Seven Pillars House of Wisdom > Reviews > Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion

Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan

Dante’s relationship with Islam and Islamic thought is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, Dante notoriously assigned Muhammad (peace be upon him) a miserable fate in the eighth circle of Hell. On the other hand, the entire structure of The Divine Comedy bears an unmistakable resemblance to Muhammad’s fabled mi’raj or ascension, as Miguel Asin Palacios demonstrated nearly a century ago.

Dante took up his pen to write the Commedia after putting aside an unfinished philosophical work entitled Il Convivio. Conventional wisdom holds that Dante’s turn from the Convivio to the Commedia was a turn from philosophy to theology. In the Commedia, Dante’s two guides, Virgil and Beatrice, are commonly seen as representing reason and faith. Since Beatrice takes up where Virgil leaves off, it is assumed that Dante places a higher value on faith than reason. In this reading, the Commedia is a poetic monument to Dante’s deepening commitment to the Christian faith.

Gregory B. Stone, Professor of Comparative Literature at Louisiana State University, takes a different view. Beneath the surface of the Commedia’s rhetorical meaning, Stone perceives an inner meaning. For Stone, the Commedia is as concerned with a philosophical worldview as the Convivio, only it couches its essentially secular and pluralistic philosophical concerns in religious imagery.

This is where Islam comes in—or more specifically, the Islamic philosophy of religion. Dante’s rhetorical strategy puts into practice a theory of religious imagination traceable to the Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Ibn Rushd held that while reason and revelation deal with the same basic truths, philosophy is comprehensible only to the elite, whereas religion has the advantage of inspiring human communities. Putting the prosaic Convivio behind him, Dante wanted to create what Stone calls a “prophetic text,” a multilayered discourse that effectively utilizes images to motivate popular assent to the imperatives of a peaceful and just global community.

Stone locates the climax of the Commedia not in the Paradisio but in the Purgatorio. This makes perfect sense if one visualizes the poem in the form of a triptych, a panel painting in three sections, where the middle section is of central importance. Seen in this light, the Commedia reveals itself to be primarily interested in this world rather than the next.

Dante’s Purgatory is a mountain rising from an island in the southern hemisphere. At its summit stands the Earthly Paradise. As Stone shows, the Earthly Paradise is an allegorical image of the global utopia conceptualized in Dante’s political treatise Monarchia. In the Monarchia Dante makes the case that universal peace will only be achieved when the various nations of the world unite in an undivided planetary polity.

While this might at first sound like an argument for cultural imperialism, Dante is not calling for the Christianization or Europeanization of the world. In fact, Dante is explicit in denying the Church any authority outside of its own walls. The “common law” that is to regulate the transactions of the world community is to be based purely on the universal human faculty of reason.

If unity is the sine qua non for peace, peace is the sine qua non for truth: “No peace, no truth!” This is so because, for Dante, truth is necessarily multi-perspectival. Stone summarizes Dante’s view thus:

Truth depends upon a multiplicity of perspectives, both simultaneously and successively. That is, it is not just that the truths of several successive historical eras need to be collected together. Truth’s necessary plurality is both temporal and spatial, diachronic and synchronic, chronological and geographical. We open ourselves to the truth not only by recognizing that those who came before us may have seen, and those who come after us may see, things that we cannot see, but also by recognizing that those who are contemporary with us, others, may see things that we cannot see. (p. 37)

Dante’s pluralism makes him a fellow spirit of such diverse figures and movements as al-Farabi, the Ikhwan al-Safa, Ibn Rushd, Ibn ‘Arabi, the Cathars, Joachim of Fiore, the Spiritual Franciscans, Peire Cardinal, and Marsilius of Padua, all of whom Stone discusses knowledgably. Readers interested in heterodox thought in the Middle Ages and the Islamic roots of European culture will find much to contemplate here. Be advised, however, that Stone is entirely concerned with intellectual affinities and takes little notice of the specific historical channels through which texts and ideas are transmitted.

Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion is an extraordinary introduction to Dante and his intellectual world. In an era when most professional scholars are disinclined to step beyond the bounds of their own narrowly circumscribed areas of specialization, Gregory B. Stone has made an enormous contribution to Dante studies by boldly calling attention to the larger transcultural philosophical tradition to which the poet belongs.

After reading Dante’s Pluralism it is hard to resist the temptation to re-read the Commedia, this time with new eyes. The Commedia is one of those rare books that seem to contain limitless meanings. Whatever message one takes from it, pleasure is always to be found in its pages. As Jose Luis Borges memorably put it, not to read the Commedia “is to submit to a strange asceticism.”

***
Dante’s Pluralism and the Islamic Philosophy of Religion
Gregory B. Stone
Palgrave Macmillan, 2006
ISBN 978-1403971302

Pir Zia Inayat-Khan, Seven Pillars' President, is the spiritual leader of the Sufi Order International, a mystical and ecumenical fellowship rooted in the visionary legacy of his grandfather, Hazrat Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan. Pir Zia is also the President of the Suluk Academy and founder of Seven Pillars House of Wisdom. Pir Zia holds a Doctoral degree in Religion from Duke University and is a recipient of the U Thant Peace Award.

Comments (1)
  • Religion is the human society development to a certain historical stages of a cultural phenomenon, belongs to the social ideology. Main characteristics are, believe that in reality there are supernatural mystery outside power or entity, this mystery series absorbs all have absolute authority, dominate the natural evolution, and decide fate, to make the world to a mysterious the awe and worship, and thus which invites the belief and ritual activities cognitive.

    — hejingjoy on July 14, 2011

28 January 2009

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