Considered an emblem of the Christian Middle Ages and a central author of the Western tradition, Italian writer Dante Alighieri unintentionally reveals a lot about the influence of Islamic thought and models on Christian Europe. This is especially true of his masterpiece, “The Divine Comedy”, regarded as a prodigy of Italian literature and one of the most refined Christian and European literary works.In 1919, Professor Miguel Asín Palacios, a Spanish scholar and a Catholic priest, raised an animated diatribe in the European cultural and academic milieu with the publication of the book La Escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia (Islamic Eschatology in the Divine Comedy), an attempt to read “The Divine Comedy” noncanonically while underlining its Islamic sources and Dante’s attraction to Arab culture.
Comparing Dante’s poem to Arab manuscripts narrating the Night Journey, known as Israk and Mikraj, Palacios noticed relevant similarities at a symbolic and formal level. Palacios argued that Dante derived many features of and episodes about the hereafter from the spiritual writings of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) and from the Israk and Mikraj or night journey of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) to heaven. The latter is described in the Hadith and the Kitab al Mi’raj (translated into Latin in 1264 or shortly before as Liber Scalae Machometi or The Book of Muhammad’s Ladder), and has some slight similarities to the Paradiso, such as a sevenfold division of Paradise, although this is not unique to the Kitab al Mi’raj.Some “superficial similarities” of the Divine Comedy to the Risalat Al-Ghufran or Epistle of Forgiveness of Syrian blind poet Abu’l A’la Al-Ma’arri (973-1057) have also been mentioned in this debate. The Risalat Al-Ghufran describes the journey of the poet in the realms of the afterlife and includes dialogue with people in Heaven and Hell, although, unlike the Kitab al Mi’raj, there is little description of these locations, and it is unlikely that Dante borrowed from this work.
“The Divine Comedy” describes Dante’s journey in the realms of the afterlife and represents allegorically the soul’s journey toward God. On the other hand, the Israk and Mikraj describes the Night Journey from Mekah to Jerusalem and the Ascension to Heaven that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) took, both physically and spiritually, during a single night around the year 621. Mentioned in the Quran, the Israk and Mikraj became a source of inspiration for several Muslim authors who gave their own interpretations of the argument in their literary works.
The controversy regarding the Islamic sources of the most cherished Christian poem lessened when experts found out that in the second half of the 13th century a manuscript narrating the Ascension to Heaven had been translated into Latin, as “Liber Scalae Machometi”, and also into Spanish and old French, making almost certain Dante’s knowledge about the manuscript. Besides, Arabic culture was well known and widespread in Tuscany in the 14th century, and Brunetto Latini, the Florentine ambassador to Toledo in 1260, can be theoretically considered the intermediary between Dante and “Liber Schalae Machometi”.In “Liber Schalae Machometi”, the most similar manuscript to “The Divine Comedy” carefully studied by Maria Corti, The Prophet (pbuh) performs his journey under the guidance of Archangel Gabriel, following an itinerary from the eight circles of Paradise to the seven earths of Hell where he receives the mandate to tell people what he has seen in order to save them from eternal damnation. The same mandate is given to Dante in “The Divine Comedy” where, just like in the Muslim Hell, the damned souls are ordered in different circles and inflicted with abominable pains according to the law of retaliation.
Both stories are narrated in the first person and provide detailed descriptions of the lower world characterized by seas, liquids, pools, smells, flames, ice and animals. Even the element of light, essential in Dante’s “Paradise”, evokes the studies on the metaphysics of light performed by Arab thinkers.
In his literary works Dante quotes many names related to the Muslim world, such as Saladin, Avicenna, Averroes, Brunetto Latini and Pietro Ispano, and reveals a deep knowledge of the works belonging to Muslim scientists and philosophers. Several scholars also underline the assonances between Dante’s style, known as “dolce stil novo”, and the figure of the angelic woman and the conceptions of love expressed by Muslim poets narrating mystical experiences and soul journeys in the afterlife.
During the dark centuries of the European Middle Ages, Islamic civilisation represented the heart of science, philosophy, art and technology, acquiring moreover the merit of having preserved the knowledge of the Classical Era. The Islamic world encompassed a huge empire – from the Caucasus to North Africa and Spain – thus representing the only civilisation that simultaneously bordered Western Europe, Byzantium, China and India, reinvigorating and binding together separate traditions.
The main bridges of transmission of Islamic knowledge to Europe were Spain and Sicily where an intense Arab culture developed. The human symbols of this cultural assimilation were Frederick II of Sicily, with his amazing Arab-style court, and Alfonso X of Castile, who encouraged the translation and adaptation of Moorish philosophy and science.
As Dante’s case illustrates, Islamic culture has been an essential element of confrontation and an inspiring source for Western society whose contribution has been underestimated in comparison to the contributions of the Greek and Roman traditions.
Compile from Arab News; http://www.romancatholicimperialist.com; Wikipedia