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Two Journeys into the Afterlife: Dante Alighieri and Abu Ala al-Ma’ari

posted on: Jul 13, 2022

By: Malorie Lewis / Arab America Contributing Writer

The concept of an afterlife, Heaven and Hell, is an idea that humanity has eternally dwelled over. At the center of many famous works of art and compositions is the great beyond. Over the history of mankind, many theologians have attempted to define the afterlife; from the ancient Egyptian Field of Reeds to the modern Abrahamic interpretations of Heaven and Hell.

Today, we will discover and compare two poetic renditions of the afterlife written hundreds of years apart; Risalat al Ghufran (The Epistle of Forgiveness) by Syrian Poet Abu Ala al Ma’ari and The Divine Comedy by Italian poet Dante Alighieri. The two poems and their authors are similar in many ways. Because of that similarity, many speculate that Risalat al Ghufran directly influenced Dante and his comedy. Although that has never been proven, let’s explore these two works and you can decide for yourself.

The Divine Comedy: Inferno Purgatorio Paradisio

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Dante’s Divine Comedy is one of the most popular works in medieval European literature. This poem trilogy brought awareness to the hypocrisy in the Roman Catholic Church and the State in the 14th century. He spent his life in exile, away from his home in Florence. This happened as a result of what he perceived as corruption in the church. However, Dante held hope that he would be allowed to return home from his exile after he completed his masterpiece. Dante was not wrong, his work became a literary success, but unfortunately, he died in exile never to return home.

Dante’s pilgrimage through Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise takes place in the Christian Catholic vision of the afterlife. In addition, he added some of his own adaptations for artistic flair. His passage through the afterlife is heavily laden with political criticisms of people Dante knew in his life. He incorporated them, along with other famous historical, and literary figures from his time period. The poem centers on cleansing the soul while passing through each layer of the afterlife. Ingeniously, he uses these characters as examples of each sin. Dante was a bold writer, making himself one of the top five poets in the world during his interactions in Purgatory. This illuminated one of Dante’s greatest sins, intellectual pride.

Risalat al Ghufran: The Epistle of Forgiveness

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Abu al-‘Ala’ al Ma’ari, was a Syrian poet born in Ma’arra, modern Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, Syria, near the city of Aleppo, in 973. He wrote “Risalat al Ghufran”, which translates into the Epistle of Forgiveness in English, during the Abbasid era. He was a big poet, theologian, grammarian, and philosopher of his time. Many condemn him as a heretic, even today, due to his excessive use of Sarcasm towards Islamic belief and a seeming attempt to surpass the Quran through his exceptional command of the Arabic Language. Amazingly this poet lost his eyesight at a young age, but he continued on to be one of the most prolific Arab poets of his time. His loss of sight left him feeling isolated much like Dante during his exile.

In Risalat al-Ghufran, al-Ma’ari is recounting the tale of a proud grammarian named Ali Ibn Mansour (called Ibn al-Qarih more frequently in the poem) who wrote a letter to al-Ma’ari hoping to meet him. Ibn al-Qarih taunts with his knowledge and questions several poets and thinkers of the time eluding to the idea that they were heretics. The letter questioned al-Ma’ari himself. Which led to the response of the “Risalat al-Ghufran”. al-Ma’ari writes the journey of this man through death and his journey from a purgatory-esque location to Paradise, as well as a short glimpse of hell.

Striking Similarities

There are some interesting similarities between the two works by Dante Alighieri and Abu Al-Ala al-Ma’ari. The main themes that are quite similar are; the importance of poetry, the inclusion of Pagans in spaces other than Hell, and ways of receiving redemption and access to Paradise. Now it might be said that these similarities come from the common theme being that they are describing an Abrahamic religious afterlife, but again I will let you decide for yourself!

Poetic obsession

The most interesting comparison between Dante’s Divine Comedy and al-Ma’ari is their obsession with poetry and the focus on it in the afterlife. Dante begins his journey after his interactions with the three animals at the base of the Mountain, in Purgatory. His guide in the afterlife, a very famous Pagan poet named Virgil, takes Dante from Limbo all the way through to the Garden of Eden. Many conversations during their journey centered on the idea of poetry. At the beginning of the Comedy, we meet four of the most famous poets of all time. These poets are of course Pagan, born before the light of God was given to Man. These men were important influences on the author and the main character Dante in his life. He assumed the role of the fifth-greatest poet, a stroke of his intellectual pride.

This is a commonality that is observable with al-Ma’ari as well. He was a very proud poet and thinker. His intellectual pride is visible in his attempt to surpass the writing of the Quran. al-Ma’ari understood how great his command of the Arabic language and grammar was. As such he flaunted it. He used poetry “battles” throughout the Epistle to display his knowledge and prowess in the language. Throughout the Epistle, al-Qarih speaks with mostly poets from varying times discussing the linguistic nuances and trying to point out flaws in their works. The importance of poetry in al-Ma’ari’s life bled into his writing very clearly.

Attainment of Salvation and Pagans

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Salvation, another theme the two authors spent time discussing at length. Throughout the Comedy Dante used poetry as a tool of salvation. Dante made it clear that poetry can help, but not completely give, the attainment of salvation. It is only obtainable through scripture, true repentance, belief, and the word of god (I.E. the Bible). Dante learns in Inferno after inquiring from Virgil that some Pagans were given admittance into heaven; Adam, Abel, Noah, and many others. Similarly in Risalat al-Ghufran Adam resides in the bountiful Paradise.

In fact, the idea that Pagans and other non-Muslims could be saved is noted in “Risalat al-Ghufran”. al-Qarih points this out, during his fictional journey into Paradise, while speaking with the poets Zuhayr, Abid Ibn al-Abras, and Ibn Zayd. These men are all poets from a time before god revealed the word to the Prophet Mohamad. They gained entrance into Paradise for varying reasons. First, Zuhayr had a vision of God and on his deathbed told his family to follow anyone who comes claiming to serve a God should obey because it must be true. Then there was Zayd. He was Christian and thus followed the same God as the Muslim believers. Finally, there is al-Abras who was saved because of Poetry. This is similar to Statius’s forgiveness in Dante’s Purgatorio.

What do you think?

Dante and al-Ma’ari clearly desire to communicate to their targeted audience the importance of poetry for the soul. The acceptance of pagans, atheists, and those who follow other religions are clear themes in the forgiveness of God and show his supreme generosity and kindness. The two also had a similar thought on the ways of attaining entrance into Paradise. The necessity of the word of god, whether it is the Bible for Dante or knowledge of the Quran for al-Ma’ari, is one of the key factors for access into the eternal bliss that is Paradise.

Although they had very different life experiences, isolation brought about a desire to write and express their discontent with religious and state authorities. al-Ma’ari was deemed a heretic by many and still is considered that by fundamentalists and hyper-conservative Muslims like those in al-Qaeda. Interestingly enough in the Epistle, he also touches on the idea of heresy and it is something that he viciously condemned. This is very ironic and it is another thought process that Dante would agree with. Dante placed the Heretics in the lower part of Hell as it is one of the more egregious sins.

The overlap between the two authors could continue at length. Overall, despite the great gap in between the lives of these two authors, there seems to be some commonality that is hard to avoid. Their writings have lasted the test of time, so far, and have become literary masterpieces in their own rights. What is your opinion?

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