The Magazine

Islamic Isle

Tracing the Muslim roots of modern-day Sicily.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By RICHARD TADA
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.  

San Cataldo in Palermo (12th century)

San Cataldo in Palermo (12th century)

LatitudeStock / Dennis Stone / getty images

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.