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Islamic Education and the Transmission of Knowledge in Muslim Sicily

Islamic Education and the Transmission of Knowledge in Muslim Sicily

By William Granara

Law and Education in Medieval Islam, eds. J. E. Lowry, D. J. Stewart and S. M. Toorawa (Chippenham, 2004)

Introduction: The reconstruction of the intellectual and cultural history of Muslim Sicily has presented challenges to historians because of the dearth of primary sources for this richly layered but relatively unknown period. Unlike Islamic Spain, Sicily lacks the historical, literary, and religious documents that might bear witness to the cultural productivity of almost four centuries of Muslim presence on the island. Islamic Sicily can boast no Ibn Hazm, Ibn al-‘Arabi, or Ibn Rushd, whose bio-bibliographies attest to Andalusian contributions to Islamic intellectual history writ large. Nor does Sicily possess a work such as al-Maqqari’s Nafh al-tib min ghusn al-Andalus al-ratlb [“Fragrant Perfume Wafting from the Moist Branch of the Andalus”] a voluminous encyclopedia on the political, social and intellectual history of Muslim Spain. Much of what we know of Muslim Sicily has been culled from later Arabic sources which the nineteenth-century Sicilian historian Michele Amari (1806-89) collated into a master volume in 1857, Biblioteca arabo-sicula (henceforth BAS), and drawing on which he composed his magnum opus, Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia (henceforth SMS), edited and published posthumously between 1933 and 1939 in Catania, Sicily. Most modern scholarship on medieval Muslim Sicily (from the beginning of the ninth to the middle of the thirteenth century) is heavily indebted to Amari’s groundbreaking work. This essay presents a survey of the biographies of several generations of Muslim Sicilian scholars and attempts to reconstruct the history of Islamic education and the transmission of knowledge to and from the island during the period of Arab rule and the first years after the Norman conquest. Given the paucity of primary sources and the wealth of modern scholarship, much of this introduction will reiterate and reconfirm what has come to be regarded as the accepted history of Sicilian Islam.

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