SINCE all of the world's major religious traditions have
produced written documents, it is possible and legitimate to ask:
What are the equivalents of the Christian Bible in those different
traditions? What and where are the historic copies of their
Answers to these questions, however, quickly indicate not only
the expected diversity of documents, but also very different
significances that have been ascribed to the documents.
The written word does not always have the same function in the
lives of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or others as it does for
Christians - even acknowledging that there is variety among
Verbal literacy has been variously valued in different times and
places, and the unique authority that Christians, particularly
Protestants, ascribe to a book is elsewhere: in a charismatic
individual, in certain ritual behavior, in a self-authenticating
In short, to ask a seemingly simple and obvious question is to
move immediately into the fascinating field of the comparative
study of religion.
Questioning our assumptions
The first step in attempting to answer these questions is to
reexamine the assumptions that lead us to ask them.
As William A. Graham, a historian of religion, has noted, we in
the modern West "stand on this side of the epochal transition
accomplished to large degree by about 1800 in the urban culture of
Western Europe, and now still in progress elsewhere, from a scribal
... and still significantly oral culture to a print-dominated ...
primarily visual culture. Our alphabetic 'book culture,' like our
'book religion,' is not even the same as the 'book culture' (or
'book religion') of sixteenth- or seventeenth-century Europe, let
alone that of classical antiquity, the Medieval or Renaissance
West, or the great literary civilizations of Asia past and present."
It is therefore impossible for us to find any "book religions"
precisely parallel with those of the modern West, because the quite
specific conditions that have produced our "book culture" have not
Even as literacy rises around the globe, its significance is
shaped by local cultural factors, which are virtually always very
different from those of European and American life of the past two
The following brief overview of Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist
"Bibles," therefore, can only hint at what the relevant documents
are - and at the more interesting and complex matter of their
religious significance for those who value them.
Islam: the 'corrective' scripture
The Muslim situation is closest to that of Jews and Christians,
and for good reason: The religion of Islam sees itself as the
fulfillment of the two older traditions, which, like Islam, are
rooted in the faith of Abraham. This fulfillment focuses explicitly
on scripture, the Koran (or Qur'an; meaning "the recitation").
In Muslim understanding, this scripture was revealed piecemeal
to the Prophet Muhammad, in the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina,
between AD 610 and 632. The words are understood as the flawless
word of God himself, not as Muhammad's personal utterances.
The Koran stands as the corrective to the faulty scriptures of
other "People of the Book": the one God (Allah) had previously
spoken through a series of prophets to Jews and Christians, but his
message was distorted in the course of writing it down.
The Koran serves to amend these previous partial
misunderstandings and to provide comprehensive guidance for human
conduct, both individual and social.
Islam is in many ways the most "scriptural" of the world's
religions, not just in the comprehensive significance it ascribes
to the Koran, but in the rapidity with which a definitive version
Within 20 years of Muhammad's death, the third caliph, Uthman,
had a definitive codex completed, thereby setting a norm for