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Religious texts » Introduction

The world's main faiths count certain scriptures as holy. Some of these texts are regarded by followers as the very words of God and an indisputable source of authority; others are seen by religious communities as guides to behaviour that need interpreting to best understand and apply them

Studying religious texts has always been an important part of theology and religious studies courses. Texts are the focus of authority in several major world religions and are important guides to belief and behaviour in others.


Muslims see the Qur'an as the actual words of God, memorised and recited by the Prophet Muhammad; therefore the Qur'an is accepted as the definitive explanation of the nature of Allah, the will of Allah and of the place and purpose of mankind. Answers to all life's questions are believed to be within the text of the Qur'an and it is the responsibility of every good Muslim to study, and indeed learn, the text in its original language and grow to understand its wisdom. No Muslim accepts that the Qur'an could properly be subjected to textual criticism of the type commonly used by scholars of Christian and Jewish Scriptures, however there are still various "ways of reading" the texts and, of course, Arabic terms are understood to mean different things by different scholars. Islam is as diverse a religion as any other, despite its united stance on the centrality of the Qur'an and the status of the Prophet, and there are important differences between how different Muslim communities translate the text into religious belief and practice.

Orthodox Judaism

Within Orthodox Judaism the Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) is believed to have been written by Moses, who was directly inspired by G-d on Mount Sinai. The 613 laws contained in the Torah govern every aspect of behaviour and constitute the human part of the ancient covenant relationship between G-d and his chosen people. The story of the Torah provides evidence of that covenant; in return for faith and obedience to the Law, G-d gave His people the Promised Land and protected them in their troubles. Personal and corporate suffering is seen, within Orthodox Judaism, as a just punishment from G-d for having failed to follow the Law. Individuals may be held to account for the failings of others in the Jewish community. It is the responsibility therefore of all adult Jewish men to learn Hebrew, read and interpret the Scriptures and take part in meetings of the Synagogue, which allow points of history, law and tradition to be discussed in relation to current issues facing the community. In the Synagogue the handmade Torah scrolls are adorned with with ornamental crowns when closed and are treated with great respect, with ceremony. Old scrolls are ritually buried in the Synagogue.


Within Sikhism the Guru Granth Sahib is accepted as the guru, the blessed leader of the Sikh religion. It contains the wisdom of the first five living gurus, was compiled by Guru Arjan Dev and acclaimed as the eleventh guru after the death of the tenth, Guru Gobind Singh. It is immortal and unchanging in its leadership and its inspiration. Each handmade copy of the book is treated like a living guru, with, in each Gurdawara, a special stand and silk covers, its own bed and bedroom in which to be placed at night, and a Granthi to care for the book and ensure that it is treated with due reverence. Sikh children are taught some Gurmukhi, the script in which the Guru Granth Sahib was originally written, and each service held in the gurdwara features readings from the scriptures, also known as the Adi Granth, often set to traditional ragas (scales or melodies in Indian classical music). Damaged copies of the Adi Granth are ritually cremated, like a dead human leader.

Hinduism and Buddhism

Hinduism and Buddhism have a broad range of ancient texts which are treated with respect and used as a guide to living. The Vedas in particular are extremely old, some dating back to around 1500BC, and are the foundation of Hindu belief and culture. Orthodox (astika) traditions regard the Vedas as revelation from God, that were 'heard' (sruti) by the sages who eventually wrote them down. Non-orthodox (nastika) traditions (which include Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism)respect the Vedas but do not see them as authoritative. Other religious texts have an important place within Hindu tradition. About 13 of the 200+ Upanishads (texts written by a variety of authors while "sitting near" a sage or religious teacher) are also accepted as being divinely revealed by orthodox Hindu traditions. Hindus also look to a range of "Smriti" or later texts, including epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata; the sixth book of the latter is known as the Bhagavad Gita (or "Gita"), which is revered as the clearest expression of Vedic philosophy. Different Buddhist traditions look to different texts as "buddhavacana". Theravadan Buddhists accept the Pali Canon, which is sometimes thought to contain some of the actual teachings of Siddartha Gotama, the man regarded by most Buddhists as the Supreme Buddha. Tibetan Buddhists accept a collection of texts known as the Kangyur and East Asian Buddhists the Taisho Tripitaka.