The Other Al-Andalus – When Muslims and Christians Flourished Side By Side in Sicily

The outsides of the principal doorways and their pointed arches of the Monreale cathedral are magnificently enriched with carving and colored inlay, a curious combination of three styles – Norman-French, Byzantine and Arab. Source: Wikipedia I sometimes think about the glories of “Islamic Spain,” or Al-Andalus. Starting around 711 and ending in 1492, Muslim rulers maintained a spirit of convivencia, a Spanish term meaning “living in togetherness” or “coexistence”, which allowed for an unprecedented level of interfaith engagement on the European continent. While Al-Andalus may represent the pinnacle of cooperation among Muslims, Christians and Jews, there is also a brilliant history – too often ignored and still inadequately assessed – coming out of Sicily, an island belonging to modern-day Italy.

The unique society that developed in Sicily is hardly mentioned by historians of Europe, Christianity or Islam. Over the course of several centuries, interfaith exchanges in cultural, religious and scientific fields led to a hybrid culture stemming from Norman, Arab and Byzantine influences. For a time, Sicily was truly the crossroads between East and West, Islam and Christianity. The island was one of the rare bright spots of the Middle Ages.

Arab Muslim Rule

Muslims are rarely associated with Italian history, but Islamic contact with Sicily began roughly twenty years after the death of Prophet Muhammad, during the caliphate of ‘Uthman. The governor of Syria at that time, Mu’awiya, sent a naval expedition to Sicily as an extension of the battles that were taking place in the east between Muslims and the Byzantine Empire. For about two-hundred years, Muslims made many efforts to control the island, then a Byzantine province. It was not until 827 that Muslims finally obtained a foothold by taking Mazara, on the western end of the island. The successful military expedition was launched from the North African Muslim province of Ifriqiya, or modern-day Tunisia.


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