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The first of the three Muslim luminaries is Saladin (Salah al-Din), the 12th-century Kurdish sultan of Egypt who defeated the Crusaders in 1187 and retook Jerusalem. The second is the Andalusian philosopher Averroës (Ibn Rushd), whose Arabic commentaries on Aristotle were credited with the survival of Aristotelian philosophy in the West and were thus foundational to Western Christian civilisation. The third is Avicenna (Ibn Sina), another noted medieval Aristotelian. All three non-Christians are made to suffer a minimal (“even honourable”, says Said) punishment; Dante could not bear to damn the Muslims everlastingly because he admired their virtues and accomplishments. Their only sin is that they were not baptised as Christians; their exclusion from salvation, inevitable under Christian doctrine, saddens Dante: “A great grief seized my heart” (Gran duol mi prese al cor). Especially by placing Saladin in Limbo, Dante reflects the judgment of his age. In Muslim-conquered Jerusalem Saladin had showed a degree of mercy to his captive Crusaders (and moreover reinstated the right of every Jew to settle in the holy city); to Dante Saladin thus appeared to possess virtues and ideals of chivalry more usually associated with those of Christianity. The adducement of Saladin as a “good Muslim” is in fact found commonly: if a Muslim can behave honourably, how much more should a Christian? Averroës and Avicenna, for their part, deserve “honour” (onore — the word is used eight times of them) because they are scholars of “great authority”. The possibility of salvation for so-called “virtuous unbelievers” was a view shared by the 14th-century English writer William Langland in Piers Plowman, and by the medieval armchair traveller Sir John Mandeville (a pseudonym), whose work first circulated some 40 years after The Divine Comedy. Saladin, Averroës and Avicenna suffer no outward physical torment in Limbo and no shame scorches them inside.

And yet, understandably, Dante’s portrayal of the Prophet remains offensive to Muslims. A Persian translation of The Divine Comedy by the Tehrani poet Farideh Mahdavi Damghani, published in Iran in 1999, expurgates all mention of the Prophet, as does (presumably on grounds of political correctness) the 2012 comic strip version of Dante’s Inferno by the underground British cartoonist Hunt Emerson and literary critic Kevin Jackson. “Because of our profound respect for the noble religion of Islam and its followers,” writes Jackson, “we have omitted this section.” Obviously Dante cannot be judged by the standards of today yet the gulf between the Christian West and the Islamic East — the rising rhetoric of a perceived “clash of civilisations” — really can be aggravated by a book. In 1938, a Hindustani reprint of H. G. Wells’s Short History of the World provoked the first recorded Muslim book-burning in Britain: Wells, like Dante six centuries before him, had described the Prophet Muhammad as a man diminished by lust for temporal power — a “man . . .  of considerable vanity, greed, cunning and self-deception”. By symbolically burning Wells’s book, London’s Muslim community hoped that the offence done to Islam might be assuaged.
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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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