Islamic Isle

By: Richard Tada


A band of Muslim raiders sacked Rome in 846 a.d., plundering the city’s churches and getting clean away with their loot. They had come from Palermo, in Sicily, which had been in Muslim hands for 15 years. Sicily was then on its way to becoming a predominantly Islamic and Arabic-speaking island, and it remained under Muslim rule for over two centuries, until the Normans conquered it in the late 11th century.

Expressions of astonishment that the land of cannoli and the Mafia was once part of the Islamic world may be forgiven, since this is the first detailed book on the period to be written in English. Leonard Chiarelli directs the Aziz S. Atiya Library for Middle East Studies at the University of Utah; among his scholarly achievements is detecting the presence of the heterodox Ibadite sect in Muslim Sicily. His book is comprehensive and reliable—if at times dry and lacking in eye-catching detail. This is due, in part, to his sources: There were Arab historians who focused on Sicily, but their works have not survived; thus it becomes necessary to cobble together references to Sicily from later Muslim historians whose primary interest was North Africa. The sole contemporary source is the Cambridge Chronicle (so-called because the first copy to be studied in modern times was held by Cambridge University), which tersely recounts events from 812 to 964.

Sicily in the early 9th century was a backwater province of the Byzantine Empire, with a majority Greek-speaking population. The overwhelming bulk of the Byzantine army was in Anatolia, facing the Arabs on the empire’s eastern frontier. Only about 1,000 Byzantine soldiers defended Sicily, with another 1,000 nearby in Calabria. The Byzantines lost Sicily through the treachery of their local naval commander, Euphemius. According to a Byzantine source, Euphemius had married a nun against both the law and her will; he rebelled in 826 when threatened with arrest. But Euphemius could not hold the capital of Syracuse against loyal Byzantine forces, and he made the fateful decision to sail to Islamic North Africa.

North Africa was then governed by the Aghlabid dynasty based at Kairouan, in modern Tunisia. Euphemius arrived at the court of the Aghlabid emir Ziyadat Allah I and asked for assistance in retaking Sicily, promising to pay tribute in return. After some hesitation, the emir approved an invasion—possibly in order to keep Muslim zealots in his realm occupied with an overseas adventure rather than have them stir up trouble at home.

The invasion fleet landed at Sicily in June 827, and the Muslims quickly moved to besiege Syracuse in the southeast of the island. Syracuse, however, could be resupplied by sea, and the invaders were forced to lift the siege in 829. In that same year, Euphemius received his just deserts: When the Muslims sent him to negotiate with a Byzantine force in the inland stronghold of Enna, he was recognized as a traitor and stabbed to death.

The arrival of reinforcements from Islamic Spain in 830 enabled the Muslims to rally and take Palermo, which was to become the Islamic capital of Sicily the next year. The Muslims firmly controlled western Sicily by 860, after suppressing a revolt there. But Syracuse did not fall until 878, which still left much of the northeastern corner of the island (closest to Byzantine Calabria) in Christian hands.

The Byzantines lacked a strong fleet in Italian waters, and the Muslims were quick to take advantage of the opportunity by launching naval raids on southern Italy. The independent maritime states of Naples, Amalfi, and Gaeta, feeling threatened by their expansionist Lombard neighbors, made alliances with the Muslims, enabling the invaders to establish bases along the southern Italian coast and strike inland. In 883, Muslim raiders sacked and destroyed the great monastery at Monte Cassino. Southern Italy seemed on the verge of falling to Islam. In 885, however, the Byzantines scraped together enough troops for an expeditionary force and sent it west. This reasserted the empire’s control over southern Italy, although Calabria continued to be the target of raids from Muslim Sicily.

Sicily was transformed demographically by immigration from North Africa. Both Arabs and Berbers came to the island, with settlement heaviest in the western half, which had come earliest under Muslim control. A modern estimate has a half-million immigrants entering Sicily during the Islamic period. Their presence reinforced a process that began with the establishment of Muslim rule: the conversion of Sicilians to Islam. In the 10th century, western and southern Sicily appear to have been evenly balanced between Christians and Muslims; by the 11th century, both areas were majority Muslim.

Large-scale conversion inevitably diluted religious standards, causing more rigorous-minded visitors to turn up their noses at what they saw. An Arab traveler named Ibn Hawqal visited Sicily in the 970s and was appalled to find Muslim men allowing their Christian wives to bring up their daughters as Christians. Conversion to Islam accelerated under the Shiite Fatimid dynasty, which supplanted the Aghlabids in North Africa in 909 and in Sicily in 918. Under the Aghlabids, some of the Christian communities in northeastern Sicily paid tribute to Palermo but remained otherwise autonomous.

The Fatimid caliph was determined to reduce Christians to second-class dhimmi status—subordinating them and requiring them to pay an annual poll tax. Thus, in 962, a Muslim army marched on the Christian town of Taormina, on Sicily’s northeastern coast. The residents resisted for several months before surrendering. They were then sold into slavery, and the town was resettled by Sicilian Muslims; Taormina itself was renamed al-Mu’izziyah in honor of the reigning Fatimid caliph. The Fatimids then defeated a relief force sent from Byzantine Calabria, and they took the last autonomous Christian community—the inland town of Rametta—in 965. Rametta was also repopulated by Sicilian Muslims as part of a deliberate Fatimid policy of accelerating Islamization by introducing Muslim residents into Christian areas.

After the fall of Syracuse in 878, the Byzantines had transferred the Sicilian church hierarchy to Calabria. The Cambridge Chronicle recounts an incident in 925 when the bishop of Sicily was captured by Muslims during a raid on Calabria. (He was later returned as part of a treaty agreement.) Nevertheless, despite the long odds against them—occasioned by the absence of ecclesiastical leadership and the planting of Muslim populations in their midst—the people of northeastern Sicily managed to preserve their Greek Christian culture. Surviving Greek-language documents from the time of the Norman Conquest are heavily concentrated in the northeast.

The Christian presence in the rest of Sicily was much less cohesive: They lived scattered among a Muslim majority and adopted a chameleon-like protective coloration. A register from 1178, after a century of Norman rule, shows that Christians made up 19 percent of the villeins around Corleone in western Sicily. Yet these Christians had Arabic names (or Arabicized forms of Greek names), and one scholar who has examined the register suggests that these names represent “a defensive attempt of a small religious community to harmonize with the Muslim culture that surrounded them.”

Around the mid-11th century, Islamic Sicily splintered into several petty-states. But the reasons for this are unclear, due to obscurities in the Arabic sources for the period. One Ibn al-Thumnah ruled the area around Syracuse and aspired to conquer the entire island. In an echo of Euphemius’ actions two centuries earlier, his decision to seek foreign backing for his schemes led to the downfall of Muslim rule in Sicily.

The Normans were the new power in southern Italy, and an Arabic source places their first appearance on Sicilian soil in 1052. Once introduced to Sicily, the Normans gained control both through their deft manipulation of Muslim divisions and their own fighting prowess. Their capture of Palermo in January 1072 marked the end of Muslim rule. Yet, as Leonard Chiarelli points out, the Islamic period had left its mark: “With much of the inhabitants Islamicized, it would take another two hundred years to bring the population of the whole island within the sphere of Christian Europe.”