A Piece of Islamic History: The Naval Attacks Against the Sicilian Byzantines

This is the second piece in a series, following the article on the Islamic conquest of Sicily.

The Byzantines

In the early 8th century, the Arabs frequently placed attacks that were not always succesful. The Ummayad governor of the city of Kairouan, Ubayd Allah ibn Habhab, was the first Arab governor to consider conquering Sicily and putting it under Arab-Islamic command. In 740, he sent the nephew of the famous Uqba ibn Nafi (the general who annexed Northern Africa and founded the city of Kairouan) to conquer the island. He took several parts of the island and forced the city of Syracuse to pay “jizya”, a type of tax that was enforced for non-Muslims in order for them to be protected by the Muslims from enemy attacks. Because of the revolting Berbers, the remaining troops in Sicily had no choice but to return to Tunesia. In 753, the son of Habib, Abd Ar-Rahman, sent his brother Abdullah on a reconnaisance mission to Sicily. Despite their success, he had to return in order to settle the chaos caused by the Berbers. Byzantine Emperor Constantine V took advantage of this situation and sent out a large fleet to protect the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. The Byzantines could not resist building reinforced ships to protect their values from the Arab enemy. In the next fifty years, the Arabs would not organize any attacks on the island.

When the Abbasids came to power in the second half of the 8th century, the Byzantines repaired their harbors and constructed forts in the South of Italy to defend against Islamic attacks. Later these would serve as a base to organize their attacks against the Islamic Northern Africa. The Arabs constructed the infamous ribat forts in Tunesia, in response to the forts of the Byzantines. A ribat is an Islamic fortification that served as a defense against both naval and land-based attacks. The ribat was also a type of monastery, where soldiers could get both military and religious training. During the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun Ar-Rashid, the governor of Tunesia, Ibrahim ibn al-Aghlab, was granted the permission to found a semi-independent dynasty: the Aghlabid Dynasty. The capital would be Kairouan.

Naval commerce and expanding fleets

One of the first problems this Emir (an Arabian nobleman) had to deal with was the security of the Arab trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea. Especially the commerce along the coast line of his emirate. Therefore, he signed a treaty with the Byzantines that would allow naval commerce to take place safely over a period of ten years.

Policies changed when the second Aghlabid Emir, Abu al-Abbas Abdullah I, came to power. He built a strong fleet. The news reached the Byzantines, causing them to expand their own fleet. It was also announced that an Arabian ship was severely damaged in a storm near Sardinia. As a consequence, a new ten-year treaty was signed in 813. Prisoners from both sides were released and traders were able to travel safely. In 819, this treaty was broken by Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn al-Aghlab. He and his army invaded Sicily, taking many prisoners with him. He was the commander of the army and nephew of Ziyadat-Alla I, the successor of Aby al-Abbas Abdullah I.

In my next piece I will talk about the context and the manner in which Sicily was conquered by the Arabs and the Muslims. To be continued…

Ahmad, A. (1975). Arab conquest and the Aghlabid rule. History of Islamic Sicily, Edinbrugh
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

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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.