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There are several ways in which Dante might have seen either Bonaventura’s Latin and French translations or Alfaquím’s Castilian translation. One way was through his lay mentor and teacher Brunetto Latini, a notary and orator, who was among the first in the Middle Ages to urge a return to Greco-Roman culture, thus paving the way for what became the European Renaissance. Between 1259 and 1260, Latini served in Seville as Florentine ambassador to Alfonso X. (To this day, however, thanks to Dante’s portrayal of Latini as a sexual deviant adrift in “The Inferno”, he is remembered more as a sodomite than as a great 13th-century humanist or transmitter of Arabo-Andalusian culture.) Either Latini had heard the story of the Islamic night journey from Alfonso X, which he then communicated to Dante, or Latini presented Dante with a copy of the Castilian or the Old French or Latin versions of the Kitab al-Mi’raj. The Latin version, under the title Liber Scalae (“the book of the ladder”), was in all likelihood known to Dante.

Dante is not known to have visited al-Andalus (Muslim Spain); in 1264, however, Latini happened to be in Cordoba and very likely he travelled on to the Andalusian capital of Granada, where the red-coloured Alhambra (Katat al-Hamra, “Red Castle”) would soon be built. In Granada the Moorish-Andalusian architecture, with its cedarwood ceilings and jasper inlay, stood as a reminder of those tolerant times before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled Muslims and Jews from Spain in the 15th century. Latini’s two years in medieval Iberia coincided with the peaceful “coexistence” (convivencia, in Spanish) of Islam with Catholic Christianity. In Latini’s diplomatic posting at Seville the gold mosaic tesserae of the Almohad Mosque created an overwhelming impression of space and luminosity. The mosque’s geometric harmonies, intimating things beyond the comprehension of man, were an exploration of Islamic notions of infinity; the divine spheres, shining circles and heavenly roses of Dante’s “Paradise” issue from the same Abrahamic monotheist belief system.

To be sure, Dante Alighieri’s poetic grasp of Islam betrays many of the misapprehensions of a time when the West-Orient divide had widened as a consequence of the Christian wars in the Holy Land. He followed the medieval Western tradition of being bitterly opposed to Islam as a religion, but acknowledged the great debt of the West towards Arabic works by Averroës, Avicenna, Alfragano and others. We must not blame everything on the Crusades or indeed on Orientalism. Dante’s appreciation of Arabic literature was deep-rooted and it never deserted him. The author of The Divine Comedy, having been exposed to the cultural Arabia of the Mediterranean, had the philosophic temper to see that Islam was more than just schism, jihad or a clash between “Western Civilisation” and “Islamic Civilisation”. Islam was also a gold-burnished marvel that proclaimed the spirit of Saladin and the sufi lore of al-Andalus.

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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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