Sociology and Anthropology

Muslims in Europe: Precedent and Present

Muslims and Islam have been at the center of some of the most vital post-9/11 debates. In Europe, the controversy has intensified due to the conflation of the aforementioned discussions and the arguments currently raging in Europe surrounding European identity. In such parleys, the assumption has been that Muslims in Europe are an alien presence with a short and temporary history. This article seeks to demonstrate that historically speaking, this is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. The integration of Muslims and the recognition of Islam may take place through a variety of different ways owing to the specificities of individual European nation-states. However, they will need to consider the past precedents of the Muslim presence in order to appropriately organize the present and in looking to the future.


It can no longer be seen as Islam versus the West;
it is Islam and the West or Islam in the West.1
… the Hebrew-Christian background is
the root of European cultural identity.2

In 615, supporters of Muhammad, Arabia’s prophetic preacher, fled from their hometown to the Christian kingdom ofAbyssinia. Having escaped persecution in their own land, they lived as a community of the new prophet’s followers that was numerically insignificant in a predominantly non-Muslim kingdom. About fifty years later, `Uthman ibn `Affan sent Sa`d ibn Waqqas (a maternal uncle of that same prophetic preacher) as an envoy to China, thereby starting a process that within two generations would produce a community of Chinese Muslims who would be the main figures in Chinese trade for hundreds of years to come.

After the passage of roughly 1,400 years, similar situations could be seen all over what would become the European Union (EU) due to migration (although, unlike the Abyssinian situation, not usually because of persecution), indigenous conversion in member states,3 and normal demographic developments. Around one-third of all Muslims now live as demographic minorities in their host countries. By and large, they have thrived in these lands, including those of the EU, where legal standards promise general security and economic conditions promise general prosperity.

After 9/11, however, these EU communities were subjected to a huge amount of public scrutiny by the mainstream media, political circles, and European societies in general. Further tensions developed due to the 7/7 attacks on the London transport system in 2005. Many discussions assumed that Islam’s nature was, in general, alien to European civilization and thus viewed members of these communities as suspect and potential threats to European societies. Clearly, many Europeans felt that the “threat” of Eurarabia (an amalgamation of Europe and Arabia) was becoming a reality. Several questions need to be raised at this juncture of European history, given that the European project is considering how to fulfill itself with such internal diversity. Although the Muslim presence in Europe is numerically close to insignificant when considered as a whole, the recognition and institutionalization of Islam in Europe are, nevertheless, symbolic of many challenges. This article cannot possibly explore all of these challenges fully, for doing is a long-term task. However, it does consider what some of those challenges are, even if complete solutions are open to discussion. But before that, it is necessary to put the Muslim presence into its proper historical context.

Muslims in Europe: Precedent

Suhayb ibn Sinan al-Rumi has been described as a blonde-haired and fair complexioned Greek-speaking Byzantine slave. Born the son of Sinan ibn Malik, who governed a city near the Euphrates in Basra on behalf of the Persian emperor, while still an infant he was captured by a Byzantine raiding party and subsequently sold into slavery in Constantinople. He eventually escaped and fled to Makkah, where he embraced Islam and is reported to have been selected as the temporary commander of the Muslim community and invested as such by `Umar ibn al-Khattab himself during the search for a permanent a leader.4

Unrelated to this anecdote of the first “European Muslim” is the Muslim armies’ expansion into several areas of the Mediterranean region on the European side during the seventh century, including Cyprus, the first future EU member that had any significant contact with Muslims. At that time Cyprus was ruled by the Byzantine Empire, which was then fighting the Levant’s nascent Muslim community. Although `Umar rejected plans for neutralizing this strategically important island, his successor `Uthman agreed, after intensive battles with the Byzantines, to let the Syrian governor conquer it.

Later on, Muslims entered Europe from its southwest corner: the Iberian peninsula. In a way, this means that Islam’s presence in the future United Kingdom officially started during the seventh century when Muslims landed at Jabal al-Tariq, known today as the British colony of Gibraltar.5 This eventual conquest of Europe ceased at Poitiers (France) in the early eighth century, and Islam established itself in most of the Iberian peninsula, especially in the south. The spread of Islamic rule took three years and consisted of few battles and significant local support.6 For example, Muslims are said to have first come to al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) in response to a local chieftain’s request.7 Al-Andalus is of singular interest to historians of Islam in Europe, as it represents the first and longest period of Islamic rule in Europe. But it is curious for other reasons as well, for it represents something that was a novelty in western Europe until the twentieth century: a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.8

They [Christians in Spain] were by no means hostile to Muslim rule, but learnt Arabic (though they also spoke a Romance dialect) and adopted many Arab customs. Besides the Christians there were many Jews in the chief towns, who, having suffered under the Visigoths, actively aided the Muslim conquest, and do not appear later to have thought of revolting.9

Historians continue to examine and re-examine this phase in Spanish and European history for a variety of reasons. From the Western European perspective, this was the land from which the roots of the European Renaissance sprung and countless innovations originated. Muslims (including converts from Christianity in al-Andalus), Christians, and Jews all worked together to create an area of Islamic civilization in Europe that left its mark for centuries to come.10 The Zahiri legal school, one of Islam’s famed jurisprudential schools, developed in that land, althoughAndalusian Muslims generally followed the Maliki school (albeit after a brief ahderence to al-Awzai`i’s school),11 as did some of the great Sufi teachers, among them Muhyidin ibn al-`Arabi and Shu`ayb Abu Madyan.12

Similar to Christianity and Judaism, Islam’s roots lie in the Near East. However, just as Islam acted as a cultural stimulator in the Fertile Crescent, Central Asia, China, and Africa, so did it create Islamic cultures in Europe. In al-Andalus especially, historians have noted theMuslim intellectual enterprise that, in turn, carried on the classical Greek and Persian elaborations of science and philosophy. Previously lost to Europe as a result of neglect and destruction, these corpuses of works were later rediscovered by the scholars of Christian Europe. Studying them in Arabic, along with commentaries written by Muslim scholars, they translated them into Latin during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and thus initiated a series of events that are now viewed as precursors to the Renaissance. The translations from Greek, in particular, into Arabic rescued the classical Greeks’ achievements from oblivion. The Muslim intellectuals of the day, unlike some of their counterparts in Christendom (or Muslim thinkers of other periods), preferred to translate the texts into Arabic and then evaluate them, rather than just close the door to possible sources of knowledge and enrichment.

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