Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Essential Koran

The Essential Koran -- the Heart of Islam: An Introductory Selection of Readings from the Koran
© 1994 trans. and edited by Thomas Cleary
202 pages

I was somewhat reluctant to include this as a TWATL post given its nature -- poetic verse, rather religious or not, seems as if it should be appreciated bit by bit over a long period of time rather than "consumed" all in one go -- but decided to comment on it regardless. I read it bit by bit over the course of a week, as I've done with some poetry and short story collections in the past. Although I've read a few books reading Islam, I've never read the Koran itself. It seemed appropriate that I remedy that situation.

Although the Koran is often compared to the Judeo-Christian bible, its format is very different. Rather than being a collection of many works (mostly prose), the Koran is a collection of poectic verse that -- as the stories go -- an Arab named Muhammed heard delivered from an angel and repeated for the benefit of his people, eventually converting the verse into written form and thus producing the Koran. Like most poetry, I suspect it loses a lot in translation, claims to the majesty of Arabic aside. The Essential Koran is composed of bits and pieces of the Koran, so I'm probably not getting the full effect.

The verses encourage humanity to worship God and love wisdom while promising retribution for those that do not. The religion that emerges in this is one similar to that promoted by some of the Hebrew prophets: both urge people to purify their inner life by believing only in the religion of God -- not in "man-made" beliefs like the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus or asceticism. Most of the verses in The Essential Koran either praise God or urge humans to live justly. Those who love the truth and walk in the light will see their reward in a Garden of Paradise, while those who spurn it will be punished with fire. (Middle-eastern dieties and fire...) At times it seems the eternal Fire is reserved only for the fantastically evil, those who realize what Goodness is and decide to do evil just to be spiteful -- but then there are verses that say God is blinding people to light and that these people are beyond help.

Most of the book is lost on a theistic skeptic like myself, but I could enjoy some of the aesthetic quality of the verse and the ideas behind some of them. Some of the references confused me all together, like the sura that says Rome is defeated but will emerge victorious in a few years' time. What does this mean? Why is Muhammed concerned with Rome? Overall I'm satisfied that I read this, as it serves as prime-source material for things I've heard about Islam but have never proven for myself, like Mohammad's opinions on Jesus.

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