“Beauty is the reflection of reality in the mirror of illusion”
“And there is no more powerful creature in the universe than woman
– for each angel that God has created from the breaths (anfas)
of women is the most powerful of angels.”
DANTE AND ISLAM
Miguel Asín Palacios (1871–1944) was a Spanish scholar of Islamic studies and the Arabic language, and a Roman Catholic priest. He is primarily known for suggesting Muslim sources for ideas and motifs present in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which he discusses in his book La Escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia (1919). He wrote on medieval Islam, extensively on al-Ghazali (Latin: Algazel). A major book El Islam cristianizado (1931) presents a study of Sufism through the works of Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (Spanish: Mohidín Abenarabe) of Murcia in Andalusia (medieval Al-Andalus). Asín also published other comparative articles regarding certain Islamic influences on Christianity and on mysticism in Spain.
Perhaps Asín Palacios a is best remembered for his 1919 book, La Escatologia Musulmana en la Divina Comedia,which suggests Islamic sources for the memorable context and perspective used by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) in his work La Divina Commedia. Specifically, Asín compares the Muslim religious literature surrounding the night journey [al-‘Isra wal-Mi’rag] of Muhammad (from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence up with the Prophets through the seven heavens), with Dante’s story describing his spiritual journey in which he meets various inhabitants of the afterlife and records their fate. Accordingly, Asín (I) discusses in detail the above night journey in Muslim literature,(II) compares it to episodes in the inferno, the purgatorio,and the paradiso of La Divina Commedia, (III) investigates Muslim influence on corresponding Christian literature predating the poem, and (IV) conjectures how Dante could have known directly of the Muslim literature in translation. Asín remarks that notwithstanding these Muslim sources, Dante remains a luminous figure and his poem retains its exalted place in world literature.
Asín’s book inspired a wide and energetic reaction, both positive and negative, as well as further research and academic exchanges. Eventually two scholars, an Italian and a Spaniard, independently uncovered an until-then buried Arabic source, the eleventh century Kitab al-Mi’raj [Book of the Ladder (or of the ascent)], which describes Muhammad’s night journey. This work was translated into Spanish as La Escala de Mahoma by a scribe (Abrahim Alfaquim) ofAlfonso X el Sabio in 1264. Information surfaced about another translation into Latin, Liber Scalae Machometi, which has been traced to the Italian milieu of the poet, Dante Alighieri. It appears that Dante’s mentor Brunetto Latini met the Latin translator of the Kitab al-Mi’raj while both were staying at the court of the Spanish king Alfonso X el Sabio in Castilla. Although this missing link was not available to Asín, he had based his work on several similar accounts of Muhammad’s ladder then circulating among the literary or pious Muslims of Al-Andalus.
The Kitab al Miraj (Arabic: كتاب المعراج “Book of the Ascension”) is a Muslim book concerned with Muhammad’s ascension into Heaven (known as the Miraj), following his miraculous one-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (the Isra). The book is divided into 7 chapters, and was written in Arabic using the Naskh script.
Kitab al-Miraj is believed to have been written by Abu’l-Qasim ‘Abdalkarîm bin Hawâzin bin ‘Abdalmalik bin Talhah bin Muhammad al-Qushairî al-Nisaburi أبو القاسم عبد الكريم بن هوازن بن عبد الملك بن طلحة بن محمد القشيري (born 376 – died 465 A.H.).
In the second half of the 13th century, the book was translated into Latin (as Liber Scale Machometi) and Spanish, and soon thereafter (in 1264) into Old French. Its Islamic depictions of Hell are believed by some scholars to have been a major influence on Dante’s 14th century masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, including Miguel Asin Palacios, and Enrico Cerulli .
I got no problem finding this associations merely anecdotic, sure reading Kitab al Miraj could had being a source of an idea, that by the force of the Genius, and the Imagination of Dante, united to the Cosmological views of his Age contributed to his magnificent work. But I will like to point out the similitudes of the Mundus Imaginalis shared by Christain and Muslims mystics alike,as defined by Henry Corbin: Na-kojd-Abad, the “land of No-where.”
Many centuries ago, the philosopher Suhrawardi coined the term “Na Koja-Abad” (Nowhere Land) to refer to a mythical, but nevertheless real place, situated in a kind of interworld between the realms of the senses and those of the intellect. Later Shi’ite traditions referred to it as “Hurqalya” and mentioned its two emerald cities (Jabarsa and Jabalqa) capable of being perceived solely by the Creative Imagination. (This is not the “imagination” of fancy or of wish-fulfillment, but the “Imaginatio Vera” of the medieval philosophers: a kind of organic mirror where according to certain Ishraqi philosophers — images from the material world and archetypal forms from the sphere of the intellect are able to come together and react). Hurqalya was believed to be the real theater of life, bubbling up images into the conscious mind in the form of myth and legend.
The Oxford dictionary define it as:
The term was used first by Suhrawardi to define a ‘boundary’ realm that connects the sensory and the abstract intellectual segments of the whole continuum of being, and is the distinguishing component of non-Aristotelian cosmology in Islamic philosophy . It is constructed as the locus of visions, prophecy, and sorcery, and also defines eschatology . This wonderland is described by negating Aristotelian logical principles and laws of physics, and is employed to explain non-standard experiences such as ‘true dreams’ and ‘miraculous powers’. As the individual subject moves away from the center of the sensory segment of the continuum nearing the boundary realm, qualitative change takes place. Material bodies change to imaginalis ones; time changes, no longer confined to measure of linear space; and space is no longer limited by the Euclidean.
LA VITA NUOVA
Dante wanted to collect and publish the lyrics dealing with his love for Beatrice, explaining the autobiographical context of its composition and pointing out the expository structure of each lyric as an aid to careful reading. Though the result is a landmark in the development of emotional autobiography (the most important advance since Saint Augustine’s Confessions in the 5th century), like all medieval literature it is far removed from the modern autobiographical impulse. Instead the they are suffused with the Imagery of the Mundus Imaginalis. However, Dante and his audience were interested in the emotions of courtly love and how they develop, how they are expressed in verse, how they reveal the permanent intellectual truths of the divinely created world and how love can confer blessing on the soul and bring it closer to God
According to Dante, he first met Beatrice when his father took him to the Portinari house for a May Day party. At the time, Beatrice was eight years old, a year younger than Dante. Dante was instantly taken with her and remained so throughout her life even though she married another man, banker Simone dei Bardi, in 1287. Beatrice died three years later in June 1290 at the age of 24. Dante continued to hold an abiding love and respect for the woman after her death, even after he married Gemma Donati in 1285 and had children. After Beatrice’s death, Dante withdrew into intense study and began composing poems dedicated to her memory. The collection of these poems, along with others he had previously written in his journal in awe of Beatrice, became La Vita Nuova.
According to the autobiographic La Vita Nuova, Beatrice and Dante met only twice during their lives. Even less credible is the numerology behind these encounters, marking out Dante’s life in periods of nine years. This amount of time falls in line with Dante’s repeated use of the number three or multiples of, derived from the Holy Trinity. It is more likely that the encounters with Beatrice that Dante writes of are the two that fulfill his poetic vision, and Beatrice, like Petrarch’s Laura, seem to blur the line between an actual love interest and a means employed by the poet in his creations.
Dante in chapter XXIV, of La Vita Nuova “I Felt My Heart Awaken” (“Io mi senti’ svegliar dentro a lo core”, also translated as “I Felt a Loving Spirit Suddenly”), Dante accounts a meeting with Love, who asks the poet to do his best to honour her.
- Io mi senti’ svegliar dentro a lo core
- Un spirito amoroso che dormia:
- E poi vidi venir da lungi Amore
- Allegro sì, che appena il conoscia,
- Dicendo: “Or pensa pur di farmi onore”;
- E ‘n ciascuna parola sua ridia.
- E poco stando meco il mio segnore,
- Guardando in quella parte onde venia,
- Io vidi monna Vanna e monna Bice
- Venire inver lo loco là ‘v’io era,
- L’una appresso de l’altra miriviglia;
- E sì come la mente mi ridice,
- Amor mi disse: “Quell’è Primavera,
- E quell’ha nome Amor, sì mi somiglia.”
- I felt awoken in my heart
- a loving spirit that was sleeping;
- and then I saw Love coming from far away
- so glad, I could just recognize.
- saying “you think you can honor me”,
- and with each word laughing.
- And little being with me my lord,
- watching the way it came from,
- I saw lady Joan and lady Bice
- coming towards the spot I was at,
- one wonder past another wonder.
- And as my mind keeps telling me,
- Love said to me “She is Spring who springs first,
- and that bears the name Love, who resembles me.”
Following their first meeting, Dante was so enthralled by Beatrice that he later wrote in La Vita Nuova: Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi (“Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.”) Indeed, Dante frequented parts of Florence, his home city, where he thought he might catch even a glimpse of her. As he did so, he made great efforts to ensure his thoughts of Beatrice remained private, even writing poetry for another lady, so as to use her as a “screen for the truth”.
Dante’s courtly love for Beatrice continued for nine years, before the pair finally met again. This meeting occurred in a street of Florence, which she walked along dressed in white and accompanied by two older women. She turned and greeted him, her salutation filling him with such joy that he retreated to his room to think about her. In doing so, he fell asleep, and had a dream which would become the subject of the first sonnet in La Vita Nuova.
In this dream, a mighty figure appeared before him, and spoke to him. Although he could not make out all the figure said, he managed to hear “Ego dominus tuus“, which means “I am your Lord”. In the figure’s arms was Beatrice, sleeping and covered by a crimson cloth. The figure awoke Beatrice, and made her eat Dante’s burning heart. An English translation of this event, as described in La Vita Nuova, appears below:
This was the last encounter between the pair, since Beatrice died eight years later at the young age of twenty-four in 1290.
The manner in which Dante chose to express his love for Beatrice often agreed with the Middle Ages concept of courtly love. Courtly love was a secret, unrequited and highly respectful form of admiration for another person. Yet it is still not entirely clear what caused Dante to fall in love with Beatrice. Since he knew very little of the real Beatrice, and that he had no great insight to her character, it is perhaps unusual that he did. But he did, and there are clues in his works as to why:
- “She has ineffable courtesy, is my beatitude, the destroyer of all vices and the queen of virtue, salvation.”
Dante saw Beatrice as a savior, one who removed all evil intentions from him. It is perhaps this idea of her being a force for good that he fell in love with, a force which he believed made him a better person. This is certainly viable, since he does not seem concerned with her appearance – at least not in his writings. He only once describes her complexion, and her “emerald” eyes.
Let’s Dante speak and tell us of his sublimation of Eros in to Agape:
“Nine times now, since my birth, the heaven of light had turned almost to the same point in its own gyration, when the glorious Lady of my mind, who was called Beatrice by many who knew not what to call her, first appeared before my eyes. She had already been in this life so long that in its course the starry heaven had moved toward the region of the East one of the twelve parts of a degree; so that at about the beginning of her ninth year she appeared to me, and I near the end of my ninth 2year saw her. She appeared to me clothed in a most noble color, a modest and becoming crimson, and she was girt and adorned in such wise as befitted her very youthful age. At that instant, I say truly that the spirit of life, which dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble with such violence that it appeared fearfully in the least pulses, and, trembling, said these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi [Behold a god stronger than I, who coming shall rule over me].
At that instant the spirit of the soul, which dwells in the high chamber to which all the spirits of the senses carry their perceptions, began to marvel greatly, and, speaking especially to the spirit of the sight, said these words: Apparuit jam beatitudo vestra [Now has appeared your bliss].
At that instant the natural spirit, which dwells in that part where our nourishment is supplied, began to weep, and, weeping, said these words: Heu miser! quia frequenter impeditus ero deinceps [Woe is me, wretched! because often from this time forth shall I be hindered].
I say that from that time forward Love lorded it over my soul, which had been so speedily wedded to him: and he began to exercise over me such control and such lordship, through the power which my imagination gave to him, that it behooved me to do completely all his pleasure. He commanded me oft times that I should seek to see this youthful angel; so that I in my boyhood often went seeking her, and saw her of such noble and praiseworthy deportment, that truly of her might be said that word of the poet Homer, “She seems not the daughter of mortal man, but of God.” And though her image, which stayed constantly with me, gave assurance to Love to hold lordship over me, yet it was of such noble virtue that it never suffered Love to rule me without the faithful counsel of the reason in those matters in which it were useful to hear such counsel. And since to dwell upon the passions and actions of such early youth seems like telling an idle tale, I will leave them, and, passing over many things which might be drawn from the original where these lie hidden, I will come to those words which are written in my memory under larger paragraphs.
When so many days had passed that nine years were exactly complete since the above-described apparition of this most gentle lady, on the last of these days it happened that this admirable lady appeared to me, clothed in purest white, between two gentle ladies who were of greater age; and, 4passing along a street, turned her eyes toward that place where I stood very timidly; and by her ineffable courtesy, which is to-day rewarded in the eternal world, saluted me with such virtue that it seemed to me then that I saw all the bounds of bliss. The hour when her most sweet salutation reached me was precisely the ninth of that day; and since it was the first time that her words came to my ears, I took in such sweetness, that, as it were intoxicated, I turned away from the folk; and, betaking myself to the solitude of my own chamber, I sat myself down to think of this most courteous lady.
And thinking of her, a sweet slumber overcame me, in which a marvelous vision appeared to me; for me thought I saw in my chamber a cloud of the color of fire, within which I discerned a shape of a Lord of aspect fearful to whoso might look upon him; and he seemed to me so joyful within himself that a marvelous thing it was; and in his words he said many things which I understood not, save a few, among which I understood these: Ego Dominus tuus [I am thy Lord]. In his arms me seemed to see a person sleeping, naked, save that she seemed to me to be wrapped lightly in a crimson cloth; whom I, regarding very intently, recognized as the lady of the salutation, who had the day before deigned to salute me. And in one of 5his hands it seemed to me that he held a thing which was all on fire; and it seemed to me that he said to me these words: Vide cortuum [Behold thy heart]. And when he had remained awhile, it seemed to me that he awoke her that slept; and he so far prevailed upon her with his craft as to make her eat that thing which was burning in his hand; and she ate it timidly. After this, it was but a short while before his joy turned into the most bitter lament; and as he wept he gathered up this lady in his arms, and with her it seemed to me that he went away toward heaven. Whereat I felt such great anguish, that my weak slumber could not endure it, but was broken, and I awoke. And straightway I began to reflect, and found that the hour in which this vision had appeared to me had been the fourth of the night; so that, it plainly appears, it was the first hour of the nine last hours of the night.”
THE HIEROS GAMOS
Hieros gamos or Hierogamy (Greek ἱερὸς γάμος, ἱερογαμία “holy marriage”) refers to a sexual ritual that plays out a marriage between a god and a goddess, especially when enacted in a symbolic ritual where human participants represent the deities. It is the harmonization of opposites.
The notion of hieros gamos does not presuppose actual performance in ritual, but is also used in purely symbolic or mythological context, notably in alchemy and hence in Jungian psychology. The three Monotheistic Religions share in the Hieros Gamos symbolism.
Ralph Austin tell us:
“Here is introduced a theme, curious, but persistent in the three great monotheisms, of the secret consort of the High God.Whether in human or angelic form, who seems to be an essential part of the scheme of creation and salvation and who constantly, especially in mysticism, manifests the deepest desires and dreams of the Godhead. Thus, in Judaism we meet the powerfully feminine Shekinah, Cherubim and Matronit who, according to R. Patai in his very interesting book The Hebrew Goddess, personify and symbolize the maternal and feminine aspects of the divinity. In Christianity, one need only point to the overwhelmingly influential cult of the Virgin Mary with its myriad ramifications in Christian culture. Even Islam, that bastion of patriarchal ascendancy, expresses, albeit enigmatically and cryptically, subtle but pervasive images of the “eternal feminine”, especially in Sufism and Shi’ism, as has been so well elaborated in H. Corbin’s fine work on Ibn Al-‘Arabi. Man, we are taught, is created in the image of God, his Creator, so that we may expect to find the hieros gamos, or sacred marriage of heaven reflected in human experience. Of course, men and women relate to each other in many ways, and their mutual and elemental attraction serves many quite ordinary and mundane purposes, not the least of which are the procreation of the species and the proper ordering of society. They also, however, serve as powerful images and archetypes of suprahuman forces and realities, thus opening up to each other visions and insights, mysteries and secrets which greatly transcend the ordinary and every-day concerns and experiences of the mundane world; indeed, by virtue of Man’s special intermediary and linking function in the Divine—human—universe scheme of things, both sexes serve to manifest transforming forces which may, in certain circumstances, as Rumi says, “transfigure the dustbin of this world into a rose garden”, or give flesh and substance to spiritual realities. In all of this we enter, unavoidably, into that area of human experience which is still, even in our own cerebral culture, a sphere of magic and mystery.
IBN ARABI AND LADY NIZAM
Ibn Arabi like Dante, a century earlier produced an ode to Mystical Love, disguised as courtly love when he wrote the Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires) Later he had to mount an apology to his critics that his poems where erotically profane, explaining the symbolism of his poetry.
His inspiration was Lady Nizam.The way in which such an image and presence serves in such cases to inspire and enrich is very well described by a recent writer on the life and work of Dante, whose own experience of Beatrice is so remarkably close to that of Ibn ‘Arabi. William Anderson writes towards the end of his book, Dante, The Maker.
Through his love of her on Earth he formed an indissoluble union of love with her that transcended the incident of her death. She mirrored to him the Incarnation of Christ, and, in purifying his individual nature as a Christian, he found that the only way to the sight of God was through her as the revelation of his soul… so she, as his illuminated soul represents the search for unity and contains in herself the still causes of history and of creation. Through the love of her his love expands to become the love of God… she is in him the gateway to ecstatic joy. the source both of his inspiration and his salvation, the maker of him as a torch of living flame and his guide towards the peace which his difficult temperament and the sorrows of his bitter political life so long denied him. Through her guidance he achieved a total transformation in his emotional and intellectual being
Here Ibn ‘Arabi is describing his encounter with a very beautiful and spiritual young woman whose physical as well as her spiritual charms affected him greatly. Here we are in the presence of a wonderful human being of flesh and blood whose memory will torment him down through the years.
Ibn Arabi relates his encounters with the sublime Nizam. Of his first meetings with her, the daughter of a Persian scholar of Isphahan. he says:
Now this shaykh had a daughter, a lissome young girl who captivated the gaze of all those who saw her, whose mere presence was the ornament of our gatherings and startled all those who contemplated it to the point of stupefaction. Her name was Nizam (Harmonia) and her surname “Eye of the Sun and of Beauty”. Learned and pious, with an experience of spiritual and mystic life, she personified the venerable antiquity of the entire Holy Land and the candid youth of the great city faithful to the Prophet. Her glance, the grace of her conversation were such an enchantment… If not for the paltry souls who are over ready for scandal and predisposed to malice, I should comment here on the beauties of her body as well as her soul, which was a garden of generosity… And I took her as a model for the inspiration of the poems… although I was unable to express so much as a part of the emotion which my soul experienced and which the company of this young girl awakened in my heart, or of the generous love I felt… since she is the object of my quest and my hope, the Virgin most pure…
“Whatever name I may mention in this work, it is to her I am alluding. Whatever the house whose elegy I sing, is of her house that I am thinking…I never cease to allude to the Divine Inspirations, the spiritual visitations, the correspondence of our world, to the world of the Angelic Intelligences…this is because the the things of the invisible world attract me more than those of actual life, and because this young girl knew perfectly what I was alluding to.”
However, at the Ka’abah in the sanctuary at Mecca, he has a very different sort of meeting with a transfigured and ethereal Nizam, who proves to be a stern initiatrix into the rigors of the divine mysteries. He says:
One night I was performing the ritual circumambulations of the Ka’abah… suddenly a few lines of verse came to my mind. I recited them loudly enough to be heard… No sooner had I recited these verses than I felt on my shoulder the touch of a hand softer than silk. I turned around and found myself in the presence of a young girl, a princess from among the daughters of the Greeks. Never had I seen a woman more beautiful of face, softer of speech, more tender of heart.