Dante and Islam

by P. S.
The Collegiate School, 1997.

Dante Alighieri was a conservative, devout Christian, as well as a strong representative of the attitude of his time Such a perspective is displayed in his book, the Inferno, in which he responds to one of the influences of his time period. the Arabic worlds The influence of Islam was not found in all aspects of medieval society yet its impact, found especially on Christianity and medieval intellectual life, was strongly felt In canto VIII of the Inferno, where Dante describes the existence of mosques in the city of Dis, and in canto XXVIII, where one encounters Mohammed and Eli in Hell, Dante conveys his attitude towards Islam His placement of these aspects of Arabic culture amongst the sinners of Hell corroborates the notion that Dante held a contemptuous and negative view towards the Muslim world His antipathy for such a culture is based not simply on a prejudiced view that he heldn but rather on his disgust towards its effects on the Christian Church as well as on medieval intellectual lifeW Based on his inclusion of Muslim mosques and leaders in Hell, one can see that the impact on medieval life obviously perturbed Dante, for he would have preferred to have his culture completely devoid of any Islamic influences.

 The medieval view of Islam was a hostile one primarily based on fear and prejudice.[01] The basis for this fear evolved from the belief that the Muslim religion posed a serious threat to Christianity's existences for it gave Christianity some unwelcomed competition.[02] In other parts of the world, namely in the East, Islam had a strong foothold, and such a foothold proved to be menacing to Christianity since it showed the world that Christianity was not the absolutes most powerful religion. While the Muslims jeopardized the reputation and stability of the religion of the West, other Christian lands were falling under Arabic ruled One of these countries included Spain, where Muslim occupation, which began in 711 A D , resulted in the religious conversion of the Spanish people and culture.[03] This conquering of Christian soil proved to be another reason why the West felt threatened by the Arabic presence in the world In addition, disdainful views of Mohammed were held by Westerners, for he was regarded as being a false prophet, as a result, Islam was regarded as a heresy, for it appeared to be so radically different from Christianity, and did not involve the worship of the Christian god.[04] In addition, Mohammed was also thought of as being the Devil's tool to end Christianity's spread and success to being instead:

 a sexual, self indulgent murderer whose book Ache Koran was a collection of pretended revelations and whose religion spread by deceit, violence and the lure of lascivious practices.[05]

 Most people in the West during the Middle Ages harbored these antipathetic feelings for IslamS in which the religion and its progenitor were looked upon with such disdain.

 In the Inferno, Dante proves that he was not exempt from this scornful attitude towards the Arabic culture. The first time one encounters any aspects of Muslim culture throughout the Inferno is in canto VIII, when Dante and Virgil are coming upon the city of Dis. As Dante explains to Virgil, "I can already see distinctly a- / master -- the mosques that gleam within the valley, / as crimson as if they had just been drawn out of the fire."[06] In these lines, Dante's contempt for Islam is made quite evident, for he places mosques, the sanctuaries of Muslim worship, in the city of Dis. Had Dante respected the Arabic culture, he would have placed these mosques either in Purgatory or in Heaven, not in Hell amongst all of the other infidels and sinners. Furthermore, he states that the mosques are "as crimson as if they had just been drawn X out of the fire"; thus, Dante suggests that the mosques are ablaze. By indicating that they are in flames, Dante is punishing the followers of Islam, for the fire will bring about the destruction of their mosques. Such a description of these mosques reveals Dante's contempt for Arabic culture.

 In canto XXVIII, where one encounters Mohammed and Eli, Dante's lack of respect for Muslim culture is again Portrayed. In this canto, one of the sinners tells the two travelers of Hell: "See how maimed Mohammed is! And he / who walks and weeps before me is Ali, / whose face is opened wide from chin to forelock" (canto XXVIII, 31-33). Since they caused schism in life, Dante has eternally punished them in a gruesome manner by having their wounds sealed and then reopened by a devil. Had he not felt so contemptuous of Islam, he would have not placed Mohammed and Ali, the religion's two most influential men, in Hell. Furthermore, Dante would not have depicted them as being maimed in such a graphic manner if he was not so perturbed by the culture. One can imagine that such a punishment would bring an extremely excruciating amount of pain upon the individual who is being punished; thus, by giving these two progenitors of the Muslim religion an extremely tormenting, agonizing punishment for eternity, Dante shows how strong his aversion to the Arabic world is. Had he not been so contemptuous of Islam, then he would have given Mohammed and Ali a milder punishment.

 The placement of the two most influential men in Islam among the schismatics introduces one of the main factors that fuels Dante's contempt for Arabic culture. In addition to a prejudice against the culture, Dante's dislike is also derived from its effects on Christianity In contrast to the view of his time, Dante does not punish Mohammed and Ali for heresy, but rather for schism, indicating that they brought about schism in the Christian Church.[07] Mohammed and Eli are not only responsible for heresy, as Dante believed, because in addition to forming a religion that went against the ideals and established views of Christianity, they also caused dissent and schism within the Christian community. During the Middle Ages, there was a prevalent belief that Mohammed was an apostate Christian, possibly even a cardinal.[08] Furthermore, Mohammed possessed a deep reverence for Christ, for he regarded him as being the greatest of prophets, and considered his birth to be a wonderful event.[09] Even though Mohammed might have been an apostate, he was still a member of the Christian community, thus, when he decided to break sway from Christianity to form Islam, he took with him many followers of the Christian god. Since the Muslim religion began to attract many individuals, eventually consuming almost all of the East, Dante must have felt that these individuals were "stolen" from Christianity, and would have been part of his religious community if it were not for Mohammed. For this reason, Dante feels that Mohammed caused dissent, or schism, in the Christian community, and was not responsible simply for heresy. For Dante, heresy involves doubting Christianity's ideals "Epicurus and his followers, f all those who say the soul dies with the body" (canto X, 14-15). Since part of the Christian doctrine entails the belief that the soul has an afterlife either in Heaven or Hell, Epicurus doubted this belief by stating that "the soul dies with the body^" Thus, he spoke against Christian doctrine, and for that reason, he is amongst the heretics Dante most likely believed that Mohammed was responsible for heresy as well, however, his main problem with Mohammed is predicated on the turmoil that he caused in the Christian community by founding Islam. Dante punishes Mohammed not just for establishing the Muslim religion, but rather for having such a profound impact Ott his own beloved religion. Dante does not simply blame Mohammed for breaking up the Christian religion, rather, he also thinks that the Christian clergy was also at fault.[10] If there had been no problem with the Christian Church, then there would have been no need to break away from it. However, since Mohammed chose to do son then Dante, as well as other critics of the Church, decided to blame the clergy for the establishment of Islam. According to Dante and these other Clitics, the problems that existed within the Christian Church were a primary cause for the establishment of the Muslim religion; therefore, the way to ameliorate such a problem of schism would be to reform Christianity.[11] Such an attitude reflects Dante's love of his own faith, for he would want the Church to be reformed in order to bring it back to an ideal, divine state. In the Inferno, some of these problems of the Church are addressed by Dante in order to bring about this reformation of Christianity such as the problem dealing with S L mony. Dante's delivers an invective against simony when he states, "Rapacious ones [simonists], who take the things of God, / that ought to be the brides of Righteousness, and make them fornicate for gold and silver!" (canto XIX, 2 4). Thus, Dante is critical of clergy members who use their power with the Church to make money, by selling either pardons for one's sins or entries into Purgatory. Simony is one of the problems with the clergy that Dante tries to redress, for he felt that it was one of the many faults of Christianity that helped to bring about the establishment of the Muslim religion.

 While the effects of Arabic culture on Christianity formed the basis for Dante's hatred of Islam, its effects on mediswal society were also responsible for fueling his anger. One of the areas in which medieval society was affected by the Arabic world was in the tradition of courtly love poetry (Provencal poetry sung by the troubadours) that praised women.[12] The theory suggesting that courtly love poetry was influenced by Islamy called the "Arabist theory," was initially pursued by a marl named Giammaria Barbieri in his book Dell'origine delta Poesie rimata, published in 1790.[13] Some of this influence could have also come from a type of Arabic poetry called Mozarabic, which not only preceded the poetry of the troubadours, but also resembled it in "some fundamental structural features and thematic characteristics."[14] In this form of Arabic poetry, as in the poetry sung by troubadours, the existence of themes that praise women is evident. In addition to poetry, other forms of Arabic literature could have impacted the Provencal poetry, such as the Muslim tales that followed the format of the following one by Ahmed ibn Abu-l-Hawari, who lived during the ninth century:

 In a dream I saw a maiden of the most perfect beauty, whose countenance shone with celestial splendour. To my asking, "Whence comes the brilliance on thy faces" she replied... "I took those tears of thine and with them anointed my face, since when it has shone in brilliance."[15]

 This tale shows how Arabic literature placed women, based on their physical attributes, on a high pedestal, for the woman ill the following tale is "of the most perfect beauty" and "shone with celestial splendour." In comparison, one can look at an example of an Italian troubadour poem from the thirteenth century and notice that there is a similar emphasis on the physical beauty of women:

In her face I have see [sic] the moon, smiling with her radiant look. Did she appear to me, I ask my eyes, while I was awake or in a dream? That look is a true mystery! It makes my body sick, but it also cures it.[16]

The praise of women in this excerpt is quite clear, for the beauty of the girl is so tremendous that the author puts forth the possibility that she appeared to him while he was in the midst of a dream. Furthermore, since she smiles "with her radiant look," there is the suggestion that her appearance is not only radiant, but also intriguing. By comparing the troubadour poem with the Arabic tale, one can clearly see the possible influence of the Arabic world on medieval literature.

 Arabic influence on courtly love poetry would have greatly perturbed Dante due to the fact that he was so anti-Arabic, and would not have favored having his culture tied to the culture of which he was so contemptuous. Rather, he would have most likely preferred to have his culture completely devoid of any Islamic aspects, and instead consisting purely of Christian characteristics. Ironically, this courtly love poetry was also exercised by Dante himself.[17] His treatment of courtly love in the Inferno is shown when he writes about a lady for whom he used to have an attraction, Beatrice. In courtly love language, Virgil describes her as being "so blessed, so lovely... Her eyes surpassed the splendor of the star's" (canto II, 53-55). In these lines, Dante praises Beatrice by describing her as being "blessed," and "lovely," with eyes full of "splendor." Such an emphasis is placed by Dante on the physical characteristics of Beatrice that one can notice parallels between his poetry and the two excerpts from above of the Arabic tale and the troubadour poem. Dante, like the authors of the two works cited above, centers his description of Beatrice on her beauty and physical attraction. Therefore, one can assume that Dante was subject to the same Islamic influence to which the author of the troubadour poem above was susceptible.

 While the Arabic world had a severe impact on medieval literature, it had an even greater impact on medieval intellectual life. At the time, Europe was craving for more information on science and philosophy, for the people of Europe were depleting their supplies of "intellectual capital."[18] Furthermore, the demand for more scientific and philosophical information was going stronger by the day, and European sources were not offering any new material to satisfy the desires of people. Thus, Western scholars were prepared to search out Arabic texts and translate them because they strongly desired to have new knowledge.[19] From the works and texts of Arabic peoples Europeans expanded their knowledge on diseases arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, and incorporated astronomical tables from the Arabs that became the standard ones of the Middle Ages.[20] Before this decision to translate works from Arabic into either Latin or the vernacular, Europeans had little knowledge of Greek philosophy and science, for most of the Greek works concerning these fields had been translated into Arabic. Thus, when Europeans were able to translate Arabic texts, they gained the knowledge, for the first time, of Aristotlea Euclid« Ptcjismyy and Archimedes, amongst others. Such knowledge was readily accessible to Western Europe due to Muslim Spain, for Spain became:

 ...for the greater portion of the Middle Ages a part of the Mohammedan East, heir to its learning and its sciences, to its magic and astrology, and the principal means of their introduction into Western Furope.[21]

 As a result of this impact on medieval Europe, the intellectual life was significantly expanded, for new inforsnation ranging from medicine to linguistic philosophy was delivered to the Westerners.[22] In light of his character, Dante was probably against the foothold that the Arabic world had on the intellectual life of medieval Europe. To witness such a scene in which his culture was opening up to the East must have been a horrific and discouraging experience for Dante, who feared that the possession of such knowledge would result in "spiritual perdition" and "eternal damnation."[23] Dante condemns some of those who indulged themselves in this knowledge, for he places some of them in his Hell. For example, alchemy was one of the sciences that the West learned from the East;[24] however, in the Tenth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, Dante describes two alchemists as "sitting propped against each other -- / as pan is propped on pan to heat them up -/ and each, from head to foot, spotted with scabs" (canto XXIX, 73-759. Dante places these two in Hell for falsifying metals, for he considered falsification to be a sing However) one can argue that he also places them in Hell since they were practicers of alchemy, suggesting that they succumbed to the influences of Islamic cultureS Thus, in light of his character, one can assume that Dante did not want his own Christian culture to be tainted by the Arabic world.

 Dante expresses his discontent with having any individual associate with Arabic culture by placing Frederick II, ruler of Sicily during the thirteenth century, in Hell among the Epicureans. While Frederick is punished by Dante for believing that the soul dies along with the body, one can argue that Frederick was also placed in Hell due to the fact that he showed a great sensitivity and appreciation for Islamic cultures The poets of his court wrote about aspects of Arabic culture, while Arabic philosophers, translators, and other scholars were constantly roaming throughout his halls. In addition to having the intellectual aspects of his court exposed to Muslim influence, Frederick also made the domestic elements "Arabized," for in addition to having a harem, his bodyguards and clothes resembled those of Muslim culture.[25] While Dante placed Frederick in Hell due to his Epicurean beliefs, it is likely that Frederick's praise of Islamic culture was in Dante's mind when condemning him to his eternal fate.

 Dante himself shows that he may have been influenced by Islam in writing the Divine ComedyN Miguel Asin Palacios put forth the controversial idea in 1919 that Dante got the idea for writing about a journey through Hell, then eventually up to Heaven, from two famous Islamic works of literature: the Isra and the Mirage The former is about Mohammed's journey through Hell, while the latter is about his Ascension from Jerusalem to the Throne of Gods These two Arabic works of literature struck Palacios as prototypes for Dante's Divine Comedy, in which Dante goes on a very similar journey In addition, Palacios found that the links between the Muslim legend and Dante's poem also included picturesque, descriptive, and even episodic similarities.[26] For example, Palacios drew a comparison between the city of Dis and the city in the Moslem Hell, for both were described by the authors as being a city of fire. Furthermore, the tombs of the heretics are described by Dante as being a bed of fire, each harboring coffins of red hot iron; similarly, Mohammed saw an ocean of fire, on whose shore were cities in flames with thousands of red hot coffins.[27] Thus, Palacios concluded that Dante used the Isra and the Mirai as outlines in critics his journey through Hell, and eventually up to Heavenly While this assumption may be true, one can argue that Dante used these Arabic works as references in order to write a better, more complete Christian story. Thus, he possibly wanted there to exist a similar story to the Muslim legend, only one which was written by a Christian and that was superior to the Muslim story. If this intention was Dante's plan, then his attitude towards Islam is only corroborated, for he attempted to prove how any piece of Christian literature could emulate and surpass any Arabic literature, even if the works involved were coveted Muslim legends.

 Although Dante looked upon the Arabic world with nothing but contempt and disdain, one must keep in mind that he was reflective of the general attitude of his time, in which his culture was skeptical towards Islam as a whole. However, it is ironic that such antipathy for Muslim culture did not stop any Westerners from absorbing the extensive knowledge that the Arabic world offered the West. It is also ironic that such hatred was not mutual; rather, the West simply did not exist to those of the East, for the Muslims believed that "Their own religion was far superior their language, the language of the angels, was matchless and their way of life left nothing to be desired."[28] Thus, the Muslims basically chose not to involve themselves with the affairs of the West since they considered themselves to be culturally superior. At the same time, the Arabic world "went its own way unmindful of the West," suggesting that the Muslims did not regard the Europeans in a hostile manner.[29 Such are assertion makes the harsh treatment of Islam by Dante, and other Westerners, seem more unjustified.


 Haskins, Charles Homers The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

 Hitti, Philip K. Islam and the West. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc.

 Lewis, Archibald. The Islamic World and the West -- A.D. 622-1492. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1970.

 Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.

 Palacios, Miguel Asin. Islam and the Divine Comedy. LondonK Frank Cass & Company Limited, 1968.

 Singleton, Charles, as located in Dartmouth Dante Data Base.

 Southern, R.W. et al. Relations Between East and West in the Middle Ages. Great Britain: Edinburgh University Press, 1973.