Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily
Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily. Click for attribution

The Contribution of Islam

In the previous installment we have spoken of the Egyptian society described by Naguib Mahfouz and of the Tunisians. We have also mentioned Italian Naples and Sicily (see the splendid Monreale cloister above). We wanted to emphasize the mutual influences between the North and the South shores of the Mediterranean and at the same time show how many behaviours – defined as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.

The Muslims influenced not only Italy but Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean areas as well. In truth they influenced almost the entire world since between the VIII and the XII centuries AD Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the West (Spain) to large portions of Asia. For the very first time in history more than 3000 years of experiences were accumulated from civilizations the most various – Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, China and India.

Most importantly, all this was re-transmitted by them to the rest of the world: forgotten Greek texts and medicine, Indian numerals (called Arabic since that time), Chinese papermaking and thousands of other innovations. This whole wisdom and refinement was concentrated by the way (and for a long time) in the city of Baghdad, that same city whose historical treasures were looted and destroyed because of the present foolish Iraqi war.

It is hence fair (and a bit uncomfortable) to remember that Europe – which during the Middle Ages had forgotten a lot – was gradually given back by the Muslims not only large portions of its classical culture but also something that went well beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman civilization. The big leap Europe was about to make at the end of the Middle Ages was possible also because of this contribution.

More than We are Willing to Admit

North Africans and Islamic countries are linked to Europeans more than we are willing to admit. If the Turks want to enter the Euro zone it is also because they feel somewhat part of our world. Southern and Northern Italians (think of Venice), Spaniards, Greeks etc. received many elements from the Oriental cultures.

Hard-to-deny connections. This might though disturb some reader (of this devil’s advocate) 😉

Why? Because Muslims are not well seen today. A post by Nita, an Indian journalist and blogger (and an excellent source of knowledge on India), provides statistics from the Pew Research Global that show how “while more and more Muslims are turning away from the extremists, more and more people are turning away from Muslims.”

A PewResearch table cited by Nita

In the Wikipedia’s entry on Sicily I was reading yesterday that in a “recent and thorough study the genetic contribution of Greek chromosomes to the Sicilian gene pool was estimated to be about 37% whereas the contribution of North African populations was estimated to be around 6%.”

True or not, I read between the lines – I may be wrong – like a desire to prove that Sicily and Southern Italy have little to do with North Africans. Even if so, hasn’t genetics – as far as I know – little to do with cultural transmission? One can be mostly Greco-Roman genetically though subject to multi-layered cultural influences coming from no matter where.


We will end up this second (and last) part of our journey with two notes.

Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman
Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman. Late 4th century BC. Click for source

Veiled women. As far as the veil, to think of it as Islamic is incorrect because it was widely used by the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks (see the picture on the left), Romans and Persians. In medieval Europe (and in Anglo-Saxon England) women were dressed more or less like Muslim women are dressed today.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam “the concept of covering the head is or was associated with propriety. All traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, show her veiled.” (Wikipedia).
I remember my mother always wearing a veil in church. It was a common practice in Catholicism (but not only) until the 1960s.

Sexual jealousy. It seems to be present in Islamic societies and in all those patriarchal societies obsessively concerned for true paternity. In today’s Islamic forums there is a lot of discussion (and more or less condemnation) about jealousy.

It is said that Sicilians and Calabrians are usually more possessive than other Italians. Some cultural connection with Islam in this respect may be possible. It is to be noted that honour killings were easily forgiven by law in Italy, France and other Mediterranean countries until recently.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
Permanences. Rome and Carthage

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

11 thoughts on “Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

  1. I have a question related to genetics for you MOR. It may be a topic of interest – or not. Nonetheless…

    How many, if any, Italians can trace their ancestry to the Romans and Etruscans?

    Bonus: How different (or similar) are Italians and their Roman forefathers in their mannerisms, values, behaviour etc. Can a link be established?


  2. As usual you’ve outdone yourself. 🙂 The stretch of Islam rule during the Middle ages really brought innovation to all parts of the world. They became a medium and that was very crucial.

    It is really sad to see that people think nowadays that Muslims = terrorists. I think the arrest of the hindu Sadhvi was an eye opener for many… Terror has no religion.


  3. @exposrip

    How many…Italians can trace their (genetic) ancestry to the Romans and Etruscans? How different (or similar) are Italians and their Roman forefathers…

    As far as genetics & peoples, these are certainly topics of interest, but lacking a serious knowledge on this I cannot but indicate the good works by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, The History and Geography of Human Genes (his magnum opus, if I’m not wrong) and Genes, Peoples, and Languages.

    Hope it can throw some light.

    As far as the second part of the question, I am trying to reply a bit with my blog 🙂

    Ciao and thank you.

    I have to take some time and finish reading your interesting fiction!


  4. @mickland

    Thank you Mickland, and welcome to my blog!


    Hi Ashish, it’s always nice when you pop up, and the word (and practice) of the devil’s advocate, if you remember, I took from you lol.

    Yes, everybody now is blaming the Muslims for everything, forgetting how rich their contribution was. Plus not many care about the enormous damages of the Iraqi war to the Iraqi people and to world heritage. Just as an example, the incredible amount of 40,000 precious ancient manuscripts from the Saddam library were burnt! An awful loss for humanity. And yes, terror and criminal minds can be anywhere.


  5. @Andy

    according to the BBC News site … honour killings are still going on in Europe – and not so far from home!!

    Interesting (and sad) article, Andy, on Albania’s blood feuds. Italy has a special relationship with Albania. My father worked there for a while during ww2. Albania is a Muslim country as well, it is well known, which is said not to express bias again. The European Continent is rich and complex – or unruly, as you British say? 😉 – and parts of it were under the rule of the Turkish (or Ottoman) Empire, which was of course an Islamic Empire. Albania is still archaic, but like everything archaic it has its sorrows and its treasures. Unless we like everything perfect and clean, but then we’d have something terribly boring, like Disneyland lol (which is not of course said against America, dear Exposrip, which is surely much more complex than Vegas or Disneyland).


    Ciao and thanks for popping in.


  6. Well said, Man of Roma, very well said. It is well-known that much knowledge in areas such as science, medicine, architecture, philosophy, music, and poetry was transferred from the Islamic to the western world during the crusade era. Which had obviously an enormous influence on the European Middle Ages. Dante, for instance, could have much to tell us about that …

    All the best


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