Post 9/11 a bunch of my friends ran out and bought copies of the Koran in the hope of gaining some deep(er) insights into the Islamic mind. The trouble with that was that the Koran demands serious study and really isn't amenable to being read and grasped on a rainy afternoon while waiting for the next episode of the West Wing. I know 'cause I tried. (Having said that if you have the time, energy and patience to try and understand the Koran then there is no better way of understanding Islam.)
For others, I'd like to recommend three books which can serve as excellent tools.
I find it interesting that Karen Armstrong is a nun. Her book is beautifully written, with heart and deeply empathetic. It covers the history of Islam from it's founding to post-9/11 and is good if you don't want to do too much heavy intellectual lifting.
Eaton is a Swiss-British Muslim, he's been a Muslim for decades and converted when we was a young man in his 20s. In his own words this book aims to "offer some keys to understanding from the point of view of a Westerner who is also a Muslim...the areas of misunderstanding which bedevil relations between the two cultures."
The book is heavier reading than Armstrong's in that it attempts to clearly articulate a paradigm within a complex historical context while retaining as aspect of self-criticism. It does an amazing job.
Written by a practicing Muslim this is a great reference book. Glasse's entries are well written and clear. This book will be useful for those who want more details on the history that Armstrong articulates and the concepts that Eaton makes use of.
"In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with Gods will. A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. Like any religious ideal, it was almost impossible to implement in the flawed and tragic conditions of history, but after each failure Muslims had to get up and begin again."
- Islam: A Short History, Karen Armstrong
"Islam takes its stand immovably upon the nature of things, not as they might be but as they are; in the first place, upon the transcendent Reality beside which every other light is dimmed, and secondly upon the palpable (but contingent) realities of the world and of human experience. Perhaps Napoleon was more Muslim than might be supposed, for he said once: 'My master is the nature of things.' One of the great weaknesses of contemporary Islam is the eagerness with which Muslims ignore facts and lose themselves in dreams, contrary to the example of the Prophet, who was a realist in every possible sense of the term. Realism is by nature serene, because it cannot be surprised or disillusioned, and it is in this spirit of serenity that the Muslim is required to observe and endure the vicissitudes of time and history, fortified by a quality of stillness and of timelessness which is at the heart of his faith."
- Islam and the Destiny of Man, Gai Eaton