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Ibn Hamdis was the best-known of some 170 Arab language panegyrist-poets at work in Sicily before the Normans came to oust the emirate from the island. Their poetry stood as a model — attractive, unavoidable — for the first Sicilian vernacular poets who were to influence Dante. Arabic sonorities and elements of Islamic lyric tradition are detectable in d’Alcamo’s use of sibilance and alliteration (the euphonious “rosa fresca aulentissima”, “sweet-smelling fresh red rose”) and in the way d’Alcamo divines a trace of the pale moon in the face of his beloved. D’Alcamo’s poetry, much of it, reads like a lost leaf out of some early Arabian Nights, and traces of it would insinuate The Divine Comedy a century later. Such was the power of Provençalism among the “Sicilian school”, indeed, that Dante is said to have considered composing the “Inferno”, “Purgatory” and “Paradise” in Siculo-Provençal dialect rather than in his native Tuscan. Impressively, the Sicilian poets invented the two most important forms of Italian verse: the canzone or lyric poem set to music, and the rhymed 14-line poem known as the sonnet. It is curious to reflect that the Shakespearean or Miltonic sonnet “originated” on a Mediterranean island which many Italians today regard as a Saracenic darkness — the place where Europe finally ends. (A smug joke still told in northern Italy says that Sicily is the only Arab country not at war with Israel.)

On Frederick II’s death in 1250, Sicilian poetry migrated via trade and commerce to peninsular Italy, first to the north and then south to Dante’s Tuscany, where inevitably it lost something of its original vigour and tinge of exoticism. Dante was beholden to the poetry but whether he borrowed directly from Islamic religious sources is still a matter of great controversy. In his clamorous book La éscatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia (Muslim Eschatology in the Divine Comedy), published in Spain in 1919, the Madrid university professor of Arabic studies and Jesuit priest Miguel Asín Palacios argued that Dante had not only taken (Asín does not exactly say “plagiarised”) from Muslim sources but was indebted to Islamic eschatological traditions. In Professor Asín’s opinion The Divine Comedy was not quite an original work because Dante used a wealth of Islamic writings on the afterlife. Asín was not trying to denigrate The Divine Comedy which, for many, remains the single greatest work of Western literature; rather, he wished to establish Islamic linkages and motifs.

With the exception of the great Italian philologist Maria Corti, Italian Dantists and Roman Catholic clergymen were aghast: Dante’s Christianity and very identity as a European were undermined by Asín’s insistence on a debt to a non-Christian precedence. (Given the allegations of a “Muhammadan influence”, Asín’s book was not published in Italy until 1993, 74 years after the Spanish original.) According to Asín, The Divine Comedy elaborates, in part, on the nighttime journey which the Prophet Muhammad undertook in AD 620 through the seven levels of Heaven, before fathoming Hell. The Prophet’s journey — in Arabic the Isra and Mi’raj (The Night Visit and Ascension) — is mentioned in the Koran, but most details derive from the later oral traditions or hadiths surrounding the Prophet, and from an account of the miraculous one-night journey written in Arabic around the 11th century, called the Kitab al-Mi’raj (Book of the Ascension). The journey was instigated by the archangel Gabriel (Jibril), whose winged horse Buraq transports the Prophet from Mecca to the “farthest mosque”, usually understood to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. After alighting at Jerusalem, the Prophet accompanied by Gabriel ascends by a golden ladder to Paradise. During the ascent he encounters various prophets of the Abrahamic tradition; first Adam, then John the Baptist, followed by Jesus; then Joseph, Idris, Aaron, Moses and, lastly, Abraham. Muhammad continues upward until he is finally ushered into the Divine Court of Allah; after which he is guided downwards through the Islamic Hell known as Jahannam.
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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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