Note from Ted: This was sent to me via email and I asked permission to post here. I thought you might find it interesting. It's from David Cross, and you can find his free ebook here, and the hardcopy version on Amazon, here.
I was asked by one of our friends on our email list, "How well do Muslims know their Qur'an?" I thought perhaps my response would help others get a better grasp on this question, too.
Muslims' knowledge of the Qur'an is difficult to grasp because they memorize the Qur'an from childhood. On the other hand, most Muslims do not speak or understand Arabic at all; they merely memorize the Arabic sounds and have no clue what the meaning is of the words they've memorized. Most Muslims are Indonesian, Malaysian, Indian, Chinese or Persian and they rarely learn to read the Qur'an for understanding.
Interestingly, much of Muslim life is not from the Qur'an, though. Rather, it is from the Hadith which are the practices of the prophet Muhammad. These address the day to day things that Muslims do in their lives. For instance, these Hadith tell explicitly when to pray the five prayers each day. They also tell which foot must enter the bathroom first and which foot must leave the bathroom first. They also tell how the color green wards off demons which, by implication, leads to families having green "Jinn" lights in every bedroom of the home.
These Hadith are taught thoroughly through culture. Even if a Muslim has not read the Hadith or the Qur'an, chances are, they know these traditions very thoroughly.
Most Muslims know very little about their own history or the history of the Qur'an, though. For instance, the fourth Caliph (Islamic leader) issued an edict to have all Qur'ans collected from around the Muslim world. They were to be burned and replaced with one authoritative Qur'an that was recited by one man, Zayed ibn Thabit. So, the whole text of the Qur'an hangs on the memory of one man. Caliph Othman did this because so many variants and changed Qur'ans were popping up all over. This history of the Qur'an is almost completely unknown or simply denied by Muslims because they can't bring themselves to believe that Muslims would actually burn Qur'ans. Talk about Qur'an burning, whoa!
One final note about the Qur'an is that even literate, Arabic-speaking Muslims often cannot read the Qur'an for understanding. The Arabic of the Qur'an is so archaic that it is unintelligible to all but the most educated Muslims. The Qur'an hasn't changed since the Othmanic Recension (the edict mentioned above) which happened in the 7th century. Imagine the difficulty Christians would have reading the Anglo-Saxon Bible of the 7th century. This is comparable to the struggle that native Arabic speakers have in understanding the Qur'an.
So, yes, Muslims "read" the Qur'an often, but this is more accurately described as "reciting." Very few Muslims can read the Qur'an for understanding. Even so, most Muslims have a very good understanding of the extended traditions of Islam through their culture.
– David Cross