16 November 2018
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Dissertation - Dissertazzjoni

2. Islam in Malta

In order to write a complete and interesting history about Islam in Malta, we have to go far back into the history of the Maltese Islands. The Arabs appeared in Malta for the first time in the 9th century AD, possibly earlier. Their arrival in Malta changed the course of our history because it brought about a break with our customs, language, religion, and social institutions based on Hellenic – Roman – Christian culture. Another world opened its gates – an eastern civilization which, although of Mediterranean origins, is based on Mohammedenism.
 
At the time of their conquest of Malta, the Arabs dominated the greater part of the then-known world – from Spain to Afghanistan. Islam therefore split the Mediterranean politically, culturally, religiously, as well as linguistically into two worlds. Evidence of the legacy of this division is still extant[1].
 
There are no available records about the exact date of the conquest of Malta by the Arabs. There is a general consensus of opinion among historians, however, that this happened in 870 AD, though they differ about the exact date. The Chronicle of Cambridge, a reliable authority on Arab history, fixes the day on the 29th of August 870[2].
 
Historians give different versions of what really happened in Malta at the time of the coming of the Arabs. It is possible that, like the Sicilians who fled to Italy when Sicily was invaded by the Arabs, many Maltese likewise then sought refuge in Calabria. The Arabs, followers of Islam, enacted rigid laws to crush Christianity and Christian predominant religion during the two centuries following the invasion until Malta attained freedom from Arab domination. Perhaps, it could be said with certainty, that for two or three centuries, Islam became the official religion of Malta. Many Maltese, however, did in fact continue to uphold and practice their religious beliefs.
 
During their occupation of Malta, the Arabs bequeathed a rich legacy to Malta, namely, our present language. Maltese, in fact, is an Arabic language, one of a group of Northern semetic languages which is really classical or literary Arabic[3].  Almost all place names in Malta and Gozo and many of the traditional surnames of Maltese families are of Arabic origin as well. For several centuries, the architecture of Maltese houses was typically Arabic. Various parts of the houses bore Arabic names, especially in Moorish architecture. Much of our folklore, likewise, traces its sources to Arabic beliefs and traditions.
 
Very likely, it was the Arabs who introduced the cultivation of cotton and various kinds of fruits (e.g.   oranges) in Malta. Agriculture was the dominant activity of the island, which means that Arabic domination left an impact on the economy of Malta and Gozo.
 
In 1090 Count Roger of Normandy took possession of the Maltese Islands. This, in no way implies, however, that he expelled the Islamic inhabitants, who had become the population of the islands. These people stayed on and what is still more important, continued to make a useful contribution towards the administration of our islands.
 
It was during the reign of King Roger, the son of Count Roger, that the Arabs’ part in the running of affairs in our islands ceased to be. King Roger took over the islands in 1127 and left a garrison to make sure the island could continue to be ruled the way he liked. Notwithstanding the fact that the soldiers comprising the garrison were Christians, this does not mean that the Maltese became Christians overnight. It proved to be a very long process to accomplish.
 
In the second half of the XII century, Malta was elevated to the status of a diocese and consequently had its own bishop. Remains have been unearthed however, testifying to the presence of Moslem inhabitants likewise in this era. It is certain, therefore, that a hundred years after the advent of the Normans, Islam coexisted with Christianity.
 
In 1249, the emperor Fredric II finally expelled the Maltese Moslems from Malta. He had previously taken this action in the case of the Sicilian Moslems following their revolt about twenty years earlier. However, Moslems who chose to change over to Christianity were allowed to stay in Malta.
 
After the year 1249, there is no evidence indicating any Islamic presence in Malta. It was only very recently, in the nineteen seventies, that Islam again made its appearance in our islands.
 
In 1971, the Labour administration, finding itself in dire straits, sought financial help from Libya[4]. 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 (see: maps 3 and 4).
 
 
 
 
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”[5].
 
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”[6].
 
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.
 
In spite of some partisan hostility, the local Catholic Church approved the centre in the true spirit of Vatican Council II,[7] 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”[8]. Indeed, it was a relationship of cordial friendship and mutual respect.
 
Furthermore, the World Islamic Call Society strove to do away with suspicion and prejudice which have long exited towards Islam in Malta. The society also issued its own monthly magazine entitled “Id-Djalogu” (“The Dialogue”). In the second issue of this same publication, there appeared a brief report stating, that, “In the last two decades, there has been a flourishing of economic and cultural contacts between the Republic of Malta and several Arab countries. This has led to an increase in trust and co-operation in various spheres, resulting in the creation of joint ventures between Arabs and Maltese. Many Moslems have occupied key positions in these factories. As a result, a Moslem community has grown up in Malta, and keeps gradually increasing. Added to the people whom form part of the employed personnel in factories, there is a considerable number of Arab and Moslem students who come to complete their studies in Malta”[9].
 
It is rightly affirmed that the most serious problem that can face a minority is the social absorption by the majority, particularly when the Muslim community is badly organized[10]. However, in the case of Malta, social interaction is somewhat detrimental to the Catholic side. It has penetrated what has hitherto been a population claiming an exclusively Roman Catholic denomination.
 
Mixed marriages between Muslim males and Maltese Catholic females are stepping up the process of Islamization. Due to this factor, the Muslim minority is on the increase, which process is likely to continue especially if their offspring will one day marry partners of the same faith.
 
Finally, the right of dual citizenship, together with the right for employment and voting in the general elections are essential means that will surely enable the Muslim minority in Malta to penetrate the corridors of power politics in the not too distant future.
 
 
 
 


[1] VELLA, A.P., Storja ta’ Malta, Vol. I, Malta, 1984, p.63.
[2] WETTINGER, G., “The Arabs in Malta” in Mid-Med Bank Ltd. Report & Accounts, Malta, 1984, p. 26.
[3] OGARA, F., Summa Grammaticae Hebraicae, Romae 1942, p.IX.
[4] Iż-Żmien, 6/10/1971, Malta pp.1,8.
[5] Mediterranean News, 27/4/1980, Malta, p.2.
[6] Ibid., 9/10/1977, p.8.
[7] Cfr.: Lumen Gentium, n. 16; Nostra Aetate, n. 3.
[8] Risalat Al-Jihad, Issue 67, Malta, 1988, p.22.
[9] Id-Djalogu, n.2, Malta, 1987, p.8.
[10] KETTANI, M.A., “The Problems of Muslim Minorities and Their Solutions” in Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States, London, 1980, pp. 103-104.

 

VELLA GAUCI J, Islamic Law and Mixed Marriages in Malta, London 1991.

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