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Muslim Sicily


Crossroads of the Mediterranean, the Sicily hosted the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, she saw the Vandals set foot on her soil before the Byzantines, led by Emperor Justinian's General Belisarius, in turn conquered the island. Sicily is therefore once again Greek at the time when the muslim threat.

The Aghlabid Emirate in Ifriqiya

The conquest of the Maghreb by the Muslims really ended after the end of the Kharijite revolt in the 770s. From that moment, the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad took over, but independent principalities were formed, although most of them pledge allegiance to the Caliph. We can evoke the Rustâmids of Tahart and the Idrîssids of Fez.

In Ifriqiya, after Governor Yazîd ibn Hâtim pacified the region for the Abbasids, Ibrâhîm ibn al-Aghlab was appointed, and he established his capital at Kairouan. In 800, an agreement was reached with Caliph Harûn al-Rashid for Ifriqiya to return as hereditary to the new dynasty, against an allegiance to the Friday prayers and the payment of a royalty.

The Aghlabids are of Eastern origin, Iraq more specifically, and they therefore transfer their system of government and their culture to Ifriqiya. But the diversity of the local populations and the weight of the jund (the Arab army) means that the history of the emirate is marked by frequent revolts during the 9th century. It is therefore time to find new conquests to divert this internal violence.

The jihad to Sicily

The Aghlabid emirs, in addition to the construction of important mosques (as in Kairouan or Sousse), also fortified their territory with ribats, small fortresses occupied by fighters of the Faith to defend the coasts against the enemy, especially Byzantine.

But it was also necessary to continue the jihad, duty of every Muslim ruler, and the goal is quickly found: southern Italy and Sicily.

The opportunity arose in 827, when the island had already experienced several raids before, as early as the 7th century. The Emir Ziyadat Allâh I, against the advice of the ulama, decides to take advantage of the Byzantine divisions to try to get hold of a Sicily renowned for its wealth, an ideal strategic place. He follows the advice of Euphemius, the commander of the Greek fleet in revolt against Constantinople, and who faces the strategist Constantine, sent by Emperor Michael II to subdue him. Euphemius manages to take Syracuse and kill his enemy; he was then proclaimed emperor by his troops! He must then face the rebellion of Balata, who remained loyal to Michael II, and therefore decides to ask for help from his Aghlabid neighbors. We obviously think of drawing a parallel with the Count of Ceuta, Julien, who in 711 had asked for the help of the Muslims to overthrow King Roderic, and thus provoked the conquest of Al Andalus ...

The Aghlabid Emir decides to send the cadi Asad ibn al-Furât to conquer Sicily and thus kill three birds with one stone: fulfill his duty to jihad, conquer a rich territory, and calm internal troubles in his own country.

A difficult conquest and longer than expected

The cadi Asad ibn al-Furât is certainly not a general, but he is very popular with the Aghlabids, be they Arabs or Berbers, and the conquest is therefore presented under the best auspices. The departure was from Sousse on June 14, 827, from where one hundred ships carrying 700 cavalry and ten thousand infantry lashed towards Sicily. They land at Mazara where they join forces with Euphemius’s supporters.

The conquest took place in several phases: between 827 and 831, the Aghlabids were successful in defeating the Byzantine army of Balata, but quickly they were in difficulty before Syracuse. They have no siege engines and the Byzantines cut off their retreat by sea. The siege is abandoned after a year, and the passage of a plague that got the better of Asad ibn al-Furât! Worse, their ally Euphemius is assassinated and the Muslims find themselves isolated on the island, while the Byzantines, allies in Venice, have reorganized ... Fortunately, their emir sends them reinforcements and they turn to Palermo; the city fell only a year later, its civilian population decimated by the siege. It becomes the capital of Muslim Sicily.

The second phase of the conquest took place in the years 831-833, a rather calm period. The Aghlabids must however come up against resistance from the local population, and from the Byzantines who do not intend to let go of their treasure, and the conflict resumes from 834. It hardens and drags on, intensifies in 838 despite the death of Ziyadat Allâh Ier, and even exported to Italy (Rome was looted in 846, a small emirate settled in Bari in 847). Muslims take Messina (843), Castrogiovanni (859) and finally Syracuse (878), despite the energetic policies of the Byzantine emperor Basil I. However, Sicily was not really conquered until the 910s, after places like Taormina and Catania fell. The town of Rametta even held out until 965!

Muslim Sicily, from the Aghlabids to the Kalbites

The conquerors inherited an island known for the fertility of its land and its prosperity, without forgetting of course its strategic position. His government, installed in Palermo, and cohabitation with the local, non-Muslim populations, then organized.

From the conquest of Palermo, the Sicilian governors (called amir, wâlî or sâhib) enjoy a certain autonomy from the emir of Kairouan; they only have to pledge allegiance to the Aghlabid, but also to the Caliph. Sicily is ideally placed for the border war between Muslims and Christians in the Mediterranean, and the Sicilian governors themselves do not hesitate to send military expeditions out of the island, especially to southern Italy, with for example the Reggio bag in 901 or that of Cozenza the following year. The fall of the Aghlabid emirate against the Fatimids in Ifriqiya in 909 changed the situation: Sicily fell under the control of the new caliphate, Shiite, which caused revolts. A descendant of the Aghlabids settled again in 912-913 and reestablished Sunnism as well as allegiance to Baghdad. But he is overthrown by a Berber revolt, and Sicily becomes Fatimid again. This does not prevent the unrest from continuing, still between Arabs and Berbers (as in Al Andalus a century earlier) and the Kalbites, appointed by the Fatimids when they left for Egypt, inherited an unstable island, the mercy of external threats, which are no longer solely Byzantine. They nevertheless managed to continue the border war and to resist attempts at conquest or reconquest, like that of Otto II, Germanic emperor supported by the pope, in 982. Then, the 11th century saw a lull in relations with Christians. , through trade, especially with Amalfi.

Economic heyday and Islamization of Sicily

The reforms experienced by the island with the conquest and especially the Fatimid presence allowed an economic boom, a "cultural revolution" (H. Bresc). Sicily is integrated into the commercial network of Islam, exporting silks to the East, importing new crops (sugar cane, indigo, cotton, etc.) and developing citrus fruits and new vegetables, the essential remaining cereal farming.

Sicily also experienced a real Islamization during this period, and it was a question of managing relations between the various local populations. The Muslim population, first of all, is sent by the Aghlabid emirs and attracted by the positive reputation of the island. It is made up of Arabs and Berbers, and the tensions that go with it, so that the former tend to settle more in Palermo and the latter in Agrigento. We also notice the arrival of other Muslim populations, Andalusians or Orientals (Persians, Syrians). For local populations, Christians but also Jews, this is the status of the dhimma which is imposed. Islamization proceeded fairly quickly in western Sicily, but the east remained an unstable Christian stronghold for a long time. The mixture is all the same between the populations and, like the customs of the Moslem Sicilians, this annoys certain ulemas or Arab literati (like geographer Ibn Hawqal), making another possible parallel with Al Andalus ...

Muslim Sicily divided and threatened

The long conquest and the voluntarist policy of the Aghlabid emirs and the governors thus made that on the eve of the 11th century Sicily really became part of the dâr al-Islam in the hearts of Muslims. But as such, it is also subject to many divisions within the umma, especially from the emergence of the Fatimids. Having become truly independent with the Kalbites (despite their allegiance to the Fatimids), she is nonetheless at the mercy of internal tensions which are always liable to arise when they are stoked.

This is what happens with the Zirid threat hanging over the island, from which the Byzantine general Georges Maniakès benefits: between 1037 and 1041 he retakes Messina and settles around Etna. He brought with him mercenaries who have become accustomed to becoming involved in the conflicts in the region for some time, the Normans. If the Byzantine is ultimately defeated and must return to Constantinople, Muslim power is more divided than ever. It was then that one of the emirs decided to appeal to the Normans ...

Non-exhaustive bibliography

- J-Y FRETIGNE, History of Sicily, Fayard, 2009.

- P. SENAC, The Muslim world, from its origins to the 11th century, A. Colin, 2006.

- M. TERRACE, Islam and the Mediterranean West, from the conquest to the Ottomans, CTHS, 2001.

For further :

- A. NEF, V. PRIGENT, Sicily from Byzantium to Islam, De Boccard, 2010.


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