Dante and Islam

Dante and Islam

Dante and Islam

Dante and Islam


Dante put Muhammad in one of the lowest circles of Hell. At the same time, the medieval Christian poet placed several Islamic philosophers much more honorably in Limbo. Furthermore, it has long been suggested that for much of the basic framework of the Divine Comedy Dante was indebted to apocryphal traditions about a "night journey" taken by Muhammad.

Dante scholars have increasingly returned to the question of Islam to explore the often surprising encounters among religious traditions that the Middle Ages afforded. This collection of essays works through what was known of the Qur'an and of Islamic philosophy and science in Dante's day and explores the bases for Dante's images of Muhammad and Ali. It further compels us to look at key instances of engagement among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.


Jan M. Ziolkowski

The title of this collection is not a wild novelty, because since 1921 the wording “Dante and Islam” has been pressed into service repeatedly in various languages as a heading for books, articles, and book reviews. Nonetheless, the phrase may sound jarringly paradoxical, in pairing the poet most emblematic of medieval Christianity with the name of a rival religion. the Commedia possesses a stature beyond being merely the foundational and preeminent masterpiece in the canon of Italian literature. It also stands more generally as a centerpiece in Western culture. Among other things, it constitutes a summa of medieval Christian culture and an archetype of Catholic literature. Although Dante could not have foreseen every winding and turning in the subsequent reception of his poem, in Paradiso he refers presciently to his work as the “sacrato poema” (Par. 23.62 “consecrated poem”) and “poema sacro” (Par. 25.1 “sacred poem”). Yet the Commedia achieves its summa-like (or encyclopedic) qualities in part by incorporating heterogeneous components, some of which render it highly uncanonical for a canonical work. We should not be startled to learn that Dante was already accused of being heterodox and even heretical by some of his near contemporaries.

By exemplifying what is Western, Christian, and Catholic, the Commedia exerts in the early twenty-first century a force far beyond what one might expect an early fourteenth-century literary composition still to radiate in a world that is caught up more in the present than in the distant past. For nearly a century controversies have boiled over repeatedly as to what the poem signifies about the perspectives of medieval Christians on Muslims. Nor have the disputes been restricted to what the Commedia meant in its own day. Dante’s chef d’oeuvre and . . .

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