A Piece of Islamic History: The Aghlabids and the Capture of Sicilia

This is the third piece in a series, following the article on the naval attacks against the Sicilian Byzantines.

In 826 Emperor Michaël II appointed Constatine as the governor of Sicilia. After this appointment, there was a disagreement between Constantine and the Byzantine admiral Euphemius. The whole fight started because of a love story. Euphemius fell in love with a nun and he married her against her will. As a punishment for such an act, Emperor Michaël II gave Constantine the assignment to cut off Euphemius’ nose. Euphemius heard about this plan and he rose against the emperor. He got the support of the maritime unit. He beleaguered the city of Syracuse, he defeated Constantine and he put Constantine to death. After this victory, he proclaimed himself as emperor and he appointed every important soldier in different parts of Sicilia. Eventually, there was one soldier who turned against him and who offered his services to Emperor Michaël II. According to Arabic historians, his name was Balata. He defeated Euphemius, with the support of the emperor and his army. Euphemius had no other choice than to escape. According to him, there was no better hiding place than with the enemy, the Aghlabids. He wanted to take revenge on the emperor and in exchange for his services for the Aghlabids he would proclaim himself as emperor and pay them the jizya.

The emir Ziyadat-Allah I and the religious army commander Asad ibn al-Furat

When Euphemius arrived in Kairouan, he went to the court of the Aghlabids. He told them his story and he swore allegiance to them if they would help him against the Byzantine emperor. Ziyadat-Allah reassured him by telling him that he would think about it and that he would give him an answer as soon as possible. Ziyadat-Allah had other plans and he got the idea to conquer Sicilia. This was an exceptional opportunity for him. However, there was one problem: what would he do with the peace treaty that was signed? He asked two important Islamic jurists of Kairouan to meet him, these two were Abu Mahriz Muhammad and the qadi Asad ibn al-Furat ( qadi stands for Islamic judge in Arabic). He talked to them about the proposition of Euphemius and about his idea. Both had two different opinions. Abu Mahriz said that the treaty had to be complied with and he advised the emir to check the accuracy of Euphemius’ story. Asad ibn al-Furat on the contrary gave him a clear sign that he was a supporter of the jihad. According to al-Furat, the Byzantines had violated the treaty a long time ago by capturing thousands of Arabs and Muslims and he said it was time to free them from the Byzantine enemy. Furthermore, he saw this as an opportunity to bring the island under Arabic-Islamic government and control.

Asad ibn al-Furat and his role in the conquest of Sicilia

Asad ibn al-Furat had a prestigious background. According to some sources, he originated from Harran ( in the present Turkey) and according to other sources, he originated from Mesopotamia ( what we now call Iraq and Iran). What is sure, is that moved at the age of two to Kairouan with his father. He memorized the Quran and he studied the fiqh and the hadith-sciences from different theologians in Kairouan and Tunis. He later became a student of the founder of the malikian school of law, Malik ibn Anas in Medina. From him, al-Furat heard his famous book, the Muwatta. This book is the first standard book about the study and explanation of the hadith and in 40 years time, it was revised multiple times by Malik ibn Anas himself. Later, he taught this to his students. Asad ibn al-Furat didn’t think it was enough to study only in Medina. So he went to Iraq where he was trained by the two most famous students of imam Abu Hanifa, the founder of the hanafitian school of law. Their names were Muhammad al-Shaybani and Abu Yusuf. Asad ibn al-Furat was known as a devout, intelligent and eloquent scholar who spent his nights praying. He tried to resolve certain legal problems in his book, the ‘Asadiiya’. After his return, he started to teach to students that wanted to study the Quran. His popularity grew every day. He wouldn’t be afraid of anyone when he spoke the truth, not even of the emir. Later, he was appointed as qadi of Kairouan by Ziyadat-Allah I.

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Because of his eloquence, intelligence and devoutness, Asad ibn al-Furat could easily influence Ziydat-Allah. And to reinforce his point of view, he wanted to join the army as a voluntary soldier. What he didn’t expected, was that Ziyadat-Allah would appoint him as commander-in-chief of the army. He wouldn’t lose his position as qadi. For the first time in Arabic-Islamic history, a qadi would also be a commander in the army. People could think that Ziyadat-Allah followed in the footsteps of the second caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab. When Umar went to conquer certain areas, he appointed a companion of the prophet Muhammad as an army captain, who was appointed because of his seniority and devoutness, not always because of his military experiences. Religion could have a big influence on the army, especially when the commander-in-chief practises a certain degree of religious authority. Ziyadat-Allahs political act needed a religious justification. Who else but Asad ibn al-Furat would be qualified for such a position? Worth mentioning is that Asad ibn al-Furad was a very old man of more than70 years old when he was appointed as general.

Not only the choice of army commanders, but also the attack on Sicilia was planned very thoroughly. The army didn’t only consist of Arabs, but also of Berbers , Spanish Muslims from Crete and possibly also of Persians. Other religious scholars followed in the footsteps of Asad ibn al-Furat and joined the army. According to Arabic historians, the army consisted of ten thousand men and somewhere between seventy and one hundred ships. Once they arrived in the port town Sousse, they settled themselves in the ribat ( a ribat is a sort of Islamic monastery where soldiers are raised religiously as well as trained militarily). There, Asad ibn al-Furat, would give an important and unforgettable speech.

“ There is no god, but God, He has no equal! Oh soldier, I swear! I was not appointed by my father or grandfather to execute this command, nor did I ever known that something like this has ever happened to someone else. This appointment has to do with my accomplishments with the pen, not with the sword. I encourage everyone to spare no effort and fatigue in your quest for knowledge! Search it, save it, complete it, persevere in it and be patient in all the difficulties that you will meet! You will be guaranteed a glorious place in this life and happiness in the hereafter!”

In his speech, he made clear that he has never touched a sword in his life. He didn’t just encourage the army to fight the enemy, but also to search knowledge because of God. He wouldn’t just train the army militarily, but he would also teach the Islamic ethics about the rules of warfare.

We will see in the next chapter how this conquest will continue…

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.