Many today question whether Islām and Muslims have a place in Europe. Yet not many of us know that Muslims ruled not only Spain but other countries in Europe like Portugal, southern France, parts of Italy, Greece and Albania. Among them was the Mediterranean island of Malta.
The Invitation to Conquer Malta
Malta is an island state in the Mediterranean Sea. Islām came to Malta in the year 870 CE. Along with Sicily, Malta fell into Muslim hands following an appeal for Muslim support from its Byzantine ruler, Euphemius in his power struggle with the Byzantine emperor, Michael II. Euphemius was a Byzantine admiral who, in or around 826, was accused of a perhaps trumped-up charge of abducting and marrying a young nun from a convent. The Emperor ordered the governor of Sicily, Constantine, to end the marriage and cut off Euphemius’ nose. Euphemius, who had a large following, killed Constantine and organised an uprising against the Byzantine Emperor, Michael II, and, after some military successes, proclaimed himself emperor in Syracuse, independent from Constantinople. Realising, however, that he would be defeated by Byzantine troops when reinforcements were sent from the East, he appealed to Muslim leaders of Ifriqiya (comprises what is today Tunisia, western Libya eastern Algeria), where he asked the help of Muslims to take Sicily and Malta from the Byzantines.
The Muslims who he asked help of were the Aghlabids, a semi-independent Emirate. Nominally, they were a vassal and subject state of the Abbasid, but had been de facto independent since 801. The Aghlabid Emir of the time was Ziyadat Allah I who accepted Euphemius’ plea and entrusted its conquest to the 70-year-old Qadi, Asad b. al-Furat, who was a student of Imām Malik. Asad b. al-Furat was highly respected amongst the Aghlabids and was highly critical of Ziyadat for his policies. Ziyadat, therefore, saw this as an opportunity to rid himself of Asad and, also, to send his troops on an expedition at a time when tensions were surfacing at home along ethnic lines between Arabs and Berbers.
Asad initially made inroads before a plague set in and disrupted their progress. At a time that the expedition seemed to be at a loss, the Aghlabids made contact with the Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba in Andalusia who would aid them and were willing to work on a joint basis despite the Aghlabids being associated with the Abbasids. The mantle was then taken up by Muhammad b. Asbagh and, thus, Euphemius’ Muslim invasion first of Sicily and then Malta began, and so the beginning of the two-century Islamic domination on the island as the Emirate of Sicily. Ahmad b. Umar b. Ubaydallah b. al-Aghlab al-Habashi was the man who conquered Malta.
The Muslim country conquest of Sicily and Malta was a gradual process with the last Byzantine outpost in these lands being taken some 70 years after the conquest first began.
The Normans and Malta
From 870 to 1091, Malta was almost exclusively Muslim by religion and Arab by language. Even after the Norman Conquest in 1091, a significant Muslim segment in the society remained and the Muslim administration was initially kept in place and Muslims were allowed to practise their religion freely. This is similar to Sicily, where the Normans allowed the Muslims to retain their faith for some time, and not force them to convert.
During Roger II’s reign the Kingdom of Sicily, including Malta, became increasingly characterised by its multi-ethnic composition and religious tolerance. Normans, Muslim Arabs, Byzantine Greeks, Longobards and “native” Sicilians uniquely existed in harmony. Islamic authors marvelled at the forbearance of the Norman kings which was uncharacteristic of Christian rulers at the time. Ibn Athir wrote:
“They [the Muslims] were treated kindly, and they were protected, even against the Franks. Because of that, they had great love for King Roger.”
Similarly, Ibn Jubair wrote about life under William II of Sicily:
“The attitude of the king is really extraordinary. His attitude towards the Muslims is perfect: he gives them employment, he chooses his officers among them…The king has full confidence in the Muslims and relies on them to handle many of his affairs, including the most important ones, to the point that the Great Intendant for cooking is a Muslim (…) His viziers and chamberlains are eunuchs, of which there are many, who are the members of his government and on whom he relies for his private affairs.”
In 1224, however, Frederick II, responding to religious uprisings in Sicily, expelled all Muslims from the island, transferring many to Lucera. The colony thrived for 75 years until it was sacked in 1300 by Christian forces under the command of Charles II of Naples. The city’s Muslim inhabitants were exiled or sold into slavery, with many finding asylum in Albania across the Adriatic Sea. Their abandoned mosques were destroyed or converted and churches arose upon the ruins, including the Cathedral S. Maria della Vittoria.
The Ottomans and Malta
The next attempt to reconquer Malta by the Muslims was in the 16th Century by the mighty Ottoman Empire. In 1522, Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent laid siege to Rhodes which was at the time ruled by Christian Knights Templars who, from their founding in Jerusalem in the eleventh century, had primarily been focused on crusades and now the quiescent crusade tradition was revived in opposition to “the Saracen” in the form of the Ottoman Turks. The siege lasted six months until the knights were quite literally starved into surrender. They were allowed to leave with their arms and the Sultan even provided the ships for them to retreat.
It was under the grandson of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, that Malta became part of the Spanish Empire. Charles V granted the knights the island of Malta for their home in 1530 after their eviction from Rhodes and they were from here on known as the Knights of Malta. In 1565, Sultan Süleyman sent a fleet of approximately 200 ships and an army estimated at around 48,000 to Malta with orders to conquer the island but it ended in defeat after four months. Half of the knights were dead but the Ottomans had suffered heavy casualties.
The Mujāhids and Ulema of India, and Malta
Although India gained its independence in August 1947, it was nonetheless achieved as a result of a long struggle which involved contributions and sacrifices of men and women of all classes and communities of India, including the Muslims, and in particular the Ulema (Muslim clerics/scholars), whose participation in India’s freedom struggle is largely ignored. In fact, the revolts in 1857, which are considered by many as India’s first war of independence, was led by the Ulema as a result of which hundreds were hanged by the British.
Twenty years after this revolt came Shaykhul Hind Maulana Mahmood Hasan in 1877 who formed ‘Samratut Tarbiyat’ the aim of which was to prepare for armed insurrection against the British. This organisation, whose name changed on many occasions, struggled against the British for almost three decades. The movement aimed to liberate India from British rule with the help of Turkey, Imperial Germany, and Afghanistan. After their plots were intercepted by the British in 1916, over 200 Ulema were arrested all over India. The leading Ulema of this attempt for India’s liberation Maulana Mahmood Hasan and his comrades Maulana Waheed Ahamad Faizabadi, Maulana Azeez Gul, Hakim Syeed Nusrat Hussain and Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni were arrested in Makkah. The Sharif of Makkah, newly installed thanks to a British-backed coup against the Ottoman Sultan, knew what he had to do to please his patrons. They were then sent to Malta which was, at the time, an island prison camp for the British, intended as a destination for the most dangerous prisoners who were most opposed to the British and their allies. When the scholars arrived on the island, there were about three thousand prisoners belonging to different races, regions and religions – Muslims, Christians, Jews, Europeans, Turks, Arabs, Africans, Blacks, Whites and so on.
As a side point, it is apparent that Britain’s role in subverting the rule of law and renditioning Muslims is not a new phenomenon but one which they have a great tradition in. The charge against Maulana Mahmood Hassan was conspiracy to overthrow the British colonialist government in India and they, therefore, ought to have been tried in India. However, the British, anticipating the mass public agitation the trials would have provoked, brought Maulana Mahmood Hassan and his companions to the original Guantanamo Bay for incarceration – Malta. His student, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni, had the following to say about the incarceration:
“My brothers under detention in Adrianople are given by the Turkish Government six pounds every week each; their relatives are allowed visits. Your government neither gives us any of those facilities nor is any decision taken about us whether to punish or release”.
The Lasting Legacy
Whilst Malta is no longer under Muslim rule and there are only a very tiny population of Muslims who reside there, the lasting legacy of Islām in Malta cannot be denied.
Given that the Muslims only ruled Malta for less than two centuries and the island is overwhelmingly Catholic, it is somewhat surprising that the Islamic culture has left behind its signatures. Malta is unique in that the language spoken, Maltese (or Malti), is derived from Arabic. The Arabic language provides Maltese with its basic structure and an estimated 40% of its vocabulary. This is all the more impressive when you consider that Maltese is derived from Siculo-Arabic dialect, a language that has died out in neighbouring Sicily. The Maltese language today is described by some linguists as an Arabic dialect in and of itself.
When you analyse the words used in the Maltese language today, it quickly becomes apparent exactly what I mean. The word ‘Randan‘ is Maltese for the Christian season of Lent, derived from Ramaḍān, Arabic for the Islamic month of fasting. The word God, in Maltese, is ‘Alla’, clearly taken from the Arabic ‘Allāh‘. In fact, a rudimentary search using Google translate will enable you to discover for yourself just how many words are taken from Arabic such as numbers, e.g. ‘One’ being ‘Wieħed’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Wahid’; ‘Fasting’ being ‘Sawm’; ‘Heart’ being ‘Qalb’; ‘Book’ being ‘Ktieb’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Kitab’; ‘Heaven’ being ‘Genna’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Jannah’; ‘Fire’ being ‘Nar’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Naar’; colours such as ‘White’ and ‘Black’ being ‘Abjad’ and ‘Aswad’; ‘Great’ being ‘Kbira’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Kabir’; ‘Soul’ being ‘Ruh’, the same in Arabic; ‘Holy’ being ‘Qaddis’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Quddus’; ‘Bread’ being ‘Hobz’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Khubz’ – please try it yourself by clicking here.
The Muslim influence also remains in the names of towns. Several Maltese towns today still carry their Arabic names from the old capital, ‘Mdina’ taken from the Arabic of ‘Madinah’ (city) and its suburb, ‘Rabat’, taken from the Arabic of ‘Ribat‘ (fortification around a frontier); ‘Bahar’ taken from the Arabic for ‘Bahr’ (sea); ‘Gebel’ taken from the Arabic for ‘Jabal’ (mountain); ‘Zeytun’ taken from the Arabic for olives. On the islands which make up Gozo lies an Arab tombstone from 1174. It is found near the village of Xewkija (shaw-ki-ya, from the Arabic for ‘thorn’). In the town of Mdina, people every day walk along ‘Triq Miskita’, a street name that comes from the Arabic ‘Tariq’ (way) and from the Spanish word ‘Mesquita’ (mosque), though they may be unaware that a mosque once stood on that street.
In addition, the Maltese Catholic Churches have over the centuries, assimilated many Muslim practices. Instead of the Muadhin (calling the faithful to prayer) five times a day from minarets, the island’s churches call their faithful to prayer five times a day by the sound of melodious church bells.
Points to Note:
We see once again as we have in previous articles, such as those relating to Muslim Spain and Portugal, that Islām and Muslims are not new to Europe but, rather, they have a long and established presence here such that Islām is a religion of Europe as much as it is of the Middle East, Africa or Asia – after all it is fact that Islām has had a longer presence in Europe than Protestants, who make up the majority of Christians in Europe today. However, what is unique about Malta in addition to these facts is that it also gives the language of Islām, Arabic, a foothold in Europe up to this present day.
A deeper analysis of the various stages of Islām and Muslims’ presence in Malta highlights an important question for Governments in Europe today and that is this: Which period of Malta’s history do they wish for the Muslims, is it:
(1) Having tolerant Muslims in power as was the case under the Aghlabids?
(2) Living in peace and with tolerance with a Muslim minority community as was the case in the early years under the Normans?
(3) Forcibly converting and/or evicting Muslims from their country as was the case in later years under the Normans?
(4) A tug of war to ensue between Muslims and Crusaders as was the case during the period of the Ottomans and the Knights Templars? Or
(5) For it to become a place of imprisonment for Muslims who are suspected agitators against the state because they refuse to conform to their values as was the case under the British with the detaining of Muslim freedom fighters from India?
Or is it time for Europe to come to terms with the fact that Muslims are here and have been here for more than a thousand years (despite their best efforts not to acknowledge this) and will continue to remain here. Those who wish to alienate Islām and Muslims frequently remove Islām’s rich historic interaction with Europe, as well its many benefits and sharing of ideas and culture. Muslims have ruled and have equally been ruled with tolerance and respect being hallmarks which can be found in both at certain times. Indeed, if Islām was alien, its manners and morals a threat, then Norman kings would not have enjoyed cordial relations with Muslims. The “clash of civilisations” is an arrogant excuse to create a confrontation and it has provided fuel for those in the West who have made it their mission to wage war. Yet, history continues to provide a refutation to the thesis, demonstrating in the process that Islām has as much a stake in Europe as do the “Judeo-Christian” individuals of this great civilisation. It is therefore time that Europe itself assimilated with the notions of greater acceptance, respect and recognition of Islām and Muslims.
 The Muslims of Medieval Italy, Alex Metcalfe, Edinburgh.
 Siculo-Norman Art: Islamic Culture in Medieval Sicily, Nicola Giuliano Leone, Eliana Mauro, Carl
 A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period, Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. (1987), Cambridge University Press
 Les Arabes dans l’histoire, Lewis, Bernard (1993). Flammarion
 Muslims in Medieval Italy: The Colony at Lucera. Lanham, Md, Julie Taylor, Lexington Books. 2003.
 The Prisoners of Malta: The Heart Rending Tale of Muslim Freedom Fighters in British Period, Maulana Syed Mohammad Mian; Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni: A Biographical Study.
 Malta and the Arabs, David W. Tschanz