Muslim Influence on Dante Alighieri’s Thought: a Book Review of Miguel Asin’s ‘Islam and The Divine Comedy’

A Book Review of Islam and The Divine Comedy by Miguel Asin

[It is not] possible any longer to deny Islamic literature the place of honor to which it is entitled in the stately train of the forerunners of Dante’s poem. [1]

One of the most significant impacts European colonization had on its subjugated people was the complete and total erasure of any mention of the literary, artistic, and scientific achievements of their forefathers. This ensured not only that the conquered nations perpetually lived in an inferiority complex, but that confidence in their own intellectual prowess (religious, scientific, artistic etc.) could not take a turn for the better, and thus threaten the rule of the colonizers.

Today, you can pick up any school book of physics, mathematics, or philosophy and find that the timeline of intellectual and scientific progress stops abruptly at the end of the Geek period and then suddenly, all the great thinkers and scientists (Kepler, Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo, the list goes on) start emerging on the horizon towards the end of 14th Century, setting in motion what is called the “Renaissance”.  It is as if the so-called “Dark Ages” were an era where no intellectual progress occurred anywhere in the world simply because the European nations were not the ones engaging in it.

With this background in mind, Professor Miguel Asin’s book Islam and The Divine Comedy stands out as an anomaly. Written by an erudite 20th century scholar of Arabic Literary history, especially that of Muslim Spain, but more importantly by someone who was a Catholic priest, the book firmly overturned the idea that Dante’s Divine Comedy was an original work. Instead, as Asin proves, Dante not only derived his basic idea of the Divine Comedy from the Prophetic ﷺ story of Isra and Mir’aj, but his poem was heavily influenced by the thoughts of the great Muslim sufi, Ibn Al-Arabi. Remarkably, there are sections of Divine Comedy which are wholesale copies of earlier Muslim material, as Asin proves numerous times in his book.

Written in 1919 under the title of La Escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia, this book “…aroused the curiosity of the general public and caused a great stir among the critics of literary history.” [2]. Moreover, “Apart from a score or so of adverse critics, mainly of Italian nationality, …, an immense majority of the critics of all nations, whose competence, whether as Romance or Arabic scholars and whose impartiality are beyond all question, have opted in favor of Asin Palacios’ theory.” [3]

General Layout and Language 

The book under review is an abridged translation of Asin Palacios’ original work in Spanish, with the translation having been undertaken by Harold Sunderland in 1925 under the tutelage of Lord Balfour. Re-published by Goodword Books in 2022, 2011, and 2008, the paperback spans just under 300 pages.

The book consists of four parts totaling 33 chapters. Although the language of the book can be archaic at times and a dictionary might be needed for a translation of a word or two, there is no point where the reader feels lost. One example will suffice here, when the author describes what the Prophet ﷺ experiences when he tries to behold the Divine Light:

The last stage is again a sea of light, the refulgence of which Mahomet paints in terms of extreme hyperbole… [4]

As is expected of Orientalists of that era, the Prophet of Islam ﷺ is always referred to as Mahomet as opposed to Mohammad ﷺ. 

The book itself provides copious references, a full list of which is provided at the end, complete with Arabic names in a clear Arabic font. One of the most often referred to references is that of “Corrat Aloyun” of Al Samarqandi (Hanafi Jurist. Died A.H. 345. His book ,قرة العيون و مفرح القلب المحزون, covers such topics as Major Sins in Islam and the fate which awaits people who commit them). In addition, the author uses plenty of references from Al-Ghazali’s Ihya and Suyuti’s Durar Alhisan, among other classical Arabic and Italian texts. 

However, one of the major drawbacks is the complete lack of any translation of the Italian text referred from the Dantists (group of scholars who, over centuries, have written commentaries on Divine Comedy). Since Divine Comedy is one of the most commented upon Italian texts in history, there are very frequent references to these commentaries in original Italian, spread all over the book. Perhaps, this is a gap which can be filled in by the publishers in the future editions.

Although Asin’s work is centered around the theme of how Divine Comedy was influenced by Islamic thought, its last chapter describing the transmission of Islamic ideas to medieval Europe is a mini-treatise of its own accord. Here, Asin goes into intricate details of how knowledge, culture, and sciences spread from Muslim Spain to rest of Europe. He provides accounts of how European intellectuals thought of Islamic culture as superior to their own, how the Christian Kings, notable among them Alphonso the Wise, painstakingly made efforts to attract Muslim writers, scientist and philosophers to their courts, and finally what channels (books, songs, sermons, stories etc.) were used for this transmission of knowledge.

Islamic Sources of the Divine Comedy

Asin lays out his thesis in four very concise sections: 

  1. Comparing the content of Divine Comedy with the story of Isra and Miraj
  2. Comparing the Divine Comedy with other Muslim stories related to the afterlife
  3. Impact of Muslim eschatological literature on Christian legends which preceded the Divine Comedy, and
  4. How Islamic models relating to afterlife may have been transmitted to Europe, and particularly to Dante himself

The author has a knack for picking up on important details when comparing different sections of Divine Comedy with the stories of Isra and Miraj, as well other sources from later Muslim works. For example, in comparing Dante’s version of the Keeper of the Hell to that of the one from Miraj:

Mahomet’s meeting with the Keeper of the Hell, however, obviously has its parallel in the scene where Dante is refused passage by the boatman Caronte and grim Minos. The poet merely reproduced the Moslem scene in a more artistic form, adapted from the [sic] classical mythology. The Moslem Keeper, wrathful and glowing like red coal; his curt refusal to open the door; and the imperious command from on high – all seem like rough sketches of Dante’s boatman, a “demon with eyes like red hot coals, shooting forth flames”, whose voice is raised in anger as he exclaims… [6]

While providing these comparisons, Asin is never shy of hitting home his point that Dante used (and never credited) ideas from prevalent Islamic sources:

In the thirteenth century, twenty-five years before the birth of the Florentine poet, Ibn Arabi introduced into his Futuhat plans of the hereafter, all of which were circular or spherical in design. Eighty years after, Dante produces a marvelous [sic] poetical description of the after-life, the topographical details of which are so precise that they enabled the poet’s commentators in the twentieth century to represent them graphically by geometrical plans; and these plans are essentially identical with those designed by Ibn Arabi seven centuries before. If imitation by Dante can be disproved, the manifest similarity is either an insolvable [sic] mystery or a miracle of originality. [5]

Section III of the book is of special importance in that it covers all of those major legends (Visions of Hell, Weighing of Souls, Legends of Paradise, Legends of Sea Voyages, Legends of Sleepers, and Legends of Respite from Torture etc.), which were present in pre-Dante Christian religious folklore, and how each one of these can be attributed to its earlier counterpart from an Islamic background. Asin concludes this section by saying:

The many poetic conceptions of the after-life current throughout Europe before Dante’s time had grown from contact with Islamic rather than native stock, for several of those poetic myths or their descriptive features had no foundation in Christian doctrine but owed their origin to other religions of the East, whence they were transmitted in a new and richer form by Islam. [7]

Conclusion: Asin Palacios, Iqbal, and the Javed Nama

Although it is not mentioned in the book, nor was I able to find a direct linkage, it is interesting to note that the great poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal visited University of Madrid on the 24th of January, 1933 upon the invitation of Miguel Asin Palacios, and gave a lecture on the role of Medieval Spain in the intellectual development of the Muslim world. [8] Interestingly, a year earlier, in 1932, Iqbal had completed his own poetical magnum opus, Javed Nama, which according to him “was an Asian Divine Comedy.” [9] The Javed Nama is based on the same theme of the protagonist being taken to the heavens with the help of a guide and trying to answer philosophical questions through what he observes.

Could it be that Iqbal was in touch with Miguel Palacios while he was composing the Javed Nama? Or did he know of the La Escatologia musulmana when he started working on his own version of Divine Comedy in 1929? Answers to these questions should pique the curiosity of future researchers in this domain.

To close, Miguel Palacios’ work marks a true milestone in understanding how one of the greatest classical texts of Medieval Europe is based on thoughts, ideas, and sometimes entire pieces of content from Islamic sources. It leaves one wondering why the Western scholarship continues to “deny Islamic literature the place of honor to which it is entitled in the stately train” of the world’s knowledge continuum.

Works Cited:

[1] Asin, Miguel. “Islam and the Divine Comedy”. Goodword Books, Delhi. 2008, pp 276   
[2] ibid, page vii 
[3] ibid, page viii
[4] ibid, page viii
[5] ibid, page 172
[6] ibid, page 15
[7] ibid, page 233
[8] Iqbal, Dr. Javed. “Zinda Rood”. Sang – e – Meel Publications, Lahore. 2004, pp 554 
[9] Iqbal, Dr. Javed. “Zinda Rood”. Sang – e – Meel Publications, Lahore. 2004, pp 532

Photo by Zoya Loonohod on Unsplash

Kamran Ali

Kamran Ali works for a multinational Healthcare equipment manufacturer as a Project Manager in the field of Artificial Intelligence. His interests include History of Civilization, Islamic Philosophy, and Urdu & Persian poetry.

Leave a Reply