The following is the contribution of Dr. Akash Kumar, Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian. Dr. Kumar specializes in medieval Italian literature, particularly lyric poetry and Dante’s Divine Comedy. His interests also include the History of science and philosophy, cultural mingling in the medieval Mediterranean, and games in medieval culture.
Teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2020 is not without its challenges. In 2012, the UN-sanctioned human rights organization Gherush92 proclaimed that Dante’s poem was discriminatory, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and should not be taught in classrooms. For some years now, I have taken this objection as my point of departure in crafting my Dante course and promoted a reading of the poem that interrogates issues of social justice with respect to the representation of religious and cultural difference, gender and sexuality, and social class. In the wake of a summer of protest, I felt all the more impelled to bring such considerations to bear in my Dante class this Fall.
In October, I was invited to speak at the event Beyond Borders: Dante’s Exile and Italian Itineracy Today, organized by my colleague Danielle Callegari at Dartmouth College. In dialogue with Pamela Kerpius, founder of the vital organization Migrants of the Mediterranean, I advocated for a reading of Dante that moves away from the idea of a cultural monolith and resonates with the experience of migrants who cope with the trauma of exile in part by melding their cultural traditions with those of their new homeland. In other words, there is a Dante who valorizes difference, to the point of claiming in Paradiso 19 that an Ethiopian might be saved while a Christian who goes around saying, ‘Christ, Christ,’ might well be damned.
As a result of this event, I began a correspondence with Ronald Jenkins, a theater professor at Wesleyan and Yale University who has taught Dante in prisons in the US, Indonesia, and Italy. Prof. Jenkins asked the persistently difficult question of how I deal with Dante’s treatment of Muhammad, a question particularly relevant to him since a good number of the prisoners he teaches are Muslim.
These are questions that must be asked. And while I do believe that it matters that Dante has the Muslims Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes in a place of privilege in Limbo, alongside great thinkers and writers of antiquity, I am also all too aware of how Muhammad’s treatment in Inferno 28 might offend and be misappropriated to sow further division. In a 2016 rally in Florence, the far-right Italian politician Matteo Salvini declaimed the verses describing Muhammad’s punishment as justification for his anti-immigrant Islamophobia.
My exchange with Prof. Jenkins led me to invite him to speak to my class in November and he laid out in stunning detail how reading Dante galvanized a process of self-reflection for many prisoners. We were privileged to hear recordings of their performative responses to the poem, and many of my students were struck by how much Dante’s experience of unjust exile and harrowing afterlife journey evoked such powerful sentiments that went so far beyond the walls of the classroom. Such an experience of Dante responds to the urgency of now and, on the eve of the 700th anniversary of the poet’s death, continues to breathe new life into the Comedy.