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It is hardly surprising that Dante would not have acknowledged the Muslim Kitab al-Mi’raj as an inspiration for his poem, though most scholars agree that he was at least aware and possibly borrowed from elements of the Islamic religious tradition. No work comparable to The Divine Comedy has been written in the Muslim world. Yet the structure of the Prophet’s night journey — the eventual revelation of God in heaven, the symmetric levels of hell — does appear to be mirrored in The Divine Comedy. Of all the monotheist religions, Islam is the richest in legends of the afterlife: the Koran abounds in detailed descriptions of the abodes of blessed and wicked souls. A guide (Gabriel) takes the pilgrim-voyager (Muhammad) on a tour through the afterlife, much as a guide (Virgil) does Dante. According to the Kitab al-Mi’raj, Hell lies just beneath Jerusalem (it does, too, in The Divine Comedy). An ever-streaming multitude of “disbelievers” dragging iron chains rolls into the sulphur-colour air; adulterers burn in an oven-like pit. (“And fear the Fire which is prepared for the disbelievers”, admonishes the Koran — a fire which is said to be seventy times greater than the heat of the sun.) The Muslim Paradise, by contrast, brims with springs and rivers; a bright, almost inhuman luminosity radiates from a purifying flame. At one point the Prophet visits a part of Jahannam reserved for those “who sow discord”; Dante had entrapped Muhammad in just such a hopeless place. The rewards of Heaven — emeralds, pearls, gold, silver — are moreover emphasised in the Arabic sources as they are in Dante’s “Paradise”, with its promise of “rubies” and the “cool refreshment of an eternal shower” (lo rifrigio dell’etterna ploia).

“The Chart of Hell”, by Sandro Botticelli , 1480-1490

There is nothing in Islam comparable to Purgatory, however. In medieval Catholic orthodoxy, Purgatory was an in-between state where imperfect souls were cleansed by fire in preparation for their entry into heaven. The theme of despair ascending through hope towards salvation is, essentially, Catholic. Tommaso Campanella, the Dominican philosopher who was charged with heresy in 1599, admired The Divine Comedy because it “teaches in a popular fashion how to live according to Catholic belief”. Throughout his poem, Dante is a “humble person on a journey” (una persona umile e peregrina), who moves from a state of penitential barrenness to one of grace. Asín assumes that Dante not only had access to a large library of Arabic language books but was able to read and understand Arabic. As far as we know Dante was unfamiliar with Arabic (or any other Semitic language). It could be that he heard of the Prophet’s Night Journey from Crusader-knights recently returned from the Middle East: Dante was a child when Edward I of England took part in the seventh Crusade against Islam in 1248. However, it is most probable that Dante read the Kitab al-Mi’raj in one of its three known European-language versions. The book was translated from Arabic into Castilian in the mid-13th century by a Jewish physician named Abraham Alfaquím (al-hakīm is Arabic for “wise one” or “the doctor”); in turn, the Castilian version served as the basis for Latin and Old French versions. These last two versions are believed to have been the work of the Tuscan lawyer-poet Bonaventura of Siena, whose patron was King Alfonso X of Castile. Known as “the Learned”, Alfonso was a cultivated sovereign who encouraged the translation of Arabic works into Castilian vernacular.
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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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