Western scholars have often cast pre-Modern Muslim maritime violence as parasitic, bleeding an otherwise robust Mediterranean economy of profits and resources. In such narratives and in contemporary Latin and Greek texts, this predatory warfare becomes a prominent part of the clash between Christendom and dar al-Islām. When those same scholars and texts use the term “piracy” for that violence, it becomes immoral and illegitimate, while still participating in dichotomous interreligious conflict. Contemporary normative Islamic texts draw seemingly clear lines between licit maritime violence and piracy within texts concerning jihād (i.e. legal warfare against non-Muslims). Modern scholars then project those discourses onto the same past that produced but also eluded such clear distinctions. For the most part, such boundaries interested more those who produced them rather than those whom they concerned the most. In fact, such binary criteria, labels, and boundaries impede our understanding of maritime violence, of the individuals involved, how it functioned, and the role it played. Papers will explore pre-Modern Muslim maritime violence as a process both within and outside of these normative and dichotomous categories.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines piracy as “any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends […].” This draws on millennia of jurisprudence and political philosophy that used maritime violence as a marker for sovereignty. As the state carved a place for itself with law and rhetoric, authors tautologically wove together notions of legality with legitimate sovereignty, excluding violence that was not public or from the state. This led eventually to the Weberian definition of the state as an entity that holds the monopoly over violence within its territory, and the UN definition above that extends beyond that territory. These claims required normalized criteria for what was legal or illegal and what was public or private. They required normative texts that established those criteria, which Mediterranean scholars and jurists readily provided and refined. The West’s abject deference to normative texts means that we often confuse the prescriptive for the descriptive and relevant. And yet, just as legal and political authors have used maritime violence to better define and extend the reach of the state, those who practice maritime violence have defied the easy classifications of legal and illegal and public or private. In this paper, I examine the tensions between normative texts on maritime violence and the actors who carried out violence on the Mediterranean between the eighth and eleventh centuries, focussing in particular on the Muslim conquests of Crete and Sicily. In this context, the actions and experiences of Muslim raiders belied the claimed relevance of normative texts while also highlighting the blurred lines between public and private.
Corsairs in the seventeenth century tried to eliminate high risks related to their piratical operations by ascribing an institutional foundation to their activities and developing what we may call a “moral economy of violence.” They sought legitimacy under the shield of “holy war” and, at the same time, pursued an independent collectivism by standardizing their internal organizations, partnerships, and methods of communication. In that context, to reconcile two predominant and seemingly opposite views on piracy—one romanticizing pirate groups as devout warriors and the other relating piracy to self-indulgence and moral decline—this paper argues that corsairs’ observance of the political authority of the Ottoman central government did not necessarily contradict their economic interests and partnerships with the local elite (including European diplomat-merchants based in Tunisian ports). In that regard, two texts from the seventeenth century are examined: the first is a popular story, and the second is an epistolatory compendium from the Ottoman province of Tunis. The former is the narrative of a Warden Captain Mahmud, who is prudently willing to sacrifice material benefit for honour and integrity and embodies all the qualities of an ideal corsair: a competent sailor, an effective leader, and a source of inspiration for his crew. The second source, the letter collection, delineates the bureaucratic structure in the regency of Tunis as well as the place of corsair captains in it and includes, among its chapters, a code for corsairs which articulates established hierarchies and conventions of sharing rewards within a corsair crew.
Muslim maritime activity along medieval Italy’s shores is nearly always described by modern scholars as piracy, and the small communities of Muslims living in early medieval southern Italy and outside of Rome as “pirate’s nests.” Such labels allow scholars to ignore the possibility of a formative presence of Muslim individuals and communities in early European territories or maritime spaces. What if, instead of dismissing these Muslims as nothing more than bothersome but temporary raiders and pirates, scholars took seriously the presence of Muslim people in early medieval Europe and in the waters off European shores? How would the story of early medieval Europe broadly, and medieval Italy specifically, change if we see them as places where Muslims lived and worked as legitimate neighbors to the Greek and Latin Christians, Jews, and others who populated the region?
This paper offers a more nuanced perspective on the deep interconnections between Muslims and others in southern Italy and in the waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. These interconnections involved both violent and peaceful encounters that defy a clear binary between licit and illicit activity. It will focus on two sets of medieval sources: Arabic chronicles from North Africa that describe Muslim naval activity near Sicily and southern Italy, most of which were written centuries after the time described; and contemporary Italo-Greek texts that portray interpersonal encounters between Muslims and Christians on both land and sea. Such interpersonal encounters blur the distinctions between violent raiding and peaceful encounters. Violence, raiding, and destruction were certainly part of the story of Muslim presence in early Italy; but so too were more mundane interactions such as trade, interpersonal dialogue, sharing food together, and diplomatic exchange