Maltese feast names give clues to island’s Muslim history

Medieval historian Charles Dalli tells us that Christianity probably failed to stand its ground in Malta during Arab conquest, and was replaced by Islam 

Some of Catholicism’s biggest feasts in Malta, including Lent and Easter, kept their Muslim names indicating continuity from the Arab rule
Some of Catholicism’s biggest feasts in Malta, including Lent and Easter, kept their Muslim names indicating continuity from the Arab rule

It is not easy to imagine Malta – so fiercely proud of its Roman Catholic roots – as the Islamic society it once was, and scant records exist of the centuries in which the island was under Arab rule. 

Yet, as medieval historian Charles Dalli explains, remnants of a Muslim Malta still remain – perhaps ironically in the Maltese names for Catholic feasts.  

For example, the Maltese word Randan (Lent) comes from Ramadan – the holy month of fasting and sacrifice in Islam. Similarly, Għid (Easter) has its roots in Eid al-Fitr, the joyous Islamic feast that marks the end of Ramadan, and Milied (Christmas) originates from Mawlid, the Islamic celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad.

Also, the Maltese word for ‘Friday’ (Il-Ġimgħa) is called so because it was the day in which Muslims on the island used to attend their weekly congregational ‘Jumu’ah’ prayers. 

“The indication is that the local scene was very heavily Arabicised and Islamicised by the time the Normans conquered the island,” Charles Dalli told MaltaToday. “Although the Normans certainly urged the public to convert to Christianity, they didn’t Latinise them and allowed them to continue speaking Arabic. This is probably why the Maltese words for Christian feasts are derived from similar Islamic celebrations.” 

Yet the history of Arab rule in Malta is mired in controversy. Historians in the mould of professors Stanley Fiorini and Horatio Vella believe that Christianity, introduced to Malta by St Paul at around 60AD, had stood its ground throughout the Arab rule between 870 and 1090.

Yet this argument relies heavily on the interpretation of a passage in a medieval poem, composed by an anonymous Greek poet who had been exiled to Malta. The passage refers to a Christian bishop who had greeted Roger II of Sicily, the son of Count Roger, upon his arrival to Malta. This, some historians argue, is evidence that a Christian community with its own churches and bishop thrived in Malta during Arab rule.  

However, Oxford professor Jeremy Johns last year claimed that Fiorini erred when translating the Greek text, and that the poet had actually written about a bishop sent by Sicily to Malta to help convert the people to Christianity.  

This is the train of thought favoured by Charles Dalli – that Malta was an Islamic society under the Arabs. Indeed, he does not exclude the possibility that the Arabs had repopulated the island after having captured the vast majority of the Maltese people they had found when they had conquered the island from the Byzantines. 

“Look, anybody who believes in an ethnic continuity of Maltese people dating back from the time of St Paul is quite frankly living in cloud cuckoo-land,” he said. “There is absolutely no such thing as pure Maltese DNA.”  

Dalli believes that the conversion of Maltese society from Islam to Christianity was a gradual process, abetted by the Normans who conquered the island in 1091. 

“The Normans financially incentivised the natives to convert to Christianity by imposing a religious tax on Muslim subjects,” he said. “It is also possible that churches were erected where mosques were pulled down, and that the Mdina Cathedral was built on the site of the largest mosque on the island.” 

A report in 1240 indicates that this conversion was very gradual; around 800 Muslim families lived in Malta at the time, with Christianity still a minority religion. 

In around 1492, Sicily embarked on a systematic religious cleansing of the island and deported the Maltese Muslims to the southern Italian town of Lucera, where they formed an artificial community. To save themselves from deportation, people were effectively forced to convert to Christianity. 

However, Dalli is particularly interested in the space in between, in the 400 or so years in between the arrival of the Normans and the mass ethnic cleansing of Muslims. 

“Muslims and Christians lived side by side in Malta during that period, a sign of how close Abrahamic faiths are to each other,” he said. “Malta was a bridge where the two cultures converged.”

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