Sicily(Italy):A Great Centre of the Islamic Civilization
Sicily is the second meeting point between east and west and between Islamic and European civilizations, due to its geographical position between mainland Italy and the Tunisian coast. It acted as a link between Africa and Europe, both politically and culturally.
This important centre of civilization was conquered during the rule of the learned Abbasid Caliph, Abdulla Al Ma'moun by the army commander Asad Ibn al Furat Ibn Sinan, judge of Kairouan. Prince Ziada Al-Aghlabi, the governor of Africa, entrusted him with the campaign against Sicily.
This campaign left the Tunisian port of Sousse in a fleet of 100 vessels in 212 A.H./827 A.D. It reached the west coast of Sicily and captured the city of Mazara and other points in the south opposite the Tunisian coast. Asad then turned to the eastern side of the Island where he engaged in fierce fighting with the Byzantines until they were defeated, but only after he was martyred by the walls of Syracuse (213 H./828 A.D.).
The Aghlabids continued their efforts to conquer the whole of Sicily; this task took 80 years (293 A.H./903 A.D.) compared to the three years for the conquest of Andalusia. In Spain the Muslims had confronted a weak and disintegrated army; in Sicily they were fighting the Byzantine empire. When the Fatimids overcame the Aghlabids in the Maghreb in 297 A.H./909 A.D. they took over their fleet and lands. So, Sicily was ruled by rulers appointed by Fatimid caliphs in Mahdia or in Cairo. This control was nominal especially during the Kalbid dynasty (948-1052 A.D.) who enjoyed independence in their rule of the island.
During the Aghlabid and Fatimid reigns, Sicily prospered, with Muslims arriving in large numbers, spreading Islamic civilization to its various cities. Travellers and geographers praised the mosques, palaces, bath houses, hospitals, markets, walls, citadels and anchorages, etc. In addition to the various new industries like paper, silk, ship building and mosaic industries, they also extracted various minerals such as sulphur, oil, ammonia, lead and iron. They contributed to agriculture and trade and spread the Arabic language and culture among all classes.
Tranquility and stability in Sicily did not last long. After the collapse of the Kalbid State (1052 A.D.) internal conflicts laid it open to conquest, from north or south.
The Al-Zayrids, Amirs of Tunis, failed to achieve that from the south; but the Normans, rulers of southern Italy, managed to capture Sicily from the north under Count Roger I, ruler of Calabria, who exploited the internal strife among Muslims in Sicily and by supporting Amir Al-Qadir Bi Allah Ibn Al Thamna, ruler of Trapani against his rival Ali Ibn Al Hawwas, ruler of Catania. After nine years of war, Roger managed to gain control of the whole island (485 A.H./1092 A.D.). Because of these unstable political conditions in Sicily, a large number of its scholars and writers left and settled elsewhere. One example is the Sicilian Poet Abu Mohammad Abdul Jabbar Ibn Hamdis (d. 027 A.H./1133 A.D.) who left for the court of King Al Mu'atamid Ibn Abbad in Seville.
We may also mention the jurist and grammarian Abu Al Qassim Ali Ibn Ja'afar also known as Ibn al Qatta'a, who left for Egypt under the Fatimids. The minister Al Afdhal Ibn Badr Al Jamali took him as a tutor for his children. Ibn Al Qatta'a wrote numerous books on language, grammar, prosody and the history of Sicily. The Granadan Minister Ibn Al Khatib says that some immigrants from Sicily to the Maghreb changed their names.
Though King Roger I (1093-1101 A.D.) put an end to Islamic rule in Sicily, he did not harm its Muslim people; on the contrary , he provided them with protection, and recognized their religion and legislation and allowed them their own judges, if they chose. He also allowed them to celebrate their religious occasions in public. In addition, he abstained from participation in the crusades in spite of the Pope's pressure. This shows that Sicily during his rule was a half-lslamic kingdom in religion and in its administrative and military system.
Roger II (1101-1154 A.D.) succeeded his father and followed his tradition in protecting Muslims through his influence and laws; some Muslims wrongly believed that he was a secret Muslim. An example of the King's tolerance and his love of justice and equality is that he inscribed all Sicilian coins in Arabic, Latin and Greek, the languages used by his citizens. He is also reported to have imitated the Muslims rulers in their loose clothes and the Roman Caesars and the European emperors in a clear indication of his lack of bias.
His court in Palermo contained a large number of Muslim poets and scientists including the major Maghrebi geographer Abu Abdulla Mohammad Al Sabti better known as Al Sharif (the noble) Al Idrisi being a descendant of the Idrisi Kings of Maghreb and grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad through Al Hassan Ibn Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Al Idrisi (493-548 A.H./11 00-1154 A.D.) was fond of travelling to acquaint himself with the conditions in various countries and the customs of their people.
When he visited his relatives in Sicily Roger II invited him to his court and was very hospitable to him. He asked him to draw a map of the earth. Al Idrisi responded by drawing a map of the world then known, on a planisphere 3 metres long and 1.5 metres wide. He also wrote a book for him entitled 'Nuzhat Al Mushtaq Fi Ikhtiraq al AFaq', also known as Roger's book, to describe ' this map.
Scientists and orientalists were so interested in this book that they translated and published chapters into various languages. It is sufficient to refer to the new edition of this book prepared by Italian orientalists in seven volumes.
From the above, one can see that Roger II was, according to the Italian scientist Michael Amari, an Arab Sultan wearing a European crown. His religious tolerance led to the mingling of the Arab, Greek and Latin cultures thus transforming Sicily into one of the main bridges for the transfer of Islamic civilization to Europe which in turn influenced the emergence of the renaissance at the end of the middle ages.
Roger II was succeeded by his son William I ( 1154-1166 A. D .) who followed the example of his father and grandfather in protecting Muslims and encouraging Arab-lslamic studies. His slogan was the same as his father's: "Praise be to Allah and our gratitude for His blessings."
His son William II (1166-1189 A.D.) followed who, despite his participation in the crusades through his unsuccessful campaign against Alexandria in 569 H./1172 A.D., imitated the Muslim kings, mastered the Arabic language both reading and writing, and selected his ministers from his Muslim nationals, giving them religious freedom.
His slogan was "True Praise be to Allah". Internal conflicts over the throne followed William's death as he left no children. They were eventually settled by the ascension of Frederick II son of Henry VI, the emperor of Germany, and Constanza, daughter of Roger II. Thus, Frederik II became emperor over Germany and over the Kingdom of the two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily). As such, rule in Sicily was transferred from the Norman royal family to the Hohen-Stufen German dynasty .
Emperor Fredrik II
He ascended the throne at an early age. This gave him the chance to leave ruling affairs in the hands of his advisors and to pursue his studies and to benefit from Arabic, Greek and Latin cultures that prevailed at that time. Undoubtedly, the cultural legacy left by the Arabs and the Normans in Sicily and southern Italy had a great impact on the formation of his character. This was clearly evident in his interest in Arab culture, and in the translation of its sciences, his preference for peaceful resolution of political problems and in establishing friendly relations with the Ayyubid rulers of Egypt and Syria.
This policy angered Pope Gregory IX, who considered him disobedient and excommunicated him. This led Frederick to mount the sixth Crusade with 600 troops. Not a single drop of blood was shed because he concluded a treaty with the Ayyubid King of Egypt Mohammad Al Kamil lbn Al Adil in 626 H. (1229 A.D.) by which he gained control of Jerusalem without fighting.
During the negotiations, a close friendship was established between Frederick and Al Kamil and a number of princes, senior officials and scientists like Al-Ashraf Musa, brother of Al Kamil, Prince Fakhruddin, son of Shaikh Al Shuyoukh, commander of the Ayyubid army, and Shamsuldin, the military judge, who accompanied the Emperor during his stay in Syria.
After returning home, the Emperor sent a white bear to Al Ashraf Musa as a gift. Sultan Al Kamil in return sent some exotic animals including an elephant Prince Fakhruddin Ibn Shaikh Al-Shuyoukh was sent i as a messenger from King Al Kamil to the Emperor and they become close friends. The historian Mohammed Ibn Nazif ! included in his book entitled: 'Al Tarikh al Mansouri' -published in Moscow in 1960- a number of letters providing: important news on the Emperor and his state.
Frederick II was fond of the natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy. He quite often encountered scientific : problems that neither he nor those around him could solve: so he would send them to his friends the Muslims rulers for help in finding answers. Once he sent mathematical and astronomical problems to Al Kamil, and the Egyptian mathematician A'lam Al Din Kaisar Al-Asfouni solved them. Al Kamil sent him the answers together with a book on astronomy as a gift. On another occasion, Frederick sent a number of philosophical questions to the Andalusian sufi philosopher Ibn Sab'ayn who answered them. They were known as The Sicilian Questions.
When Al Malik Al Salih Najmuddin Ayyub became the ruler of Egypt, he continued the policy of friendship towards Sicily and exchanged messengers and gifts with Frederick II. An example was Ambassador Shaikh Siyajuddin AI Armawi who spent some time in Sicily and wrote a book on logic for the Emperor. It is said that this emperor sent Al Malik Al Salih Ayyub a messenger disguised as a merchant to alert him of the campaign of Louis IX in Egypt.
His son Manfred succeeded him; he was no less interested in Arabic culture especially mathematical and natural sciences. This emperor was contemporary of the first Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria during the reign of Sultan Zahir Baybars. They developed friendly relations similar to those during Ayyubids. The historian Jamal Al Din Ibn Wasil reports that Sultan Baybars appointed him head of a delegation to Emperor Manfred in 659 H. He sent with him gifts including giraffes and Tartar captives from the battle of Ain Jalout.
The emperor admired the gifts and honoured the delegation. Ibn Wasil describes his meeting with the Emperor saying: "I stayed with him at Barletta; I met with him and found him to be distinguished, a lover of the rational sciencies; he memorizes ten articles from Euclid's book on geometry. Near Barletta was a city called Lucera populated by Muslims who came from Sicily; Friday prayers and other Islamic rituals are maintained there since the time of his father the Emperor. He commenced building an academy of science for all theoretical sciences. His private affairs are handled by Muslims; the call to prayers and prayers are announced in his camp".
Al Safadi, in his biography of Ibn Wasil, adds that Manfred said the following to Ibn Wasil in his audience: "Judge! I have nothing to ask you about Arabic or jurisprudence. Then he asked him thirty questions on landscaping. The next morning he answered these questions. The emperor made the sign of the cross and said: "This is how a Muslim monk should be!" because the judge did not have his books with him. In addition, while in Italy Ibn Wasil wrote a treatise on logic which he called: Al-Risala al Anbarurla which he presented to Manfred.
The Palermo School of Translation
Palermo was the capital and the royal base for Muslims, Normans and Germans. According to Al ldrisi, there was an old Islamic section in the centre of Palermo called Al Khalsa which was the headquarters of the Sultan and hts soldiers during Islamic rule. Muslims called it Al Madina and Christians called it Palermo.
It was visited and described by Muslim travellers and geographers like Ibn Hawkal Al Baghdadi (d. 380 A.H.), Al Sharif Al Idrisi Al-Sabti (d. about 548 A.H.) and Ibn Jubair Al Balansi Al-Andalusi (d. 614 A.H.).
A school for translation was founded in Palermo in the thirteenth century similar to the school at Toledo in Spain. The two schools established close relations and exchanged books, translations and scientists.
The Scottish scientist Michael Scott, one of the students at Toledo school who translated the works of Aristotle and Ibn Rushdi's commentaries, frequently visited the Palermo school. It is likely that he met Frederick II during whose reign Palermo school flourished.
It is known that the Glorious Quran was translated into Latin in the first half of the twelfth century (6th Hijri). The story of the Prophet's Ascension was also translated at the orders of the Spanish King Alfonso the Wise into Castilian, French and Latin and became widely available in Spain and Italy from the thirteenth century A.D. (7th c. Hijri). These translations quickly reached the universities of Paris, Naples and Bologna.
The translation work at Palermo was mainly concerned, as in Toledo, with works in mathematics, philosophy and the natural sciences. Some of the most important translated works were: the works of Avicenna (d. 1037 A.D.) like 'Al-Qanun Fi-Al- Tib' and 'Al-Shifa'a in Philosophy'; and the books of Razis (d. 932 A.D.) such as 'Al Hawi Fi Al Tib'.
Some of the most prominent translators were Eugenius of Palermo and Leonardo Pisano. One of the results of this scientific activity is the thousands of Arabic manuscripts still held in the Vatican Library in Rome.
To conclude, Sicily was the second cultural bridge in the middle ages for the transmission of the Islamic civilization to European culture. It should be emphasised that Muslim scientists and scholars were not merely copiers or translators alone; they modified the classical legacy, assimilated it and created a new culture with an Islamic stamp. This was transmitted to the European mind, and many Europeans came to Spain and Sicily to receive it.