In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam in Sicily

  • Introduction

Islamic Studies Islam in Sicily
Sarah Davis-Secord
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 February 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 February 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0306


The Muslim period in Sicily is typically dated from 827 to about 1061, but Muslims were active on the island before and after those dates, and the influence of Islamicate arts, architecture, and scholarship continued long after the last Muslim minorities were deported from the island in the thirteenth century. In the modern period, Sicily regularly receives boats filled with migrants from Muslim-majority countries, many of which sail from Libya or Tunisia across the relatively short (but still dangerous) Strait of Sicily. Islam is now the second largest religion in Italy, with a population estimated at around 3 million people, or nearly 5 percent of Italy’s total population (as of 2022). Current debates in Italy about the roles of Muslims within Italian society have focused on the presence of mosques in urban landscapes, the integration of migrants from Muslim-majority countries into Italian society, and the rise of Islamophobic rhetoric among politicians, writers, and the general population.

General Overview of the Muslim Period

Soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (632 CE), bands of horse-mounted Arab warriors began conquering territories held by the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. Moving westward across Byzantine North Africa, Muslim armies took cities and ports (along with Greek ships and sailors) that gave them access to the Mediterranean Sea, as described in Kennedy 2007. Perhaps as early as the mid-seventh century, these new Muslim navies began making forays into Christian spaces, raiding and trading in Sicily, southern Italy, and across the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Semi-regular raids for booty (including humans for the slave trade) on Sicily’s shores took place over the next century or more, interrupted by diplomatic peace treaties established with the Greek administration at Syracuse. In 827, a raiding party (perhaps spurred by reports of Muslim prisoners held on the island) began an attempt at outright conquest that would take another seventy-five years to complete. Davis-Secord 2017 places the raids and conquest within the broader context of changing patterns of communication and travel in the early medieval Mediterranean. Muslims (of both Arab and Amazigh descent) thus came to populate the island and rule it for the next two centuries. While many of the Greek and Latin Christian residents of the island likely converted to Islam, that process is invisible in the extant sources. Some Greek Christian populations remained on the island throughout the period of Muslim rule. Significant Jewish populations existed before and during the Muslim period, many of whom fled the island when the Norman Christian conquerors arrived in the mid-eleventh century. The Normans established their royal capital at Palermo, as explored in Nef 2013, which had also been the capital of the island under the Muslim administration. Historical study of Sicily’s Muslim period began with the 19th-century Sicilian Arabist Michele Amari, who wrote a multi-volume history of the period (Amari 1933–1939) in Italian. He also collected, edited, and translated into Italian all of the then-available Arabic documents pertaining to Muslim Sicily. Chiarelli 2011 and Metcalfe 2009 are the best among the few general histories of Muslim-ruled Sicily to appear in English. Chiarelli emphasizes administrative and political concerns, as well as the complexity of the island’s ethnic and social structure. Metcalfe places the Muslim period in Sicily within its broader context of contemporary southern Italy and the early Norman period. Students and new scholars of the Islamic period would do well to start with these two works.

  • Amari, Michele. Storia dei Musulmani di Sicilia. 2d revised edition by C. A. Nallino. 3 vols. Catania: Romeo Prampolini, 1933–1939.

    The first historical account of Sicily’s Islamic past, which for many years remained definitive. Amari wrote from a nationalist perspective, and many of his conclusions have been challenged by more recent work. New sources have been found and old ones exploited in new ways by recent scholars. Nonetheless, his historical narrative is still considered a starting point (although not ending point) for understanding the period. In Italian.

  • Chiarelli, Leonard C. A History of Muslim Sicily. Santa Venera, Malta: Midsea Books, 2011.

    Drawing on a wide variety of material and textual sources from the period, including some discovered since Amari’s time, Chiarelli presents both a narrative overview of the conquest and rule of Sicily by Aghlabid and (later) Fatimid forces and an account of the intellectual, cultural, and economic themes in the study of Muslim Sicily. Particular emphasis on the Amazigh (Berber) contribution to Muslim Sicily and the Arabic intellectual culture on the island.

  • Davis-Secord, Sarah. Where Three Worlds Met: Sicily in the Early Medieval Mediterranean. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.7591/9781501712593

    Analyzes Sicily’s connections to other places in the Mediterranean through the lens of travel and trade. Covers the transitions from Byzantine to Islamic rule and from Islamic to Norman dominion in terms of shifting patterns of communication.

  • Kennedy, Hugh. The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2007.

    A student-friendly account of the early Islamic conquests across the entire expanse of territory from Central Asia to western North Africa and Spain.

  • Metcalfe, Alex. The Muslims of Medieval Italy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780748629114

    Using Arabic, Greek, Judeo-Arabic, and Latin sources, this accessible work traces Muslim activities in both Sicily and southern Italy, as well as those under later Norman Christian rule. Starting with the Muslim conquests in the Mediterranean (seventh-eighth centuries) and ending with the massacre of the Muslim colony at Lucera (thirteenth century), Metcalfe offers a comprehensive survey of Muslim contributions to the cultural and social history of the central Mediterranean region in the Middle Ages.

  • Nef, Anneliese, ed. A Companion to Medieval Palermo: The History of a Mediterranean City from 600 to 1500. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2013.

    A collection of essays by multiple authors addressing various topics in the history of the city of Palermo, both during its time as the capital of Muslim Sicily and as the capital of the Norman kingdom. Focuses on architecture, culture, and intellectual activity.

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