London’s Muslim Mayor is nothing New: 1300 yrs of Muslims who Ran Major European Cities

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) |

The press is declaring Sadiq Khan, victor in the electoral contest for mayor of London, the “first Muslim mayor of a major European city.”

They mean of course, something like ‘the first Muslim mayor of a really big Western European city in the modern period (say the past two centuries). [Although Sadiq Khan was elected and many — not all– of the figures I point to below were appointed, that’s the way it was in history. The then London County Council was first elected in 1889, and the mayor has only been directly elected since 2000; all urban leaders were appointed until fairly recently.]

It is worthwhile pointing out that the idea of Europe as “Christian” or perhaps “post-Christian” is a construct that can only be carried out by applying very large scissors to the history books. Christian nativism in Europe makes no sense. Christianity has its origins in the Middle East, as does Islam.

Europe was largely uninhabited during the last maximal glaciation, roughly from 25,000 before present to 13,000 BP, what with three mile high piles of ice covering much of it. Since the ice receded, it has seen several waves of immigration, with people coming in from what is now Turkey and Syria (yes) and from Eurasia and from Africa.

Christianity only started spreading seriously in Europe from the fourth century CE [AD], and by the eighth century, only four hundred years later, it had serious competition in Spain and southern France from Islam. Christianity was adopted more slowly than most people realize, with large pockets of essentially pagan survivals and heresies lasting for hundreds of more years– so medieval European religion should be seen as tripartite in these centuries — pagan survivals, spreading Christianity, and spreading Islam.

Islam is a major European religion and is a nearly 1300 year old tradition there.

Sitting elected Muslim mayors include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected
Ivo Komšić, a Christian, in 2013.

Going back into history, parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule 711 to 1492. So for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. We’re talking major Western European city here. In the 900s Cordoba was the most populous city in the world.

The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983–985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore mayor of Palermo, the capital.

The Ottoman Empire ruled most of what is now Greece 1458-1832. Here is a picture of the Ottoman governor of Athens in 1815 (a decade and a half before the Greeks won independence).


I think Athens counts as a major European city. It was under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years.

The Ottomans ruled much of Hungary 1541 to 1699, and Buda (half of the later twin city of Budapest) was the capital of this province of the empire. While there, the Ottomans supported the Protestant movement in Hungary. Abdurrahman Abdi Pasha the Albanian, e.g., became the military governor of Buda in 1682. Budapest has to count as a major European city.

Serbia was under Ottoman rule 1402–1878 (later in that period as a vassal); for instance, Hacı Mustafa Aga was appointed the military governor of Belgrade in July 1793

Not to mention that Constantinople/ Istanbul is one of the larger European cities (14 million inside city limits!). The mayor is Dr Kadir Topbas. He is a Muslim.

So Muslim heads of major European cities have been a commonplace for nearly 1300 years, and even at the beginning of the 20th century a few Balkan cities still had Muslim governors. Sadiq Khan’s victory is a great one and we should be happy that an Islamophobic and scurrilous campaign against him by the Tories was thwarted by the good sense of Londoners. But let us not exacerbate the weird amnesia of Europe about how central Islam and Muslims have been to its history since the eighth century (when the post-Roman Byzantine Empire, founded by Heraclius in 610, was only a century old itself). Sadiq Khan has many illustrious predecessors among European Muslim urban leaders.

[PS The response of commenters that these urban leaders were conquerors and not elected is silly. Most urban leaders were conquerors or appointed by conquerors until very recently. The British were ruled by the Normans. The Germanic tribes in France, Italy and Spain were invading conquerors. Slavic tribes came in to Eastern Europe from the east. The Muslim polities were no different. They also got buy-in from non-Muslim subjects and allies.]

49 Responses

  1. Professor Cole,
    your drawing a parallel between the outcome of democratic elections and the results of military occupation and imperial annexation is nothing short of blasphemous. It is also offensive to Hungarians, who consider the loss of the sovereign medieval Hungarian kingdom and the military occupation of much of Hungary, plus the reduction of much of the rest to war zones, as a disaster with long-ranging political, social, and demographic effects.

    As for the facts re Buda. You seem to confuse the exemplary freedom of religion in the Prostestant-dominated Principality of Transylvania, where Ottoman suzerainty guaranteed a certain degree of protection against Habsburg-sponsored counter-Reformation, with the conditions in central Hungary, which was under direct Turkish occupation. Here the Turkish invaders’ administration initially gave some support to Calvinists (but not to Lutherans), as that would lessen Catholic/Habsburg influence. Later on, their religious policies can be best described as neutral, mostly tolerating Christian denominations, while not giving extra support to them. That is, outside of the cities, including Buda, which were fist converted top Ottoman cities, and then progressively Muslimised. In Buda, the practice of western Christianity was effectively banned in 1596, when the only church Catholics and Protestans could still use (that is, jointly), was converted into a mosque, and no more Hungarian Christian familes were allowed to move into the city. Which meant that western Christian population dwindled through the 17th century, until the 1686 reconquest.

    This is written by one of the best experts on the subject. With a translator you can get an overall picture.
    link to

    • Yes and the Protestants and Catholics also mistreated each other and fought wars of religion. Minding that European Muslims weren’t always tolerant (but often they were) more than minding Protestant intolerance is a blind spot.)

    • Truly military occupation and imperial annexation is nothing short of blasphemous. Colonialism is one of them

  2. Juan, brilliant piece of writing for a non.academic person to understand the history Muslims in Spain. As a British Muslim.I would like to say that Islam respects Christianity and Jesus and Mary are extremely revered in the Holy Qur’an.

  3. Wow! What a fabulous article about Muslim leaders in the big cities in Europe. Thanks a million for sharing this wonderful article of ancient history. :)

  4. And let us count Rotterdam, main European port city in Holland, too. Since 2007, Ahmed Aboutaleb, muslim born in Northern Morocco, is its Mayor. Recently, he won a second 6 year term.

  5. The broad public is really not much interested in more than the immediate. They, like Strepsiades in Aristophanes’ The Clouds are unfamiliar with conceptual thinking, and by extension concepts of which historical continuum is one. From that perspective Sadiq Khan may fairly be described as “first Muslim mayor of a major European city” because he is exactly that within the immediately tangible world. It is also fairly likely that the many journalists who feed news to the broad public share its disinterest in a lot of contrary historical detail. Conceptual thought doesn’t appeal to everyone, perhaps because it overshadows and numbs the piquant immediacy of emotional life. Details from the historical past can be displayed before the public but only in the form of narrative or investigative entertainment. Furthermore, there is always the danger that such historical detail, taken out of its broader context, can far too readily be misinterpreted; it might, for instance, strike some as proof that Muslims have been trying to take over our world for centuries. Better, perhaps, not even to taste the Pierian Spring?

  6. A very nice article! Only a small correction: In 1815 Athens was not a major European city, but a rather sleepy small provincial town.

      • Juan Cole writes: ‘I think Athens counts as a major European city… major by virtue of being Athens’
        Well the point is… but not under the period of Ottoman rule! Athens was by no means a metropolitan centre of European Turkey and, before 1832, in size and significance was closer to a village than a provincial town. Its economic and political insignificance was seen as offering the distinct virtue
        of a blank slate to the new capital of an independent Greek state. A far more relevant comparison with other major European cities could have made in the case of Salonica, present-day Thessolaniki. Tanzimat reform and ambitious public works schemes under the governorships of Sabri Pasha and Galib Pasha in late c19th Salonica offer a more positive example of dynamic leadership and urban modernisation. That Salonica, cosmopolitan and mercantile, was also the seat of the 1908 revolution points to the larger issue – such illustrious efforts were in the face of the economic mismanagement, administrative inefficiency and political corruption of the Ottoman system.

  7. Byzantium founded by heraclius??? In 610 ce?? Come on man, you must be kidding!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Get a good history book about late antiquity….

    • The convention among many authors is that it was the Roman Empire to Heraclius, Byzantium after that

      • But that isn’t your point in your blog post is it. You aren’t simply referring to when historians for sake of convention and neatness like to stop talking about the Eastern Roman empire and start talking about the Byzantine empire (because of the use of Greek, I believe).

        You’re clearly comparing it with the centrality of Islam to Europe, and pretending that this largely arbitrary convention is telling us somehow that the Christian East only sprang into being then. Heraclius was another Eastern Roman Christian emperor – and there’d been one of those for something like 300 years beforehand.

        • My point is that Byzantium as defined by most historians is a contemporary of Muslim Spain. They even ended around the same time.

        • Authors whose convention it is that something happened in 610 that turned the Roman empire into Byzantium should stick with Amway conventions. Byzantium was the “Roman empire” until its end in 1453- the title conferred status- and Hellenes, having lost their Hellenic identity, continued to identify themselves as Roman right down to modern times.

  8. I think what makes Sadiq Khan so remarkable is that he was democratically elected as opposed to historical examples of Muslim leaders who arrived after conquest. Thank you for reminding readers of the long history of Muslim leaders in Europe.

  9. Perhaps we should call him the first democratically elected Mayor, none of the leaders you listed above lead by consent but rather through force, which is a major distinction.

      • Calling someone a Muslim because of his, her origin would not be right. Mayors of Rotterdam, now London and Calgary in Canada are first Europeans, Canadians/whatever that means. They define them selves first by their cultural values and environment they have adopted and they live in, and second or third maybe/in case they practice religion/as a Muslims or whatever. Bosnians/Bosniacs are European stock people that choose to define themselves first by Europeans, by virtue of having to live in the same environment, eating the same food, having the same school system and so on. Some of them define themselves as Muslim if they are religious. I liked the article a lot but I don’t feel that we need to try and prove that someone of different ethnicity who grows up in Calgary needs to be identified as anything else but Calgarian/ Canadian and judged by any other criteria but his/her abilities.

    • Mayors in Netherlands are appointed and not elected!

      And Rotterdam is very small compared to London

  10. Rotterdam is a major city; perhaps the one thing that is a first — and a very important one — for Sadiq Khan is that he is the first Muslim mayor elected mostly by non-Muslims. And I think that is a repudiation of a prevalent narrative by some non-Muslims (and indeed some Muslims) that the future of Europe is somehow a competitive game where one of these groups will win. The positive aspects of the future of Europe are in the hands of Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and others who are willing to think of themselves as Europeans sharing a common destiny, enthusiastically dedicated to arguing about taxes, fashion, health care, and who has the best beer,tea, or coffee like civilized people.

  11. Moroccan-born mayor of Rotterdam city – “gateway to Europe” – is Muslim. His father was the village imam.

  12. In the Guardian I saw that Khan was called the first elected mayor of a western city who was Muslim. I couldn’t help myself and wrote to thank them for excluding the Western Canadian city of Calgary from ‘western civilization’.

    Any excuse to bash Calgary is a good one.

  13. It seems there must have been cities in China larger than Cordoba. Major ones were a million+ in her history ancient to modern.
    What is the historic research you have on this globally I wonder?

    • Cordoba was replaced as largest by a Chinese city in the early 1000s when it went into abrupt decline, according to the world historians.

  14. Serbia gained full independence in 1878 (Berlin Congress). It was in 1912 that Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece liberated what is today Macedonia, Albania and large parts of Greece and Bulgaria from the Ottomans. In terms of the Muslim mayors of Belgrade, Athens and other Balkan capitals, they were nothing but occupiers – equivalent to British colonial administrators (and far more brutal and repressive). Putting these people into the same context as today’s London and its multiculturalism is primaly an offence to Sadiq Khan and other Western European muslims, most of whom seek integration and peaceful coexistence with Europe’s Judeo-Christian civilisation, unlike the Ottoman occupiers (i.e. devshirma, Islamization of Bosnia, etc.).

  15. Good explanation but it would have been better to open with modern examples like Rotterdam where elected Muslim mayors precede London.

  16. Very interesting historical information. Father of the elected Mayor originates from Pakistan where people will feel proud though will not be able to explain why a non-Muslim is never elected Mayor in their prominent cities.

  17. Thank you prof. Cole for this useful and informative article.
    I suggest that you should publish book to explain in detail your view of point.
    Thank you.

  18. Thank you Dr. Juan, wonderful piece.
    I think one of the main highlight of the article is the questioning of the very idea of “European city”, the way it is constructed in the current discourse on London’s mayor.

  19. Salam
    A Muslim saint questioned about Islamic rule said, “I would rather have a Pagan ruler dispensing justice than a tyrant calling himself a Muslim.” The Holy Quran contains no reference to any form of government but commands believers to adhere strictly to the principles of justice and consensus in their affairs.

  20. Very informative comments and sharings by participants.
    That’s the right face of Islam which respect all faiths n religion.
    Thanks to natives for accepting n choosing a leader without any dissemination.

  21. Why are we so obsessed wt who was Muslim and not. We are all people and in a democratic society it’s leaders should reflect it’s population. Muslims were around for 1400 years. It seems that it’s a newly discovered specie

  22. I don’t really care whether a leader is Muslim, Christian or else, Integrity & Leadership what count most, not religion nor race. We have a Christian & Chinese governor in Jakarta, as a Muslim I fully support him. Congratulation to Londoner.

  23. Thanks for the article. Much more recently, and for democratically elected officials in major cities, one only needs to look at Sarajevo, Tirana or Pristina. They are all European capitals and have all had dozens of Muslim mayors, especially Sarajevo, which has only had Muslim mayors in the past hundred years except for the most recent one. People seem to forget both that Eastern Europe is also part of Europe, and that Muslims are not just immigrants, but have been living in Europe for centuries and that they also call it home. (unrelated to this but still relevant, also the mayor of Rotterdam is Muslim)

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