Dante’s Divine Comedy is a multi-layered epic, containing not only a story about his incredibly difficult journey from earth to the depths of hell then up to the peaks of heaven, but it also contains many insights on theology, politics, and even his own life. Broken into three canticles—Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso—the work is written in the terza rima form. In Inferno—in 33 Cantos—Dante makes a vast journey through the nine circles of hell. In the Eighth Circle (specifically, the Ninth Pouch), Dante meets with those who “were, when alive, the sowers of dissension” (Inf. XXVIII.35-36). Dante encounters a myriad of characters in many realms of interest, including theological and political figures.
This Canto adequately flows in the context of the rest of the work, but in order to understand why, the general trend of Inferno must be pointed out. The Bible states, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8, NIV). As Dante descends deeper into the realm of hell, he becomes closer to the center of the earth and farther away from God, or farther away from love. Each step down is a progressive step away from God. With Limbo, there are people who would love Christ if he existed; in the Second Circle, people are punished for love as a sin. But descend further, in the Eighth Circle, love is almost gone, for there are people who sin out of hate. Even in pouch one (where seducers reside), the love of person is still there. In pouch nine, the subject of Canto XXVIII, the people are sowers of schism and the scandalous—haters of someone else.
At this point, Dante and his guide Virgil have essentially trekked the entirety of hell, as they are currently in the eighth of nine circles and the second to last pouch. The Eighth Circle is called “Malebolge”, meaning “Evil Pouches.” In other words, this circle of hell remains reserved for “hypocrisy and flattery, sorcerers, and falsifiers, simony, and theft, and barrators and panders and like trash” (Inf. XI.58-60). It is interesting to note here the way Dante describes the ninth pouch (reserved for those who sow scandal and schism): he states, “Who, even with untrammeled words and many attempts at telling, ever could recount in full the blood and wounds that I now saw? (Inf. XXVIII.1-3). Dante, even after travelling through most of hell, is shocked as he sees the state of souls in this circle: each of the scandalous and schism-causing souls is butchered by a demon as they walk by. They continue walking in a circle, healing in the process, and then butchered again. Dante discusses this circle with a few of the people damned to this punishment, including Mohammed.
Of the people he discusses with in this pouch, Mohammed is most well known to our culture today and is the prophet of Islam. When Dante first sees him, he notes his gruesome state:
No barrel…ever games as the one whom I saw ripped right from chin to where we fart: his bowels hung between his legs, one saw his...