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Author: Ancient Texts Argue For An Islamic Feminist Movement


Journalist Carla Power writes for Time magazine. She's covered the Middle East. She specializes in Muslim cultures, but she never felt she had a real grasp of the Quran. Power chose to spend a year with an old friend, an influential teacher and scholar who lives and works in England. Sheikh Akram Nadwi was born in a Muslim village in India. He went on to study at Oxford where he and Power met. Power's book is called "If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and A Journey To The Heart of the Quran." And she spoke about what started her on this path.

CARLA POWER: As a journalist, I had written a lot about Muslims and Islamic societies, but I felt slightly cramped by the coverage and the way we covered it. I was either, it seems, writing about strong men, you know, jihadis or despits (ph) or dictators. Or I was writing about ostensibly muffled and silent women. But I had never really, really delved into the Quran itself and how it shaped their worldview.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now, when Westerners think about Islam, the current impression outsiders have of the Muslim world is that it is a violent place; of course, obviously, a lot that comes from news coverage. It also comes from the history of the prophet who fought to take over Mecca. So where did you and your teacher kind of get to on the question of violence - of Muslim violence?

POWER: The sheikh was absolutely adamant that the folks calling for caliphate, like ISIS, were completely on the wrong track. He's like, they just want power and money. And the thing that upset him most is that the Muslim world and all these tensions that you see come out of the fact that Muslims are taking their religion as identity rather than personal piety, a personal relationship with God. And he sees this as extremely damaging.

WERTHEIMER: Now, the other thing, of course, that people in the West have been very interested in is our perception that Islam mistreats women. You know, not just the sort of the violence we've seen, but the very restricted ways in which women are treated, kept separate, restricted to their homes, not allowed to drive; that kind of thing. And you took all that up with the sheikh as well.

POWER: Yeah, well, the sheikh is actually emerged as a - I call him the accidental feminist, even though I don't think he would call himself a feminist. He said, I'm going to write a little pamphlet on women scholars in Islam. And, you know, maybe I'll find 30 or 40 over the last 1,400 years. But he went back and he came up with what is now 40 volumes of women scholars, and it's 9,000 women scholars. And these women scholars, you know, there were women, you know, riding across Arabia doing lecture tours on horse or camelback. There were women teaching caliphs and princes. And it was extraordinary to study with a man who had discovered this sort of by accident because he went in as a pious and rather traditional scholar who just wanted to look into the history of Islamic scholarship.

WERTHEIMER: You know, all kinds of things can be justified by locating the right verses. It's certainly true of the Christian Bible that I grew up with in studying in Sunday school. Do you think that there is any possibility that some of these ideas of flexibility, the ideas of possibility for women, the idea that Islam is a very peaceful faith, that this is going to reach a larger public, possibly even change anything?

POWER: I very much hope so. People are going back to these basic texts. There's an extraordinarily important Islamic feminist movement that has looked at the verse 434, which basically says that men have authority over women. And they're rereading it and questioning how Islamic law has traditionally dealt with this. So I'm very hopeful that slowly the Muslim majority is going to start speaking up and not let zealots hijack their religion.

WERTHEIMER: Carla Power's book is called "If The Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and A Journey To The Heart of the Quran." Thank you very much for spending time with us.

POWER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.