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The bowels hung out between his legs;
one could see his organs and the foul sack
that makes shit from all we swallow.
I stood and stared at him —
he gazed back, tearing open his chest
with both hands. “Look how Muhammad claws
And mangles himself, torn open down to the breast!
Ali goes screaming in front of me,
carved from his chin to his brow . . .”

Here, conceivably, is the mystical Islamic legend of al-sharh or symbolic “opening up” (the principle meaning of sharh is “explaining”, or “anatomising”) of Muhammad’s breast by God with the intent to purify him morally; however, Dante transforms it into a slice of proto-Burroughsian grand guignol. (When William Burroughs’s hallucinatory novel Naked Lunch was prosecuted for obscenity in Boston in 1965 — the uproarious “talking asshole” chapter — Dante was cited in its defence.)

There is much that is horrible in Canto 28, whose gleefully crude language evokes an image for us of dirty dead meat, butchers and excrement (as well as, perhaps, contemporary horror film). It is by no means certain that the date of Muhammad’s death was known in the West in Dante’s day. Dante may or may not have known that the Prophet Muhammad died on the same day as his muse and great love Beatrice dei Portinari — June 8; if so, the coincidence would surely have dismayed him.

Muhammad’s physical sundering is certainly grotesque; but is it really, as Edward Said argues in his study of colonialism and empire, Orientalism (1978), “a peculiarly disgusting” example of Western Orientalism and denigration of Islam? Dante’s “moral apprehension” of Islam is part of the “Orientalist vision” which turns Islam into a pariah religion, says Said, and Muhammad into an “imposter” who is “always the Oriental”. However, all schismatics, not just the Prophet and Ali, suffer violence in “The Inferno”. Whether they are Muslim or Christian (most of them are Christian), Dante’s damned souls are frequently twisted, torn, pricked and gnawed at by devils or harpies. “The Inferno”, a giant judicial machine in which God’s justice is vindicated before all men, subjects Muslims and Christians alike to the same merciless sword. Edward Said does not (or perhaps does not wish to) acknowledge Dante’s ambiguous view of Islamic culture. The Prophet is vilified by Dante as a Christian schismatic; at the same time Dante displays a degree of sympathy for Arabic culture and even, according to one critic, borrows from an Islamic imagery of the afterlife.

At a time when European romances used the derogatory term “Mahound” for Muhammad (in Islam dogs — hounds, a possible source for “Mahound” — are reckoned to be a ritually unclean animal), Dante consigned three Muslims to the first circle or “Limbo” zone of Hell reserved for those who are not wicked enough for damnation but who are insufficiently redeemed for Heaven. The respect Dante accords his “righteous” Muslims frustrates accusations of anti-Arab, anti-Islamic Eurocentrism levelled by Said.
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September 1st, 2018
1:09 PM
Perhaps we should be requesting Dante be read out on Roger McGough`s Poetry Please on Radio 4 ? This is a fascinating article. The cartoon balloon of Sadiq Khan is flying in London today. What circle of Hell is Theresa May in this week? Is Anne Marie Waters our `Dante` on the horrors?

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