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.
This is the Traverse (or Path, Ar. sirat), the bridge over hell — sharper than a sword and thinner than a hair. The righteous will pass over it easily and be rewarded with heaven, while the wicked, bearing the burden of their wrongs, will fall into the gulf of hell. “Balance” refers to the Scales by which the good and bad deeds of a person will be weighed, and one’s fate will be determined accordingly.
(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.
When God desires to create something, he simply says to it “Be,” and it is (e.g. 2:117, 3:47). The “Throne and Footstool” are better understood as the roof and ground of Heaven. The stage is now set for the appearance of Man.
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.
The creation of humankind is a matter of the most delicate and sublime importance. Only humans are able to manifest the All-comprehensive name of God. God says in the Koran that in order to give life to Adam, He “breathed into him of His Spirit” (32:9, 66:12).
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.
In Islam, the apple of Judeo-Christian tradition is replaced by wheat, or bread. This is the cause for the Fall from Paradise. In other words, partaking of what belongs to the material world is the cause for falling from the spiritual world — like ballast.
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.
The story of Noah is much the same as that found in Western tradition, so it does not need recounting here.
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.
Salih is a prophet mentioned in the Koran who was sent to the people of Thamood. They asked for proof, so God sent them a she-camel as a sign. But instead of turning to faith, they hamstrung and killed her (11:61-65) — an ill-advised move.
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.
Also known as the Seven Sleepers, the People of the Cave were Christians in pre-Islamic times. In order to save them from persecution, God put them to sleep for many years in a cave. Moses was instructed by God on Mount Sinai, and also received the Ten Commandments there.
Every prophet had a vocation. One of the earliest prophets, Seth, was a cloth-weaver. Enoch (or Idris) was a tailor by profession.
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.
Because he wanted it, Solomon became not only the king of Israel, but the king of both the material and the spiritual worlds. Job was tested by losing everything he had, including his health. But then, God took pity on him and restored him to his former health and affluence. Jacob cried so much at the loss of his son Joseph (see next quatrain) that it is said he lost his eyesight. After Moses ran away from Egypt, he served Jethro as a shepherd.
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.
The story of Joseph and his brothers is narrated in Chapter 12 of the Koran. Joseph was famous for his male beauty. Jealous of him, his brothers threw him into a well and told their father, Jacob, that wolves had devoured him.
Joseph himself was aware of his beauty, but it went to his head: like Narcissus, he fell victim to self-love. “If I were a slave, I would be priceless,” he thought to himself. The Koran tells us that for this reason, he was sold as a slave in Egypt for a single farthing.
Zulaykha was the wife of Joseph’s master. She fell madly in love with him, and when she failed to get her way with him, she framed Joseph. However, the real reason he was jailed was because he said “I’m innocent.” This claim was not entirely true, and incurred God’s displeasure.
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.
King David was also a musician, and it is believed he played the zither (or harp). The prophet Lot was saved from the terrible fate that befell Sodom and Gomorrah.
Hood was a prophet mentioned in the Koran sent to the people of Ad. They refused to believe in his message, and came to a bad end. Hood himself, however, was saved (11:50-60).
Nimrod, a pharaoh-like ruler, had a raging fire built, and threw the patriarch Abraham into it with a catapult. However, God protected Abraham, commanding the fire to be “cool and safe towards Abraham” (21:69). The furious center of the fire became a rose garden for him.
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.
The “Friend of the Compassionate” is of course Abraham, the father of Ishmael and Isaac. In Islamic lore, Ishmael is usually accepted as the son to be sacrificed. This is an unbearable test for Abraham. Just as he is about to sacrifice his son, a ram is sent down from heaven for Abraham to sacrifice instead.
Jonah gave up hope of ever convincing his people, and departed on a ship. God had not said so, however, and a huge storm came up, the result of which was that Jonah jumped overboard and was swallowed by a huge fish. After what some say was forty days, it regurgitated Jonah on a distant shore.
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.
Islam agrees with the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Zachariah fled from his people and hid in the hollow of a tree, but his people found him and sawed down the tree with Zachariah inside.
At the Holy Temple in Jerusalem
At the Sharia River, the Jordan River
For cleansing, one day
We made John and Jesus naked.
Another name for the Jordan River is the Sharia, which connects the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. It is famous because John the Baptist baptized Jesus in its waters.
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.
King Solomon was given the understanding of the Language of States. He could converse with all animals, including birds. Now Harabi reverts to the human “we”:
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.
According to the Koran, when God created all human spirits in the eternal past, He gathered them all in an immense expanse, and asked them: “Am I not your Lord?” They answered “Yes” (7:172).
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.
As the Koran says: “Whichever way you turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115). “He is with you wherever you are” (57:4). (Such gems are tucked away in corners, and you will miss them unless you know where to look.)
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.
(It was customary for poets to place their names in the final couplet or quatrain of the poems they wrote.)
(The Turkish original can be found here, pp. 103-105.)