December 17th. Candidate mmm2401. Word count: 3474

We shall now move on to the essential premise of the Danteum : the Divina Commedia. Identifying potential influences from the Islamic world over Dante’s text will be our goal

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We shall now move on to the essential premise of the Danteum : the Divina Commedia. Identifying potential influences from the Islamic world over Dante’s text will be our goal.

2.0. Dante & Islam.

The extent to which the latin West was familiar with (or influenceable by, for that matter) the Islamic world is very much self-evident from the mere fact that Arabic intellectuals had earned a Latin name : Al-Fārābī (known as Alfarabius), Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), Ibn Bājja (Avempace), Ibn Ufayl (Abubacer), Ibn Rushd (Averroës) and so forth.

2.1. Islamic religious origins of the Divina Commedia.

Scholarly discussions regarding the influence of Islamic religious texts on Dante’s magnum opus are perhaps best described by Vincente Cantarino : “the reader is struck by the extent of the polemic throughout the republic of letters, the passionate tone, and the divergence of opinions.”9 In light of such a heavy heritage, we shall look at the most explicit traces of Islamic-Dantesque overlap only.

While Dante transparently admitted the influence of the Arabo-Silician poets (da Lentini, Ciullo D’alcamo, Rinaldo d’Aquino) on his art, finding a correlation between religious texts and Divina Commedia is slightly delicate.10 Nevertheless, in 1919, the priest and scholar of Islamic Studies Miguel Asín Palacios made a compelling argument tracing the origins of the Commedia back to the Isra e Mi’raj and the Kitab al-Mi’raj, two religious tales from era of the Quran and the 11th century respectively. Palacio’s Muslim Eschatology in the Divine Comedy (1919) pointed out various similitudes between the texts such as the fact that a guide (the archangel Gabriel) takes a pilgrim-voyager (the Prophet) on a tour of the afterlife and enters Hell in Jerusalem, below the Temple Mount – a scenario that is entirely replicated in the Commedia, with Virgil taking Dante to a Hell that is situated below Jerusalem. Similarly, the descriptions of Paradise overlap with “emeralds, pearls, gold, silver” in one version, and “rubies and the cool refreshment of an eternal shower” in the other.11
Still though, how would Dante have been exposed to such texts since he did not speak Arabic?

By the mid-13th century, the Kitab al-Mi’raj had been translated into Castilian by the Jewish-Hispanic physician Abraham Alfaquím of Toledo. Thus, the book was published as the Book of Muhammad’s Ladder. This translation served as the basis for a Latin (Liber Scale Machometi, 1260) and an Old French (Livre de l’eschiele Mahome, 1264) version of the Mi’raj, by Bonaventura of Siena. Dante’s mentor, Brunetto Latini, could be the connection between il Sommo Poeta and the Islamic tale of the Mi’raj. Latini was in fact the Florentine Ambassador to the king Alfonso X of Castile from 1259 to 1260 in Seville. He had also travelled through medieval Iberia (Cordoba, Granada, etc.) in the years of the “peaceful coexistence” of Islam and Christianity (ie. a time where Islamic culture flowed into Europe undisturbed through Al-Andalus – Muslim Spain).12

Similarities between the Liber and the Commedia point once again to the possibility of the Mi’raj’s influence. Terraces no.4, no.5 and the final listing of the sins in the Liber show important thematic and formal similarities with the Commedia’s 7th, 8th and 9th bolgias, for instance. Paragraph 140 of the Liber explains that men are thrown into serpents and “that god makes the damned return to human form in order to punish them all over again”, with paragraph 143 telling us that the venom of serpents burns and turns the damned the ashes.13 Similarly, Dante puts his thieves in the 7th bolgia and has them do the same thing as the Liber’s damned, while turning themselves into serpents in the process:
Né O sì tosto mai né I si scrisse,

Com’el s’accese e arse, e cener tutto

convenne che cascando divenisse 
Never was “o” or “i” written so quickly

As he caught fire and burned, and turned

Completely into ashes as he fell

(Inf. 24.100-2)

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