You have heard Islamic terrorists quoting violent passages from the Koran (also spelled Quran), justifying their actions. And you've heard other Muslims saying the terrorists have it all wrong, and quoting peaceful passages.
How do you know what is really in that book? Anyone talking about the Koran may have an agenda, may be biased, and may be deliberately distorting the contents. The only way to really know for sure what's going on is to read it yourself.
But if you've ever tried to read the Koran, you know it is difficult. Most English translations use words like "thee" and "thou" as it does in the King James version of the Christian Bible. The Koran also repeats itself many times, making it difficult to stay focused while you read it. The chapters are arranged in order from the longest to the shortest chapter, rather than in chronological order, so it seems to jump around, which is confusing. And sometimes, because of the way the Koran is written, it's difficult to know who is speaking to who.
In addition, the Koran makes references to events in Mohammad's life, and of course, unless you know a lot about Mohammad, you won't know what these events refer to.
A version of the Koran fixes these problems. A Simple Koran puts the passages in chronological order and translates them into modern, readable English.
It also includes explanations of the events in Mohammad's life the Koran refers to, and makes it perfectly clear who is speaking to who.
An interesting thing comes to light in reading this version. Because the chapters are laid out in chronological order, you can clearly see the progression from tolerance at first — tolerance of the Jews, and even seeking the approval of the Jews — to rejection of them and their "evil ways," to outright hatred, condemnation, and urging war against them.
The way the Koran is normally laid out, you would never notice this progression as the revelations changed.
But wait a minute, you might be thinking, the fact that the revelations changed means there are conflicting passage in the Koran, right? So can't believers pick and choose what they want?
Unfortunately, the Koran itself tells the believer how to handle its own contradictions. It says if a revelation contradicts one that came before it, the newer one overwrites the older one. This is the principle known as "abrogation." The bad news for non-Muslims is that all the intolerant and violent passages abrogate the earlier tolerant and peaceful ones.
The first three-fourths of the book is difficult to read because it is uninteresting. But then the book completely changes its tune. So when you're reading, just keep going.
The reason it becomes interesting for non-Muslims is because the nature of Mohammad's revelations totally changed once he gained military power. When he first started out (when Islam was a small minority) Mohammad preached peace and tolerance. But once he gained enough followers, started raiding caravans, and gained military and financial power (from the booty he gained from the caravans), he stopped trying to curry favor with the Jews and Christians and his revelations became intolerant and then downright hateful. Don't take my word for it. Don't take anybody's word for it! Find out for yourself.
UPDATE: I have found an even better version of the Koran called An Abridged Koran. It's exactly the same as A Simple Koran and published by the same people (CSPI Publishing), except it consolidates all the repetition. The Koran is very repetitive. For example, the story of Moses and the Pharaoh is told in the original Qur'an 39 times! In An Abridged Koran, the story is only told once.
The Koran is not a very big book once you take out all the repetition. Only 203 pages. Get this book and read it. Take the pledge: Read the Quran.
But in the meantime, you can learn some of the basic teachings of Islam right now: Why is Islam so Successful?
Read more about why the standard versions of the Quran are so difficult to decipher.