Roger II, al-Idrisi, and Religious Coexistence in Sicily
By Dr Akbar Ahmed
While Allama Mohammed Iqbal is known for his famous poem about the mosque of Cordoba and the glories of Muslim Spain a thousand years ago—which I saw hanging in the office of the Mayor of Cordoba—few know that Iqbal also wrote a poem about Sicily which has the following lines:
“Cry your heart out, eyes of mine,
That are weeping tears of blood!
There is the tomb of Arabian civilisation!”
“Sicily,” like “The Mosque of Cordoba,” is an evocative lament to a vanished golden age. Both are European regions where Muslims once ruled and where there was interfaith coexistence between Jews, Muslims, and Christians: what the Spanish call convivencia or coexistence.
When I visited Sicily as part of my “Journey into Europe” project with its focus onIslam in Europe, we heard about extraordinary figures from the past like Roger II, the powerful twelfth-century Christian king of Sicily who ruled after the Muslims lost Sicily. The King had a deep love for Islamic culture, spoke Arabic, was protected by Muslim bodyguards, and had Arabic on his royal mantle. Coins in his Sicilian kingdom were inscribed “King Roger, powerful through the grace of Allah” in Arabic. Roger II ensured that each religious community in Sicily—Muslims, Jews, and Christians—could preserve its own laws and customs. Ibn al-Athir, a twelfth century Muslim scholar from Mosul, wrote that Roger “founded a Court of Complaints,” to which Muslims “who had been unjustly treated brought their grievances.” The King “would give them justice, even against his own son.”
In history, Roger II is known for seeking knowledge, commissioning major translations of texts, and summoning “men of wisdom of different sorts from the various parts of the earth.” Of all of them, the most famous was the scientist and geographer al-Idrisi, who was born in North Africa and educated in Cordoba. Roger and al-Idrisi were great friends. Such was the King’s respect for the Muslim scholar that when al-Idrisi entered the room, Roger would stand up.
Roger II commissioned al-Idrisi, a descendant of the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), to conduct a magisterial study of different peoples and lands known as the Book of Roger. Al-Idrisi wrote that the book, which discussed cultures as far away as those of India and China, stemmed from Roger’s desire to have knowledge of the entire world. It was also in keeping with the Islamic compulsion to seek knowledge, or ilm. The American historian Samuel Parsons Scott in the early twentieth century wrote of the importance of al-Idrisi’s study: “Its descriptions of many parts of the earth are still authoritative. For three centuries geographers copied his maps without alteration. The relative position of the lakes which form the Nile, as delineated in his work, does not differ greatly from that established by Baker and Stanley more than seven hundred years afterwards, and their number is the same.”
King Roger II’s greatest glory was the chapel he built in Palermo, the Sicilian capital, which is a wonderful monument to convivencia. In the chapel, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic influences intermingle and overlap in luminescent colours and intricate designs. Sicilians are proud of the chapel. A Sicilian author and bookshop owner we met in Palermo called it “the symbol of Sicilian culture, because in this church all cultures in this island are represented.”
The spectacular wooden ceiling of the Palatine Chapel was built by Muslim craftsmen. A recent Italian book on the chapel, The Palatine Chapel in Palermo, states, “There is nothing like the painted wooden ceiling over the Palatine Chapel’s central nave anywhere else in the world.” Throughout and around the ceiling’s images, which are painstakingly painted, are Kufic Arabic greetings of good health, victory, and joy.
Some of the numerous images depicted on the roof panels which reflect Muslim influences include Roger II sitting in the manner of an Islamic ruler; scenes of court life; depictions of music, musicians, and typically Arab musical instruments; depictions of mythological beings from Muslim cultures; scenes from Muslim lore; and two turbaned men playing chess, a game that was introduced to Europe by Muslims.
When we visited Sicily, we found that its spirit of convivencia remains alive. We went to a market in Palermo which was established in Muslim times, in a district with an Arabic name. Palermo street signs are in Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew. The spirit is embodied through people like Leoluca Orlando, the Mayor of Palermo, who said he believed in “convivencia, not just tolerance” and spoke with warmth and affection about the Muslim community. He was prepared to welcome the migrants taking the perilous journey across the Mediterranean, saying, “For Sicilians, no man is illegal.”The mayor showed us a picture in which he is wearing Muslim clothing and praying with Muslims to mark the Eid celebration. “Don’t ask me the name of God,” he said. “When I come inside a mosque, I pray to Allah, when I come inside a synagogue, I pray to Yahweh. At this moment I am Christian.”
At a time when relations between the religions are fraught, Sicily, Roger II, and al-Idrisi—and those who today carry their legacy like Mayor Orlando—are powerful examples of coexistence we should learn from. If such examples of “convivencia” were possible in the past, there is no reason why they cannot be once again.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)