Regarding the topic of Islam on the European continent, the focus is usually exclusively on the period of Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, that lasted from 711 to 1492 (with a Muslim minority population that remained until 1609) and the Ottoman Empire, which crossed from Anatolia into Southeastern Europe in the early 1300s.
What is usually forgotten is the period of Muslim rule in Sicily, an island off the southern coast of the Italian Peninsula. It was here that Muslim dynasties ruled for over 200 years and a sizable Muslim populace called the island home. This article will explore the rise of Islam in Sicily under the Aghlabid Dynasty, subsequent Muslim control of the island, and the eventual Norman conquest of the 11th century.
Aghlabid Rule in North Africa
The Muslim conquest of North Africa can be seen as a continuation of on-and-off warfare between Muslim polities and the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire that dates back to the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). After the initial outburst of Muslim expansion during the caliphate of Umar (r. 634-644) that conquered Egypt and the eastern half of modern Libya, Muslim military activity slowed during the caliphates of Uthman and Ali. Further military activity continued after the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate by Mu’awiya in 661. By the late 7th century, Muslim armies under the command of Musa ibn Nusayr reached the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco.
The Umayyad government’s hold on North Africa was tenuous at best. While the major cities along the coast were firmly under Umayyad control, the rural areas were dominated by the region’s native people, the Amazigh, who did not always accept Umayyad overlordship. The relative autonomy of North Africa only increased after the Abbasid Revolution in 750, which saw a new family accede to the caliphate and a new capital for the Muslim world built at Baghdad.
Due to the difficulty involved in governing distant North Africa, the Abbasid government allowed a local governor, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab, to rise to power and establish a semi-autonomous dynasty based in Qayrawan (in modern Tunisia) in 799 that nominally accepted Abbasid overlordship. Unlike the earlier Umayyad focus on expansion, the early Aghlabid emirate focused on managing the competing factions within its domain, particularly the Arab-dominated standing army and the native Amazigh.
The Conquest of Sicily
During the instability of the early 800s, a few factors came together that caused an Aghlabid expedition to Sicily. First, political problems on the island led to the arrival at the Aghlabid court in 826 of Euphemius, a Byzantine naval commander in revolt against the Byzantine Empire. The reasons for his revolt are unclear, and the Aghlabid emir, Ziyadat Allah I, was initially hesitant to offer help, especially considering that a peace treaty with the Byzantines in 817 was ostensibly still in effect.
Another major figure factors into story that helped make the invasion a reality. Asad ibn al-Furat was a scholar of Islamic law (fiqh) who had studied in the East with Imam Malik as well as with two of Imam Abu Hanifa’s students, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad al-Shaybani. He was politically active in the Aghlabid emirate and commanded great respect among the people due to his studies with some of the greatest scholars of his era. To Ziyadat Allah I, he was a nuisance that could potentially cause problems, particularly considering with the tenuous stability of the emirate in the first place. Luckily for the emir, Ibn al-Furat was in favor of an invasion of the island and argued that the peace treaty was void anyways due to the Byzantine capture of several Muslim merchants.
To Ziyadat Allah I, the situation was perfect. He could simultaneously attack the Byzantines, weakening their commercial presence in the central Mediterranean Sea, and strengthen his own control by sending Asad ibn al-Furat (along with numerous other potentially rebellious laymen and soldiers) on what he probably thought would be an ill-fated expedition to the island.
But the expedition ended up being far more successful than most probably imagined. The army (which probably numbered no more than 10,000) left North Africa in June of 827 and arrived on the western coast of Sicily within a few days. A subsequent pitched battle between Asad ibn al-Furat’s forces and the local Byzantine soldiery ended in victory for the Muslims and the retreat of most Byzantine soldiers to the fortified towns of Palermo and Syracuse, on the island’s northern and eastern coasts, respectively.
After a failed siege of Palermo, in which Asad ibn al-Furat died of disease in 828, the Muslim army went inland, pursued by the Byzantines, now reinforced with new troops and ships transferred from the Aegean Sea. After numerous losses in battle and deaths due to disease, the invasion seemed to be on the brink of failure when a contingent of soldiers from Umayyad al-Andalus arrived on the island in 830 and joined forces with the remnants of the Aghlabid expedition. This was a major turning point, as the rejuvenated Muslim army now marched on Palermo and successfully besieged it.
At this point, Ziyadat Allah I, who was not particularly involved in the invasion, took an interest in the island and sent a cousin to act as the governor of Palermo (known as Balarm to the Arabs). Sicily now began to be considered a province of the Aghlabid emirate, with a functioning government and economy. With a renewed interest in the island, the conquest continued in a piecemeal fashion. Villages and towns individually accepted Muslim control based out of Palermo, with the eastern half of the island holding out the longest. Syracuse was eventually conquered in 878 and the last Byzantine holdings were taken in 965.
With regards to governance, the system set up on the island was similar to Aghlabid governance in other regions. The province was led by a governor, who was nominally under the authority of the Aghlabid emir in Qayrawan, but oftentimes ruled semi-independently. While Muslims were subject to Islamic law as dictated by the qadi and religious scholars, Christians and Jews were free to be governed by their own laws so long as they paid the poll tax (jizya) and any land taxes (kharaj) they owed. Muslims were subject to the alms tax (zakat) and land taxes.