By looking up what the Kitab al-Miraj was, you can see many similarities to the Divine Comedy: a traveler's journey through the afterlife.
Is it possible that Dante plagiarized this work?
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This answer is mainly based on Reginald Hyatte (1997), The Prophet of Islam in Old French: The Romance of Muhammad (1258) and The Book of Muhammad’s Ladder (1264), New York: Brill. This contains a translation of the Old French Le livre de l’eschiele Mahomet, which is a translation of the Latin Liber Scalae Machometi, which is a translation of a Castilian translation (now lost) of the Arabic Kitab al-Miraj (also lost). It’s likely that some of the detail has been distorted by passing through so many translations, but the structure of the story should be sufficiently preserved for comparison with the Divine Comedy.
“Plagiarism” means the copying of another writer’s words or ideas without attribution. But when evaluating similarities between literary works for evidence of plagiarism, we have to take into account that plagiarism is a violation of academic standards, whereas poets, playwrights, etc. have always alluded to each other and drawn on a common stock of images, legends, themes and tropes. If we look only at the two works under consideration, we risk missing these common tropes.
For example, if we looked in isolation at two detective stories, we would probably find many similarities (someone is murdered at the start; the identity of the murderer is a mystery, but there are only a few suspects; the detective who solves the crime is an amateur, not a police inspector; the detective keeps their deductions secret and explains them only at the end; and so on), leading us to the conclusion that one of the authors must have plagiarized from the other. But such a conclusion would be wrong, as these are common tropes of the detective genre, shared by hundreds of stories.
So, just as there is a genre of detective stories, there is a genre of journeys into the underworld (or to the afterlife more generally), and this genre also has common tropes whose presence in any given pair of texts is not evidence that one is plagiarized from the other.
In the table below I’ve listed some well-known journeys to the underworld or the afterlife, ordered by date. (All dates are approximate.) The last five columns indicate points of similarity with Muhammad’s Ladder and the Divine Comedy: the Punishment in the underworld of people who were wicked in life; the journey taking place in a dream or Vision; the narrator being led by a Guide; a description of Heaven in addition to the underworld or Hell; and the arrangement of Heaven and Hell into Multiple layers.
|2000 BCE||Inanna’s descent into the underworld||x||x||x||x||x|
|1800 BCE||Enkidu’s dream in tablet 7 of the Epic of Gilgamesh||✓||✓||x||x||x|
|700 BCE||Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey†||x||x||x||x||x|
|405 BCE||Aristophanes’ Frogs||✓||x||x||x||x|
|400 BCE||Book of Enoch||✓||✓||x||✓||x|
|19 BCE||Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid||✓||x||✓||‡||x|
|200||Apocalypse of Peter||✓||✓||x||✓||x|
|400||Apocalypse of Paul||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
|1200||Legend of the Purgatory of St. Patrick||✓||✓||x||x||x|
|1320||Dante’s Divine Comedy||✓||✓||✓||✓||✓|
† Odysseus does not descend into the underworld, but visits a land “beside the stream of Oceanus” where the spirits of the dead come to him “out of Erebus”. ‡ In the Aeneid, the dead are punished in Tartarus and rewarded in Elysium, but these are both part of the underworld. § Muhammad’s Ladder is ambiguous about whether it takes place in a dream. The narrator says, “I had long lay awake thinking about Our Lord’s religion and, thereupon, began to sleep a bit; at that moment lo! the angel Gabriel came and revealed himself to me” which can be interpreted either way.
You’ll see that the main points of similarity between Muhammad’s Ladder and the Divine Comedy are common tropes of the genre that were gradually accumulated over the centuries.
Dante could not have known most of these works, since some were unknown in Western Europe until the Renaissance, and others were not rediscovered until the 19th and 20th centuries, but he did indicate that he knew that his journey to the afterlife was following in the tradition of the Aeneid and the Apocalypse of Paul:
But I—how should I dare? By whose permission?
I am not Aeneas. I am not Paul,
Who could believe me worthy of the vision?
Dante (c. 1314). Inferno 2.31–33. Translated by John Ciardi (1954). New American Library.
Charles Singleton suggested (Inferno, p. 29) that this is a deliberate echo of the passage from Virgil in which Aeneas lists the previous visitors to Hades in whose footsteps he is treading:
“If Orpheus could call back his loved one’s shade,1
Emboldened by the lyre’s melodious string:
If Pollux by the interchange of death
Redeemed his twin,2 and oft repassed the way:
If Theseus3—but why name him? why recall
Alcides’ task?4 I, too, am sprung from Jove.”
Virgil (19 BCE). Aeneid 6.119–123. Translated by Theodore C. Williams (1910). Perseus Digital Library.
1. Orpheus went to Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice (Ovid, Metamorphoses 10). 2. When Castor was killed by Idas, Pollux petitioned his father Zeus to let the brothers share their immortality, each spending six months of the year in Hades (Pindar, Nemean Ode 10). 3. Theseus went to Hades to abduct Persephone on behalf of his friend Pirithous, but was caught and imprisoned on the rock of forgetfulness until rescued by Heracles (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Epitome 1.23-24). 4. Alcides was the birth name of Heracles, whose twelfth labour required him to visit Hades to capture Cerberus (Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 2.5.12).
Dante also took from the Aeneid the river Acheron (Aen. 6.296, Inf. 3.74); the lake Cocytus (Aen. 6.297, Inf. 14.113); the ferryman Charon (Aen. 6.299, Inf. 3.91); the Stygian marsh (Aen. 6.369, Inf. 7.107); Phlegyas (Aen. 6.618, Inf. 8.19); the judge Minos (Aen. 6.432, Inf. 5.4); and too many other elements to list here.
Dante made fewer allusions to the Apocalypse of Paul, but I was struck by this sentence from the latter:
And I saw there a river of fire burning with heat, and in it was a multitude of men and women sunk up to the knees, and other men up to the navel; others also up to the lips and others up to the hair
The Apocalypse of Paul. Translated by M. R. James. In Allan Menzies, ed. (1885). The Ante-Nicene Fathers, additional volume, p. 159. New York: Christian Literature Company.
This corresponds to Dante’s description of the river of boiling blood in Inferno canto 12, where some sinners “stood up to their [eye-]lashes”, others “steeped as far as the throat”, and
We came in sight of some who were allowed
to raise the head and all the chest from the river,
and I recognized many there.
In the Apocalypse of Paul, there are at least three heavens, but we only get a description of one of them.
|3||Gates of gold||Enoch, Elias|
In Muhammad’s Ladder, there is more detail. Each heaven is associated with a mineral, and Muhammad meets there a prophet or patriarch.
|1||Iron||John the Baptist, Jesus|
In Paradiso, there is much more detail. The heavens correspond to the celestial spheres of the Ptolemaic system. Most of the heavens are also associated with virtues and other human characteristics.
|3||Venus||Love||Charles Martel, Folquet de Marseilles|
|4||Sun||Wisdom||Thomas Aquinas, Solomon, Bede|
|5||Mars||Fortitude||Cacciaguida, Charlemagne, Roland|
|6||Jupiter||Justice||David, Hezekiah, Constantine|
|7||Saturn||Contemplation||Peter Damian, Benedict|
|8||Fixed stars||Faith, Hope & Love||Mary, Peter, James, John|
In Muhammad’s Ladder, no hint of the geographic arrangement of the hells is given, but each is identified by its characteristic feature, typically a means of punishment.
|3||“Tatas” (Hyatte suggests this might be a mistake for catas meaning “cats”)|
|7||The devil (gigantic, in chains)|
In Inferno, the hells are arranged as concentric circles, each associated with a particular sin as well as a particular punishment, or set of punishments.
|7||Violence||River of blood; wood of suicides; burning sand|
|9||Treachery||Lake of ice. The devil (gigantic, trapped)|
If Dante read Muhammad’s Ladder then the elements that he took from it were most likely:
The elaborate organization of heaven and hell into numbered layers with different attributes and populations. (This also appears in the Apocalypse of Paul, but only as a brief hint.)
Winds as a means of punishment (in the first hell in Muhammad’s Ladder; in the second circle in Inferno).
The devil as a gigantic being penned at the very centre of hell.
But, nevertheless, he [the devil] is bound, for from the beginning of his disobedience to Our Lord, the good angels threw him and his followers out of heaven, and afterwards they seized him and bound him with iron chains, one hand in front and the other behind, and his feet, too, in like manner. Thus is he shackled in the seventh region. He is so large that from the place which he occupies, his head touches this region where we are, and his two horns pass above it.
Reginald Hyatte (1997). The Prophet of Islam in Old French: The Romance of Muhammad (1258) and The Book of Muhammad’s Ladder (1264), p. 168. New York: Brill.
The Emperor of the Universe of Pain
jutted his upper chest above the ice;
and I am closer in size to the great mountain
the Titans make around the central pit,
than they to his arms. Now, starting from this part,
imagine the whole that corresponds to it!
[…] With what a sense of awe I saw his head
towering above me!
But in making these comparisons, there may be other sources that I neglected to consider, or which have been lost, that both works drew on.
Since this answer takes a different view from that of Matt Thrower in the other answer, it may be worth explaining why I disagree. Matt does not cite his claims individually, but his answer looks as if it is based on a summary of the work of Miguel Asín Palacios in René Guénon’s The Esotericism of Dante:
Don Miguel Asin Palacios has shown the multiple relationships that exist, in respect not only of content but also of form, between the Divine Comedy (not to speak of some passages from the Vita Nuova and the Convivio) on the one hand and both the Kitab al-isrâ (Book of the Nocturnal Journey) and the Futuhat el-Mekkiyah (The Meccan Revelations) of Muhyiddin ibn ’Arabi on the other—works that were written about eighty years before Dante’s. He concludes that these analogies, taken together, are more numerous than those that other commentators have been able to establish between Dante’s work and the literatures of all other countries.
René Guénon (1925). L’ésotérisme de Dante. Translated by C. B. Bethell (1996). The Esotericism of Dante, p. 35. Ghent, NY: Sophia Perennis et Universalis.
Guénon then quotes a substantial passage from Palacios (pp. 35–36) enumerating various points of similarity, which Matt condensed into the bullet points in his answer. But in Guénon’s summary, there is no mention of the Kitab al-Miraj! Palacios in the quoted passage had listed similarities between Dante and any of the works in the Islamic eschatological tradition, so we need to be careful when looking at any given point of similarity to see where it comes from.
I’ll consider the first of the alleged points of similarity in detail to show that, on careful consideration, the similarity does not bear the interpretation that Matt places on it. Matt writes, “Both Miraj and Dante take their journeys while dreaming, encountering a wolf and a lion as they set off.” The appearance of “Miraj” here (Arabic for “ladder”) is a mistake—what Palacios writes is, “In an adaptation of the Islamic legend, a wolf and a lion bar the pilgrim’s route”. If we look at the context, we find that this does not come from the Kitab al-Miraj, but from the Risalat al-ghufran of
the blind poet, Abu-l-Ala al-Maarri, famous to the present day in Islam, and even in Europe. A Syrian of the tenth and eleventh centuries of our era, he has been named “the philosopher of poets and the poet of philosophers.” The Risalat al-ghufran, or Treatise on Pardon, is one of his less-known works. Written in the form of a literary epistle, it is really a skilful imitation of those simpler versions of the Nocturnal Journey in which Mahomet does not rise to the astronomical heavens.
Miguel Asín Palacios (1919). La Escatologia musulmana en la Divina Comedia, pp. 71–72. Madrid: Imprenta de Estanislao Maestre. Translated by Harold Sutherland (1926). Islam and the Divine Comedy, p. 55. New York: E. P. Dutton.
So this similarity has no bearing on the question of whether Dante plagiarised from the Kitab al-Miraj. We can, of course, still ask whether Dante might have got the lion and wolf from al-Ma’arri, but this is very doubtful. First, unlike the Kitab al-Miraj, by the 1300s there was as yet no translation of the Risalat al-ghufran into a western European language, making it implausible that Dante read it. Second, there is another source for the lion and wolf in Dante, which is the prophet Jeremiah:
Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, and a wolf of the evenings shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces: because their transgressions are many, and their backslidings are increased.
Jeremiah 5:6. King James Version.
This is much more plausible as Dante’s source than al-Ma’arri, not only because we can be confident that Dante knew the Bible thoroughly, but because Jeremiah supplies all three animals used by Dante, and al-Ma’arri only two of them.
Most commentators on Inferno interpret these three animals as representing three divisions of sins: unrestraint or incontinence (lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, punished in upper Hell); bestiality or violence (murder, suicide, blasphemy, etc., punished in the seventh circle); and vice or fraud (flattery, simony, theft, treachery, etc., punished in the eighth and ninth circles). This tripartite categorization of vices comes from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics 7.1, which had been translated into Latin in the twelfth century. The association of the lion with violence comes from Cicero:
While wrong may be done, then, in either of two ways, that is, by force or by fraud, both are bestial: fraud seems to belong to the cunning fox, force to the lion; both are wholly unworthy of man, but fraud is the more contemptible.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (44 BCE). De Officiis 1.41. Translated by Walter Miller (1913). Perseus Digital Library.
We can be confident that Dante was aware of this passage from Cicero, because a passage in canto 11 is partly a paraphrase:
Of all malicious wrong that earns Heaven’s hate
The end is injury; all such ends are won
Either by force or fraud. Both perpetrate
Evil to others; but since man alone
Is capable of fraud, God hates that worst
Dante (c. 1314). Inferno 11.22–26. Translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (1949). Penguin.
Commentators on the poem do not agree whether the wolf represents fraud and the leopard unrestraint, or vice versa.
Dante was probably influenced and inspired by various Muslim sources, including the Kitab al-Miraj, but the similarities are not strong enough to claim plagiarism.
This conjecture dates from 1919 and was first proposed by Miguel Asín Palacios, a Spanish priest. His theories, published in La Escatología Musulmana en la Divina Comedia (Islamic Eschatology in the Divine Comedy), were not solely about the Kitab al Miraj, but conjectured that Dante's book was influenced by several strands of Islamic thinking.
In terms of the two books, there are more parallels than the relatively common theme of describing a journey into the afterlife:
Both Miraj and Dante take their journeys while dreaming, encountering a wolf and a lion as they set off.
Both have a divine guide, who describes to the traveller the strange lands they are about to encounter.
The layers of heaven and hell are the same in both books, as are the punishments for some of the sins.
When both travellers stand before God they are blinded and guided forward with prayers by their companions.
It is not an implausible supposition, either. Europe in Dante's time - particularly Spain under Alfonso X - had close ties to the Muslim world. Dante's mentor, Brunetto Latini stayed at Alfonso's court. A number of well-known contemporary scholars including Thomas Aquinas were influenced by Arabic thinking.
There is also evidence that Dante had access to the Kitab al Miraj. During his stay with Alfonso X, Brunetto Latini met Bonaventura de Siena who had translated the book into Latin. It's possible a copy was provided to Latini and from him to Dante, although we have no direct evidence for this.
The expert consensus on the matter, however, appears to be that while Dante was influenced by Islamic sources, The Divine Comedy does not owe a direct debt to the Kitab al Miraj. Some of the parallels are not unique to the latter work but can be found in other sources such as the Hadith and the Resalat Al-Ghufran.
In addition, while there are several notable similarities, they make up only a small part of Dante's work. And some of the crossovers, such as associating God with a blinding light, or with lions and wolves, are common images across the Abrahamic religions.