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Names Reveal History of Muslim Malta

CAIRO – A Maltese medieval historian has stressed that Malta had a tolerant Muslim community that allowed the thriving of Christian churches during the Arab rule between 870 and 1090, using Maltese names to prove his theory.

“The indication is that the local scene was very heavily Arabicized and Islamicized by the time the Normans conquered the island,” Charles Dalli told Malta Today.

“Although the Normans certainly urged the public to convert to Christianity, they didn’t Latinise them and allowed them to continue speaking Arabic. This is probably why the Maltese words for Christian feasts are derived from similar Islamic celebrations.”

According to Dalli, remnants of a Muslim Malta still remain ironically in the Maltese names for Catholic feasts.

He cited the Maltese word Randan (Lent) comes from Ramadan, the holy fasting month for Muslims.

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Similarly, Għid (Easter) has its roots in Eid al-Fitr, the joyous Islamic feast that marks the end of Ramadan, and Milied (Christmas) originates from Mawlid, the Islamic celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

Also, the Maltese word for ‘Friday’ (Il-Ġimgħa) is called so because it was the day in which Muslims on the island used to attend their weekly congregational ‘Jumu’ah’ prayers.

There is no official figure on the number of Muslim in Malta, an island country with a 400,000-strong population.

According to Wikipedia, the present-day Muslim community in Malta is a minority of around 6,000.

There is one mosque, founded in 1978 by the World Islamic Call Society.

Islamic Malta

Dalli went on to criticize interpretations by professors such as Stanley Fiorini and Horatio Vella who claim that Christians did not revert to Islam during the Arab rule.

Their theory is based on a passage in a medieval poem, composed by an anonymous Greek poet who had been exiled to Malta.

The passage refers to a Christian bishop who had greeted Roger II of Sicily, the son of Count Roger, upon his arrival to Malta, with some historians arguing that it is evidence that a Christian community with its own churches and bishop thrived in Malta during Arab rule.

The claims were rejected by Oxford professor Jeremy Johns last year who said that Fiorini erred when translating the Greek text, and that the poet had actually written about a bishop sent by Sicily to Malta to help convert the people to Christianity.

The new interpretation, according to Dalli, proves that Malta was an Islamic society under the Arabs.

“Look, anybody who believes in an ethnic continuity of Maltese people dating back from the time of St Paul is quite frankly living in cloud cuckoo-land,” he said. “There is absolutely no such thing as pure Maltese DNA.”

Dalli believes that the conversion of Maltese society from Islam to Christianity was a gradual process, abetted by the Normans who conquered the island in 1091.

“The Normans financially incentivized the natives to convert to Christianity by imposing a religious tax on Muslim subjects,” he said.

“It is also possible that churches were erected where mosques were pulled down, and that the Mdina Cathedral was built on the site of the largest mosque on the island.”

Dalli confirmed that Muslims and Christians lived together during the 400 or so years between the arrival of the Normans and the mass ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

“Muslims and Christians lived side by side in Malta during that period, a sign of how close Abrahamic faiths are to each other,” he said.

“Malta was a bridge where the two cultures converged.”