Muslims will be aware how the seventeenth chapter of the Qur’an opens with a famous reference to the Isra’, the miraculous night journey of the Prophet Muhammad from the Sacred Mosque at Makka to the Farthest Mosque of Jerusalem/al-Quds. Hadiths and the tradition further speak of the Mi‘raj – how the Prophet was then taken through the seven heavens high up before the sublime throne of the Almighty. Less well-known is the fact that many Mi‘raj narratives learned as well as popular, have had a surprising influence on the Divine Comedy, the poem by the great Italian poet Dante.
Dante is something of a cultural mega-icon of Italian literature. Not unlike Shakespeare in England. Indeed, he is referred to as ‘Father Dante’, the origins, fountainhead and pride of the nation’s poetry. So it came as a bit of a shock to many nationalist-minded Italians when Spanish Orientalist scholar and Catholic priest Miguel Asin Palacios demonstrated the existence of a causal link between some Islamic texts and the culture of medieval Christian Europe, chief among them being Dante’s work.
The Spanish scholar argued that Muslim writers of al-Andalus, like Ibn Masarra, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Rushd and, above all, the great Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, supplied the sources for much of the composition and contents of the Divine Comedy. Professor Asin Palacios indicated many analogies or similarities to illustrate his point. For example, lights that dazzle the Prophet when he reaches a new stage in the heavenly ascent; choirs and celestial harmonies that delight him; the role of a guide, comforter and intercessor played by the Angel Gabriel (easy to think of the parallel with the poet Virgil in the Comedy); an angel in the shape of a male bird, a cockerel, comparable with the eagle Dante sees in the Heaven of Saturn in the Paradiso, the final part of his poem; the luminous golden ladder in the same Heaven; the concentric circles, part of the geometry of the heavenly realm, of the angels, arrayed in a hierarchical manner, circling the Divine Throne.
Also, Asin Palacios drew attention to certain mental processes that accompanied the Prophet’s ecstatic experiences during the Mi‘raj. Before fixing his eyes on the supernatural light emanating from God’s seat, the Prophet feels his sight being dimmed and he fears, as Dante does in the Paradiso, to be going blind until he realises his eyesight has actually being strengthened and heightened for the sublime vision that awaits him. Lastly, Dante, like the Holy Prophet of Islam, declares himself unable to describe what he has seen. He remembers only that it was something ineffable, a kind of transcendental ‘suspension of the soul’.
Of course, there are also wide differences between the Divine Comedy and the Islamic works in question. The huge cast of characters, saints and villains that populate his sacred poem are his creation. Plus, Dante’s theology was strictly Christian. Consider the unforgettable figure of Beatrice, the girl with whom he first fell in love as a child. She takes the poet through the seven planetary and stellar spheres to that part of Heaven called the Empyrean, where St Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk and one of the great contemplatives of the Middle Ages, in turn, takes her place. St Bernard then presents Dante to the Virgin Mary, at whose intercession the poet is granted a glimpse of the Beatific Vision, conceived as the final end blessed destiny of humanity.
The general atmosphere of the Paradiso itself is on the whole quite rarefied in Dante, unlike the more sensuous imagery of some Muslim texts. In explanation, Asin Palacios quoted a passage in Ibn Arabi in which the great Sheikh claims that ‘God had depicted paradise according to the different degrees of man’s understanding’. Indeed.
Yet, Professor Asin Palacios’ thesis suffered from a weakness. He could not show how Dante would have had access to the Arabic texts in question, or read them, as there is no evidence he knew the language. There was a ‘missing link’. In 1949 (after the Spanish scholar’s death) the missing link was found. One is a French translation, the other in Latin by Bonaventura di Siena, of a popular work, meant for the masses – as opposed to the learned texts of philosophers like the above – called ‘The Book of the Ladder’ – a direct reference to the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Heaven, in which the protagonist tells of his amazing journey in the first person. Siena, of course, is a city in Tuscany, very near Florence, Dante’s birthplace…
I see no reason why Western scholars, particularly Italian ones, should be defensive about Islamic influences on eminent literary works like the Divine Comedy. Rather, it should be a matter for celebration. At a juncture in world history when we often hear alarming Islamophobic cries about ‘clash of civilisations’, ‘the West against the rest’ and so on, we ought to give thanks for the rich web of cross-cultural elements that make up the heritage of the West. The contributions of Islam to European culture in mathematics, astronomy, optics, philosophy, art, medicine and so on are already well-known. Why not also in literature and poetry then?