Islam in Italy

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The Mosque of Rome, the biggest mosque in the Western world.

Muslim presence in Italy dates back to the 9th century, when Sicily came under control of the Abbasid Caliphate. There was a large Muslim presence in Italy from 827 (the first occupation of Mazara)[1] until the 12th century. The Norman conquest of Sicily led to a gradual decline of Islam, due to conversions and emigration of Muslims toward Northern Africa. A small Muslim community however survived at least until 1300 (the destruction of the Muslim settlement of Lucera). Thereafter, until the 20th century, Islam was virtually non-existent in Italy.

During the 20th century, the first Somali immigrants from Somalia began to arrive.[citation needed] In more recent years, there has been migration from Albania, Bangladesh, India, Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia.[2]

Legal status[edit]

Islam is not formally recognised by the state. The official recognition of a religion different from Catholicism on behalf of the Italian Government is in fact to be approved by the President of the Republic under request of the Italian Minister of the Interior, following a signed agreement between the proposing religious community and the government. Such recognition does not merely depend on the number of followers of a given religion, and it requires congruence between the proposing religion principles and the Constitution.[3] Official recognition gives an organised religion a chance to benefit from a national "religion tax", known as the Eight per thousand. Other religions, including Judaism and smaller groups, such as the Assemblies of God, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Seventh-Day Adventists, already enjoy the official recognition in the form of signed agreements with the Italian government. In 2005, a council composed of Muslim people, the Council for Italian Islam, was founded by the Italian Minister of the Interior.[4] Strong disagreement between Council members slows its work.[5]



The Italian island of Pantelleria (which lies between the western tip of Sicily and North Africa) was conquered by the Arabs in 700. The Arabs had earlier raided Roman Sicily in 652, 667 and 720 A.D.; Syracuse in the eastern end of the island was occupied for the first time temporarily in 708, but a planned invasion in 740 failed due to a rebellion of the Berbers of the Maghreb that lasted until 771 and civil wars in Ifriqiya lasting until 799. Arabian attacks on the island of Sardinia, less important than those on Sicily, failed to achieve its conquest although they induced its separation from the Roman Empire, giving birth to a period of Sardinian independence, the era of the giudicati.

Conquest of Sicily[edit]

According to some sources, the conquest was spurred by Euphemius, a Byzantine commander who feared punishment by Emperor Michael II for a sexual indiscretion. After a short-lived conquest of Syracuse, he was proclaimed emperor but was compelled by loyal forces to flee to the court of Ziyadat Allah in Africa. The latter agreed to conquer Sicily, with the promise to leave it to Euphemius in exchange for a yearly tribute. To end the constant mutinies of his army, the Aghlabid magistrate of Ifriqiya sent Arabian, Berber, and Andalusian rebels to conquer Sicily in 827, 830 and 875, led by, amongst others, Asad ibn al-Furat. Palermo fell to them in 831, followed by Messina in 843, Syracuse in 878. In 902 the Ifriqiyan magistrate himself led an army against the island, seizing Taormina in 902. Reggio Calabria on the mainland fell in 918, and in 964 Rometta, the last remaining Byzantine toehold on Sicily.

Under the Muslims, agriculture in Sicily prospered and became export oriented. Arts and crafts flourished in the cities [citation needed]. Palermo, the Muslim capital of the island, had 300,000 inhabitants at that time, more than all the cities of Germany combined. The local population conquered by the Muslims were Romanized Catholic Sicilians in Western Sicily and partially Greek speaking Christians, mainly in the eastern half of the island, but there were also a significant number of Jews.[6] These conquered people were afforded a limited freedom of religion under the Muslims as dhimmi, but were subject to some restrictions. The dhimmi were also required to pay the jizya, or poll tax, and the kharaj or land tax, but were exempt from the tax that Muslims had to pay (Zakaat). Under Arab rule there were different categories of Jizya payers, but their common denominator was the payment of the Jizya as a mark of subjection to Muslim rule in exchange for protection against foreign and internal aggression. The conquered population could avoid this subservient status simply by converting to Islam. Whether by honest religious conviction or societal compulsion large numbers of native Sicilians converted to Islam. However, even after 100 years of Islamic rule, numerous Greek-speaking Christian communities prospered, especially in north-eastern Sicily, as dhimmi. This was largely a result of the Jizya system which allowed co-existence. This co-existence with the conquered population fell apart after the reconquest of Sicily, particularly following the death of King William II of Sicily in 1189. By the mid-11th century, Muslims made up the majority of the population of Sicily.

The battle at Ostia in 849 ended the third Arab attack on Rome.

Emirates in Apulia[edit]

From Sicily, the Muslims launched attacks on the mainland and devastated Calabria. In 835 and again in 837, the Duke of Naples was fighting against the Duke of Benevento and appealed to the Sicilian Muslims for help. In 840 Taranto and Bari fell to the Muslims, and in 841 Brindisi.[7] Muslim attacks on Rome failed in 843, 846 and 849. In 847 Taranto, Bari and Brindisi declared themselves emirates independent from the Aghlabids. For decades the Muslims ruled the Mediterranean and attacked the Italian coastal towns. Muslims occupied Ragusa in Sicily between 868 and 870.

Only after the fall of Malta in 870 did the occidental Christians succeed in setting up an army capable of fighting the Muslims. Over the next two decades, most of the mainland was freed from Muslim rule. The Franco-Roman emperor Louis II conquered Brindisi and beat the Arabs at Bari in 871, but then fell captive to the Aghlabids. In his stead the Byzantines conquered Taranto in 880. In 882 the Muslims had founded at the mouth of Garigliano between Naples and Rome a new base further in the north, which was in league with Gaeta, and had attacked Campania as well as Sabinia in Lazio. A hundred years later the Byzantines called the Sicilian Muslims for support against a campaign of German emperor Otto II. They beat Otto at the battle of Stilo in 982 and for the next 100 years largely succeeded in preventing his successors from entering southern Italy.

In 1002 a Venetian fleet defeated Muslims besieging Bari. After the Aghlabids were defeated in Ifriqiya as well, Sicily fell in the 10th century to their Fatimid successors, but claimed independence after fights between Sunni and Shia Muslims under the Kalbids.

Raids in Piedmont[edit]

After they had conquered the Visigoth Kingdom in Spain (729-765), the Arabs and Berbers from Septimania and Narbonne carried out raids into northern Italy, and in 793 again invaded southern France (Nice 813, 859 and 880). In 888 Andalusian Muslims set up a new base in Fraxinet near Fréjus in French Provence, from where they started raids along the coast and in inner France.

In 915, after the Battle of Garigliano, the Muslims lost their base in southern Lazio. In 926 King Hugh of Italy called the Muslims to fight against his northern Italian rivals. In 934 and 935 Genoa and La Spezia were attacked, followed by Nice in 942. In Piedmont the Muslims got as far as Asti and Novi, and also moved northwards along the Rhône valley and the western flank of the Alps.[citation needed] After defeating Burgundian troops[citation needed], in 942-964 they conquered Savoy and occupied a part of Switzerland (952-960)[citation needed]. To fight the Arabs, Emperor Berengar I, Hugh’s rival, called the Hungarians, who in their turn devastated northern Italy. As a result of the Muslim defeat at the Battle of Tourtour, Fraxinet was lost and razed by the Christians in 972. Thirty years later, in 1002, Genoa was invaded, and in 1004 Pisa.[citation needed]

Pisa and Genoa joined forces to end Muslim rule over Corsica (Islamic 810/850-930/1020) and Sardinia. In Sardinia in 1015 the fleet of the Andalusian lord of Dénia come from Spain, settled a temporary military camp as a logistic base to control Tyrrhenian Sea and Italian peninsula, but in 1016 the fleet was forced to leave its base due to the military intervention of maritime republics of Genoa and Pisa.

Sicily under the Normans[edit]

Former palace of the Emir: Palazzo dei Normanni.
San Giovanni degli Eremiti: Arabian-Roman-Norman symbiosis.
Arabic inscription on the Coronation Mantle of King Roger II of Sicily.

The cultural and economical bloom in Sicily that had started under the Kalbids was interrupted by internecine fights, followed by invasions by the Tunisian Zirids (1027), Pisa (1030–1035), and the Romans (1027 onwards). Eastern Sicily (Messina, Syracuse and Taormina) was captured by the Byzantines in 1038–1042. In 1059 Normans from southern Italy, led by Roger I, invaded the island. The Normans conquered Reggio in 1060 (conquered by the Romanin 1027). Messina fell to the Normans in 1061; an invasion by the Algerian Hammadids to preserve Islamic rule was thwarted in 1063 by the fleets of Genoa and Pisa. The loss of Palermo in 1072 and of Syracuse in 1088 could not be prevented. Noto and the last Muslim strongholds on Sicily fell in 1091. In 1090–91 the Normans also conquered Malta; Pantelleria fell in 1123.

A small Muslim population remained on Sicily under the Normans.[8][9] Roger II hosted at his court, among others, the famous geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi and the poet Muhammad ibn Zafar. At first, Muslims were tolerated by the Normans, but soon pressure from the Popes led to their increasing discrimination; most mosques were destroyed or made into churches.[citation needed] The first Sicilian Normans did not take part in the Crusades, but they undertook a number of invasions and raids in Ifriqiya, before they were defeated there after 1157 by the Almohads.

This peaceful coexistence in Sicily finally ended with the death of King William II in 1189. The Muslim elite emigrated at that time. Their medical knowledge was preserved in the Schola Medica Salernitana; an Arabian-Roman-Norman synthesis in art and architecture survived as Sicilian Romanesque. The remaining Muslims fled, for example to Caltagirone on Sicily, or hid out in the mountains and continued to resist against the Hohenstaufen dynasty, who ruled the island from 1194 on. In the heartland of the island, the Muslims declared Ibn Abbad the last Emir of Sicily.

To end this upheaval, emperor Frederick II, himself a Crusader, instigated a policy to rid Sicily of the few remaining Muslims. This cleansing was done in small part under Papal influence but mostly in order to create a loyal force of troops which could not be influenced by non-Christian infiltrators. In 1224–1239 he deported every single Muslim from Sicily to an autonomous colony under strict military control (so that they could not infiltrate non-Muslim areas) in Lucera in Apulia. Muslims were recruited however by Frederick in the army and constituted his faithful personal bodyguard, since they had no connection to his political rivals. In 1249 he ejected the Muslims from Malta as well. Lucera was returned to the Christians in 1300 at the instigation of the pope by King Charles II of Naples. Muslims were forcefully converted, killed or expelled from Europe . However a Muslim community was still recorded in Apulia in 1336[10] and very recently in 2009, a genetic study revealed a small genetic Northwest African contribution among today's inhabitants near the region of Lucera.[11]

15th century: Ottomans in Otranto[edit]

During this century, the Ottoman Empire was expanding mightily in southeastern Europe. It completed the absorption of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 under Sultan Mehmet II by conquering Constantinople and Galata. It seized Genoa's last bastions in the Black Sea in 1475 and Venice's Greek colony of Euboea in 1479. Turkish troops invaded the Friuli region in northeastern Italy in 1479 and again in 1499–1503. The Apulian harbor town of Otranto, located about 100 kilometers southeast of Brindisi, was seized in 1480 (Ottoman invasion of Otranto), but the Turks were routed there in 1481 by an alliance of several Italian city-states, Hungary and France led by the prince Alphonso II of Naples, when Mehmet died and a war for his succession broke out. Cem Sultan, pretender to the Ottoman throne, was defeated despite being supported by the pope; he fled with his family to the Kingdom of Naples, where his male descendants were bestowed with the title of Principe de Sayd by the Pope in 1492. They lived in Naples until the 17th century and in Sicily until 1668 before relocating to Malta.

Attacks in the 16th century[edit]

It is a subject of debate whether Otranto was meant to be the base for further conquests. In any case, the Ottoman sultans had not given up their ambition to take over the Italian Peninsula and to install Islamic sovereignty. After the conquests of Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and Hungary in 1526 and the defeat of the Turkish army at Vienna in 1529, Turkish fleets again attacked southern Italy. Reggio was sacked in 1512 by the famous Turkish leader Khayr al-Din, better known by the nickname of Barbarossa; in 1526 the Turks attacked Reggio again, but this time suffered a setback and were forced to turn their sights elsewhere. In 1538 they defeated the Venetian fleet. In 1539 Nice was raided by the Barbary states (Siege of Nice), but an attempted Turkish landing on Sicily failed, as did the attempted conquest of Pantelleria in 1553 and the siege of Malta in 1565.

Next to Spain, the biggest contribution to the victory of the Christian "Holy League" in the battle of Lepanto in 1571 was made by the Republic of Venice, which between 1423 and 1718 fought eight costly wars against the Ottoman Empire. In 1594 the city of Reggio was again sacked by Scipione Sinan Cicala, a renegade who converted to Islam.

Present day[edit]

Muslim population in Italy by the year:
1999 520,000—    
2009 1,200,000+130.8%
2016 1,400,000+16.7%
1999 and 2009 estimates[12]
2016 census[13]

According to the latest Italian official statistics, there are 1.400.000 Muslims in Italy (2.3% of the Italian population), almost one third of Italy's foreign population (250.000 have acquired italian citizenship). The majority of Muslims in Italy are Sunni, with a Shi'ite minority. There are also a few Ahmadi Muslims in the country.[13]

Despite illegal immigrants representing a minority of the Muslims in Italy, considering that illegal migrants overwhelming come from islamic countries, the issue of Islam in contemporary Italy has been linked by some political parties (particularly the Lega Nord) with immigration, and more specifically illegal immigration. Immigration has become a prominent political issue, as reports of boatloads of illegal immigrants (or clandestini) dominate news programmes, especially in the summertime. Police forces have not had great success in intercepting many of the thousands of clandestini who land on Italian beaches, mainly because of a political unwillingness, partly fostered by the EU, to address the issue. However, the vast majority of the clandestini landing in Italy are only using the country as a gateway to other EU states, due to the fact that Italy offers fewer economic opportunities and social welfare for them than Germany, France, or the United Kingdom.

While in medieval times the Muslim population was almost totally concentrated in Insular Sicily and in the city of Lucera, in Apulia, it is today more evenly distributed, with almost 60% of Muslims living in the North of Italy, 25% in the Centre, and only 15% in the South. Muslims form a lower proportion of immigrants than in previous years, as the latest statistical reports by the Italian Ministry of Interior and Caritas indicate that the share of Muslims among new immigrants has declined from over 50% at the beginning of the 1990s (mainly Albanians and Moroccans) to less than 25% in the following decade, due to the massive arrivals from eastern Europe.

Recent points of contention between native Italians and the Muslim immigrant population include the presence of crucifixes in public buildings, including school classrooms, government offices, and hospital wards. Adel Smith has attracted considerable media attention by demanding that crucifixes in public facilities be removed. The Italian Council of State, in the Sentence No. 556, 13 February 2006, confirmed the display of the crucifix in government sponsored spaces. Smith was subsequently charged with defaming the Catholic religion in 2006.[14]

In November 2016, Minister of the Interior Angelino Alfano reported that Italy had deported nine imams for inciting racial violence.[15]

In January 2017, community groups representing around 70% of the Muslim community in Italy signed a pact with the government to "reject all forms of violence and terrorism" and to hold prayers in mosques in the Italian language or at least to have them translated.[16]

Prison population[edit]

According to the ISPI, using the country of origin as an estimate, about one fifth of the 59655 prison population in Italy have Muslim faith. Of thouse, 7169 were observant and conduct prayers regularly. Of those, 44 prisoners had converted to Islam while in prison.[17]


Interior of the annexed Mosque of Rome

There have been a number of cases of extraordinary rendition of Muslim activists, as well as attempts by a past government to close mosques.[18] Many mosque constructions are blocked by opposition of local residents.[18] In September 2008 the Lega Nord political party was reported to have introduced a new bill which would have blocked the construction of new mosques in much of the country, arguing that Muslims can pray anywhere, and do not need a mosque. The construction of mosques had already been blocked in Milan.[19] The bill was not approved.


In 2007, the Moroccan imam at the mosque in Ponte Felcino in Perugia was deported for extremist views.[20]

Deportation (expulsion) of foreign suspects have been the cornerstone of Italy's preventive counter-terrorism strategy against jihadists.[21] Every deportee is prohibited from re-entering Italy and therefore the entire Schengen Area, for a period of five years. Italy is able to use this method as many radicalized Muslims are first-generation immigrants and therefore have not yet acquired Italian citizenship. In Italy as elsewhere in Europe, prison inmates show signs of radicalization while incarcerated andin 2018, 41 individuals were deported upon release from prison.[21] Of the 147 deported in the 2015-2017 all were related to Islamist radicalization and 12 were imams.[22] From January 2015 to April 2018, 300 individuals were expulsed from Italian soil.[23] The vast majority of the deportees come from North Africa and a smaller group come from the Balkans.[22]

In the mid to late 2010s, a "homegrown" jihadist movement started to emerge in Italy with jihadists writing online content in Italian.[24] While radicalized individuals may get in contact with fellow extremists at mosques, indoctrination and planning of violence take place elsewhere.[24]

From 1 August 2016 to 31 July 2017, a total of eight imams were deported. The following twelve month period, two were deported.[25]

In July 2016, the Moroccan imam at the Asonna center in Noventa Vicentina was deported for extremist views and for posing a security threat. While most extremists are banned for 5 to 10 years, Muhammed Madad was banned from returning for 15 years.[26]

In March 2018, police carried out an anti-terrorist operation in Foggia against the Al Dawa unauthorized prayer hall located near the railway station. Egyptian Abdel Rahman Mohy preached to children using Islamic State propaganda.[24]

According to prison authorities in Italy, in October 2018 there were 66 detainees who either had been sentenced or were awaiting trial for Islamic terrorism offences.[17]


Although Muslim population in Italy is very small comparing to its counterparts in France, Germany, Britain and Spain, anti-Islamic feeling in Italy runs high due to tensions in the past between the Italians and the Muslims, which is rallied by Italian medias fueling its anti-Islamic sentiment, with it became clear following the September 11 attacks and 7 July 2005 London bombings by Islamic extremists.[27]


A minority of Italian Muslims belong to religious associations, the best known of which are:

  • UCOII Unione delle Comunità Islamiche d'Italia
  • CICI, Centro Islamico Culturale d'Italia, which has its seat in the Mosque of Rome,[28] which is reputed to be the largest mosque in Europe[citation needed]
  • COREIS, Comunità Religiosa Islamica Italiana, which has its seat in Milan, but also a branch in Rome.[29]

Notable Muslims[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Assessment of the status, development and diversification of fisheries-dependent communities: Mazara del Vallo Case study report" (PDF). European Commission. 2010. p. 2. Retrieved 28 September 2012. In the year 827, Mazara was occupied by the Arabs, who made the city an important commercial harbour. That period was probably the most prosperous in the history of Mazara.
  2. ^ "Statistiche demografiche ISTAT". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  3. ^ Italian Ministry of the Interior - Regulations between Italian Government and other religions Archived 2012-02-26 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "Council for Italian Islam description page on Italian Minister of the Interior website". Archived from the original on 2011-07-22. Retrieved 2009-08-12.
  5. ^ "Archivio Corriere della Sera". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  6. ^ Archived link: From Islam to Christianity: the Case of Sicily, Charles Dalli, page 153. In Religion, ritual and mythology : aspects of identity formation in Europe / edited by Joaquim Carvalho, 2006, ISBN 88-8492-404-9.
  7. ^ Romilly James Heald Jenkins, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries, AD 610-1071 (Toronto University Press, 1987), 186.
  8. ^ Inturrisi, Louis. "TRACING THE NORMAN RULERS OF SICILY". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  9. ^ The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily
  10. ^ Norman Daniels, The Arabs and Medieval Europe, London, Longmann Group Limited, 1975
  11. ^ "An inspection of Table 1 reveals a nonrandom distribution of Male Northwest African types in the Italian peninsula, with at least a twofold increase over the Italian average estimate in three geographically close samples across the southern Apennine mountains (East Campania, Northwest Apulia, Lucera). When pooled together, these three Italian samples displayed a local frequency of 4.7%, significantly different from the North and the rest of South Italy (…). Arab presence is historically recorded in these areas following Frederick II’s relocation of Sicilian Arabs",Moors and Saracens in Europe estimating the medieval North African male legacy in southern Europe, Capelli et al., European Journal of Human Genetics, 21 January 2009
  12. ^ Merelli, Annalisa. "There are over 1.6 million Muslims in Italy—and only eight mosques — Quartz". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  13. ^ a b "Immigrazione in Italia 2016: i numeri dell'appartenenza religiosa". 18 July 2016. Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  14. ^ Catalyst Magazine
  15. ^ "From mafia to terror, the Italian way". Politico. Retrieved 4 November 2016.
  16. ^ "Italian Muslims sign anti-extremism pact". The Local. 2 February 2017.
  17. ^ a b ispisito (2019-02-28). "Jihadist Radicalization in Italian Prisons: A Primer". ISPI. Retrieved 2019-03-20.
  18. ^ a b "Milan mosque 'to be closed down'". 7 July 2008. Retrieved 10 April 2018 – via
  19. ^ Brown, Stephen. "Italy's right to curb Islam with mosque law". Retrieved 10 April 2018.
  20. ^ "Terrorismo, espulso un altro Imam: predicava a Perugia e Corciano". PerugiaToday. Retrieved 2018-08-25.
  21. ^ a b ispisito (2018-12-14). "The measure of expulsions for extremism". ISPI. Retrieved 2018-12-21.
  22. ^ a b Marone, Dr Francesco (2017-03-13). "The Use of Deportation in Counter-Terrorism: Insights from the Italian Case".
  23. ^ Vidino; et al. (2018). DE-RADICALIZATION IN THE MEDITERRANEAN - Comparing Challenges and Approaches (PDF). Milano: ISPI. pp. 13–15, 24, 26, 35–36. ISBN 9788867058198.
  24. ^ a b c "Jihadist Madrasat in Italy: A Background | ISPI". Retrieved 2018-08-25.
  25. ^ DOSSIER VIMINALE (PDF). Ministerio dell'Interno. 2018. p. 10.
  26. ^ "Predicava la "guerra santa", espulso l'imam: ha chiamato la figlia Jihad". Retrieved 2018-08-25.
  27. ^ Cere, Rinella (2002). ""Islamophobia" and the Media in Italy". Feminist Media Studies. 2: 133–136. doi:10.1080/146807702753745392.
  28. ^ "The Grand Mosque of Rome and Islamic Cultural Centre". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 7 September 2007. Retrieved 2018-03-02.
  29. ^ "CO.RE.IS (Comunità Religiosa Islamica) Italiana" (in Italian). Retrieved 2018-03-02.
  30. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]