I thought I would read the Koran during my one-year deployment to the Middle East. It was boring, and the literary commentary and criticism I sought out to help me through it was so uneven or obviously biased that I ended up selling the book to a captain who worked in C-130 Ops.
If you really want to understand not so much Islam, but it's history, its people and the cultural milieu that stretches from Turkey to China, I recommend three sources: Anything written by Bernard Lewis; The Arab Mind, by Raphael Patai; and and The Arabian Nights, unexpurgated edition.
In addition to these works, you should read the history of whatever area or era you are interested in. Muslim culture and its history is rich and varied. Reading a book on the Taliban and saying you understand Islam is like saying you read a book on 1930's Germany and now have an understanding of Christianity. The Muslim world and it's varied cultures and history is a vast topic.
Bernard Lewis, now 95, is the West's leading Middle Eastern scholar. He understands the culture and can explain it quite well. Of the current uprisings...
"I think that the tyrannies are doomed. The real question is what will come instead."Lewis is no Muslim hater. Just the opposite. He has written essays in an attempt to explain the Muslim point of view to fellow westerners. His overarching themes in these works is that their ways are not our ways.
"We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want." (WSJ - The Tyrannies are Doomed)
Indeed Muslims have tried "our ways" in the form of authoritarian statism and fascism. It's been a poor fit to cultures that were historically steeped in decentralized government where even kings and sultans must consult with the various guilds, tribes and scattered interest groups.
Iranians' disdain for the ruling mullahs is the reason Mr. Lewis thinks the U.S. shouldn't take military action there. "It would give the regime a gift that they don't at present enjoy—namely Iranian patriotism," he warns.
"We have a much better chance of establishing—I hesitate to use the word democracy—but some sort of open, tolerant society, if it's done within their systems, according to their traditions. Why should we expect them to adopt a Western system? And why should we expect it to work?" he asks. (WSJ - The Tyrannies are Doomed)
The Arab Mind, written in 1973, has come under sustained attack since 9/11. The neocons read it and the military used it, so it must be bad! Dr Patai is a cultural anthropologist, and this is a well-documented and scholarly work. His downfall is that he sometimes takes specific knowledge from a narrow part of the Middle East and extrapolates it out to the whole. The Arab world is such a large and varied place that many generalities just don't fit and end up smacking of stereotype.
He also engages in some amateur cultural psychology that so many anthropologists are guilty of. So it may not be the definitive work it was once thought to be, but it is still a good jumping off point to at least get yourself oriented.
Arabian Nights is a collection of highly entertaining folk tales from Arabia and South Asia. Some of the stories take place as far away as China. You'll recognize some of the characters: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, Sinbad the Sailor (Who was actually a merchant from Basra, Iraq), Aladdin, as well as scimitar-wielding warriors, sultans and Genies (Jinn).
It is not history, it's folklore, so any facts you garner will be incidental. Regardless, you will gain enormous insight into the history and culture of the Islamic lands of the Near East. Read the unexpurgated version, and you'll get the tales complete with the murder, mayhem and ribald randiness missing from the tales you enjoyed as a child.