(Islam has a very long history in southern Italy going back to the Muslim conquest of Sicily in the early 800’s and subsequent brief expansion onto the Italian mainland. Indeed, Islamic culture had a significant influence on our own Western Renaissance. There is a separate item in the Naples Encyclopedia on that topic that you may read . Also see Early Islam in Italy. What follows below, however, is about the modern, recent growth of Islam in Italy and Naples.)
It is fair to say that as recently as 1970 the number of Muslims in Italy was statistically insignificant, consisting mostly of students, diplomats and businessmen from Muslim countries, all or most of whom were part of a consistently small and constantly rotating group. They came and went; very few of them settled in Italy to stay. There were no visibly cohesive groups of Muslims; indeed, there were no mosques, no Islamic cultural centers or even organized centers where those of the Islamic faith might simply gather together to be with those of the same religion.
Rome mosque, Naples, book.That situation has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Numbers vary considerably depending on the source, but the most conservative estimate claims that there are now about 500,000 Muslims in Italy and about 400 mosques and Islamic cultural centers in the nation. The first mosque was opened in 1980 in Sicily, and the largest one was opened in Rome (photo) in 1995 (financed by the government of Saudi Arabia). Islam is now the second largest religion in Italy. This recent, intense burst of “Islam building” in Italy is the direct result of the recent waves of immigration into the country, which started in earnest about 15 years ago.
The make-up of recent immigration is mixed. Immigrants may simply be desperate and looking for work; some may be skilled, even professionals; and some may be legitimate political refugees (who, incidentally, may not be turned away or sent back once their claim is legitimized). Immigrants are primarily from the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia with a substantial number, as well, from the Balkans, Libya, Sri Lanka, Somalia, and the Middle East. Whether they arrive legally or illegally (then hoping for an amnesty that will let them stay) these new Muslims in Italy have chosen Italy as the place to build a future for themselves. In other words, they plan on staying. They all come looking for work and many gravitate towards that part of Italy—the north— that has traditionally had the largest industrial job market (even for native-born Italians from the south, who still migrate north in large numbers looking for jobs). A significant number, however, stay in the south, taking agricultural and domestic jobs (the jobs, as they now say, that “Italians don’t want”). These are the workers you can find following the harvest from field to field throughout southern Italy, including the Campania region, of which Naples is the capital.
Naples now has an active mosque (photo) located near Piazza Mercato. One source, a 2002 publication entitled L’Islam a Napoli, (book cover, photo) claims that there about 5,000 practicing Muslims in Naples. An interesting sidelight is the fact that there are at least a couple of hundred native-born Neapolitans who have converted from Roman Catholicism to Islam. This would include the author of the above-mentioned book, Hamza Massimiliano Boccolini, a graduate of the Center for Arabic and Islamic Studies of the Orientale University of Naples, one of the most prestigious institutions for Arabic studies in Italy. (Historically, Islam has aggressively sought converts but does not, to my knowledge, actively proselytize in Italy at this time.)
Boccolini is also the person responsible for the Islamic cultural center, the Zayd ibn Thabit Association, founded in 1997. The association plays an important social role in the lives of Muslims in Naples. It welcomes newcomers, runs Italian classes, provides legal and medical help—and even provides many of the transient workers with sanitary and bathing facilities. In short, it helps Muslims in Naples start to feel more comfortable in a society in which many of them will wind up choosing to stay. The fact that the association is a visible and structured organization also lends a sense of order to the presence of Muslims in the city, a fact that makes their Christian neighbors feel more comfortable as well. Thus, when a few hundred of the faithful assemble for Friday prayers, it’s not a big deal. It’s just some of your fellow citizens and neighbors, who happen to be of a different religion, taking time out to pray, and what’s wrong with that?