The Forgotten History of the Islamic Period in Sicily
When it comes to Islam in Europe, the focus is usually on Muslims in Andalusia, Spain, in the period 711 to 1492 AD with Muslim communities surviving until 1609. Or, to the Ottoman Empire which stretched from Anatolia to Southeastern Europe in the early 1300s.
In contrast, the Muslim period in the Sicilian Islands, Italy, is often forgotten. History records that Muslims under the Aghlabiyah dynasty ruled this archipelago for more than 200 years.
The Aghlabiyah dynasty can be said to be a small Islamic dynasty in the Abbasid era that inhabited the Ifriqiyah region (Tunisia and eastern Algeria) for about a century from 800 to 909. The Aghlabiyah dynasty was originally part of the Abbasid dynasty centered in Baghdad but eventually became an autonomous dynasty. The initial focus of this small dynasty was to reduce competition in their region, especially the dominance of the Amazigh (Berber) forces.
The capital of the Aghlabiyah dynasty was located in Kairouan (Qayrawan), Tunisia. This dynasty was founded by Ibrahim bin al-Aghlab who ruled from 800-to 812. The name of the Aghlabiyah dynasty was taken from the name of the Bani Aghla biyah where Ibrahim came from.
Under the leadership of Ziyadatallah I who ruled from 817-to 838, the Arab rebels were crushed and they succeeded in taking control of the island of Sicily in the Italian Peninsula. During the era of instability in the early 800s, the Bani Aghlabiyah made expeditions to the Sicilian Islands for several reasons.
First, in 826, there was a revolt against the Byzantine naval commander. It is not clear what caused the rebellion. However, the Aghlabid Emir, Ziyadatallah I, offered to help mediate the dispute. Moreover, the peace agreement made in the Aghlabiyah dynasty with the Byzantines in 817 is still valid.
Another reason is the invasion that must be realized. In the era of the Aghlabiyah dynasty, there was a fiqh scholar named Asad bin al-Furat who had studied in the East with Imam Malik and two of Abu Hanifah’s students, namely Abu Yusuf and Muhammad al-Shaybani. Al-Furat was also active in politics and was highly respected for his experience studying with the great scholars of his era.
For Ziyadatallah I, Al-Furat became a threat, especially at that time the Aghlabiyah dynasty was not yet stable. Luckily, Ziyadatallah I’s worries were not proven. Al-Furat supported and offered to help if the Aghlabiyah Dynasty wanted to invade the Sicilian Islands. The reason is that the Byzantine troops arrested several Muslim traders so that al-Furat saw the Aghlabiyah dynasty’s peace treaty with the Byzantines fall with this violation.
The situation was perfect for Ziyadatallah I. That way, he was able to continuously attack the Byzantines, weaken their trade in the Mediterranean Sea region, and strengthen the influence of the Aghlabid dynasty by sending troops led by Asad al-Furat to the Sicilian Islands. The results of the expedition led by al-Furat himself turned out to be more than imagined.
An army of about 10,000 men left Africa in June 827 and arrived on the west coast of Sicily a few days later. A skirmish between al-Furat’s forces and the Byzantine troops stationed in Sicily ended in the al-Furat’s victory. The remaining Byzantine forces were driven back to Palermo and Syracuse on the north and east coasts. However, al-Furat’s forces did not succeed in encircling Palermo. History records, that al-Furat died in 828 due to illness.
The Muslim army then left Sicily because of counter-pressure from the Byzantines who sent troops by ship through the Aegean Sea. After a series of battle losses and disease attacks, the invasion of the Aghlabid forces became giddy and almost on the verge of failure before finally being assisted by Umayyad forces from Andalusia who arrived in 830. This was a turning point for the Islamic forces. The combined force then made it to Palermo and surrounded the rest of the Byzantine army there.
After that, Ziyadatallah I sent his cousin to be governor of Palermo or Balarm in Arabic. Sicily was then included in the territory of the Aghlabiyah dynasty. With the arrival of a new ruler, Islam developed its way there. The village and town later accepted the leadership of a Muslim governor based in Palermo. Syracuse was then conquered in 878 and the last Byzantine-held area there was captured in 965.
The system of government in Sicily is the same as in other regions under the Aghlabiyah government. The province was ruled by a governor coordinated under the Aghlabiyah emir in the dynasty’s capital, Qayrawan. However, sometimes the governorates of the Aghlabiyah territories were also semi-independent.
Muslims under Islamic dynasties had to follow sharia rules, while Christians and Jews could practice their religion as long as they obeyed the rules tax (jizyah) and land tax (kharaj). Meanwhile, Muslims are required to pay zakat and kharaj.
Fatimid dynasty leadership
In the early 900s, there was a movement in North Africa that later influenced Muslims in various parts of the Islamic world. In 909, a man who claimed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad named Abdullah al-Mahdi declared himself an Isma’ili Shia imam and established himself as the rightful leader of the Islamic world.
Using a network of informants and defectors in North Africa and cooperation with the Amazigh (Berbers) to cripple the Arab tribes, al-Mahdi quickly captured Qayrawan and overthrew the Aghlabid dynasty.
Since then, Islamic rule in Sicily has continued under the Shia Fatimid dynasty of North Africa. The Sicilian elite then sent envoys to meet the Fatimid leaders to secure autonomy there. However, the envoy was instead imprisoned. Under the leadership of al-Mahdi, the Government of the Fatimid dynasty sent governors and Shia qadi (judges) to rule the island of Sicily on behalf of the imam.
With Sicily’s reputation as a base of rebellion from time to time, the Fatimids imposed an iron fist policy by controlling Sicily from the seat of government in North Africa. There was also a new tax regulation that required the deposit of one-fifth of regional income directly to the priests of the Fatimid dynasty. This led to protests from the Sunni community who almost overthrew the first Fatimid governor in Sicily.
Rebellion broke out in 913 and succeeded in eradicating Fatimid influence for several years. However, in 918, the Fatimids managed to regain their power there, albeit by force.
The revolt occurred again in 937 and gained the support of Muslim communities throughout Sicily in 939. Seeing this, the Fatimids sent troops to purge the rebels and flooded Sicily with immigrants from North Africa who were more loyal to the Fatimid rule.
To strengthen control over Sicily, the Fatimids appointed al-Hasan al-Kalbi, a military figure, to be governor of Sicily in 967. He then founded a small dynasty whose authority remained connected to the Fatimids. The hereditary power continued for several hundred years.
In the era of the Kalbiyah dynasty in Sicily, the conflict never ended. Fatimid repression against Sunni Muslims who make up the majority in Sicily created tensions. The conflict between Sicilian Muslims and Arab immigrants from North Africa and Amazigh (Berber) immigrants divided society.
Militarily, the Kalbiyah dynasty sought power in the central Mediterranean. In the early 1000’s CE, the Kalbiyah emirs discontinued attacks against Byzantium in the south of the Italian Peninsula. On the other hand, the glory of the Kalbiyah dynasty began to dim as men continued to avoid military service.