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Another academic paper, this one covering a more spiritual topic via a historical lens, as with the previous paper I’ve added some images to keep your attention between the long bits with the words. I also added a little music to this one, Two Steps from Hell seemed like an appropriate band for this particular paper, enjoy.

A Cultural Comparison of Dante’s “Inferno” and the Islamic Hell

Exploring the fires of what we call “hell” as a cultural concept is to explore written human history itself, religious or otherwise. From the very start of organized and recorded religion there has been the concept of the underworld, reward for those who do well, and punishment for those who do evil. There are very few cultures that escape this pattern, very few faiths without a concept of the underworld as a place of punishment for those who have broken that faith or sinned against that same faith.

Zoroastrianism is one of the first faiths to emerge out of the murky prehistory in the Fertile Crescent and one of the first major religions in human history, coming to its full rise along with the Persian Empire. Zoroastrianism was one of the first faiths that described it’s after life as having a place for the wicked to be punished. Various Zoroastrian texts show that in many cases punishments were set to fit the crime and that the Zoroastrian hell was described as a dark place of smoke and fire, these concepts and many more central tenants of Zoroastrianism appear to have influenced many faiths throughout the age so it’s positions on hell are an important starting point when trying to understand influence in later faiths.

The Egyptians were of particular note with the judgment of Anubis rendering all men equal before him, weighing their souls and if they were found to be impure ending their after lives by feeding them to the ravenous creature Ammit, the devourer. If their souls balanced the scale, showing them to have led a good life however they were free to proceed in to the afterlife continuing forward. Here the underworld was a good place, more a heaven then a hell, and the reward for evil was utter oblivion. (1)

Of further interest to any one studying the culture of hell is the Greco-Roman Hades, here we begin to see the start of the western hell in full swing with its clearly defined places and layers as well as its three general destinations for souls to be sent too. The Fields of Asphodel are first and most common, this is a place not for heroes or evil men but for every one in between. Elysium was the land of the blessed or blameless heroes; those who had done many great things in life were richly rewarded in the afterlife. Finally Tartarus was what we think of modernly as “hell” a place of eternal judgment and punishment for those who had sinned grievously in life. (1)

The cultural roots and patterns of the past are important things to consider as we move in to our contemplation of the modern western view of hell as characterized by Dante Alighieri “Divine Comedy” specifically the portion known as “The Inferno”. Many individuals would probably challenge me on my use of the Divine Comedy of being representative of the western view of hell, especially those with very strong religious convictions and a strong working knowledge of their faith. I do not mean to say that the Divine Comedy is the equivalent of these religious works or that it has supplanted these faith views but rather that it is a cultural phenomenon. I believe that if you ask the average western man or woman on the street to describe hell their own mental imagery of hell would be from the Inferno. The classic architecture of nine levels of burning torment and justice for the wicked that have fallen in with evil during their lives. These sinners are separated by various grades and levels of wickedness, such as lust, gluttony, violence and the other six primary divisions of Dante’s hell. Ruled over by the lord of the fallen himself, whom Virgil refers to as “The ruler of the woeful realm”, (2) with his demonic servants to torture the damned for all eternity.

There’s already significant cultural blending in Dante’s Inferno, the river Styx making a reappearance as the point at which souls must cross in to hell from the realm of purgatory which many think of as “Level 0” of hell. The place those who have neither earned their way in to heaven nor have fallen to the depths of hell remain there, those who have fallen are carried across the Styx by another traditional figure of hell, The boatman Chiron. Further on in hell the great three headed dog Cerberus also waits. This Greco-Roman influence in the inferno is also witnessed in the very concept of hell as a place ruled by a dark master a concept of the god Hades. Another Greco-Roman theme evident in the inferno is the concept of “punishment fitting the crime” in many famous Grecian myths those cast in to Tartarus are condemned to punishments for all eternity that will forever remind them of their crimes, gluttons are forever starving reaching for fruit that is just out of their grasp or trying to reach water that is just out of reach.

This “eye for an eye” style of punishment is a central theme in the inferno with each layer of hell being reserved for a specific kind of crime to mete out specific punishments for those crimes. Violence is for example is separated in to “Violence towards others” wherein those convicted of the “general” crime boil in a river of blood for all eternity (2), while others who went above and beyond the call of duty in their pursuit of the sin, mass murderers, warriors who slaughtered for their own pleasure instead of defending others, that like receive still more grievous punishment as the scope of their sin increases.

This view of hell and Satan differ greatly from the traditional Christian model of hell. Which is described much more generally as a place of “eternal fire” what is certain however that despite Satan’s role as “the adversary” he is not the ruler, the jailor or master of hell. Rather Satan and his fallen are prisoners, the worst of the worst the world has to offer, forever denied redemption and the Almighty’s love. Satan’s role traditionally speaking is a quick witted, devious, and highly intelligent foe that delights in dragging down the creation God has labored on. He is not however, a powerful ruler of his own realm, for he is still very weak compared to God and can only use his cunning to effect the weak minded or faithless who might stray from the path God has laid out for them.

It’s truly hard to lock down a traditional view of the individual referred to as Satan from a Christian or Judaic view point as his (Satan’s) role changes so much throughout the Bible. With expanded thinking from various holy men only serving to muddle the water even further. It’s easy to see why a popular work of fiction with a religious basis like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost would capture the public imagination and provide a more lasting impact then scholarly papers on the same subject much for the same reason many historic events are more commonly remembered via the Hollywood version of events instead of what actually happened.

Islamic hell is referred to as “Jahannam” and is also depicted similarly to Dante’s hell in that it is a fiery pit filled with pain and torture. “Jannah” or “Paradise” is also split in two levels, as hell is split according to the foulness of your sins, so is heaven split in two sections base on the virtues with which you lead your life. Instead of being ruled by Satan and his fallen, Islamic hell is controlled by the angel Maalik and his Zabaniyah, the angels who guard hell and punish those sentenced there for eternity. The major sins in Islamic hell to which the most horrible punishments are meted out are suicide, the sin of polytheism, and heresy. Islam is divided along the standard Sunni/Shia lines when it comes to the punishment of non-believers, as well as the punishments handed out for Muslims who fail in their faith during life. “The one who is not performing his prayer intentionally is truly an unbeliever” is a quote attributed to the Prophet and is generally taken to mean that if you’re just going through the motions of faith you may as well not even practice at all. These individuals will be judged by Allah during the “Qiyamat” or “Final Judgment” according to their individual circumstances. “Allah may choose make the punishment of hell temporary if Allah Wills it according to Allah’s Wisdom and Knowledge” Verse 6:128, The Quran. This seems to indicate that Allah will potentially show mercy to those individuals who were not believers but still lived good lives.

Right off the bat the comparisons between Islamic hell and Dante’s hell are very easy to identify, the layered structure, divided by crime, like a very organized series of modern cell blocks. Flames and darkness, eternal punishment and torment characterize both these after lives for the damned also share the bottom of hell being a frozen tormented place called Zamhareer in Islam and is of course Dante’s 9th circle of hell. Hawiyah is the lowest portion of the Islamic hell and is still a frozen pit. Islam and Dante condemn the similar types of sinners to these darkest reaches of the pit. With the 9th circle of hell being reserved for various types of traitor, with the greatest traitor at all, Satan who committed personal treachery against God in the middle. Similarly the lowest reaches of Islamic hell condemn hypocrites both spiritual and otherwise to the depths.

Both of these differ from the generally accepted view of Christian hell, However it would be extremely difficult to properly compare and contrast the Christian version of hell with either of these due to the varied nature and descriptions of hell between varying factions of Christianity. There is no one single, Christian hell or view of hell and is thus impossible for me to truly give a concise comparison here that will be truly accurate to my own satisfaction. I will however offer a simplified and brief comparison for the sake of completeness.

The primary similarities are the torment and fire shared between the three, there is no place of frozen hell described in any Christian teaching that I have learned of, further Christianity differs from both Islam and Dante’s works by being generally described as a single hell as opposed to the layered versions of Dante and Islam. Christian hell agrees with Dante with hell generally being cast as the realm of Satan; if not quite to the extent Dante describes it. Islam maintains its angelic prison masters as described previously. Again these are very general definitions for the Christian hell and a very basic comparison to continue to illustrate the differences between Dante and Christianity.

There are many strong similarities between the Islamic vision of hell and Dante’s Inferno. It was first suggested that there was an Islamic Influence in Dante’s writing by Professor Miguel Asin Palacios in a scholarly paper in 1919 (5). While the period Dante was writing in did have lines of learning flowing from Europe to Islamic centers of power I do not believe that Dante was directly influenced by Islamic teachings in the construction of his Inferno. The debate on the subject matter has been going back and forth for what’s coming up on a 100 years, literally since the paper by Professor Palacios was published.

My conclusions on the matter are drawn from the descriptions of Islam and Islamic figures described in the Inferno.

“He eyed me, with his hands laid his breast bare,
And cried, “Now mark how I do rip me: lo!

        30

How is Mohammed mangled: before me
Walks Ali weeping, from the chin his face
Cleft to the forelock; and the others all,
Whom here thou seest, while they lived, did sow
Scandal and schism, and therefore thus are rent

-Canto XXVII, 29-35 (1)

This described both Mohammed and his faithful disciple Ali, both extremely important figures in Islam as “sowers of discord” confined to the 9th circle of hell. Further Dante, described the City of Dis in Canto VIII saying that it contained many mosques and that they were all wreathed in flames. This placement of important Muslim religious figures and religious structures deep amongst the sinners of hell shows what I think to be a deep seated contempt for Islam. The fifth and sixth Crusades both occurred during Dante’s lifetime and there was certainly a very strong dislike of Islam prevalent amongst Europeans at that time. This leads me to conclude that if Dante was influenced by Islam in the creation of The Divine Comedy, then it was most likely very indirect.

As we view the evolution and changes of religious belief we find that our understanding of the past and religious traditions of historical faiths are critical in understanding the role that history plays in the shaping of modern faiths. Both the decedents of those original faiths such as Zoroastrianism or Islam that exist directly today and other newer faiths that contain links to the faiths of the past display a strong influence of history shaping the religious structures and patterns of today.

Bibliography

  1. Gardiner, Eileen. “Hell Online.” Hell Online. Ithaca Press, 03 AUG 2009. Web. 23 Mar 2011. <http://www.hell-on-line.org/index.html&gt;.
  2. (Alighieri), Dante. The divine comedy. 1985. Print.
  3. 1. The Koran, Islamic, 632–656 CE.
  4. Personal Interview names redacted for privacy
  5. Palacios, Miguel Asin. La Escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia (“Islamic Eschatology in the Divine Comedy”), . Spain: 1919. Print.

Notes:

1. I would like to take extra time to take Redacted for sharing his years of learning and wisdom in Islam with me and helping me to more completely understand the part of his faith covered in this paper, as well as a more complete understanding of Islam in general. His guidance on many of the subjects in this paper were what made it possible to write and for me to understand instead of just blinding guessing from random Koranic readings, Google searches and bothering librarians.

2. Citation 5 is merely referencing the work that first outlined the possibility that Dante had been influenced by Islam in creating his version of hell; I did not actually acquire or research this work.

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One Comment

  1. Hello,

    My name is Kambel Smith, I have autism, I write a book series called the Adventures of Survivor.
    I would like to use one of your pictures in my book series. Please let me know if I have your permission.

    Thank you
    Kambel Smith


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