Roberta Fedele
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2011-06-02 02:52

In the 1920s, Spanish historian Miguel Asín Palacios raised an animated diatribe in the European cultural and academic milieu with the publication of the book “Islamic Eschatology in the Divine Comedy”, an attempt to read “The Divine Comedy” noncanonically while underlining its Islamic sources and Dante’s attraction to Arab culture. Comparing Dante’s poem to Arab manuscripts narrating the Night Journey, known as Isra and Miraj, Palacios noticed relevant similarities at a symbolic and formal level.“The Divine Comedy” describes Dante's journey in the realms of the afterlife and represents allegorically the soul's journey toward God. On the other hand, the Isra and Miraj describes the Night Journey from Makkah to Jerusalem and the Ascension to Heaven that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) took, both physically and spiritually, during a single night around the year 621. Mentioned in the Qur’an, the Isra and Miraj became a source of inspiration for several Muslim authors who gave their own interpretations of the argument in their literary works. The controversy regarding the Islamic sources of the most cherished Christian poem lessened when experts found out that in the second half of the 13th century a manuscript narrating the Ascension to Heaven had been translated into Latin, as “Liber Schalae Machometi”, and also into Spanish and old French, making almost certain Dante’s knowledge about the manuscript. Besides, Arabic culture was well known and widespread in Tuscany in the 14th century, and Brunetto Latini, the Florentine ambassador to Toledo in 1260, can be theoretically considered the intermediary between Dante and “Liber Schalae Machometi”.In “Liber Schalae Machometi”, the most similar manuscript to “The Divine Comedy” carefully studied by Maria Corti, The Prophet (pbuh) performs his journey under the guidance of Archangel Gabriel, following an itinerary from the eight circles of Paradise to the seven earths of Hell where he receives the mandate to tell people what he has seen in order to save them from eternal damnation. The same mandate is given to Dante in “The Divine Comedy” where, just like in the Muslim Hell, the damned souls are ordered in different circles and inflicted with abominable pains according to the law of retaliation. Both stories are narrated in the first person and provide detailed descriptions of the lower world characterized by seas, liquids, pools, smells, flames, ice and animals. Even the element of light, essential in Dante’s “Paradise”, evokes the studies on the metaphysics of light performed by Arab thinkers.In his literary works Dante quotes many names related to the Muslim world, such as Saladin, Avicenna, Averroe’, Brunetto Latini and Pietro Ispano, and reveals a deep knowledge of the works belonging to Muslim scientists and philosophers. Several scholars also underline the assonances between Dante’s style, known as “dolce stil novo”, and the figure of the angelic woman and the conceptions of love expressed by Muslim poets narrating mystical experiences and soul journeys in the afterlife.During the dark centuries of the European Middle Ages, Islamic civilization represented the heart of science, philosophy, art and technology, acquiring moreover the merit of having preserved the knowledge of the Classical Era. The Islamic world encompassed a huge empire – from the Caucasus to North Africa and Spain – thus representing the only civilization that simultaneously bordered Western Europe, Byzantium, China and India, reinvigorating and binding together separate traditions. The main bridges of transmission of Islamic knowledge to Europe were Spain and Sicily where an intense Arab culture developed. The human symbols of this cultural assimilation were Frederick II of Sicily, with his amazing Arab-style court, and Alfonso X of Castile, who encouraged the translation and adaptation of Moorish philosophy and science.As Dante’s case illustrates, Islamic culture has been an essential element of confrontation and an inspiring source for Western society whose contribution has been underestimated in comparison to the contributions of the Greek and Roman traditions.

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