By Robert Venosa
While the relations of Muslim nations with the rest of the West are at an historical nadir, it does the West good to remember and recognize the proper, and quite substantial, level of indebtedness which it owes to Islamic civilization. In Europe’s own overall societal nadir of the Dark Ages dating from roughly the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to right before the High Middle Ages, Muslim societies, having conquered the fringes of Europe, preserved and propagated the West’s own cultural heritage.
Not only had they accomplished this prodigious feat, but the Muslim rulers of Sicily and Spain created what was essentially a pair of multicultural societies in these European areas that flourished for hundreds of years. Granted, the Islamic conception of multiculturalism in these areas would not be true to the definition of the term as defined by today’s liberal multiculturalists. But it remains that during their tenure of authority, the Muslim civilizations in Europe had crafted societies in which Muslims, Christians, and Jews, all being People of the Book, could peaceably cohabitate – an achievement that was unquestionably rare and significant in that era. Even after the Islamic tenure of authority had ended, considerably numerous elements of their culture had become integrated into Sicilian culture at large, with those influences persisting to the present.
Gioacchino Balducci, a Stony Brook Professor of Italian language and studies gave a detailed presentation on the Islamic cultural infusion into Sicily in the Dark Ages, in an event hosted by the Center for Italian studies. Balducci, having spent several years studying the Arabic language and Muslim culture in Cairo, and in the years since expanding his knowledge, is eminently qualified to have presented such a topic. Throughout the presentation he reiterated the pivotal role Islamic culture played in bringing peace and prosperity to Sicily during the period of Muslim rule.
For over four centuries, Islamic culture was a major and active force in Sicilian society, even during much of the subsequent period when the Normans displaced the Muslim rulers in the political sphere. As Balducci noted, every culture has its own roots. But it has been historically demonstrated that most cultures do not come into full bloom until they come into contact with other cultures; so was the case with Middle Ages Sicily. Having roots in Sicily, Balducci noted that his lifelong interest in Sicilian culture helped develop his studies in Islamic cultural influences upon the island.
The Sicani, the original inhabitants of Sicily, had experienced numerous and successive waves of conquest and colonization by Mediterranean peoples. By Roman times, they had lost much of their original culture to their Greek, and later, Roman colonizers.
One of the main reasons Sicily seems to have a penchant for being conquered by such a diverse set of peoples as the Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Normans and others was the island’s rich soil and year round growing season. “Everything grows” was the phrase given to exemplify Sicily’s agricultural desirability.
Separated from Tunisia by a mere one hundred miles of water of the Strait of Sicily, the island had come under the desirous glare of the Muslim emir of Tunisia, and thus had come under complete Muslim rule over the course of several decades in the tenth century. In addition to the previously mentioned agricultural abundance of Sicily as a motivating factor for conquering it, the island’s central location in the Mediterranean was a major reason why so many peoples vied for control of Sicily.
Those who controlled Sicily controlled not only its agricultural potential, but also the access to crucial trade and sailing routes in the Mediterranean. These two main reasons taken into account help explain why the Byzantines who had formerly ruled Sicily fought tenaciously against the Muslims for 70 years before finally relinquishing all claims to the island.
The Muslim rulers converted churches into mosques, and Palermo alone at the peak of Muslim rule had between two hundred and three hundred mosques. Muslim scholars soon came to busy themselves with preserving and translating whatever Greek literature they could find, thus propagating classical Western knowledge that had largely been forgotten, or, at best, relegated just to some select monasteries in Christian Europe.
Palermo, as the center of political life in Sicily, also became its flourishing cultural heart. The Muslim emirs inaugurated a prodigious era of construction and architecture in the city, with beautiful and intricate waterworks and gardens proliferating. (The Islamic fascination for and love of waterworks and gardens derived from the Arab reverence towards such things, which were rarities in Arabia, Islam’s homeland.)
A period of prosperity not seen in centuries had come to Muslim-ruled Sicily, largely due to Islamic policies. Such affluence had been attendant to the period of internal peace and stability enforced by the Muslim emirs, along with economic reforms. The introduction of new crops, especially citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges, which grew, and continue to grow, quite well in Sicily, spurred economic growth.
The massive land reform instituted by the Muslim rulers also played a major role in the economic prosperity of the island. Much of the farmland of Sicily had formerly been in the hands of a small group of wealthy landowners, who owned these latifundia, or large farming estates, which were themselves relics of Greek and Roman rule of Sicily. The latifundia were broken up, and distributed to individual farming families, which brought about an increase in the wealth of smaller farmers. Partly due to the new era of prosperity and peace, the population of Sicily doubled under Muslim rule.
While Islam was, the official religion of the government, and Muslims were accorded certain rights and privileges denied to non-Muslims, while Islamic rule was fairly benefial towards Christians and Jews. As monotheists and predecessor faiths to Islam, Judaism and Christianity were accorded a status superior to any avowed polytheists or atheists who had come under Muslim dominion, yet inferior to Muslims. To guarantee Muslim protection and government services, Christians and Jews were made to pay a special tax, in addition to any existing regular taxation.
However, as conversion to Islam proved an expeditious way around such abridgement of rights and superfluous taxation, many Christians and Jews nominally converted to Islam, while still clandestinely retaining their old faiths. Indeed, many a Muslim traveler from outside Sicily had noted that many of the island’s Muslims were particularly irreligious, due largely to the veritable flood of nominal conversions.
While contemporary Sicily is a bastion of Roman Catholicism, traces of Muslim cultural influences are readily apparent to those with a discerning eye. Thousands of place names and personal names in Sicily are derived from Arabic sources even to this very day. Much of traditional Sicilian food has North African origins, vestiges of Tunisian Muslim rule.
The most clearly visible remnants of Muslim cultural diffusion are the numerous architectural structures that have survived from the Muslim period and some of the Norman period that followed. La Cuba, the personal palace of William II, the Norman King of Sicily, was designed in large part by Arab architects now under Norman rule. The Ponte dei Saraceni, one of the last remaining bridges from the Muslim period, is another remarkable example of Islamic architecture.
A most striking instance of the harmonization of different architectural influences is embodied in Il Duomo di Monreale, which, seemingly effortlessly, unifies the Arabic, Norman and Byzantine architectural traditions.
In turbulent times, our enemies have their cultural achievements relegated to obscurity, in order to marginalize them in contemporary circumstances. Such a fate has befallen Islam, which today has, with a great deal of justification, found itself on the cultural defensive. The avowedly Islamic nations of today, in response to the increased pressures of globalization and marginalization by the Western and Asian First World powers, have tended towards radicalization.
The process of fostering cultural understanding is a two-way street. If today’s Muslims, and the leaders of the Muslim world, were to acknowledge, mimic and adapt to contemporary circumstances and societal standards the policies of multiculturalism that their forebears had so masterfully practiced, cultural tensions between the West and the Islamic world would improve markedly.
If the West, namely the United States and to a lesser extent Britain, were to make plans to stop supporting policies that result in “collateral damage,” that is, civilian lives lost and villages destroyed, Muslims would have less reason to bear intense enmity for the West. Today’s barbarians, both Western and Islamic, would do well to remember and implement the wisdom of the Islamic culture of Sicily of the millennium past.