The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

Introduction

This book traces a history of consequence: repeated invasions that triggered the collapse and reconfiguration of age-old frontiers between the continents of Africa and Europe; the advent of new states, laws and systems of governance; the exchange of religious beliefs between Islam and Christianity; the transformation of arts, culture, science and learning; and fundamental shifts in the social and economic dynamics of the central Mediterranean. Above all, this is a study of people and power.

The primary focus is the pivotal role that Muslims played in Sicily and parts of south Italy during a tripartite shift from Byzantine Greek to Arab-Muslim to Latin Christian. These were periods and places in a state of constant, and often violent, flux. Very little survived unscathed by the changes wrought by competing factions, whose ambitions successive Sicilian rulers struggled to limit. Irrespective of religion, the most ruthlessly determined of all were the island’s conquerors themselves, each of whom sought an essentially different form of recognised authority to justify their status, conduct and actions.

This is a history largely devoid of heroes: by the end of Muslim rule, Byzantine Greek culture had been all but obliterated. Thereafter, Latin Christian rule all but obliterated Arab-Muslim culture. The high points in the Islamicisation of Sicily followed by its ‘Europeanisation’ are rare and worth treasuring. Those precious moments are well remembered, especially when they are understood as evidence for tolerance and interfaith harmony. The best remaining examples can be found in the Arab-Norman art and architecture, along with their multilingual court and administrative offices. These, however, were hybrid products of a curious, deceptive and experimental kingship; co-operation and goodwill between a select few occurred in a context of tension and insecurity for many others.

The geographical and chronological reach of this book extends across and beyond the south Italian peninsula between 800 and 1300, with particular emphasis on the island of Sicily during the central 300 years of that period. Rich, diverse and widely recognised as this history is, it remains relatively unexplored, particularly so for questions of Muslim power and society. It is not as familiar as the Iberian peninsula or Syria-Palestine, but is it sufficiently compact

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