The church of San Giovanni degli Eremiti in Palermo, Sicily. It operated as a masjid during the era of Muslim Sicily- Creative Commons via Wikimedia.
CAIRO-1 June 2017: Regarding the topic of Islam on the European continent, the focus is usually on the period of Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, that lasted from 711 to 1492 (with a Muslim minority population that remained until 1609) and the Ottoman Empire, which crossed from Anatolia into Southeastern Europe in the early 1300s.
What is usually forgotten is the period of Muslim rule in Sicily, an island off the southern coast of the Italian Peninsula. It was here that Muslim dynasties ruled for over 200 years and a sizable Muslim populace called the island home. This article will explore the rise of Islam in Sicily under the Aghlabid Dynasty, subsequent Muslim control of the island, and the eventual Norman conquest of the 11th century.
Aghlabid Rule in North Africa
The Muslim conquest of North Africa can be seen as a continuation of on-and-off warfare between Muslim polities and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire that dates back to the life of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. After the initial outburst of Muslim expansion during the caliphate of Umar (r. 634-644) that conquered Egypt and the eastern half of modern Libya, Muslim military activity slowed during the caliphates of Uthman and Ali. Further military activity continued after the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate by Mu’awiya in 661. By the late 7th century, Muslim armies under the command of Musa ibn Nusayr reached the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco.
The Umayyad government’s hold on North Africa was tenuous at best. While the major cities along the coast were firmly under Umayyad control, the rural areas were dominated by the region’s native people, the Amazigh, who did not always accept Umayyad overlordship. The relative autonomy of North Africa only increased after the Abbasid Revolution in 750, which saw a new family accede to the caliphate and a new capital for the Muslim world built at Baghdad.
Due to the difficulty involved in governing distant North Africa, the Abbasid government allowed a local governor, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab, to rise to power and establish a semi-autonomous dynasty based in Qayrawan (in modern Tunisia) in 799 that nominally accepted Abbasid overlordship. Unlike the earlier Umayyad focus on expansion, the early Aghlabid emirate focused on managing the competing factions within its domain, particularly the Arab-dominated standing army and the native Amazigh.
The Conquest of Sicily
During the instability of the early 800s, a few factors came together that caused an Aghlabid expedition to Sicily. First, political problems on the island led to the arrival at the Aghlabid court in 826 of Euphemius, a Byzantine naval commander in revolt against the Byzantine Empire. The reasons for his revolt are unclear, and the Aghlabid emir, Ziyadat Allah I, was initially hesitant to offer help, especially considering that a peace treaty with the Byzantines in 817 was ostensibly still in effect.
Another major figure factors into story that helped make the invasion a reality. Asad ibn al-Furat was a scholar of Islamic law (fiqh) who had studied in the East with Imam Malik as well as with two of Imam Abu Hanifa’s students, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad al-Shaybani. He was politically active in the Aghlabid emirate and commanded great respect among the people due to his studies with some of the greatest scholars of his era. To Ziyadat Allah I, he was a nuisance that could potentially cause problems, particularly considering with the tenuous stability of the emirate in the first place. Luckily for the emir, Ibn al-Furat was in favor of an invasion of the island and argued that the peace treaty was void anyways due to the Byzantine capture of several Muslim merchants.
To Ziyadat Allah I, the situation was perfect. He could simultaneously attack the Byzantines, weakening their commercial presence in the central Mediterranean Sea, and strengthen his own control by sending Asad ibn al-Furat (along with numerous other potentially rebellious laymen and soldiers) on what he probably thought would be an ill-fated expedition to the island.
But the expedition ended up being far more successful than most probably imagined. The army (which probably numbered no more than 10,000) left North Africa in June of 827 and arrived on the western coast of Sicily within a few days. A subsequent pitched battle between Asad ibn al-Furat’s forces and the local Byzantine soldiery ended in victory for the Muslims and the retreat of most Byzantine soldiers to the fortified towns of Palermo and Syracuse, on the island’s northern and eastern coasts, respectively.
After a failed siege of Palermo, in which Asad ibn al-Furat died of disease in 828, the Muslim army went inland, pursued by the Byzantines, now reinforced with new troops and ships transferred from the Aegean Sea. After numerous losses in battle and deaths due to disease, the invasion seemed to be on the brink of failure when a contingent of soldiers from Umayyad al-Andalus arrived on the island in 830 and joined forces with the remnants of the Aghlabid expedition. This was a major turning point, as the rejuvenated Muslim army now marched on Palermo and successfully besieged it.
At this point, Ziyadat Allah I, who was not particularly involved in the invasion, took an interest in the island and sent a cousin to act as the governor of Palermo (known as Balarm to the Arabs). Sicily now began to be considered a province of the Aghlabid emirate, with a functioning government and economy. With a renewed interest in the island, the conquest continued in a piecemeal fashion. Villages and towns individually accepted Muslim control based out of Palermo, with the eastern half of the island holding out the longest. Syracuse was eventually conquered in 878 and the last Byzantine holdings were taken in 965.
With regards to governance, the system set up on the island was similar to Aghlabid governance in other regions. The province was led by a governor, who was nominally under the authority of the Aghlabid emir in Qayrawan, but oftentimes ruled semi-independently. While Muslims were subject to Islamic law as dictated by the qadi and religious scholars, Christians and Jews were free to be governed by their own laws so long as they paid the poll tax (jizya) and any land taxes (kharaj) they owed. Muslims were subject to the alms tax (zakat) and land taxes.
The early 900s saw a momentous movement arise in North Africa that would affect Muslims throughout the Islamic world. In 909, a claimed descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), Abdullah al-Mahdi, declared himself Imam of the Isma’ili Shi’a community and the rightful leader of the Muslim world. Using a network of informants and proselytizers across North Africa and playing off of Amazigh discontent with Arabs, he quickly consolidated power and captured Qayrawan, overthrowing the Aghlabid Dynasty.
Since its inception, the emirate of Sicily had been tied to North Africa’s government, and the local leaders recognized that this would probably have to continue even with the Shi’a Fatimids. A representative chosen by Sicily’s elite attempted to meet with the Fatimid leader to secure Sicily’s relative autonomy, but was imprisoned in North Africa. In his place, al-Mahdi sent a Shi’i governor and qadi to rule over the island in the name of the Imam.
With Sicily’s reputation of rebelliousness, the new Fatimid administration enacted heavy-handed policies meant to subdue the province. The attempt at direct control, coupled with a new tax, the khums, which decreed that 1/5th of all earnings were to be forwarded directly to the Fatimid Imam, led to widespread opposition by the Sunni population and the almost immediate overthrow of the first Fatimid governor.
A subsequent rebellion in 913 entirely rid the island of Fatimid domination for a few years, but was brutally suppressed by the Fatimids in 918. Another revolt began in 937 in Agrigento and was supported by Muslim communities across the island starting in 939. A Fatimid expedition put down this revolt, massacring towns which were then repopulated by new immigrants from North Africa who were more loyal to the Fatimid government.
In an attempt to solidify their control over the island, the Fatimids appointed al-Hasan al-Kalbi, a military governor loyal to the Fatimid Imam, as governor of the island in 964. He would inaugurate a dynasty on the island, where his descendants would rule under Fatimid authority for the next hundred years.
While the era of the Kalbid Dynasty in Sicily saw the conquest of the last remaining Christian outposts, ongoing conflict on the island did not cease. Fatimid repression of Sunni Islam, to which the vast majority of the island’s Muslims adhered, exacerbated tensions, while conflict between native Sicilian Muslims and North African Arabs and Amazigh immigrants caused a major social divide.
Militarily, the Kalbid Dynasty saw the waning of Sicily’s power in the central Mediterranean. By the early 1000s, Kalbid emirs were not inclined to continue raids against Byzantine outposts on the southern part of the Italian Peninsula. Furthermore, the populace itself became more sedentary, with numerous men seeking exemptions to avoid military conscription.
The Norman Conquest and the Fall of Muslim Sicily
The early 11th century saw the imposition of new taxes on Sicily’s Muslims by the Kalbid emir al-Akhal meant to strengthen the island as an independent polity that can manage its own defense. Since the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969, the bulk of North Africa’s naval and military power shifted to the eastern Mediterranean, leaving Sicily vulnerable to Byzantine attack.
The new taxes, coupled with pre-existing tensions between the island’s population and its Fatimid/Kalbid rulers, caused a group of Sicilian notables to seek the help of the newly-independent Zirid Dynasty of Tunisia. In 1036 a Zirid force crossed from North Africa to Sicily and quickly took over Palermo and killed al-Akhal.
The Zirids may have wanted to bring the island under their own control, much like the Aghlabids two centuries earlier. Fears of North African domination caused Palermo’s residents to revolt against their new Zirid governors and force the expedition back to Tunisia not long after it arrived on the island.
At this point, control of the island entered a period of decentralization, as provinces, led by military leaders, declared their independence in the absence of a central government on the island. Much like the Ta’ifa Period of al-Andalus, ethnic, political, and economic rivalries divided the region’s Muslims into competing factions.
Another similarity to the Andalusian model was the arrival on the scene of powerful Christian kingdoms eager to take advantage of Muslim disunity. The Normans, a dynasty originally from Northern Europe that was famed for its military ability (as evidenced by their conquest of England in 1066) ruled over southern Italy and took the opportunity to invade the island in 1052. A Zirid attempt to defend the island never materialized due to their preoccupation with tribal wars in North Africa, coupled with the determination of the Sicilian Muslims to not be ruled by a North African power.
By 1065, most of the island was under Norman control. Palermo fell in 1072, Syracuse followed in 1085 (incidentally the same year the Andalusian city of Toledo fell to Castile), and the final outpost of Islamic control in Sicily, the southern coastal city of Noto, fell in 1090.
Like in al-Andalus, a Muslim population (it’s likely the majority of the island followed Islam by the time of the Norman conquest) continued to live under Christian rule. Treatment of the Muslim population was dependent on the aims and temperament of the Norman king in power at the time. The reign of Roger II from 1130 to 1154 was particularly tolerant. It was during his reign that the great geographer al-Idrisi completed his world atlas known as Tabula Rogeriana.
Regardless, thousands of Muslims chose voluntary migration to Muslim lands over continuing to live under Norman Christian control. Meanwhile, the ongoing Crusades in the Levant, coupled with sporadic Muslim revolts in Sicily worsened relations between Muslims and Christians throughout Europe. In 1189, Palermo’s Muslims were massacred and in 1199, Pope Innocent III declared Muslims in Sicily to be “hostile elements” to the state. Numerous forced and self-imposed exiles continued during the 12th and 13th centuries, and in 1266 the last Muslims were forced from the island, ending over 400 years of Islam in Sicily.
This article was originally written by Firas AlKhateeb published in Lost Islamic History.