What Isra wal Miraj can teach us about tolerance

Prayers at Bin Dalmook mosque along Al Road road in Deira.  Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Prayers at Bin Dalmook mosque along Al Road road in Deira. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Yesterday the Islamic world celebrated the Isra wal Miraj, the Prophet Mohammad’s miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (Isra) and his ascension to heaven (Miraj). This event profoundly shaped Islam as it was on this night that the frequency of daily prayers was set. The story of the Isra wal Miraj also indirectly affected the western world, inasmuch as it influenced one of the West’s great works of literature, Dante’s Inferno.

This 14th century poem, by the Florentine Dante Aligheri, is one part of the larger poetic work known as the Divine Comedy. The Inferno tells of Dante receiving a guided tour of the nine levels of hell, encountering en route a multitude of sinners hideously transformed in ways that bespeak the nature of their earthly transgressions. For example, those whose sin was fortune telling are depicted as creatures with their heads twisted 180 degrees, requiring them to walk backwards to see where they are going – a fittingly poetic punishment for those who tried to see the future. At each of the nine levels of hell, Dante encounters various personifications of vice, such as lust, gluttony, miserliness and wrath to name a few.

When we reach the eighth level of hell, the infamous Canto 28 of the poem, things get very controversial. Level 8 is where Dante houses what he describes as the fraudulent. This includes hypocrites, thieves and schismatics. It is within this level of hell that Dante chooses to place the Prophet Mohammad and Ali ibn Abi Talib, Islam’s fourth caliph, and the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Mohammad.

In Dante’s day, for many Roman Catholics, Islam was an avowed enemy; Muslims were the infidel to be reviled and injured with impunity. Given that Dante may have borrowed some of his ideas for the Divine Comedy from Islamic sources (without giving credit), the negative portrayal of important Islamic personages as fraudulent seems particularly unjust, unkind and underhanded. There are several prominent scholars including the late Miguel Asin Palacios, a Roman Catholic priest and scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, who argue strongly that Dante’s Divine Comedy is heavily influenced by an Islamic text known as Kitab Al Miraj (the book of ascension).

The Kitab Al Miraj was translated from Arabic into Latin and Spanish a century before Dante’s work.

We can perhaps overlook Dante’s poem as simply being characteristic of the religious intolerance of his time. The demonisation and persecution of non-Christians in parts of medieval Europe is well documented.

Unfortunately, such intolerance is not restricted to any particular faith, nation or time.

Religious intolerance is on the rise. The Pew Research Centre’s latest annual study on global restrictions on religion suggests a global increase in religious intolerance, either in the form of “social hostilities” or “governmental restrictions on religious practice”.

Social hostilities tend to be related to the harassment of religious groups and can take the form of verbal or physical abuse, desecration of holy sites, harassment and discrimination etc. The UAE, despite its broad ethnic and religious diversity, appears to be relatively free from overt social hostilities between religious groups.

Unsurprisingly, among the 197 nations included in the Pew survey, the UAE was among those nations categorised as being low on the social hostilities index. Having a low score, however, is no cause for complacency – a low score is not the same as a zero score.

One way for us to challenge intolerance is for us to educate ourselves about the beliefs, festivals and practices of people with religious world views other than our own.

This involves cultivating curiosity, open-mindedness and above all else compassion. If you know little about Isra wal Miraj, why not ask a Muslim colleague or friend to explain its significance?

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Published: April 23, 2017 04:00 AM

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