when you said in the first class, I haven't read the Quran yet, despite being in Muslim countries all these years, he said, Don't worry most most Muslims have. Haven't read it either. Which is really, really sad.
What did you discover about women's space? From Islamic literature? And what you were reading and studying with the ship?
Well, of course, I mean, the sheiks
sort of scholastic studies on on women is extraordinary. I mean, he's, he's,
it dates back to far earlier than then our classes together. But you know, one day, you know, we would meet occasionally for tea when I when I was in town.
And, and he said, Oh, Carla, you're interested in women's women's rights.
I'm doing something that will really interest you I'm doing I'm going to, I'm going to write a do a Biographical Dictionary of women's scholars of Hadith that
women Hadith scholars and, you know, it should be you know, it'll be a slim volume, maybe, you know, 30 or 40 people. And, of course,
10 years later, he had a 40, volume 40. Now, I think it's even more 40 or 45 volumes, and over 10,000 Women scholars, and he compiled these, these spokes by by sort of haunting the margins of a lot of mosque
mosque records, travel accounts, looking in biographical dictionaries, or accounts by other scholars. And he really, to me seems to have shone a light on something that was either not known at all or very, or, you know, everybody knew a few Sky View, great women scholars, but to have this, this
Compendium stretching back 14 centuries, of women who not only were learned, but were who were learned to authorities, really seems to me to be
an important work and, and
so that was really exciting. That's sort of a whole other part of the book, where I talk about his his 10,000 women so I in a way, you know, we as Muslims were, well, the men, the men, some of the men in the in our faith are responsible for our own difficulties in the current age with feminist feminist narrative about Islam because of this hiding of the talented women and their roles.
In the past,
yeah, I mean, it's such a shame. I mean, I know that, that some of the hiding came from, you know, traditional cultural ideas of what is propriety and you know, people not wanting to mention their wives or their daughters in, in texts or or to put them on public. And what I will add here as well sorry for jumping in Carla is this, that often the, you know, the great women scholars of Islam did not want their names mentioned, because they wanted all the reward to be with Allah to Allah in the next life. So they had a lot more, a lot of humility going in there. For example, it's known that that there's never been a Hadith of the Prophet story of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Or made up or changed by a woman scholar. It's never happened this so absolutely accurate and careful. And so a lot of that actually is piety. It's piety. And it's also I mean, it was interesting, because I asked the shake, the shake had had told me that as well. And I thought that was absolutely fascinating. I was like, really, really, I mean, you know, there's equal opportunities for people to want them to mesh Yeah. And he said, No, think about it that any any any angled me slightly towards thinking about it from a socio economic point perspective, which was he's like, look,
men really wanted to get men had families to support they really needed to get ahead. So so they would have to often create Hadith, or scholarship that flattered, you know, the guys in power or flattered.
So somebody, women could do this as a kind of
as their own personal pious work, rather than a career. And that's his explanation for why. And then he then he went into a very funny examples of, of men who were making up hottie in order to flatter a particular Sultan or so on. Not that that's a widespread issue. But he said, you know, women, women were not, you know, court, theologians at all. So
what inspired you most about the Quran in the end? Because you did come you completed the year together, didn't you? Was it once a week? You were They were mostly discussions, I think you use the Quran
as as an access point to really understanding Islam as a as as as a holistic way of life. Am I right? Yeah, yeah, I attended his classes in Cambridge, where he would he would go through versus very, Saturdays, eight hours a day nine to five was true. I was a, that was a beautiful experience, too. Because, you know, families would arrive from all across the UK, really hung, you know, and folks would tune in online and and there was a real, I really enjoyed being part of part of that community and learning alongside
all these people who were taking their, their Saturdays and their kids would play cricket outside and babies would toddle across the across the auditorium. While the sheikh would park parse particular verses, I think.
I mean, I, it's hard to say just one thing about the Koran. I think that that moved me. I mean, there is the poetry. But I think the sense as I gradually became more aware of how of the hugeness of the possibilities of its texts and, and, and how it strengthens, and how through returning to it again and again and again, like a prayer mat five times a day, like a you know, like circling the Kaaba, there, there there is
there there is a way to find meaning and, and strength for individual pious Muslims. That I think is was was more striking to me than any particular passage. So it was have you listened to obviously you listen to the Quran in Arabic, have you ever tried to recite it in Arabic or, or read it?
I mean, I've heard it in Arabic in, you know,
in various countries and in cafes and so on, and I've heard it, but I don't say I should put my hand up and say I don't speak Arabic. So I and our lessons were we're looking at English, although occasionally the
Sheikh would would parse obviously, Arabic terms, but no, I, I should put my hand up that, that I would say. And I also have to say, I got, I got what moved me greatly. I describe it at the, at the opening of the book, how I had a whole shelf of Korans and how, you know, the more I learned to look at different verses and how different translations to English were different, and the slant was different, and some were political, and some weren't. And some were flowery and Victorian and others were
more straightforward and 20th century verse.
And at first, I thought, oh, no, this means I'm not reading the real thing. And of course, I'm not reading the real thing. I mean, I without classical Arabic, I'm not but by the end of it, I actually looking at at the, the lived reality where as a lived reality, I found the breath of translations actually very telling and moving in and of itself, because I was like, this is a book for all time. So of course.
I think we just lost Carla, because her phone rang, but I'm sure she'll be back in a second inshallah to Allah. How that somebody who has studied the Quran, more than most of us, are you back caller.
Center. Okay, I'm back. I'm distracted, call me.
No, but what I was saying was, was, to me the breadth of translations, and the fact that people keep going back to it again, this this notion of return, which, which seems to be a theme of our conversation,
is that and trying to make sense of it for themselves in different languages in different eras? Looking for different answers to different questions. That to me, was, again, proof of its power. Subhanallah I'm just going to ask you a couple of quick questions. Now. What are what are the main messages in the Holy Quran that Muslims take away? That non Muslims are missing?
That they don't that people don't know about our book?
Um, well, I would say I would, I would say, you know, reading for context, I was I was the shake again and again, would say, you know, I'd be like, how do I respond? When when people, you know, tear out little bits about about, you know, you know, kill all the idolatry kill all the idolaters or whatever that verse of the sword, so called verse of the sword is and he's like, context, context, but context on the page, where you know, but if you find them and they repent, then then then be be peaceable with them. I can't remember directly what it was. But
historical context, and I think that that, that the, the dangers of ripping these things out of context is is was my one big lesson and how how incredibly complex
classical exegesis is,
and should be
so that that was that was my main one main lesson. Oh, no, you just, you've just ruined it now. complexity and nuance. We can't have that in this day and age you can't be throwing about it's complex and nuanced. Nobody wants
like a joke fellow red. Is it yellow? Come on.
Down bite sound bites. Yeah, come on. It's one thing all the other terrorists are not terrorists tell us we're not terrorists, definitely not terrorist, but you know, middle path or make it you know, is it them? Is it us that that's the world unfortunately, that that we live in at the moment? Have you become comfortable with that being with other people being able to be different with Muslims being able to be different to follow a different path. And for you personally, not to like everything in there. Because there is another thing of us trying to make make Islam adapt to modern social mores when that might just be not what is saying.
That was a real lesson for me. I mean, for me, one of the most sort of profound
sorry that my my iPad just fell up, one of the most profound and kind of soul wrenching
talking to the sheikh about child marriage and about Aisha.
And at first,
you know, he, he was like, Look, you know, I'm not going to be apologetic for what? What happened in seventh century Arabia and what my beloved prophet
has done? And I'm like, Yeah, but surely, surely you can, you can look at it in a modern context. And he, I mean, he actually. And this, again, was for me, proof of what an extraordinary person he is, and what what strength he has.
When two of his brightest students came to him, they were both women. One was a doctor who had worked in Africa, and had seen the after effects of child marriage on the ground, she had seen the lived realities of very young women
who were married to older, older men. And she also started looking, she's like, this cannot be this cannot be, you know, condoned, even if our, you know, even if the prophet
had had, even if it many, many texts are saying that, that surely we can't necessarily be following his tradition in this particular time. And, and they they debated for for months and months, they went to his house, and he would listen and listen and listen. And
at the end of this, he we actually found
a ruling a nine century ruling, and he went into his law class. And he said, these two young women have changed my mind. And I now rethinking how we're going to talk about this. And I was so impressed that he could admit that his students had taught him to change his mind and to go back to classical texts and recent things, something so let's just be clear, not in critiquing the Prophet peace be upon him who knows God, but in in the relation to what does it mean in the modern context? Exact exact. Yes, I want to be clear on that to
finally, my dear, my dear Carla, any concluding words you'd like to say to our audience today? This is for about islam.net. But we're going on Facebook, and a lot of non Muslims often follow these discussions with enthusiasm. What would you like to say to the viewers?
That I think the most extraordinary thing was that here, I would like to say actually in, and this is now looking back from 2020, when I fear
so much in in certainly in my native country, there's such polarization, there's such certainty that we are
polarized and different, and that we can never find common ground with anybody who might be different, or share different ideas of worldviews and
the shake and I, as people are art we could not have seemed more different. I'm an American, a feminist. I was raised a secular humanist
and by a Jewish mother and a Quaker father,
and I, I'm a journalist, not a scholar. And he of course, is is a very traditionally trained scholar
with with small c conservative beliefs, and yet we found a tremendous amount of common ground, but it took it took time, it took talking, it took all the things that
that modern world conspires to take away from us. It took patient as he you know, his watchword is suburb suburb patients.
And I'd like to think I learned a little bit of that from him, but I certainly credited him with reminding me that all that you're instructed to see
in sound bites and in quickly apprehended,
you know headlines is is a
should be should be looked at much more closely. Carla, thank you so much and everybody out there, please do get a copy of the oceans for ink. I am really enjoying it on Kindle right now. So it's available on audiobook as well. It's very, it's very measured. It's exciting. It's really nicely written. It's a lived experience and yet it also takes you into areas that you may have either concerns about or fascinations with. Either way, you know, life is nuanced. Okay.
Thanks very much and may Allah Allah bless you, and continue to guide you and into new and interesting and blessed paths. And I'll see you next time in sha Allah to Allah, peace and blessings be upon you. Mesothelioma.