by Carla Power (Holt, £12.99)
Since 9/11, hundreds of books have appeared about the relationship between Islam and the west. Broadly they divide into two categories: why you should be afraid and why you shouldn’t be so afraid.
Carla Power’s book is in the latter camp. Unlike other sympathetic accounts, though, her work does not look at the reform-minded Muslims seeking to shake up the sharia. Instead, Power, a journalist who has covered the Muslim world for 20 years and is broadly secular, describes her friendship with a traditional Muslim: the Oxford-based Mohammad Akram Nadwi or, as she calls him, the Sheikh.
They read the Koran together and try to unravel its often elusive meaning. Power is moved by the verses that speak of the similarity between Christians, Jews and Muslims and of God’s endless mercy. The Sheikh, a soft-spoken man whose life’s work is a multi-volume project on the forgotten history of women Muslim scholars, embodies what Power sees as the best aspects of the faith. He is also resolutely peaceful, warning in his sermons that turning Islam into a political identity will diminish the faith.
Yet Power does not hide their differences: his disapproval of homosexuality, belief in Hell and insistence that Islam is the one true path. No matter how much imagination Power musters, she cannot disguise that his worldview is very different from the liberal individualist one she was brought up with. Her book seeks to understand traditional Islamic values without patronising those who hold them by pretending they can be easily accommodated into the mainstream.