Most folks, I hope, take for granted that the ancestors of today’s American Indians made the original and only true discovery of what then really was a New World for humans. And this took place sometime before 14,000 years ago.
Usually, however, when people ask me the question, they actually mean something like “Who, after the American Indians, was the first person to sail the ocean blue and discover this previously unknown (to them) world?”
Traditionally, the answer to that question has been Christopher Columbus though historians and archaeologists have determined that Leif Erikson preceded Columbus by almost 500 years. (Actually, another Norseman, Bjarni Herjólfsson preceded Leif, but since he didn’t make landfall he doesn’t usually get credit for the discovery.)
Did anyone precede the Norse?
Since the 1700s, and probably even before that, numerous people, whether true believers or charlatans, have claimed that one or another ancient culture from the Old World deserves the credit for discovering America. The main contenders, but by no means the only ones, include the Solutreans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Hebrews, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and African Mandingos.
In my November column for the Columbus Dispatch, I review a paper by Richard Francaviglia of Willamette University, titled “‘Far Beyond the Western Sea of the Arabs…’: Reinterpreting Claims about Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas,” which was published in the most recent issue of the journal Terrae Incognitae. Based on the title of Francaviglia’s paper, some people evidently must believe that Muslims may have discovered America. But is there any actual evidence to support the claim?
Francaviglia acknowledges that “the premise of pre-Columbian Islam in the New World is attractive because it is so plausible. …the navigational accomplishments of Muslims were significant indeed. The record confirms that they rapidly explored (and colonized) a substantial portion of the Old World by the ninth and tenth centuries CE. Columbus himself was clearly indebted to Muslim seafaring skills, and there is little doubt that Muslims had the technological expertise to have reached the New World.”
Determining that Muslims could have discovered America, however, is not the same thing as demonstrating that they did so. As I discuss in my Dispatch column, there is no compelling evidence for pre-Columbian Muslims in Ohio or anywhere else in the Americas. This has not stopped some prominent Muslims from making such a claim, however.
Francaviglia quotes Imam Abdur-Rashid, “the ‘hip-hop imam’ who recently claimed on his website that, well before Columbus, ‘Muslim explorers came to the land of the Original [sic] Americans, met them, peacefully interacted with them, traded with them, intermarried with them, and perhaps even gave another relative handful of them dawah [invitations to the faith].’ Leaving little doubt that this subject has a political side, this imam sternly added that ‘those who study the evidence and continue to deny the obvious, reveal themselves to be rooted in the old racist European renditions of American history.’ In addition to stifling further study, this imam’s line of reasoning does at least three things. First, it renders Islam as a greater force in exploration than European expansion. Second, it depicts Islam as kinder and gentler on the natives than Christianity was known to be. And, third, it brands as bigots those who disagree. In no uncertain terms, the premise has become part of – and sustains – the culture wars between East and West.”
One of the more disturbing things in Francaviglia’s paper is his observation that these unsupported claims are turning up in school curricula. He refers, in particular, to the Arab World Studies Notebook, which he indicated is used “to train teachers to better understand (and teach) American history.” According to Francaviglia, this book accepts “many of the premises of those advocating a pre-Columbian Muslim presence, including the oft-quoted belief that Muslims had beaten Columbus to the New World.”
It’s one thing for a group of consenting adults to believe extraordinary things in spite of the lack of any meaningful evidence to support them, but to foist such claims on naïve children as part of a school curriculum is a betrayal of trust and an abrogation of the responsibility of schools to teach authentic, evidence-based history.
Francaviglia’s thorough review of the evidence and arguments that have been offered in support of a Muslim discovery of America sheds light on why anyone would accept such claims so uncritically. As with Ohio’s Newark Holy Stones, which are fraudulent stone carvings bearing Hebrew inscriptions that some people believe prove ancient Hebrews built at least some of Ohio’s mounds, the context for this discussion lies at the confluence of science, religion and politics: “…the world as described in religious scripture and texts – rather than the world revealed by critical thinking – is an appealing and enduring phenomenon. This may be either comforting or disquieting, but that is beside the point. As we watch the drama of pre-Columbian Islam unfold, it is worth recalling that history and geography are always subject to revision, and are often contested, when cultures come into contact with one another.”
Revising history when it has been shown to be wrong or incomplete is necessary and laudable. Fabricating history to promote religious or political views is inexcusable.
For further reading
Francaviglia, Richard V.
2014 “Far Beyond the Western Sea of the Arabs…”: Reinterpreting Claims about Pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas. Terrae Incognitae 46(2):103-38.
Note: The image accompanying this blog post is a modified version of a 1959 photograph of the statue of Christopher Columbus that lives in front of the Columbus, Ohio, City Hall. You can find the original image on the Ohio Memory website.