Tangier, Morocco is still today what it has always been: a gateway to many worlds. Situated on the boundary between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, within sight of Europe just across the Straits of Gibraltar to the north, and the lands of the Berbers and sub-Saharan Africa to the south, Tangier has been home or harbor to countless writers, poets, painters, artisans, and theologians, not to mention a more sordid variety of pirates, rebels, outlaws, heretics, and exiles.
When the Jews and Muslims of Andalusia were driven from Spain in 1492, many of them emigrated here, bringing with them their distinctive forms of “mudejar” culture which can still be seen in pockets of the city today. And Tangier is the city of origin and return of one of the most famous travelers in history, Ibn Battuta, whose journeys and cultural influence were the subject of a conference I presented at last year in Kerala, India. So there was a certain symmetry in being able to attend and present at this year’s biennial gathering of the International Quranic Studies Association in Ibn Battuta’s hometown.
It was a truly international gathering, with scholars from all over Europe, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the United States. Sessions were conducted and papers given in English, French, and Arabic, with the variety of approaches ranging widely across such disciplines as philology, manuscript studies, historical criticism, form criticism, comparative literature and theology.
Over the course of two days, some thirty presentations were made, which I am told is about a tenth of the number of proposals that were initially submitted for consideration. The papers included the voices of some of the most promising young scholars in the field along side senior scholars who have made lasting contributions to the study of the Quran and early Islam through their own work and through mentoring others who are now among the organizers and leaders of the Association.
My own paper was on “Punishment Stories in the Bible, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon.” I noted that both the Quran and the Book of Mormon are self-aware post-biblical scriptures that intend to extend, modify, or reinterpret the Bible, and both feature “accounts of God’s destruction of people who have rejected the prophets and ‘ripened in iniquity.’” Both recount such stories from the Bible, but they also each contain extra-biblical stories as well.
In fact, I argued, the Book of Mormon is a punishment story (a genre that is formally studied by scholars of the Quran) that frames yet other punishment stories at scales ranging from individuals to entire cities and nations. I compared the formal difference between how such narratives turn up in the two scriptures, and what that might suggest about their basic character.
Another point of the paper was to attend to some of the theological difficulties having to do with the picture that is sometimes presented of a harsh and vengeful God in these tales. Ultimately, I concluded, “the stories of divine retribution and divine mercy are never resolved but rather dissolved at the place where the sea of human desire flows into the sea of divine speech. The God of wrath or the God of mercy is never manifest by word alone, but by the word as it is desired, whether that be for a loving God of forgiveness and healing, or for a God of stern and rigid wrath upon the wicked and unbelieving. Either God, or some admixture of both is available at the junction… of the divine and human stories.”
I’m very grateful for the opportunity I had to present at this conference and for the generous support of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute and of the Helen Leon fund which covered my travel and related expenses. The opportunity to renew and deepen acquaintances with some of the scholars at this conference, and to meet and get to know many more for the first time was at least as significant as being able to present the paper. There’s no substitute for having a vibrant and supportive community of colleagues who care about each other and who are anxious to help one another along in their study of one of the most important texts known to humanity.