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“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell”, by Gustave Doré , 1861

It might seem strange that a poem most emblematic of medieval Christian Europe, The Divine Comedy, should contain so many Arabic loan-words  (“assassin”, “alchemy”, “zenith”, “alcohol”) as well as references to Islamic intellectual life. Eastern treatises on medicine, natural science and mathematics had entered the Italian peninsula chiefly by way of Muslim Spain and Sicily, and left their fingerprints on Dante Alighieri’s great 14th-century work. In the face of Islam’s rapid westward expansion, however, Dante had absorbed also a fierce dislike and incomprehension of Islam. Pointedly, the only Arabic word in his three-volumed journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise that refers to Islam as an actual religion is meschite (“mosques”). Mosques, in the Tuscan poet’s medieval Christian judgment, were a symbol of stubborn heretical allegiance and false belief. In the poem’s first volume, “The Inferno”, the pilgrim-poet Dante approaches the fortified Islamic citadel of Dis in Lower Hell, where gleaming red meschite of the sort seen by Crusaders in the Holy Land emerge from the charred and fatty air.

The Crusades were a recent memory to Dante’s generation. For 300 years, knights from Northern Europe had traversed Tuscan regions on their way to the ‘’Promised Land”, returning from Palestine with Islamic silks and spices. Italian city-states  joined the Crusades belatedly in the mid-12th century, having prospered through banking. Dante’s great-great-grandfather Cacciaguida degli Elisei, a pugnacious and haughty character in The Divine Comedy, died a Crusader’s death in the Holy Land in 1148. Muslims are a “foul race” (gente turpa), Cacciaguida announces to Dante in the poem. Exalted among the “blessed souls” of heaven, Cacciaguida is seen as a martyr to the West’s anti-Islamic cause; and Dante, by claiming a Crusader ancestry for himself in The Divine Comedy, honours that cause. Dante shared many of the narrow medieval beliefs that animated Europe’s crusade against the jihad. One such was that the Prophet Muhammad was an apostate Catholic cardinal — a fake Christian — who founded an offshoot of Christianity after his failure to become pope or some other eminence in the Roman Curia.

Begun in around 1308 (Dante’s chronology is uncertain), The Divine Comedy is virtually unknown in Arabic countries. Dante subjects the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali to a punishment so grotesque that Islam might well protest. In Canto 28 of “The Inferno” Muhammad’s body is split from end to end, while an attendant devil cleaves Ali’s face in two. Dante’s “Maometto” is damned not as the founder of Islam but as a “sower of scandal and discord” who ruptured Christianity by preaching a nuova legge, or “new law”. In this, Dante had followed the 12th-century Benedictine abbot of Cluny, Peter the Venerable, who in turn had followed John of Damascus, the Syrian monk active in the 8th century. Dante saw Islam as a heretical interpretation of Christianity that aggravated East-West antagonisms. Ali is punished because he engineered a schism in the Islamic community (Ummah) by founding the Shia sect soon after the Prophet died in AD 63; this broke up the Caliphate and set Shiites murderously against Sunnis. While Ali is left fatally cloven, a sword-bearing devil slashes open the Prophet’s wound whenever it heals itself. Thus the dividers of humanity are themselves divided. Accompanied by the ghost of the Roman poet Virgil, his guide, Dante is struck dumb at the sight of the butchered Prophet, who prises open the wound in his chest for him to see, a gesture which intensifies his eternal fate.

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September 1st, 2018
1:09 PM
Perhaps we should be requesting Dante be read out on Roger McGough`s Poetry Please on Radio 4 ? This is a fascinating article. The cartoon balloon of Sadiq Khan is flying in London today. What circle of Hell is Theresa May in this week? Is Anne Marie Waters our `Dante` on the horrors?

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