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From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily

From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily

By Charles Dalli

Religion, Ritual and Mythology Aspects of Identity Formation in Europe, edited by Joaquim Carvalho (Pisa University Press, 2006)

Introduction: The history of high medieval Sicily bears all the hallmarks of a regional crossroads which, between the 9th and 11th centuries, exchanged hands between three major civilizations. The island’s political upheavals, military confrontations, social change and cultural transformations read like an index page to central Mediterranean history. The fall of Muslim Palermo to the Norman conquerors in 1072 was a landmark in the high medieval wave of Latin Christian expansion across the Mediterranean world. The defeat of the island’s Muslim rulers was completed within twenty years of the fall of the capital city, but the last Muslims of Sicily left the island one hundred and eighty years later, towards the end of Frederick II’s reign. Beyond the formal political chronology, three, more or less equal, yet distinct epochs, mark the transition from Muslim to Latin Christian Sicily: 1072 to 1130, during which period the Norman conquest of the island, launched in 1060, became first a feasible reality, then a political fact consolidated with the establishment of the Regno; 1130 to 1190, when the relationship between the island’s Christian rulers and inhabitants and the subject Muslim populations was gradually entrenched in terms of feudal bondage; and 1190 to 1250, which was marked by Muslim armed resistance, the setting up of a rebel polity under the last Muslim leader of Sicily, and Frederick II’s ‘extermination’ of Islam.

Sicily’s ‘disengagement’ from the world of Islam was lived out by a population caught in the grips of a tumultuous historical transformation which it itself had helped author. It was a transition marked by contrasting, rather than complementary, identities, which can only be reconstructed in the coarse brushstrokes permitted by a fragmentary and frequently partial documentation. In the early decades of Norman conquest, the Latin lord took his place alongside newly installed western Christian bishops in wielding power and authority over a fledgling community of settlers. Gradually these settlers emerged from the margins of Sicilian society to become the mainstream community, pushing subject Muslim populations to the edges of the social framework. For native Christian populations, most of whom were Greek speaking, social and cultural integration within the new dominant Latin environment beckoned. Cutting across linguistic boundaries, recent historiography has ‘rediscovered’ the Arab Christian, and the Arabic-speaking Jew of Sicily. And, in contradistinction to the inexorable decline of the native Muslim population into land bound servitude, exile or deportation, the allpowerful, foreign-born caste of ‘palace saracens’ take their exclusive place at the heart of the island’s Norman regime, and disappear only with its downfall. Their artificially engineered identity symbolizes the predicament of non-Christian subjects faced with the choice of assimilation or relegation, to which they replied with dissimulation or rebellion.

The present survey provides an overview, rather than a comprehensive discussion, of the historiography of Sicily’s transformation from a province of Dar al-Islam into a Latin Christian society. Whether one agrees or not with the epithet of terra senza crociati [a land without crusaders], the island’s experience constituted an important chapter in the history of military confrontations between Christian and Muslim forces extending from the Latin East to the Spanish peninsula and beyond. Nonetheless, it was also part of a wider phenomenon of Latin Christian expansion across the Mediterranean world which was not to be reduced to a chronology of military victories, nor its effects confined to newly conquered territories opened up for Christian settlement and colonization at the expense of Islam. According to some estimates, Frederick II deported around twenty-five thousand Muslims to Lucera in the 1220s to 1240s; these deportees made up only one-tenth of the quarter of a millions Muslims subjected to Christian rule in 1091. ‘Deislamicization’, the other side to ‘Latinization’, was not simply a soldier’s achievement. “Conquest, colonization, Christianization: the techniques of settling in a new land, the ability to maintain cultural identity through legal forms and nurtured attitudes, the institutions and outlook required to confront the strange or abhorrent, to repress it and live with it, the law and religion as well as the guns and ships”.

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