How The Island of Sicily Was Conquered by Many Nations – Including Those of Muslims

The island of Sicily has a very rich history. Thanks to the island’s important strategic location and the fact that is the largerst island in all of the Mediterranean Sea, it was hosted by every major civilization. Sicilian culture and the beautiful monuments tell us about the many occupators it had: the Fenicians, the Greek and the Byzantines. But what do we know about the Arab-Islamic history of this island? Only a few know that Sicily, together with Andalusia, was one of the origins of the European Renaissance.

The Golden Age of Sicily

Regardless of the internal and external political conflicts, Sicily has known a Golden Age. Just like Andalusia, Bagdad, Fes, Kiarouan, Damascus and Cairo, Arab-Islamic Sicily would grow to be one of the most important cultural and scientific centers of the known world. Arabs, non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims traveled there to enrich their knowledge of the Islamic theology, philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astrology, literature, grammar and so on. Even the Vikings who later took hold of Sicily would be influenced by the beautiful culture and civilization left behind by the Arabs and the Muslims.

The conquest of Sicily

Shortly after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Muslims started spreading the Islam outside the borders of the Arabian Peninsula. They were able to quickly convert most regions, except Sicily. As from 652 AD onwards, a series of attempts to conquer the island had taken place. It was only in 827 that the Arabs first started gaining Sicilian land. This would go on until 902, when Sicily finally yielded to the Arab-Islamic power.

We cannot speak of the conquest of Sicily without having mentioned the early Arab-Islamic expansions around the Mediterranean Sea. After Muhammad’s death and the conversion of the entire Arabian Peninsula, Muslims started gaining interest in converting the lands outside the borders of the Peninsula. This dream gradually became reality under the reign of four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib.
Especially the first three helped rapidly spreading the Islamic Empire, eventually reaching as far away as China. In the beginning, their advance mainly focused on the East, against the Byzantines and the Persians who in their turn saw the risk of their own downfall closing in.

After a long period of war with the Persians and the Byzantines the Muslims started conquering more and more land that was once part of these empires. These conquests remained on the mainland until 652 (during the caliphate of Uthman ibn Affan), when they first started building ships, supervised by the governor of Damascus, Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan. The idea was to organize sea defense. That way it would be possible to fend off any Byzantine attack on the newly annexed Egyptian and Syrian coastal areas. Only later the fleet would also be used to organize attacks.

Even though the Muslims had not earned great rewards, they came back a second time in 667 when Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan had become the first Ummayad caliph. This time, they brought a large amount of gold and silver to the caliph. In 662, after the Muslims had seized the North of Africa, Emperor Constantine II had left Constantinople to focus his attention on the western provinces of his empire in the South of Italy and Sicily. He wanted to protect the Greek mainland against Arab attacks.

When the Muslims conquered the city of Barqa in the North of Africa, the Byzantines resided in Sicily in 681, from where they could attack their Arabian enemies. In 683, during the reign of the Ummayad caliph Abdul Malik ibn Marawan, the Muslims were able to seize the city of Carthago (in today’s Tunesia). This capture had a significant impact on the Byzantines, for whom the city had great strategic value. The Berbers that revolted against the Arabs fled to Sicily and asked the Byzantines for help. In 697 they were able to recapture Carthago.

To be continued …

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Bresc, H. (2007). La Sicile musulmane.
Cambridge. (1970). The further Islamic lands, Islamic society and civilization. The Cambridge History of islam, Volume 2, Cambridge.
Sourdel, J. (1996). Dictionnaire historique de l’islam, Paris.

Written by Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet

Afifa Thabet is 33 years old. She studied Oriental Languages and Cultures and volunteers as a teacher. She's interested in everything concerning Islamic history and Arab societies.