Muslims in Norman Sicily

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 22nd November 2004

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When the Normans took control of Sicily from the Muslims, they recognised the achievements of Muslims and Muslims together with their institutions continued to have a core role for centuries despite consternation elsewhere.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Sicily by Salah Zaimeche

To understand the fall of Sicily in the late 11th century, it is necessary, however briefly, to explain the Muslim context at the time. In the 11th century, the Muslim world was locked in intense warfare between Sunnis and Shias; between various taifas in Spain; and between different princes in the east. Profiting from such divisions, Western Christendom launched a wide offensive on all fronts. In Spain, an alliance of French and other European forces descended on Spain, and began tearing away the Muslim control. Barbastro was taken in 1063, followed by mass slaughter and mass rape of Muslim women. Toledo was to fall in 1085. Frightened by this onslaught, the Muluk of Tawaifs (reyes de taifas) called the Berber Almoravids of Morocco, who landed in Spain, crushed the Christian forces,and followed later by the Almohads, kept Spain under Muslim control until the mid 13th century, when all of Muslim Spain (Cordova, Seville, Valencia, Murcia, etc. . ) was lost (except Grenada, which will be lost in 1492. ) In the East, the infighting between Muslims invited the crusades (1095-1291), a two century Christian onslaught which threatened the whole of Islam with extinction had it not been for the Seljuks and Mamluks, principally, who fought most of the wars against the crusaders and their Mongol allies. Sicily presented the same symptoms, and unlike Spain and the East, it had no Muslim force to fight back. Two centuries after the island was taken by the Normans, the Muslims were exterminated on the island.

The beginning of the end of the Muslims in Sicily began early in the 11th century with open warfare between the Kalbid Emir of Palermo and the Zirid of Tunisia. Fully aware of such internal quarrels among the Sicilian Muslims, it became a priority policy for Christian forces to take the island. Soon there arrived the Normans to wrest the island from the Muslims. The Normans who swept across South Italy in the next few decades were a small band,and had the Muslims not been divided, the Normans would have found no foothold; as it was, in the course of a generation, the small band of adventurers created for themselves a kingdom. The incessant internal warfare among local warlords was certainly a factor in the comparatively easy and rapid Norman conquest in the 1070’s. In fact the initial Norman invasion followed a local Muslim invitation. One of the Muslim emirs built links of intelligence with Roger the youngest of the Norman Hauteville brothers, who did not refuse the offer. Under these auspices the Normans landed in Sicily in 1061 and began to advance at the expense of the Muslims. This hardly seemed to bother the Muslims, as even when the Normans were half masters of the island, the Muslim chiefs continued to fight one another. In fact, the Sicilian Christians were less supportive of the Norman invasion than the Muslim factions. In 1061 Roger I succeeded in capturing Messina, in 1072 Palermo fell, and in the course of the next twenty years the entire island came under secure Norman control.

Arabic-speaking Muslim communities survived in Sicily for more than two centuries after the Norman conquest. This survival accounts for a wide Islamic influence on all forms and manners of learning and civilisation as seen in the following account.

Scott contrasts quite well the nature of the cultural relationship, which existed at first between the conquered Muslims and the conquering Normans; and in such a contrast he captures the thoroughness of Islamic impact on civilisation which will radiate from Sicily to the rest of Europe, and Scott does not refrain, once more from blaming Muslim decadent morality for the Muslim downfall. He goes on:

`No more striking antagonism of national customs, religious prejudices, habits, and traditions could be conceived than that existing between the victor and the vanquished. One came from the borders of the Arctic Circle; the original home of the other was in the Torrid Zone. Both traced their lineage to tribes steeped in barbarism and idolatry; but the Norman, though he had changed his system of worship, still retained many of its objectionable and degrading features, while the Arab professed a creed that regarded with undisguised abhorrence the adoration of images and the invocation of saints. In the arts of civilization, there was no corresponding advance which could suggest resemblance or justify comparison. Poverty, ignorance, ferocity, still remained the characteristics of the Norman, as when, with a handful of resolute companions, he scattered to the winds the armies of the Sicilian Mussulman. The latter, however, if inferior in endurance and martial energy to his conqueror, was possessed of accomplishments which justly entitled him to a prominent rank in the community of nations. No circumstance of honour, of distinction, of inventive genius, was wanting to exalt his character or magnify his reputation. The fame of his military achievements had filled the world. His commercial relations had made his name familiar to and respected by remote and jealous races, to whom the Christian kingdoms of Europe were unknown. His civil polity was admirably adapted to the character and necessities of the people its laws were intended to govern. Under those laws, administered by a succession of great princes, Moslem society had become opulent, polished, and dissolute beyond all example, but eventually and inevitably enervated and decadent. Political and social disorganization had not, however, entirely destroyed the prestige earned by ages of military glory and intellectual pre-eminence. ‘

Indeed, the end of Muslim Sicily hardly meant an end of Muslim influence on the island. On the contrary, for Hitti, under the Normans occurred `the efflorescence of an interesting Christian-Islamic culture;’and whilst hitherto, the Muslims were too much involved in warfare and squabbles amongst each other to develop finer things, under the Normans, `their genius attained full fruition in a rich outburst of Arab-Norman art and culture. ‘The lustre of Muslim civilization was rather heightened than tarnished by the Norman conquest, and under the same Normans, `tribal animosity, which had been the curse of Moslem society, was suppressed, if not entirely eradicated. ‘ And as Miranda explains, once Sicily was freed from the devastation of war, its people devoted themselves `to the cultivation of their literature, poetry, legislation and the scientific knowledge they had received from the East. ‘Subsequently, the kingdom of Sicily, according to Haskins, rose to occupy a position of `peculiar importance in the history of medieval culture. ‘Sicily, Briffaut reckons, down to the last Elohenstaufen rulers remained a centre of Muslim culture and the focus of awakening civilization.

Muslim cultural and scientific pre-eminence was well understood by the Normans, and they acknowledged this in every single respect.

`The experience of the conquerors, obtained in many lands,’ Scott explains, `enabled them to appreciate the value of the monuments of a highly developed civilization, whose promoters were soon to pass under their sceptre. For this reason there was no ruthless spoliation of cities, no indiscriminate devastation of a fertile country which had been reclaimed by infinite toil and perseverance from an unpromising prospect of marsh, ravine, and precipice. The tangible results of three hundred years of national progress and culture were transmitted, with but little impairment, to the victorious foreigner. These advantages were at once grasped and appropriated with an avidity absolutely phenomenal in a people whose career had been dictated by the predatory instincts of the bandit, and whose manners had been formed amidst the license of the camp, the superstition of the cloister, and the carnage of the field. ‘

Roger I

Roger I, who was the first to rule the island after the Muslims in 1091, and taking the risk of being considered a Muslim, `encouraged them to cultivate their gifts. ‘His successors, too, did the same, and so much so, they were, not without good ground, accused of being more Muslim than Christian. The nature of Roger II’s (1111-1154) kingdom, and of Roger himself, was unlike anything in Christian Europe. His palace was almost Muslim in style and dreamy splendour, crowded with Muslim eunuchs, Arab poets, geographers. The prevailing language of court and city alike was Arabic; and for a long time, a number of documents continued to be issued in Arabic, with dates from the Hijra – as were certain issues of coins. The king himself knew not only Latin, but Greek and Arabic, the impression given by his court was of a fusion of the most splendid aspects of Byzantine and Islamic monarchic display. At his court were a host of officials with Arabic titles, the king’s cook being one; a significant circumstance which should not be overlooked. Eunuchs, in flowing robes and snowy turbans, swarmed in the palaces; the kadi, retaining the insignia and authority of his original official employment, was an important member of the Sicilian judiciary, not just determining the cases of Muslims, but was frequently the trusted adviser of the monarch. Another Sicilian ruler, William II (1166-1189), according to Ibn Jubayr `resembles the Muslim kings in the habit of living sunk in the pleasures of kingship, also in the ordering of the administration, in manners and customs, in the gradation of his optimates, the magnificence of his court, and the display of pomp. Great is his realm…. He can read and write Arabic. One of his trusted men has told us that his alamah (the royal motto used according to the Arab custom as a superscription to deeds in Arabic) is `praised be the Lord as is His due,’ and that the alamah of his father was `Praised be the Lord for all His benefits. ‘

Muslim System of Administration

The Muslim system of administration was particularly appreciated by the Normans, who retained it; the kingdom presenting the `unique spectacle’ of a Christian kingdom in which Muslims held some of the highest positions. Briffault insists that the posts of honour and command remained in Muslim hands. The chief minister of the kingdom held the interesting double title of Emir of Emirs (or Admiral of the Admirals) and Archonte of Archontes, a kind of grand vizier and commander in chief. By 1125 this was George of Antioch, a Christian native of Muslim Syria who had served the Zirids at Mehdia (Tunisia). The Muslim, though, stood high in the confidence and favour of the Norman princes. Quick to appreciate and meet the exigencies of every occasion, his prowess was invaluable in the suppression of anarchy and the establishment of order; Muslim councillors stood in the shadow of the throne. `Norman Sicily exhibited,’ Scott tells, `to all intents and purposes, a prolongation, under happier auspices, of that dominion to which the island owed its prosperity and its fame; `the influence of Muslim thrift, capacity, and skill was everywhere manifest and acknowledged. Its silent operation facilitated its progress and increased its power. The maritime interests of the island were in the hands of the Moslems; they controlled the finances; they negotiated treaties; to them was largely confided the administration of justice and the education of youth. Their integrity was acknowledged even by those whose practices appeared most unfavourable by contrast; their versatile talents not infrequently raised them to the highest and most responsible posts of the Norman court. That court is declared by contemporary historians to have equalled in splendour and culture those of Cairo and Baghdad. ‘ And most certainly, in the running of government, in finance, in legislation, in the regulations of commerce, in the protection and encouragement of agriculture, in the maintenance of order—the Norman domination in Sicily presented an example of advanced civilization to be seen nowhere else in Europe.

Many of these Islamic administrative management and leadership skills seem to have radiated all over the West. Thus Briffault tells how the amyr al-bahr passed from the Latinised form ammirali, to admiral. From Sicily, the diwans, or government offices, became dakanas or douanes, administrative offices, or customs. The Sicilian administration system with its Islamic antecedents, Briffault insists, served as a model to Europe. Between the Norman court of England under Henry II, there was continuous intercourse through which many elements of Muslim culture came directly to distant Britain. And one such arrived in the person of Qaid Brun (master Thomas Brown) in the Exchequer, whose life and role in England has been most particularly explored by Haskins. Thomas Brown (Qaid Brun) was a Muslim refugee from Sicily, who had to leave Sicily on the accession of William the Bad. He probably reached England by 1158, when he is mentioned in the Pipe Roll. As an official of both King Roger and Henry II, Thomas Brown has a special interest for the student of international relations in the twelfth century, and the influence which has been ascribed to him as a connecting link between the fiscal systems of the two kingdoms. Thomas Brown sat at the exchequer table, and with the assistance of two clerks kept a watch on all proceedings in the upper and lower exchequers. A third roll is kept by him as a check on the rolls of the treasurer and chancellor, and this roll, doubtless intended for the private information of the king, Thomas carries about him wherever he goes. ‘

The Muslim impact was obvious in the system of justice of Sicily, too. Scott contrasts at length the Muslim impact on the formerly crude Norman system, which is worth reproducing to large measure:

`The barbarian prejudices of the Norman conqueror survived in many institutions inherited from ages of gross superstition and ignorance. Among these were the absurd and iniquitous trials by fire, water, and judicial combat, prevalent in societies dominated partly by priestcraft and partly by the sword…. People familiar with the Byzantine and Islamic code eventually mitigated the evils produced by such irrational procedure; and, while not entirely abandoned, its most offensive features were gradually suffered to become obsolete. In other respects, the administration of justice—for the excellence of its system, for the rapidity with which trials were conducted, for the opportunity afforded the litigant for appeal and reversal of judgment—was remarkable. Invested with a sacred character, the judge, in the honour of his official position, was inferior to the king alone. His person was inviolable. No one might question his motives or dispute his authority under penalty of sacrilege. The head of the supreme court of the kingdom, by which all questions taken on appeal from the inferior tribunals were finally adjudicated, was called the Grand Justiciary. His powers and dignity claimed and received the highest consideration. None but men conspicuously eminent for learning and integrity were raised to this exalted office. The Grand Justiciary, although frequently of plebeian extraction, took precedence of the proud nobility, whose titles, centuries old and gained in Egypt and Palestine, had already become historic. A silken banner, the emblem of his office, was carried before him. In public assemblies and royal audiences he sat at the left hand of the sovereign. Only the constable, of all the officials of the crown, approached him in rank. These unusual honours paid to a dignitary whose title to respect was due, not to personal prowess or to hereditary distinction, but to the reverence attaching to his employment, indicate a great advance in the character of a people which, but a few years before, acknowledged no law but that of physical superiority, no tribunal but that of arms. ‘


The Islamic legacy was also in the architectural and decorative style of early Norman churches, as well as in the minor decorative arts of the Norman period. In the church of the Martorana, built by George of Antioch for a convent of Greek nuns in Palermo, the Arabic inscription runs round the base of the tiny dome, which actually translates a Greek hymn. The doors of the Martorana were carved by local craftsmen, recalling the skills of the Muslims who wrought the fantastic ceiling of Roger’s own Palace Chapel. The roof structure and ceiling of the nave of the Chapel are the work of Muslims, decorated with paintings of oriental style illustrating Eastern legends and fables. The suburbs of Palermo, like the Zisa, whose name derives from the Arabic al-Aziz, “the Splendid”,highlight the Islamic influence. Islamic influence which persisted even under William 1 (The Bad) (ruled 1154-1166), the heir to Roger II. He built a number of retreats in the outskirts of Palermo, of which none were more splendid than the “Zisa,” the geometric structuring of the design suggesting a relation to woven textile patterns, a frequent means of transmission of ornamental motives during the middle ages. The Christian cathedral of Palermo combined skill of the Muslims and the Byzantine artists; the walls were incrusted with gold, whose dazzling brilliancy was relieved by panels of precious marble of various colours bordered with foliage of green mosaic; the columns were sculptured with floral ornaments, interspersed with inscriptions in Kufic characters.


In the field of scholarship, the Normans also acknowledge the superior Islamic system of learning. Hence, when these Normans took Sicily and the southern portion of Italy from the Muslims, they granted the medical school founded by the latter a thorough protection, which they also granted to all Muslim institutions. Roger I’s son, Roger II, count of Sicily, duke of Calabria, from 1101, was the most enlightened monarch of his time, and patron of science and art. He delighted in the company of learned Muslims and in the last fourteen years of his life spent much of the time in scientific speculation in the true Muslim tradition. It is Roger II who will be the patron of al-Idrisi, the famed geographer, and whose overall contribution to this science will be seen abundantly under the following heading. Roger II was also responsible, courtesy of Islamic influence, for one of the most decisive breakthroughs in science and civilisation: the establishment of system of examination for all medical practice. Scott explains how in Christendom, the clergy were the general depositaries of knowledge,—an advantage which they thoroughly understood, and were by no means willing to voluntarily relinquish. However, in one respect alone their power was seriously curtailed:

`The spurious medicine of the time, as practised under the sanction of the Holy See,’ Scott tells `had raised up a herd of ignorant and mercenary ecclesiastical charlatans. These operated by means of chants, relics, and incense; and their enormous gains were one of the chief sources of revenue to the parish and the monastery, and a corresponding burden on the people. ‘

King Roger abolished this abuse, and required an examination, by experienced physicians, of all candidates for the profession of medicine and surgery. It is under him that the foundation and establishment of medical faculties and the granting of medical degrees were laid. In 1140, he enacted that everyone who desired to practice medicine must, under pain of imprisonment and confiscation of goods, present himself before a magistrate and obtain authorization. This measure restricted those whose learning was deficient to `the clandestine ministrations of the shrine and the confessional. ‘

Frederick II

In the following century, Roger II was emulated in many respects by his grandson Frederick II. Frederick became king of Sicily in 1198 (and of age in 1208), then the head of the Holy Empire in 1220, and king of Jerusalem in 1229. It was under his rule, Briffault explains, that Muslim culture on the island reached its height and had `a great and far reaching civilising influence over barbaric Europe. ‘Like his grandfather before him, under Frederick, the Muslim influence grew very strong, and even stronger after his visit to the East, and was maintained by the political and commercial relations with Muslim lands. In his preference to be surrounded by Muslim rather than Christian influence, he was half Muslim in his own ways, states Sarton. So much so, in fact, he forced awe and respect, tempered with a certain suspicion that his great culture and learning had fundamentally tainted his Christianity. Just like al-Andalus itself, `he was viewed with astonishment, admiration, and envy combined with fear and suspicion. ‘Frederick also kept intellectual exchanges with Muslim rulers to answer some of his queries. In the time of al Malik al-Kamil, sultan of Egypt (1218-38), the emperor sent seven hard problems in order to test Muslim scholars, and during these exchanges, he was sent a variety of gifts that included in 1232, a gift by Al-Ashraf, sultan of Damascus, a magnificent `planetarium,’ which bore figures of the sun and moon marking the hours on their appointed rounds. On the whole, it is held that it was under Frederick `The first modern man upon a throne,’ rather than in the days of Petrarch, that the real beginning of the Italian Renaissance is to be sought. And according to Briffault `if the name of any European sovereign deserves to be specially associated with the redemption of Christendom from barbarism and ignorance, it is not that of Charlemagne, the travesty of whom in the character of a civiliser is a fulsome patriotic and ecclesiastical fiction, but that of the enlightened and enthusiastic ruler (Frederick) who adopted `Saracenic’ civilisation and did more than any sovereign to stimulate its diffusion. ‘

Although Frederick, under Papal pressure, was forced to remove the Muslim Sicilian population to Lucera, in the Italian hinterland, where decades later the Sicilian Angevin rulers will extinguish such Muslim presence, Frederick himself, seems to have shown much respect and even penchant for the manifestations of the Islamic faith. From the summits of a hundred minarets which seemed to pierce the skies, the muezzin shrilly intoned the prescribed verses of the Koran and summoned the followers of Islam to prayer, in Palermo, and also other Sicilian cities: Messina, Syracuse, Enna, Agrigentum. And when he travelled to the Holy land, on the least bloody of all crusades, in 1228-9, in Jerusalem, when night falls and the evening call to prayer is not heard, he (Frederick II) was greatly disappointed, and, turning to the Qaid asked for an explanation. The Qaid replies that he had given orders to suppress it for that night only out of regard for him – the emperor. Whereupon, `this precursor of the intelligent modern tourist’ Frederick answers. After gently observing that in his countries the Qaid would hear it, Frederick observed-that the Qaid made a mistake by Allah! The main reason why, he, the emperor had arranged to spend a night at Jerusalem was in order to hear the call to prayer and the laudations recited by the Muslims during the night.

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