By Saulat Pervez – Writer and editor
When we talk of Islam in Europe, we often mention the famous Muslim empire in Spain, also known as Andalus. Lesser known is the fact that Muslims also ruled southern Italy for about two hundred years between the ninth and eleventh centuries.
The Emirate of Sicily, an island off the coast of Italy, was part of the larger Islamic Empire and was governed by a variety of rulers. Sicily prospered during this period in its history. Its population doubled, agriculture and trade flourished, and a spirit of tolerance and harmony existed among its ethnically and religiously diverse population.
Muslims introduced many new crops, such as cotton, hemp, date palm, sugar cane, mulberries and citrus fruits. Related industries grew, such as textiles, sugar, rope-making, matting and paper (which was later introduced to Europe via Sicily). Sicilian silks also became well-known internationally for their fine quality.
Sicily was taken over by the Normans in the late eleventh century, but Muslims continued to live in the multicultural island peacefully. Muslim heritage was preserved by the Normans, so much so that Arabic continued to be the prime language for the next hundred years. Muslim scientists and architects were employed by the royal court. Palermo, the central city in Sicily during Muslim rule, continued to serve as the capital under the Normans.
Along with Spain, Sicily was a major point of contact between Muslims and the rest of Europe. European scholars were attracted by the intellectual culture in Spain and Sicily, and some chose to live there. They would then translate Arabic books into Latin, thereby transferring the rich scholarship of the Muslim world to other parts of Europe. Michael Scot (c. 1175-1232) was one such individual; after spending a considerable time in Spain, he became the librarian for King Frederick II’s vast collection of Arabic works in Sicily.
When Ibn Jubair was shipwrecked on his return from the Hajj in the late twelfth century, he found himself in Sicily. He was very surprised by how warmly the Normans received him. Of Palermo, Ibn Jubair later wrote: “The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendour and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendour and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by this splendour.”
Unfortunately, this spirit of tolerance and harmony did not last long for Sicilian Muslims; they met a fate similar to the Andalusian Muslims. By the end of the thirteenth century, all the Muslims were evicted from Sicily. However, they left traces of their history behind in the form of Islamic-style architecture, Arabized words in the now-Latinized language, and the Arab-style outdoor marketplace, among others; many of these continue to exist to date.
Above all, the Muslims of Sicily were conduits, who enabled the wider Muslim legacy of the sciences, philosophy, literature and astronomy to be disseminated to Europe as a whole.