It is very difficult for Western readers to get a handle on the Koran. It is not written like books we are accustomed to. The holy book of Islam has remained impenetrable to generations of scholars. Those who attempt to learn about Islam through a study of the Koran often come away from the experience with a bitter taste in their mouths. Translations, which look deceptively simple, conceal the fact that we are here dealing with the most sophisticated and complex of religious texts, a fact which itself often goes unrecognized.
Ahmet Edip Harabi (1853-1917) was a Turkish Sufi poet who spent most of his life in Istanbul. His Ode of Unity (Trk. Vahdetname) is remarkable for laying bare the innermost meanings of the Koran, while at the same time giving a very good summary of many of its highlights. It is, of course, quite impossible to duplicate the meter and rhyme in English without taking great liberties with the meaning, but I believe the Ode affords one of the best short introductions to the Koran. Hence this more-or-less literal translation. Only one word has been changed from the original, and this is indicated in bold below.
Since many references need explanations for the newcomer, I provide these after Harabi's quatrains where necessary. Not all chapter-and-verse numbers are given at this time, though perhaps these could be supplied in the future. For the time being, it is sufficient if we can understand Harabi's basic meaning.
In most of the poem, Harabi uses poetic license to speak through the mouth of God, using the first-person majestic form ("We"). Towards the end, he alternates between this and the ordinary human plural.
Before either Creator or creature existed
We manifested and proclaimed it.
Before there was any place at all for Adam
We took him in Our abode, We made him Our guest.
He had then as yet no name
He had no substance, let alone name
He had neither outfit, nor a picture
We gave him the exact form of a human being.
In seven layers We built the heavens and earths
In six days the cosmos was finished
We created all these creatures in it
We gave their sustenance, We bestowed on them.
Without ground We created Paradise
We decorated the houris and youths
With many promises to every nation
We pleased them, making them happy and glad.
We dug a hell, oh, so very deep
We adorned it with the fire of pain
Much thinner than a hair, sharper than a sword
We balanced a bridge over it.
(Something akin to the Sirat Bridge was known in Christianity, as well. A detail from a fresco shows the Soul crossing over the Narrow Bridge of Judgment — in the Church of Santa Maria, Loretto Aprutino, Abruzzo, Italy, 13th century. And let's not forget the Chinvat Bridge in Zoroastrianism, which widens or narrows in proportion with the person's good or bad deeds, respectively. As for the Scales, it's enough to recall the famous "Psychostasis" scene — the weighing of the soul — from Ancient Egypt.)
As the world was created with the command: "Be!"
We roamed the Throne and Footstool for a while
So that this universe wouldn't stay empty
We ordered the creation of Adam.
Who is wise knows the obscure secret:
In order to manifest the Greatest Name
We kneaded and fashioned Adam of clay
We sent a spirit from Our Spirit into him.
Adam and Eve were together
"What a splendid place we've found!" they said.
They ate wheat in Paradise, [for which]
We banished them to one side, we sent them away.
Many people came from Adam and Eve
Prophets emerged, saints appeared
The world filled and emptied a hundred thousand times
We sent the Flood to Noah, who was Saved by God.
Prophets seem to have always had difficulty in conveying their message to the peoples they were sent to.
On Salih, We bestowed a camel
It emerged suddenly from a boulder
Many did not believe in this
We razed them to the ground.
One time we put the People of the Cave to sleep
We instructed Moses on the Mount
We made Seth a weaver, made him weave cloths
We had Enoch cut it and make it a robe.
Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956)
We made Solomon king of the world
We pitied Job and sent him a cure
We made Jacob cry, we made him weep much
We made Moses a shepherd to Jethro.
In Islamic art, prophets are often depicted with a fiery halo around their heads, or in a full-body halo of fire. Instances can also be found of the round halo, more familiar from Christian iconography. Left: During the Night Journey of his Ascension, Mohammed meets up with the Five Great Prophets (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus) in Jerusalem. Right: Mohammed addresses his followers from the pulpit.
We had Joseph thrown into a well
We had him sold as a slave in Egypt
We had Zulaykha pester him
For his error We made him a cell's prisoner.
We made the prophet David play the zither
We saved Lot and Hood from bad endings
See what we did to Nimrod's fire
We made it an orchard for Abraham.
Abraham in a rose garden amidst the flames.
We sent from heaven a sacrifice as compensation
For Ishmael, the Friend of the Compassionate was elated
For quite a long time We decreed
the belly of the fish a lodging for Jonah.
We ensconced Mother Mary in a temple of prostration,
There, without a father, We caused Jesus to be born
In a tree We had Zachariah
Cut up, and his blood spilled.
At the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
At the Sharia River, the Jordan River
For cleansing, one day
We made John and Jesus naked.
With such frolics We passed the time
We finished a lot of business with these prophets
We introduced another Glorious Prophet
We made his every word the Koran.
In Islamic depictions of Mohammed, his face is often veiled, because nobody knows what the Prophet looked like and no likeness would do him justice. It is also thought to be disrespectful.
We made the faithless of Quraysh a pretext
Mohammed Mustapha was born into the world
In order to invite the people to faith
We made Murtaza his friend and companion.
Quraysh is Mohammed's tribe. "Murtaza" is Ali, the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law. Ali was one of the Prophet's greatest supports.
No prophet can compare with him
The Beloved of God is the king of prophets
He is the owner of this world and the next
We made him the Glorious Prophet.
Up to this point, Harabi has given us a straightforward, if much abridged and concise, reading of the Koran. It is also a brief history of the prophets. Of course, there are many lessons to be learned from the example of the prophets. But what does it all signify?
Now Harabi comes to the crux of everything. He is about to reveal the meaning of it all. In a dazzling summary and conclusion, he goes straight to the heart of the matter.
Think not everyone fathoms these words
'Tis birdsong, which Solomon knows
The wise [alone] discern this obscure secret
Because We hid it from the ignorant.
We were Real with the Real in past eternity
On the day of "Am I not" and the "Yea" reply
In the place of the Lord, in the Clear Gathering
We saw His Face and asserted our faith.
The person who does not know the World of Unity
Remained a fool in human form
The Lord God is not separate from us
We made this clear with the Koran.
Our words are indeed as certain as can be
Who is born, who dies, who does and undoes — is all the Real
Wherever you look is Absolute Reality
We proclaimed the states of Unity.
For those who enter the palace of Unity
For those who see the Real with the Truth of Certainty
For those who know this secret, Harabi,
We circulated in the square of Unity.