The Muslims of Sicily under Christian Rule
By Alex Metcalfe
The Society of Norman Italy, edited by Graham Loud and Alex Metcalfe (Brill, 2002)
Introduction: The Norman invasion of Sicily was neither an invasion, nor was the kingdom that eventually resulted from it particularly ‘Norman’ in character. At the height of its power in the mid-twelfth century, the kingdom of Sicily included most of the southern Italian peninsula as well as Malta, and colonies along the North African coast. However, it was the island of Sicily that was undoubtedly the gravitational centre of the kingdom’s cultural and political life, and its capital of Palermo was probably Europe’s wealthiest and most populous city. The island was also home to most of the kingdom’s large, Arabic-speaking Muslim communities. Indeed, these formed the majority of the island’s population for most of the kingdom’s short, but spectacular, existence.
In 1061, almost seventy years before the kingdom was proclaimed, a modest military force under the leadership of Robert Guiscard and Roger of Hauteville, but in the pay of a Sicilian amīr, Ibn al-Thumna, arrived to assist in a civil war which had already lasted a generation, and had seen the political and administrative disintegration of the island into petty principalities. The advent of these two leaders and those who were to follow them would introduce fundamental and irreversible changes to the demographic, religious and linguistic base of the island over the next 250 years.
In the Islamic period, the view that the Muslims who hailed mainly from Ifrīqiya (roughly the area covered by modern Tunisia) had repopulated the island is matched by an assimilation theory that ‘most of its population became Muslim’. In the ninth and tenth centuries, many towns of strategic importance were indeed repopulated after their capture, and appear to have assumed an Arab-Islamic character around the entire island. However, change in rural areas seems to have been of a much slower, assimilative type. Even in these more conservative and less carefully monitored environments, most Christian enclaves of Greek or Italo-Greek speakers that had remained are likely to have converted to Islam and/or adopted Arabic as a second language within the space of a few generations. This was probably the scenario in the south-western Val di Mazara, where Arab-Islamic influence had first been established and for most of the Val di Noto in the south-east too. However, it is fair to assume that across and around the many, ragged religious and socio-linguistic frontiers that this created, different communities experienced different degrees of acculturation at varying rates.
For example, in 973, Ibn Ḥawqal, a hostile visitor to Sicily, described how large numbers in rural areas were imperfectly embracing Arab-Islamic norms. In such, communities, he claimed, ‘marriage to Christians is [allowed] provided that their male child follows the father by being a bastardised Muslim (mushaʿmidh), and that a female becomes a Christian like her mother’. He also added that they spoke unintelligibly, like ‘deaf mutes’. Although the idea that there may have existed degrees of Christianity in Sicily makes for an intriguing, if not entirely unattractive, thesis, it also seems from Ibn Ḥawqal’s description of Palermo that it had barely a remaining trace of Christian culture.