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Islam at the Crossroads, Emirate of Sicily

Sicily is another example of Muslim tolerance and progression during Al-Andalus. The Sicilian Muslim majority and Non-Muslims had a period of great wealth and knowledge. And Islam established itself in this crossroads of the Mediterranean.

As in the case of Spain (also in Italy), the Muslims didn’t come because they felt that they would gain a lot but were rather asked to help the magistrate of Sicily against the Byzantines. So, the Muslim Aghlabid leader sent several times (in 827, 830 and 875) his army to the island and opened Mazara del Vallo in 827, Palermo (Arabic Bal’ham) in 831, Messina in 843 and Syracuse in 878.

In 902, the Muslims arrived in Taormina (eastern Sicily) and in 918 they reached the Reggio Calabria on the mainland. The last remaining Byzantine part of Sicily (Rometta) became part of the Muslim empire in 964.

Image of Sicily and the cities where the Muslims began their Influence

The population, mainly Latin-speaking Catholic in the west and Greek-speaking Orthodox in the east, saw the tolerance of the Muslims and many embraced Islam voluntarily and quickly. Among the population, there was also a big number of Jews. We speak about the differences between Catholic (Western) Christianity and Orthodox (Eastern) Christianity in another blog, link here

The island was divided into three administrative districts, whose names survive still today:

At the beginning of the 11th century, Muslims made up half of the population of Sicily! By the mid-11th century, Muslims were already the majority of the island’s population.

Image of the names of the Three Administrative districts of Sicily from Muslim Rule

As the ‘convivencia’ policy was the rule in Iberia, the policy of co-existence and tolerance was the main policy in Sicily as well. So, that even after centuries of Muslim rule, one could find Greek-speaking Christian communities who prospered and who were free and protected as long as they paid the Jizya tax.

Under the Muslims, agriculture in Sicily prospered and became export oriented. Arts and crafts flourished in the cities.

The Emirate of Sicily existed between 831 and 1072!

Textiles, sugar, rope, silk and objects crafted in the souks were sent all over the known world, turning Sicily into an important commercial crossroads.

The Muslim land reforms increased productivity, helped the growth of smallholdings and diversified production, irrigation systems were improved, new agricultural products such as oranges, lemons, pistachio, cotton, dates, hemp and sugarcane were introduced.

Next to being good tradespeople, the Muslims were also great builders and town planners: Most of Sicily’s main cities changed remarkably during Muslim rule, not least Palermo, where the Kalsa and Cassaro districts were established. Several old important markets, such as the Capo and the Ballaro in Palermo still thrive, souk-like, today. 

Image giving an example of one of the structures left behind by the Muslims

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Our aim for this blog list is to try and get this beneficial knowledge out to people and spark discussion in the comments and forum. So, come and comment below what you found the most interesting part of Sicilian Islamic History. And what would you like to see more of?

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