Islam In Malta
Islam in Malta, although only recently being reintroduced in a sizeable number in the latter half of the 20th century, has had a historically profound impact upon the country – especially its language and agriculture – as a consequence of previous centuries of Muslim control and presence on its islands. Today, the main organizations represented in Malta are the Libyan World Islamic Call Society and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama’at.
Byzantine rule: 533-869
Prior to Muslim rule, Eastern Christianity had been prominent in Malta during the time of Byzantine rule and even remained significant during the Islamic period.
Muslim rule: 870-1090
Islam is believed to have been introduced to Malta when the North African Aghlabids, first led by Halaf al-Hadim and later by Sawada ibn Muhammad, conquered the islands from the Byzantines, after arriving from Sicily in 870 (as part of the wider Arab–Byzantine wars). However, it has also been argued that the islands were occupied by Muslims earlier in the 9th, and possibly 8th, century. The Aghlabids established their capital in Mdina. The old Roman fortification, later to become Fort St Angelo, was also extended.
According to the Arab chronicler and geographer Muhammad bin Abd al-Munim al-Himyari (author of Kitab al-Rawd al-Mitar), following the Muslim attack and conquest, Malta was practically uninhabited until it was recolonised by Muslims from Sicily in 1048–1049, or possibly several decades earlier.
The Muslims generally tolerated the Christian population of Malta.
Medieval Period: 1091-1224
Malta returned to Christian European rule with the Norman conquest in 1091. It was, along with Noto on the southern tip of Sicily, the last Arab stonghold in the region to fall to the Christians.
The Arab administration was initially kept in place and Muslims were allowed to practise their religion freely until the 13th century. The Normans allowed an emir to remain in power with the understanding that he would pay an annual tribute to them in mules, horses, and munitions. As a result of this favourable environment, Muslims continued to demographically and economically dominate Malta for at least another 150 years after the Christian conquest.
In 1122 Malta experienced a Muslim uprising and in 1127 Roger II of Sicily reconquered the islands.
Even in 1175, Burchard, bishop of Strasbourg, an envoy of Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor, had the impression, based upon his brief visit to Malta, that it was exclusively or mainly inhabited by Muslims
In 1224, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, sent an expedition against Malta to establish royal control and prevent its Muslim population from helping a Muslim rebellion in the Kingdom of Sicily
The conquest of the Normans would lead to the gradual Latinization and subsequent firm establishment of Roman Catholicism in Malta, after previous respective Eastern Orthodox and Islamic domination
According to a census in 1240 or 1241 by Gililberto Abbate, who was the royal governor of Frederick II of Sicily during the Genoese Period of the County of Malta, in that year the islands of Malta and Gozo had 836 Muslim families, 250 Christian families and 33 Jewish families
In 1266, Malta was turned over in fiefdom to Charles of Anjou, brother of France’s King Louis IX, who retained it in ownership until 1283. Eventually, during Charles’s rule religious coexistence became precarious in Malta, since he had a genuine intolerance of religions other than Roman Catholicism. However, Malta’s links with Africa would still remain strong until the beginning of Spanish rule in 1283
By the end of the 15th century all Maltese Muslims would be forced to convert to Christianity and had to find ways to disguise their previous identities
Knights of St. John: 1530-1798
During the period of rule under the Knights Hospitaller, thousands of Muslim slaves, captured as a result of maritime raids, were taken to Malta. There was also a deliberate and ultimately successful campaign to deemphasize Malta’s historic links with Africa and Islam.
20th to 21st century
Islamic Cultural Centre in Paola
In 1971, the Labour administration, finding itself in dire straits, sought financial help from Libya. Since then, Malta has always maintained intimate relations with Libya and other Arab countries. The Arab League started sending aid to Malta and a Maltese-Arab Chamber of Commerce was set up. Many Maltese sought work in Libya, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and other Islamic countries. When Air Malta was created in 1975, a number of Pakistani pilots were employed in the new airline and they in turn trained Maltese Airline personnel. However, one must state that the dispute in the early 1980s between Malta and Libya over the continental shelf had temporarily dented the friendly relations between the two countries.
In due course, Arabic became a compulsory subject in Maltese schools. Libya, Egypt, and Kuwait accordingly dispatched teachers of Arabic to Maltese schools. In many cases, these teachers brought over their families also. A school for Arab children was subsequently opened. In fact, so many Arabic students came over to Malta that an Arabic College was opened. Eventually, Malta acquired a reputation as an “important centre for Arab printing”.
On the 2nd of June, 1977, Maltese medical doctors went on an indefinite strike which was to last 10 years. The Maltese Government sought the aid of foreign doctors, many of whom hailed from Islamic countries. Like Arab teachers already referred-to, these doctors brought over their families.
The political situation brought about many mixed marriages between Maltese and Arabs; in many cases these were accompanied by a change of religion from Christianity to Islam. Accordingly, this gave rise to a new Islamic community. Like Muslim minorities in other European countries, the Muslim community here, however small, persists in asserting and strengthening its presence; being sensitive enough to realize it is incumbent upon it to organize itself in order to be able to safeguard its way of life as much as possible.
Already in 1973 the World Islamic Call Society sent an application for a plot of land at Kordin, Malta, with a view of setting up an Islamic centre there. Anxious to improve relations with the Arab world, the Maltese Government granted permission for the building of the centre, consisting of a mosque with adjoining halls and rooms for religious and cultural purposes. Among its very facilities, there is an Islamic Library.
In the issue of “Mediterranean News” of Sunday 9th October 1977, a report under the heading “Islam, comes to Malta” states that, “Because of Malta’s better relations with North African countries and especially the Libyan Arab Jamahereya, yet another religion has been introduced here – Islam. The Islamic community on the Island made up largely of visitors, foreign residents, students and a few Maltese converts has been increasing over the past few years. As a result, it was recently announced that a mosque costing almost Lm900.000 is to be built at Corradino”.
On the 2nd of August, 1978, Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhdhafi (Qaddafi) laid the foundation stone of the new Islamic centre which took three years to built with Libya voluntarily shouldering most of the expenses incurred.
The local Catholic Church approved the centre in the true spirit of Vatican Council II, accordingly initiating the beginnings of religious services with representatives from both sides simultaneously participating. The highest representatives of the Church visited the centre. Meetings between Catholic and Moslem representatives became frequent, this being one of the aims of the centre: “Solidifying ties between Moslems and Christians in Malta by providing an atmosphere of cooperation and understanding and mutual respect”; also “Deepening dialogue between religions and opening new horizons for understanding and dialogue between the followers of heavenly religions”. Indeed, it was a relationship of cordial friendship and mutual respect.
In 2003, of the estimated 3,000 Muslims in Malta, approximately 2,250 were foreigners, approximately 600 were naturalised citizens, and approximately 150 were native-born Maltese – most notably Mario Farrugia Borg, who is part of the personal secretariat of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and was the first Maltese public officer to take an oath on the Koran when co-opted into the Qormi local council in 1998. By 2010, there were approximately 6,000 Muslims in Malta – most of whom are Sunni and foreigners.
There is one mosque called the Islamic Centre of Paola in Paola, founded in 1978 by the World Islamic Call Society, and one adjoining Muslim school called the Maryam al-Batool school.
The strongest legacy of Islam in Malta is the Maltese language, and most place names (other than the names Malta and Gozo) are Arabic, as are most surnames, e.g. Borg, Cassar, Chetcuti, Farrugia, Fenech, Micallef, Mifsud and Zammit.
Modern Maltese (or Malti) is described by some linguists as an Arabic dialect. 43 percent of the words have an Arabic origin. Randan is Malti for the Christian season of Lent, and comes from Ramadan, Arabic for the Islamic month of fasting. The word God, in Malti, is Alla. On the island of Gozo lies an Arab tombstone from 1174. It’s found near the village of Xewkija (shaw-ki-ya, from the Arabic for thorn).
It has been argued that this survival of the Maltese language, as opposed to the extinction of Siculo-Arabic in Sicily, is probably due to the eventual large-scale conversions to Christianity of the proportionally large Maltese Muslim population.
The Muslims also introduced innovative and skillful irrigation techniques such as the water-wheel known as the Noria or Sienja, all of which made Malta more fertile. They also introduced sweet pastries and spices and new crops, including; citrus, figs, almond, as well as the cultivation of the cotton plant, which would become the mainstay of the Maltese economy for several centuries, until the latter stages of the rule of the Knights of St. John. The distinctive landscape of terraced fields is also the result of introduced ancient Arab methods.
In modern times, Malta’s unique culture has enabled it to serve as Europe’s “bridge” to the Arab cultures and economies of North Africa.