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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
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." 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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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. 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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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;
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.
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. 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.
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."
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.
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Hitti, Philip K. Islam and the West. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand
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.