The Qur'an is probably one of the least understood books in the West. This is not helped by the fact that the Qur'an is virtually untranslatable. The original Arabic is the most beautiful and sophisticated Arabic ever written; in 1400 years it has never been surpassed and it has had a profound influence on the development of the Arabic language. The verses are written in a semi-rhyme form with a particular rhythm which makes recitation easier. Western Qur'anic scholars have described the language of the Qur'an as 'majestic', 'elegant' and 'of great beauty'. In the early days of Islam many people converted after being deeply touched by the beauty and content of the Qur'anic verses. The Arabic of the Qur'an often expresses several different layers of understanding and association at the same time, adding a tremendous richness to the book. Sadly, translated Qur'ans tend to lose all of this and can be dull and monotonous. The quality of translations varies widely and translation is of course always interpretation.
Another thing which makes the Qur'an more difficult to read is that it is not a linear narrative and the verses are not arranged chronologically but more or less by size and theme, the longer surahs first. Some surahs (chapters) contain verses revealed at different times, years apart. To people used to reading the Bible therefore the Qur'an at times can come across as somewhat disjointed. It is important to know that the Qur'an is partly a liturgical book (hence quite a bit of repetition). Recitation plays an important role, the listener is meant to be touched by the beauty and content of God's word. The Qur'an has been described as 'a long hymn, glorifying God' and it is normal to see Muslims weep while reading their Holy Book or listening to a recitation. As the early 20th C. British Qur'an translator M. Pickthall wrote: 'The Qur'an is an inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.'
Many of the Qur'anic verses, which were revealed over a period of 23 years, were responses to events which were happening at that time but it doesn't always state what these events were. This is found in the Al-Hadith, the large collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad and his contemporaries and their accounts of that time. That's where 'tafsir' comes in, Qur'anic exegesis, which connects the verses in the Qur'an with the Al-Hadith. Suddenly many of the verses take on a totally different meaning. One which is usually lost on Islamophobes and extremists alike. A common misconception is that the Qur'an is full of bellicose language. The fact is that only 164 of the 6236 verses deal with war and these nearly always relate to self-defense. People sometimes forget that 113 of the 114 surahs start with 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,' and nearly a 100 times the Qur'an mentions that God is forgiving.
The reason why the Qur'an is sometimes harsh is because the 7th Century Arab culture in which it was conceived was very harsh and cruel. Child-offers to the gods, baby-girls who were buried alive because the Arabs wanted sons, slavery, forced prostitution, torture and mutilation, no legal system but the law of the strongest -no protection for women, orphans, the weak and the poor, were all part of this world. The Qur'an brought enormous improvements to this barbaric society by offering a high moral standard and protection for the weak and vulnerable, apart from profound spiritual guidance as well.
The uniqueness of the Qur'an is that here is a book in which God speaks directly to humankind. As one commentator remarked 'This book talks about the universe from the highest point of it. It's impossible for a human being to have written it, especially at the time it was revealed.'
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So many issues with the Qur'an come from not properly understanding the 7th C. Arabic and the context in which the verses were revealed. Many scholars through the ages have made mistakes in interpreting the Holy Book of Islam. Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl points out that the Qur'an should always be interpreted in the light of its underlying message and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, which is that of love, compassion, justice, forgiveness and inclusiveness. Interpretations that can lead to oppression, injustice and exclusiveness are therefore inevitably to be wrong.
When new to the Qur'an, the reader should always be aware that he is likely to read the book through the lens of his own biases and that this might influence how he experiences the text. Rumi, in his famous poem, compares the Qur'an with a bride. If you don't treat her well, she might not reveal herself to you.
When someone asks me how to start with reading the Qur'an I usually advise to just dip into the book, reading bits and pieces here and there, waiting patiently until a verse touches you and the Qur'an starts speaking to you.
Those who read the Qur'an regularly find that over the years they discover more and deeper meanings to the verses. Meanings they hadn't understood before and that this keeps happening time and again.
Some Qur'an translations are misleading, like the Saudi Arabia produced Hilali-Khan translation which has inserted interpretations by the Wahhabi school directly into the English rendition, or the 19th C. J.M. Rodwell translation which is full of mistakes.
For over 60 different English translations verse by verse: http://islamawakened.com/quran/1/1/