Sicily under Islamic Rule

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 22nd November 2004

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Sicily under Islamic rule brought people from all over the mediteranean in a rich diverse and enlightened community including a far reaching freedom of religion.

Extracted from the full article:
Sicily by Salah Zaimeche

Control of Sicily implied a major role in the affairs of the Mediterranean world, and it is thus no wonder that during the Middle Ages possession of the island was a prize contested among the major Mediterranean powers. At the time of the Islamic conquests in the mid seventh century, Sicily (together with the southern and eastern portions of the Italian Peninsula) was a province of the Byzantine Empire. In 827 Ziyadat Allah I (817-838), the semi-independent Aghlabid ruler of Ifriqiya (comprising eastern Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripolitania), mounted an expedition that succeeded in establishing a long term foothold on the island. From their base in Mazara, on the west coast, taken in 827, the Muslim force of ten thousand men moved forward. Palermo fell in 831, Messina in 843, Enna in 859, and the island was thereafter under effective Muslim control. The Muslim expeditionary force is a remarkable expression of the whole character of Islam, faith and civilisation. It was ‘an infinitely mixed lot of Arabs, Berbers, Spaniards, Sudanese.’ Such was the island itself under Muslim rule, where ethnic and religious diversity characterized the population of the island during the 250 years of Muslim rule. The monk Theodosius, brought to it from Syracuse with Archbishop Sophronius in 883, acknowledged the grandeur of the new capital, Palermo, describing it as

“full of citizens and strangers, so that there seems to be collected there all the Saracen folk from East to West and from North to South . . . Blended with the Sicilians, the Greeks, the Lombards and the Jews, there are Arabs, Berbers, Persians, Tartars, Negroes, some wrapped in long robes and turbans, some clad in skins and some half naked; faces oval, square, or round, of every complexion and profile, beards and hair of every variety of colour or cut.”

A majority of the inhabitants retained their Christian religious allegiance and were, in line with Islamic practice, accorded the status of protected minorities (dhimmis); which means, that in return for the payment of a poll tax (jizya) and adherence to certain regulations, they were guaranteed the safety of their persons and property, and the freedom to follow the laws of their own religion and maintain the institutions of their religious community. The same status was accorded to the small Jewish community of the island, which seems to have been concentrated mainly in the coastal towns.

The cultural Islamic impact on the island is caught by the traveller/geographer Ibn Hawqal: in 972-973. He described the quarters of Palermo, their palaces and above all their hundreds of mosques: “The mosques of the city and of the quarters round it outside the walls exceed the number of three hundred.” He had never seen an equal number of mosques, even in cities twice as large. These buildings, even more than as places of worship, served as schools each with its own schoolmaster. There was also the University of Balerm (Palermo), which though it scarcely rivalled that of Cordoba, nevertheless had its share of capable scholars, such as Ibn Hamdis, the noble Syracusan who left the court of Count Roger at Palermo for Muslim Spain, where he wrote and reminisced of his youth on the Island. The schools of Muslim Sicily, just as those of Muslim Spain, had long been the resort of students, ambitious of literary attainments and distinction, from every country in Europe.

Aspects of such cultural brilliance will be caught later by another Muslim traveller, the Valencian born, Ibn Jubayr, who describes Palermo as follows:

`It is the metropolis of the islands, combining the benefits of wealth and splendour, and having all that you could wish of beauty, real or apparent, and all the needs of subsistence, mature and fresh. It is an ancient and elegant city, magnificent and gracious, and seductive to look upon. Proudly set between its open spaces and plains filled with gardens, with broad roads and avenues, it dazzles the eyes with its perfection. It is a wonderful place, built in the Cordova style, entirely from cut stone known as kadhan [a soft limestone]. A river splits the town, and four springs gush in its suburbs…. The king roams through the gardens and courts for amusement and pleasure……. The Christian women of this city follow the fashion of Muslim women, are fluent of speech, wrap their cloaks about them, and are veiled.’

Although the textile factories of Palermo were famous under the Muslims, and carried on under the Normans, little survives other than the regalia of Roger II, preserved in the Treasury of the Holy Roman Empire in Vienna. The Islamic source of many industries and crafts is obvious in many of the words used to this day, most particularly the appellation of mill with its Arabic name: Ma’assara. The Muslim presence also affected agriculture considerably. The introduction of new techniques and crops by the Muslims allowed the local economies to thrive, and some of such products, citrus fruit in particular, constitute up till now the foundations of the Sicilian economy. Again the Muslim impact is obvious through many technical terms. Philology, Bresc holds, has allowed stressing the Arabic etymology of Sicilian vocabulary related to irrigation. Bresc shows through a careful analysis found in the notary acts of Sicily between the 14th and 15th century, related to sugar cane and horticulture, the similarities of Arabic and Sicilian technical terms; terms such as catusu: Qadus (pipe of cooked clay); Chaya: taya (hedge, or garden wall); Fidenum: fideni (sugar cane field); Fiskia: fiskiya (Reservoir); Margum: marja (inundated field); Noharia: nuara (irrigated cottage garden); Sulfa: sulfa (advance of credit granted to farmers); etc.

The period of Muslim rule in Sicily also coincided with the early phases of the commercial revolution of the Middle Ages and was an era of brilliant economic prosperity for the island. During the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Udovitch explains, Sicily was at the very hub of the expanding commercial activity in the Mediterranean world. Together with Tunisia, Sicily during this period was at the intersection of a number of major trade routes. Caravans from Sijilmasa in southern Morocco, carrying African and Moroccan commodities, made their way to Tunisia, and from there these goods found their way to the markets of Palermo and Mazara. Sicily served as a commercial intermediary between Muslim Spain and the Muslim East, and ships travelling between the two ends of the Mediterranean regularly called at its ports. For European (mostly Italian) merchants in search of Eastern goods (flax, sugar, textiles of Egyptian provenance, pepper, spices, medical herbs, and so forth), the markets of Palermo and Mazara (as well as those of the Tunisian coastal towns) were closer and more accessible than those of the eastern Mediterranean. From at least the late tenth century, Sicily was a major producer of both raw and woven silk, which was actively traded in Mediterranean commerce. Its gold coin, the ruba”ya, or quarter dinar, was highly esteemed and much in demand in Egypt and in the trading towns of Syria and Palestine.

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