The Qur'an (in Anglicized form: Koran ) is certainly the greatest literary work in classical Arabic and for all Muslims stands as the definitive word of God (in Arabic: Allah ) spoken to the prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. When reading the Qur'an , you should realize that, for all Muslims, the text you are reading is quite literally the voice of God; because the Qur'an is the direct speech of God in Arabic, translation of the work is seen as blasphemy, as an unforgivable tampering with God's own speech. Nevertheless, the Qur'an has been translated into Turkish and Farsi (the language of Iran) in this century and is recited in these languages in religious services in Turkey and Iran. The Muslim community tolerates this but just barely. For all practical purposes, to be Muslim, then, means almost universally to be able to read and understand classical Arabic, despite what one's native language is.
The recitation began one night in the year 610 A.D., when Muhammad, born in Medina in 570, was asleep in Ramadan; a voice from heaven called out to him with the command, "Recite! Recite! Recite!" The angel recited three verses to him and when he awoke he had these verses, as he said, inscribed in his heart. From that point on, Muhammad believed himself to be a prophet and messenger of God, the last in a line of seven prophets (beginning with Abraham and ending with Jesus Christ, who was prophet number six) and responsible for inscribing the last and most important of God's direct messages to the world, the Arabic Recitation, which is the full name of the work. The people of God, that is, the Jews and the Christians, were going astray; the purpose of the Arabic Recitation was to restore God's faithful to the proper path. At different times in Muhammed's life the recitations would come to him; he would then repeat what he had heard and these would be memorized by certain people trained in remembering verses; some of these verses were written down on whatever was at hand. All these writings were collected in the caliphate of 'Uthman and the canonical text was established around 650 A.D. The writings were collected into a group of surah's and ordered according to length (each surah is meant to be a single recitation), though all Muslims also know the chronological order of the recitations.
The Qur'an is organized into separate chapters called surahs. The order of the surahs, however, does not reflect the chronological order of the Quranic verses, nor does the surah structure reflect the nature of the original Quranic revelation. During his lifetime, Muhammad would have individual verses revealed to him; these revelations occurred unexpectedly and in surprising places. Typically, revelation would put Muhammad in a trance-like state. He, and others, would memorize the revealed verses and, under the guidance of Gabriel, Muhammad organized these verses into the existing surahs. The intervention of Gabriel in ordering the various verses in Islamic history is meant to guarantee not only the sanctity of the individual verses, but the religious validity of the organization of these verses in the Qur'an .
The Qur'an was an oral text throughout the lifetime of Muhammad; it was also a fluid text. The complete text resided only in the memories of Muahmmad and his followers. As he added verses and reorganized the text, his followers would rememorize the text in the light of the additions or edits. This means that the Qur'an was a living text during the lifetime of Muhammad. Certain verses revealed to Muhammad were later repudiated by him as "satanic" verses revealed not by Gabriel but by Satan. These verses were expunged from the text that so many had memorized.
After the death of Muhammad, the text of the Qur'an was written down in the caliphate of Abu Bakr. Until 'Uthman, one and only one written text existed. For over a decade after the death of Muhammad, the Qur'an remained primarily an oral text in the memories of the faithful. In Islamic accounts of the history of the Qur'an , this oral text was entirely faithful to the original verses—this is entirely possible, but Western historians generally agree that some corruptions must have produced slight variations throughout the Islamic world. Nevertheless, the military expansion of Islam led to two direct consequences concerning the integrity of the Quranic text. First, large numbers of the faithful were dying out in the various military expeditions. Each time someone died who had the Quranic text memorized, that meant that one copy of the Qur'an disappeared forever. Second, the expansion of Islam swelled the ranks of the faithful. Many of these new converts spoke other langagues and the original Arabic of the Qur'an began to corrupt. Faced with these two threats to the integrity of the Qur'an , 'Uthman orderd a rescension of the text to be made and to serve as the definitive written version of the text. A rescension is a version of a text that is assembled from all the variant versions of that text. 'Uthman, however, relied on two sources: the written text that had been ordered by Abu Bakr and that still existed, and the various oral texts of Muslims who memorized it during the lifetime of Muhammad. In Islamic history, there is no variation between these two sources, so the Uthmanic "rescension" is largely a codifying of a single version of a text. This version, the 'Uthmanic rescension, is the version of the Qur'an that has remained, unchanged, the central holy text of Islam.
The Qur'an has one overriding theme, endlessly repeated and elaborated throughout the text: complete submission (in Arabic: islam ; muslim means "one who submits") to the word and the will of God, who is one God and the only God. The God of Islam is both a stern judge and endlessly forgiving; obedience to God wipes away all transgression. This submission, however, must be fully and rationally given; faith (iman ) is a rational consent to the truth of the word of God. Therefore, much of the Qu'ran concerns the word of God and how it is received and believed, or not received and believed as the case may be. As you read the text, try to identify the central ethical and religious principles. How are people supposed to behave towards one another? How is the human world divided? What human activities indicate faith? What is the role of mercy? What is the role of violence? What theory of history seems to animate this account? Why do people choose not to believe the prophets from Allah? In particular, the "theme" of this surah is the nature of Allah's "signs"? What are these signs? What guarantees their truth? Why are they called "manifest"? Why do they not convince the unbelievers?
You may find the text a bit disorganized and repetitious; the compositional principle of the Qur'an is called in Arabic, haqqiqah , or "formless essence." This is understood to mean that the various commands, injunctions, and accounts of God take on their fullest meaning by being repeated in several different combinations. This compositional principle becomes an artistic principle in Islamic art and architecture.
Your text is taken from The Qur'an , translated by E. H. Palmer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1880). This text has been updated to more colloquial English by me. I'm only a beginner with Arabic, so the text has been updated in part by consulting other English translations.