Why did this narrative exert such attraction and have such great appeal in the Muslim world? There are many reasons. Certainly, it responds to the natural curiosity that the afterlife elicits in humans. On the other hand, it develops to its furthest point the topic of continuity; while highlighting at the same time Muhammad’s and his community’s superiority over prophets who came before him, and who, as he goes from heaven to heaven, bear witness to him. For us though, the most important reason for the story’s success (and the great interest it represents for those who want to understand the Islamic religious experience) is the fact that it offers Muslim believers a model for the relationship with God. The apex of Muhammad’s ascent lies in his dialogue with the Almighty.
“I took a step in a 500-year journey. The voice told me: ‘Ahmad, fear not; may sadness not touch you’. [. . .] I came near my Lord again until I found I ‘was at a distance of two bow lengths or nearer’ (Qur. 53:9). [...] The Noble and Supreme One put His hand between my shoulder blades” (pp. 33-34). From that, a dialogue begins in which God, to lessen Muhammad’s sense disorientation, is so considerate that he has the voice of his friend Abû Bakr reverberate in the spaces of eternity. In a religion that claims that it is the custodian of God’s absolute Transcendence, man’s coming nearer than “two bow lengths” is the great hope to which believers aspire.
It is therefore not surprising that during the Latin Middle Ages, the Night Journey was seen as one of Islam’s Sacred texts, just slightly less important than the Qur‘an. For that reason, it was translated at the court of Alfonso X the Wise by a Jew (into Castilian) and a notary, Bonaventura, in Siena (in French and Latin). When the text, known as the Book of Muhammad’s Ladder, was rediscovered in the middle of last century, it re-opened, at the level of textual objectivity, the question of the sources used in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which the Spanish Arabist Asín Palacios had raised, when he collected documents with great enthusiasm but limited discernment and method, about everything in Arab literature and Latin Medieval literature that could demonstrate Dante’s alleged reliance on Arab sources.
Maria Piccoli looks at this debate in the book’s postface, indicating possible textual parallels between the narrations of the prophet’s journey and those of Dante. The sober presentation is particularly valuable because frequently the question of the Divine Comedy’s sources, like those of other masterpieces in world literature, is addressed in a naive and confusing way as to the purpose of such an investigation. In fact, in addition to not taking into consideration, as Massignon wrote in response to Asín Palacios that “there is but a limited number of imaginable geometries capable of responding to given basic conditions”, such an investigation, in inexpert hands, could turn into a major autopsy that finds the parts but misses the whole living organism that is the text. The genius of a great writer is not measured first in the newness of his work, but rather in his or her capacity to give new form to what came before. A critique of the sources used in the Divine Comedy that aspires to more than sterile philological considerations, captive to the myth of the “eternal regression” from text to text, cannot but show how the new is grafted onto the old, because “Dante’s mind transforms, recreates and transmutes everything: the Bible as well as Western and, why not, Islamic texts” (p. 102).