International Ibnu Batuta Conference on Travel, Trade, Tradition and Trajectories
Maxwell Institute, BYU, USA
D. Morgan Davis is an assistant research professor at Brigham Young University’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He holds a PhD (2005) in Arabic and Islamic studies from the University of Utah, an MA in history from the University of Texas at Austin, and a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Brigham Young University.
Davis has been affiliated with the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative (METI) since its launch in 1993, supervising the translation, editing, and publication of dual language editions of works from the Classical Islamic world in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars all flourished. He has served as the project’s director since 2010.
His areas of research include Arabic/Islamic philosophy and theology, as well as comparative scripture, with a particular focus on the Qurʾan and it’s interest to the Latter-day Saint tradition. With Andrew C. Skinner and Carl Griffin he coedited and contributed to Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown (Provo: Maxwell Institute, 2011) and has published articles in BYU Studies, The Religious Educator, and Studies in the Bible and Antiquity. At BYU he has taught classes on the Book of Mormon, Islam, Arabic philosophy, and the history of the Middle East to 1800. He is co-editor of the Institute’s Living Faith book series.
An avid traveler, runner, hiker, and mountain biker, and an occasional tenor soloist, Davis is married to the former Kristina Nelson, and they are the parents of four sons and two daughters.
From the late 1970’s to the present, the southern coasts of the Arabian peninsula have been the occasional destination of a few determined amateur explorers—followed eventually by others with academic training in Middle Eastern history, archaeology, botany, and mineralogy—seeking to identify a place in the southern Hijaz that they call Nahom, and another location on the coast of Yemen or Oman that they call Bountiful. They are following the textual cues they find in a unique book of American scripture known as The Book of Mormon, which tells of ancient journeys by several peoples from the Middle East to the Americas. What these explorers have found, and how their findings have been differently regarded by their fellow believers and by the larger academic world, are an example of what I refer to as the cultural butterfly effect—a phenomenon by which the dreams and aspirations of distant actors (in this case Mormon prophets and arm-chair historians) are projected across the world, as modernity interacts with the human experience of the numinous. While this paper does not comment specifically on the vibrant history of travel and trade in and around Malabar, it does offer an example of remote events that brought unexpected explorers to the littorals of the Indian Ocean. Further, it offers reflections on the advantages of a new and very different kind of exploration that becomes possible through the method of comparative theology, whereby adherents of one religious system interact creatively with the concepts, expressions, and imagery of another in order to gain new insight into their home tradition and to expand its theological and practical horizons. This new form of exploration, I argue, offers exciting possibilities that avoid the most egregious problems of cultural hegemony on the one hand, or claiming more than is warranted by physical evidence on the other.