The Magazine

Islamic Isle

Tracing the Muslim roots of modern-day Sicily.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By RICHARD TADA
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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.”

Richard Tada is a writer in Seattle.