Jews, Christians and Muslims are all “people of the book”. Christians and Muslims feel an obligation to spread their Holy Books into the hands and hearts of as many people as they can.
But Jews, who are religious pluralists, do not feel this obligation. Nevertheless, since the Hebrew Bible is included in all the full translations of the Christian Bible, the Torah narratives are widely known in areas where few Jews reside.
The biggest of the three sacred scriptures is the Jewish Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. It is between 602,000 and 622,000 words long, depending on which translation you use. The New Testament is 138,000 words in Greek, but up to 184,000 in an English translation.
The Koran is only 78,000 words in Arabic; but much more in all English translations which always include extra interpretive words in brackets to explain the Arabic text.
Even though these sacred scriptures are physically big books, they are even bigger in book sales and distribution than any other book published each year.
Over 100 million copies of the Bible are sold or given away world wide every year; and annual Bible sales in North America alone range between $425-$650 million.
No book has been retranslated as often as the Bible, because no book has been as widely republished. The Bible isn’t just the all-time best seller, it’s consistently so, especially in the United States. Legions of Bible readers hunger endlessly for new versions.
The Bible is the most widely read book in the USA; as the Koran is in the Islamic world. Also reciting the Koran is an important element of Muslim education. One of the most prized honorifics in Islamic society is “hafiz” or “one who can recite the entire Koran by heart”.
The Bible and the Koran have both gone global. In 1900, 80% of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and the United States. Today 60% live in the developing world. In 1900 Islam was concentrated in the Arab world and South-East Asia. Today, there may be as many practicing Muslims in England as there are practicing Anglicans.
This mountain of Holy Books is a major refutation of the idea that religion recedes as the world modernizes. Why are today’s Christians and Muslims proving so successful at spreading the Word? Is either of the world’s two great monotheistic missionary religions gaining an edge when it comes to getting their Holy Books into people’s hands and hearts?
The straightforward answer to the first question is that Christians and Muslims are both proving remarkably adept at using the tools of modernity—globalization, technology and growing wealth to aid the distribution of their Holy Books.
The most prolific producer of Christian missionaries, on a per head basis, is now South Korea. The biggest Bible publishing houses are in Brazil and South Korea. An interlinked global network of 140 national or regional Bible Societies pools resources to reach its collective goal of putting a Bible in the hands of every person on the planet. The American Bible Society, the biggest of them all, has published more than 50 million Bibles in atheist China.
And Saudi oil wealth is supercharging the distribution of the Koran. The kingdom gives away some 30 million Korans a year, under the auspices of either the Muslim World League or individual billionaires, distributing them through a vast network of mosques, Islamic societies and advertisements.
Saudi-funded dissemination of the Koran translations increase the relative weight, within Islam, of teachings which tend to sharpen the Christian-Muslim divide. For example, traditional Muslim teaching stresses those passages in the Koran which affirm the Christian Gospel and the Hebrew Torah as valid revelations of God and paths to salvation.
But there is a harsher, Saudi-influenced view which insists that since Muhammad delivered the final revelation, Christianity and Judaism have lost their power to save.
Technology is proving to be a helpful friend of the Holy Books. You can consult them on the internet. You can read them on your mobile phone. You can listen to them on MP3 players or iPods. Several television channels and radio stations do nothing but broadcast the Koran.
There is a difference, however, between receiving and understanding a Holy Book. Here both Christianity and Islam suffer from serious problems. Americans buy more than 20 million new Bibles every year to add to the four that the average American has at home. Yet the state of American biblical knowledge is abysmal.
A Gallup survey found that less than half of Americans can name the first book of the Bible (Genesis), only a third know who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and a quarter do not know what is celebrated at Easter (the resurrection of Jesus). Sixty per cent cannot name half the ten commandments.
Muslims prefer to read the Koran in the original Arabic. Yet the language and high-flown verse, while inspiring, can also be difficult to understand even for educated Arabic speakers.
And only 20% of Muslims speak Arabic as their first language. Illiteracy rates are high across parts of the Muslim world. Many students of the Koran do not understand much of what they memorize.
This needs to be kept in mind when considering who is winning the battle of the books. For some, the question is an abomination. Can’t both sides win by converting the non-religious? And aren’t Judaism, Christianity and Islam fellow Abrahamic faiths—different versions of the same basic Truth?
Others say the question is impossible to answer, since there are no systematic figures on the distribution of the Koran. Some Muslims argue that their struggle is aimed more at galvanizing their own flock, than converting unbelievers.
But in some parts of the world, Islamic authorities have reacted furiously to attempts by Christians to entice Muslims to renounce their faith.
The Saudis will not allow the Bible to be distributed on their soil. The Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas has created a masters degree to train missionaries in the art of converting Muslims.
Muslims complain that the “war on terror” is making it much more difficult to spread the Koran. Contributions to Muslim charities have fallen since September 11th 2001. Several charities have had their funding disrupted.
Christianity has superior marketing skills. Its religious publishing houses are big businesses. Thomas Nelson, bought in 2005 for $473 million, publishes 60 different editions of the Bible every year. There are about 900 English translations of the Bible, ranging from the grandiloquent to the colloquial.
The American Bible Society is a highly influential organization with an annual budget of $100 million and revenues of over $369 million, it is one of the largest religious nonprofits in the world.
Muslims have also gone into the Sacred Scripture spreading business, but nowhere near as much as Christians because their commercial publishing houses are smaller and less sophisticated. Yet the Koran says: “we have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his (own) people.”
Today most Muslims tolerate translations, and there are now more than 20 English translations of the Koran. Most translations are as literal as possible; and sadly destroy the beauty of the Arabic original, and make many verses almost unintelligible.
Another advantage Christians have is America. The world’s richest country contains some 70 million Evangelicals who support more missionaries, more broadcasting organizations and more global publishers than any other country.
Predicting the fate of religions is unwise; look at how long the Jews have persevered in spite of 1800 years of Christian persecution. But two things are certain.
First, the urge to spread the Word may spark some of the fiercest conflicts of the 21st century. The area that is being most heavily fought over—sub-Saharan Africa—is full of failed states and ethnic animosities.
Second, the Bible and the Koran will continue to exercise a dramatic influence over human events. The twigs of the burning bush are still aflame with the fire of God.