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Arab civilization in Norman Sicily


The Arab civilization that arose on the island of Sicily is considered a very important episode in the history of the civilizations witnessed on this island, such as the Phoenician, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

This importance comes not only because this civilization continued to exist and flourish in Sicily after the end of Arab rule at the hands of the Normans, but also because it was an important factor that contributed to the modern European Renaissance.

Arab conquest of Sicily

The Arab conquest of the island of Sicily - which was under Byzantine rule - was carried out by the Aghlabids (d. 828 AD). The Arabs resided during their rule of the island, which lasted for about two and a half centuries (827-1091 AD).

A civilization that gradually flourished in the cultural, administrative, economic and artistic fields. In reality, it was a mixture of the civilization of the Arabs in the East and the West on the one hand, and the achievements and creativity of the Sicilian Arabs on the other hand, and what was inherited from the civilizations that succeeded one another on the island on the third hand.

The Arab conquest of Sicily led to a period of splendour for the island.

Not least in Palermo which became one of the richest, most beautiful and densely populated cities of the Muslim world, perhaps second only to Baghdad with its five hundred mosques and population of 300,000.

It was the seat of powerful emirates and a city of trade which saw him constructing magnificent buildings, luxurious gardens and even artificial lakes.


The Arabs practiced a policy of tolerance in ruling peoples of different races, cultures, and religions, allowing them to practice their own religious freedom, customs, and laws.

Norman conquest of Sicily

The Normans seized Sicily from the hands of the Arabs, and they were helped in this by the divisions and conflicts that were taking place on the island between the Arab princes in 1072 AD.

But their conquest of the island was not completed until 1091 AD. Four powerful Norman rulers ruled Sicily: Roger I (d. 1101 AD), Roger II (d. 1154 AD), William I (d. 1166 AD), and William II (d. 1189 AD).

What is striking is that the Normans had barely settled in Sicily before they became impressed with the civilization left behind by their Arab ancestors, declared their protection of it, and demonstrated their desire to benefit from it.

The Norman position of Arab civilization

The victorious Normans stood with respect and appreciation before the civilization of the defeated Arabs.

First: The policy of religious tolerance adopted by the Normans during their rule of the island. Sicily was inhabited when the Normans conquered it: Arabs, Greeks, Latins and others.

The Normans realized that successfully leading these peoples, achieving a balance between their interests, and ensuring the safety of the state required adopting a policy of religious tolerance and taking into account the customs and traditions of these peoples.

The first to lay the foundations of this policy was Roger I, and his children and grandchildren followed in his footsteps. Al-Idrisi (d. 1166 AD) confirmed this policy when he spoke about the reign of Roger I, saying: This approach of tolerance helped the Normans accept, assimilate, and benefit from the civilization of the Arabs.

Second: Encouraging science and scholars, as the Norman kings were passionate about science and knowledge, and scholars were respected and encouraged.

Second: Encouraging science and scholars, as the Norman kings were passionate about science and knowledge, and scholars were respected and encouraged.

Al-Idrisi would come to him riding a mule, and when he was with him, he would step down from his seat for him, but he would refuse, so they would sit together.

William II was also passionate about the company of men of science, especially doctors and astrologers.

This passion for science and its people made them fully appreciate Arab civilization and accept its achievements.

Third: The superiority of the Arab civilization that the Normans inherited from their ancestors, the Sicilian Arabs, on the one hand, and the weakness of the Norman civilization themselves, on the other hand, constituted an important factor that encouraged the Normans to embrace the Arab civilization.

Fourth: The Norman court in Sicily was not subject to the incitement of the papacy, bishops, and the Inquisition against Arabs and Islam, as was the case at that time in Italy, Spain, and other European countries.

Relations between the Normans and the papacy began to be hostile, and therefore the lack of religious incitement in the Norman court against Muslim Arabs contributed to the Normans’ acceptance of Arab civilization without opposing religious trends.

Fifth: The friendly relations that existed between the Norman kings and the Muslim Arab masses in Sicily facilitated the transfer of many aspects of Arab civilization to Norman circles.

Tolerance, justice, and respect for Arab customs and traditions created for the Norman kings respect and love among the Arabs of Sicily. These human relations between the two parties were one of the important channels in the transmission of Arab civilization to Norman Sicily.

Manifestations of Islamic civilization on the Norman presence in Sicily

First in the Norman court

The Norman court in Sicily took on an Arab-Islamic character. The Normans assigned many high-ranking positions in the court to talented Arab Muslims.

The Norman king's guard included a large number of Muslim Arabs, in addition to his guard of Norman knights. The laws and decisions issued by the Norman court were in three languages: Arabic, Latin, and Greek.

Second in the Army and Navy

The recruitment of Muslim Arabs into the Norman army began in the days of Roger I, but soon the main army battalions consisted of Arab Muslim soldiers under Arab command.

The Normans also borrowed from the Arabs many martial arts and methods. The Norman army also included Arab Muslim military engineers, who made catapults, mobile siege towers, and built city fortifications.

On the other hand, the Normans succeeded in building a naval fleet that achieved great victories for them, especially in North Africa. The first person to assume the position of admiral was an Arab man, Abd al-Rahman al-Nasrani, who took a Greek name: Christodoulos. He was then succeeded in this position by another Arab, George of Antioch, who organized the Norman navy in the days of Roger II. After his death, a third Arab, Philip, assumed command of the Norman fleet. A large number of Norman naval soldiers were also Muslim Arabs.

Thirdly, in the field of management

Roger I maintained the administrative and financial system that existed on the island in the days of the Arabs, he kept most of the Arab employees, with experience and integrity, in the Norman administration. It is certain that the Normans quoted three collections of Arabic origins:

Roger I maintained the administrative and financial system that existed on the island in the days of the Arabs, he kept most of the Arab employees, with experience and integrity, in the Norman administration. It is certain that the Normans quoted three collections of Arabic origins

1 - The Board of Grievances: to which the oppressed raise their complaints, and it was headed by the Norman king himself.

2 - Diwan Al-Taraz: which supervised the factories that manufactured royal clothes and embroidered them with gold.

3 - The Bureau of Investigation: which was responsible for the financial administration of the Norman state and kept records of the land, the fiefdoms, and the slaves working therein. His records were written in Arabic.

Fourthly, in the field of economic life

Historical references indicate that many Arab industries remained active and thriving in the Norman era. For example, there was a silk factory and an embroidery institute near the Royal Palace in Palermo. This factory prepared and embroidered the clothes of the Norman kings, especially the luxurious clothes decorated with Arabic and Latin inscriptions.

 As for agriculture, although the wars that took place between the Normans and the Arabs of Sicily caused severe damage to agriculture, farmers, and irrigation means, agriculture continued its renaissance that it witnessed during the days of Arab rule of the island.

It is known that the Arabs introduced many crops to it, such as: the cultivation of cotton, sugar cane, olives, palm trees, oranges, pistachios, bananas, saffron...etc. The Arabs also built a wide network of canals and channels, the effects of which can still be seen today.

Most of the trade, in the days of the Normans, remained in Arab hands. Although the merchants of the Italian cities had obtained trade privileges on the island from the Norman kings, this did not reduce the activity of Arab merchants in Sicily and the Mediterranean world.

Fifth in the field of architecture

The architecture of Norman Sicily continued to carry an Arab-Islamic character.

The Norman kings in Sicily established palaces built by their Arab ancestors, such as the “Sweet Sea” Palace in Palermo. They also built new palaces built for them by Arab architects in Palermo in the Arab-Islamic style, such as the “Aziza” Palace, which was built during the reign of William I, and the “Dome” Palace, which was built during the reign of William II.

Sicilian cities also continued to contain mosques, baths, hotels, and luxurious buildings built in the Arab style and decorated with precious marble and colorful mosaics. Rather, Arab Muslim architects contributed to the construction of churches and monasteries and decorated them with Arabic mosaics.

Sixth Arab women in the Norman era

Arab women played a civilizing role in Norman society, as their fashions spread among Norman women, and many Christian women in the Norman court converted to Islam under the influence of Muslim women who worked in the court.

Seventh in the cultural and scientific fields

Although a large number of Arab Muslim scholars, writers, and poets left Sicily, after the Normans took control of it, to Andalusia and Africa, the culture and sciences of the Arabs continued in Sicily in the days of the Normans, where the mosque continued to play a very important role in religious, linguistic, and literary studies.

The Arabic language continued to be prevalent on the island during the Norman era, along with Latin and Greek. In fact, a number of Norman kings, such as William I and II, were fluent in reading, writing, and speaking Arabic. The translation movement from Arabic to Latin also flourished in Norman Sicily

During the Norman era, many Arabic books entered Sicily. For example, King Roger II cited a large number of works by Arab geographers, such as Al-Masudi, Ibn Khurdadhiba, Ibn Al-Adhari, Ibn Hawqal, Al-Yaqoubi, and others.

As for the Arab Muslim scholars and poets who remained in Norman Sicily, became of great importance to the Norman kings.

As for the poets who lived under the Normans and composed praise poems, they were numerous. It should be noted that the lyric poetry that prevailed in Sicily in the Norman era was mixed with Arabic songs spread among the Muslim Arabs in Palermo.

There is no doubt that geography was one of the most prominent sciences that flourished at the hands of the Arabs in Norman Sicily. It is known that Roger II had invited the Moroccan geographer Sharif al-Idrisi to his court, and granted him all forms of honor. Under the patronage and encouragement of this king, Al-Idrisi accomplished three scientific achievements: