Did Muslims Visit America Before Columbus?
Ms. Fachner is an HNN intern.
Is it possible that there were Muslims in the Americas before Columbus? Some claim that Muslims came to America hundreds of years before Columbus arrived in the New World. Are the claims true?
Every elementary school student knows the story of Christopher Columbus; that he set sail from Spain and mistakenly discovered America in 1492, landing on an island in the Caribbean. Columbus encountered native inhabitants of this new world, and thinking that he had landed in India, he called them Indians. While many of the details have been mythologized or fabricated over the ensuing 500 years, Columbus’s expedition represents the first major discovery of the Americas and the first appearance of non-Native Americans. The conventional wisdom is that Columbus ended tens of thousands of years of near-total isolation for the Native Americans. Since the Americas had been initially populated (probably between 13,000 BC and 11,000 BC) there had been no engagement with populations on any other continent, save small ventures by the Norse into Northeastern Canada.
Now some are suggesting that Muslims came to the Americas, possibly as early as the 700s. These researchers argue that Muslims came from Islamic Spain, particularly the port of Delba (Pelos) during the rule of Caliph Abdullah Ibn Mohammed (888-912). A book by a Muslim historian details the story of a Muslim navigator on a journey across the ocean to an unknown land, where they found much treasure. The historian, Abul-Hassan Al-Masudi, added a map of the world to his book, one that contained “a large area in the ocean of darkness and fog (the Atlantic Ocean) which he referred to as the unknown territory (the Americas).
Columbus landed on a small Bahamian island on Oct. 12, 1492. Although Columbus renamed it, the island was called Guanahani by the native Mandinka islanders. Guanahani is believed to be a corruption of two Arabic words, brought to the island by early Muslim visitors who remained in the Caribbean and intermarried with the Native Americans. Guana means brothers and Hani is a traditional Arab name, giving rise to the idea that the island name meant “Hani Brothers.” Nearby in Honduras lived a tribe of natives known as Almamy, a corruption of the Arabic word Al-Imam, person who leads in prayer. Leo Wiener, founder of Harvard's Department of Slavic Languages, argued in an early 20th century book that these examples were the result of West African Muslims spreading throughout the New World and intermarrying with the various Indian tribes. There are other, equally fragmented, claims about an early Muslim presence in the Americas, all contained in an article published widely on the Internet by Dr. Youssef Mroueh. Dr. Mroueh; a Muslim author, historian of science and radiation control physicist, wrote this article to commemorate a thousand years of Muslim presence in the Americas in 1996.
Mroueh cited an Australian archeologist, Dr. Barry Fell, a marine biologist who claimed to find extensive archeological evidence of a significant Muslim presence in the New World in his book, Saga America. Fell drew parallels between West African peoples and Native Americans in the southwest, including cultural and linguistic similarities, and the existence of Islamic petroglyphs in the southwestern region. In particular, Fell mentioned a carving that he believed was done centuries before Columbus that states in Arabic: “Yasus bin Maria” (Jesus son of Mary), a phrase commonly found in the Koran.
Fell’s claims though have been ridiculed by professional archaeologists. They were enraged by his claims, deriding not only his findings, but his inflexible and rigid presentation of them, without the usual caution that characterizes academic pronouncements. Fell’s methods came into question, as detractors noted: “His claims for scientific rigour might hold for marine biology, but when it comes to archaeological interpretation, he ignored the usual rules of evidence.” (Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Cult and Fringe)
Other claims have been similarly criticized. In 2002 the Middle East Policy Council published the Arab World Studies Notebook, a teachers guide to understanding and teaching students about Arab culture. The text claims that Arab explorers came to America in advance of Columbus, marrying Algonquin Indians whose descendants eventually became tribal chiefs with names like Adbul-Rahim and Abdallah Ibn Malik. The Notebook and its editor, Audrey Shabbas, came under intense fire for failing to provide corroborating evidence. According to the Washington Times, Shabbas and the Council were slow to respond to concerns from various sources. Peter DiGangi, director of Canada’s Algonquin Nation Secretariat calls her claims “outlandish” and says that “nothing in the tribe’s written or oral history support them.”
Another critique came from William Bennetta, professional editor and President of the Textbook League. Bennetta referred to the text’s “flights of pseudohistorical fakery.” Among other issues, he called the Notebook to task for offering no support for its claim that the Americas were seemingly full of Muslims and Muslim descendants when Columbus arrived. He noted that the Notebook does not even name the English explorers who supposedly found the Algonquin chiefs. Bennetta wrote to Shabbas to inquire about some of the unsubstantiated claims in the Notebook, and while he received a reply, “she didn’t send me [Bennetta] any citation. She made some evasive claims about some published ‘works’.”
In an article featured at David Horowitz's frontpagemag.com in 2004, David Yeagley, adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma, called the Notebook “intellectual genocide on American Indians,” noting that the authors “simply created an Indian story to suit the purposes of the advocacy group, and published it in a school text manual as fact.” Yeagley believed that Shabbas and the other authors were simply trying to gain acceptance for Arabs, further integrating them into American culture by making them ‘native.’ Shabbas also came under fire from the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which published a report called “The Stealth Curriculum: Manipulating America’s History Teachers.” The report was critical of many sources that are used by history teachers, noting that sometimes there is no way to ascertain the accuracy of materials provided for teachers. In particular, the report referred to the Notebook as “propaganda.”
As an end result to the continued criticism, Shabbas promised to give “careful and thoughtful attention” to the issues raised by her detractors, after many issues of the Notebook had already been sent out to teachers.
Archibald, George. “Textbook on Arabs removes blunder.” The Washington Times. 4 Apr 2004: A2.
Bennetta, William J., “Arab World Studies Notebook lobs Muslim propaganda at teachers.” The Textbook League. (2003): n. pag. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2006. Available http://www.textbookleague.org/spwich.htm.
Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keith. “Barry Fell.” Cult and Fringe Archeology. (2006) n. pag. Online. Internet. 28 Mar 2006. Available http://kjmatthews .
Mroueh, Dr. Youssef. “Muslims in the Americas before Columbus.” As-Sunnah Foundation of America. (1996). n. pag. Online. Internet. 28 March 2006. Available http://www.sunnah.org/history/precolmb.htm.
Yeagley, David A., “So Muslims Came to America Before Columbus?” History News Network (2004): n. pag. Online. Internet. 30 Mar. 2006. Available http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/4899.html.
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Gajibur Rahman - 12/8/2009
Peace be upon everyone
We Muslims only hate people who hate us, We don't hate people simply because they are different from us.
Muslims wouldn't hate people like 'Maura Doherty' or 'S Y', but they probably would hate muslim-haters like yourself Vernon.
Andrew D. Todd - 5/11/2006
Take the following with a grain of salt-- it's been nearly twenty years since I passed a prelim in Physical Anthropology on the second go-around. I haven't kept up with the field since.
The final separation of Africa from South America was about forty million years ago. You know how lots of marsupials have survived in Australia, but very few species elsewhere. Something similar happened with the New World. The so-called "new-world-monkeys" in South America stayed the same, in a relatively narrow range of arboreal niches, whereas the "old-world-monkeys" moved on, and many of them became ground-dwellers, eg. baboons, macaques, and great apes. At about twenty-five million years ago, you have Proconsul, which would have been an ancestral monkey. About ten or fifteen million years ago, you have the Ramapithicenes, the first identifiable apes. Note however, that Ramapithicene material is very scarce and very fragmentary. The first identifiable hominids are about four million years old, Australopithicenes. The early varieties walked upright, but had brain sizes more or less comparable to a chimpanzee. The oldest identifiable stone tools are about two million years old (Olduwan "pebble choppers"). Of course, in view of the work with apes carried out by Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, Penny Patterson, etc., it would not wise to underestimate the mental capacities of an animal more or less similar to a chimpanzee or gorilla. I've always thought that making something out of stone is a desperation measure, when wood is impossible for some reason.
Comparative genetic studies have yielded the results that all surviving humans are very closely related, roughly equivalent to a common ancestor two hundred thousand years ago, who has, predictably, been nicknamed "Mother Eve." There is some debate about whether Eve lived in East Africa or Central Asia. The genetic variability between ethnicities is small compared to the genetic variability within ethnicities. Now, skin color is a very recent adaptation to extreme climates. Given the mortality rate of white men in the tropics in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, one has a very good idea of how forced-draft evolution might have taken place. Africa is the tropical continent par excellence, with a lot of land at low altitude with plenty of rainfall. Things like citrus fruits grow wild. You can live off the land pretty well in Africa if the mosquitoes don't kill you. So the population of Africa is adapted for malaria resistance. As for whites, melanin in the skin seems to interfere with vitamin D synthesis. In other words, a black man would need to eat a somewhat more balanced diet that a white man could get away with, and the shaping experience of the Arctic and the winter is hunger, starvation. We know from archaeological evidence that the Eurasian subarctic became populated about 40,000 years ago. The wild pachyderms got killed off pretty quickly, and after that, the people were obliged to hunt deer, rabbit, and the like. That's probably why the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote strikes such a powerful resonance.
American Indians are borderline-indistinguishable from Asians, in the absence of cultural cues. The American Indians seem to have popped up into the Arctic in Siberia, and down again on the other side in North America, in a thousand years or so, too fast for biological adaptation to take place. The American tropics are disproportionately dominated by seas and mountains. The Mexican or Peruvian living at seven thousand feet is not a tropical man. Amazonia is thinly populated, and therefore unrepresentative.
Finally, one might add that the current polar people are comparatively recent arrivals, within the last five thousand years or so, with a thick enough technological base that they could buffer themselves from the climate.
I should add, incidentally, that comparative linguistics only reaches back about five thousand years. With each stage of "recension," you throw out words, so, as you push backwards, your findings become progressively more speculative.
Peter Kovachev - 5/11/2006
"No one can know whether humans or hominoids were inhabitants of Pangaea." (VC)
If you go by such things like evolutionary timelines, hominids appeared no later than 5.5 million years ago. Hominids are mammals and early mammals and dinosaurs did not appear until the early Jurassic, over 200 million years ago, just around the time Pangaea broke-up. Hominids appeared around 65 million years ago, well after Pangaea had broken-up into recognizable continents.
"I'm mostly wondering, as so many others seem to about where the aboriginal inhabitants, as we currently know them, came from." (VC)
The genetic and cultural evidence for a Bering Strait migration of people of Siberian origin in four or possibly even five successive waves is apparently overwhelming. The last and the latest wave, a minor one and discernible only through DNA readings, may have been a European / Western Asian one, most likely involving Northern European nomadic people. There is a controversial study which proposes a Polynesian link, based on tentative DNA evidence, but that's as wild as things get in the mainstream of the field. In turn, all those groups share common African origin with all of humanit.y Outside the field, of course, anything seems to go, including people from turtle eggs and UFOs.
"I've not seen studies on genetics that infer that the inhabitants of North, Meso and South America are of a kind." (VC)
Most people haven't seen them, as they typically appear in journals which the media doesn't notice, but there have been hundreds of studies, especially ones looking at mitochondrial DNA (from the mother's side only), which can more accurately pinpoint geographic origins. One of the more recent studies was featured in the National Geographic a few issues back. I'm not sure what you mean by "of a kind." Siberia, where the majority of Amerindians appear to have migrated from is culturally diverse even if the groups there share similar genetic markers.
"There are discernable differences in appearances and certainly huge differences in native languages." (VC)
Appearance counts up to a point, but it’s the least reliable means of determining differences, as appearance can be relatively quickly affected by climate, nutrition and cultural or sexual selection. Blood groups and DNA provide us with much better markers. Linguistic differences are not surprising either. Amerindians arrived in successive waves, hundreds and even several thousands of years apart and from different linguistic regions. Also, groups of people rapidly develop their own idioms and dialects and with relative isolation separate languages quickly evolve. For examplem up until the 19th century Europeans, Persians and Indians had no idea that their languages share common roots and that they evolved from a shared proto-Indo-European language.
“You don't think, like the first explorers, that they are all one people, do you?” (VC)
I’m not sure what the first explorers thought. Again, as with the word “kind,” the term “people” is not clear in this context. Technically, in the African Genesis context, all humans are “one people.” Other definitions and self-definitions of people-hood go by linguistic, religious, political, geographic or cultural criteria.
In any case, your arguments above don’t support a “Pangaean Origins” hypothesis; in fact they argue against it.
Vernon Clayson - 5/10/2006
Wow, Maura, "vernon" is overwhelmed. Don't you think there is room in these discussions for questions from an avowed iconoclast? If you believe there should be no hypothesis, however far out, maybe you have found the wrong website. There are many things in question and little absolutely resolved in ancient history. Where is your sense of wonder or did you surmise you need not wonder after you obtained your doctorate? The original acticle about Muslim discovery of America is absurd, I have moved on.
Vernon Clayson - 5/10/2006
No one can know whether humans or hominoids were inhabitants of Pangaea. I'm mostly wondering, as so many others seem to about where the aboriginal inhabitants, as we currently know them, came from. I've not seen studies on genetics that infer that the inhabitants of North, Meso and South America are of a kind. There are discernable differences in appearances and certainly huge differences in native languages. You don't think, like the first explorers, that they are all one people, do you?
Peter Kovachev - 5/10/2006
Pangaea began to break-up around 200 million years ago to eventually create the geography we are familiar with now. There were no humans in the Mesozoic, not even mammals I suppose, just dinosaurs and reptiles. From archeological and genetic evidence we know that the first people appeared in North America only 20,000 years ago, when they crossed what was then the Baring Strait Land Bridge.
Maura Doherty - 5/10/2006
I find the debates over early contacts with the "new world" facinating, although it is not my area of expertise. I very much appreciated Fachner's discussion and critique of the evidence, especially the discussion of the sources or lack thereof. I await more news from the historians and anthropologists who work in this area, as it seems the jury is still out.
Maura Doherty - 5/10/2006
We're not "defending them," we are criticizing YOU bro. We are here for intelligent, informed, historically- based discussion. You must have found the wrong website. And by the way, I'm Dr. Doherty, since we don't really know each other well.
Vernon Clayson - 5/10/2006
Ot perhaps ancient humans were around on the landmass called Pangaea and stayed wherever they were when the landmass separated into continents and re-discovered one another through exploration long after the original event, which would have likely occurred so slowly they wouldn't have been aware of it.
Vernon Clayson - 5/9/2006
"Stereotyping and bigotry", of course it is that, SY. And they view us as enlightened and worthy of admiration because we have advanced civilization, such as it is, beyond what they want the world to be. That would be stuck in the cultural and rigid lifestyle of the pre-medieval Middle East, don't defend them, they hate you and Ms. Doherty beyond anything you can comprehend and your tender understanding means naught.
S Y - 5/9/2006
Ms. Doherty was referring to your comments regarding the stagnation of society and culture and the acerbic lifestyle seemingly chosen by Muslims. That's not history. That is, as she said, stereotyping and bigotry.
Vernon Clayson - 5/9/2006
Ms. Doherty, see my reply to Mr. Todd. Informed people using history and logic? I don't believe that an Arab camel driver from a failed mid-1800s experiment is serious history, if you get beyond the possibility that I was being sarcastic you will find some logic.
Vernon Clayson - 5/9/2006
The grave marker of Hadji Ali in Quartzsite gives his nationality as Syrian but who can know for certain.
It isn't likely he was viewed as anything other than an Arab whatever his ancestry, more likely he was viewed as a quaint object who had some knowledge of camels. I would guess people in the 1800s were even more inclined to stereotype than we are now. For heaven's sake, as recently as the last century Rudolph Valentino and John Derek played the part of Arabs to say nothing of the other painted actors and belly dancing actresses. Did you ever hear the joke about the white man taken captive and made to choose to enter one of three tents?
Maura Doherty - 5/9/2006
Please take your stereotyping and bigotry elsewhere. This sight is for informed people using history and logic. But have a nice day :)
Andrew D. Todd - 5/8/2006
This business sounds like the Kensington Stone forgery in western Minnesota, circa 1898. As Wingren (*) notes, the forged stone was apparently concocted with the aid of a part-textbook, part-encyclopedia, Carl Rosander's _The Well-Informed Schoolmaster_, Stockholm, 1864, subsequent edition of 1893 distributed as a subscription bonus by a Swedish-American newspaper.
(*) Erik Wahlgren, _The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved_, University of Wisconsin Press, 1958, pp. 131-37
Hadj Ali was one of about 10-15 camel drivers hired by the U.S. Army at Smyrna (Izmir) in the 1850's, in connection with the importation of about 60-70 camels for the U.S. Army camel experiment. They would probably have been Turks rather than Arabs, and one was Greek. A couple of men were eventually repatriated at government expense.
Odie B. Faulk, The U. S. Camel Corps: An Army Experiment, Oxford University Press, 1976
Peter Kovachev - 5/8/2006
Mr. Abu Nasr,
Your post is one of the most refreshing pieces on the subject of breathless historiographical claims I have read in a long time. I read and re-read it quite a few times in admiration of the sober methodology behind it.
It's one of those frustrating facts of life that without a "time machine" many mysteries of history may be lost to us forever. This topic, now muddled-up in pseudo-history and politics, may already be irretrievably damaged, as you imply, as no credible historian will want to go near it. Pity. Other tentative theories, e.g., Chinese journeys to the West Coast of the Americas, African travels to Brazil, pre-Viking European fishermen on the North Atlantic coastline, etc., may have suffered similar fates.
With regards to your assumption that Muslim travellers should have left cultural evidence behind, though, remember that the Vikings (whose brief presence in North America, in New Foundland, has been archeologically documented) appear to have left nothing behind except a few foundations and partial walls. The "critical mass" of people from a visiting culture required to leave an imprint is probably greater than we imagine.
Frustrating, isn't it?
Peter Kovachev - 5/8/2006
Professor Yeagley sums it up rather nicely:
"This free use of American Indian history by white liberals to promote Arab Muslims is the most presumptuous disrespect of Indians in history. Indians are relegated to myth, as if we didn’t really exist historically…or if we did, our history did not matter – we’re just a fantasy for anyone to use any time it suits. We’re a free talisman of racial, cultural validation. Just say you’re Indian, you’re in, at the deepest level."
True, but I differ with Professor Yeagley about what is the most disrespectful-to-Indians pseudo-history to date. This latest Islamist propaganda by AWAIR may be obnoxious, but so far it's a tiny piddle that's being laughed-out as we speak. Far more damage was done by the old crank, Eric von Daniken, with his popularized and televised as documentary bunkum on how aliens taught pre-Columbian Native Americans pretty well everything.
Muhammad Abdallah Abu Nasr - 5/8/2006
As a Muslim I find discussions of the possibilities that Islamic peoples might have visited America before Columbus to be most interesting. But it is highly frustrating when so much of the "evidence" for such possible visits is so flimsy and even possibly "cooked up."
Other than this article, I have no knowledge of Ms. Shabbas or her teachers' handbook, but based on what is written in this article, her activity has been scandalous and done harm to a serious study of the subject.
Much of the other material mentioned by this article is similarly doubtful.
For example, there is supposed to be an inscription from before Columbus saying Yasu bin Maria? But that is not Islamic nor is it "common in the Qur'an." In the Qur'an Jesus is referred to as 'Isa ibn Maryam, or one might spell it 'Isa bin Maryam.
Christian Arabic texts do refer to Jesus as Yasu', based on the Syriac version of his name, so such an inscription, if it is genuine, might represent evidence that Arab Christians were in America.
That would be no less fascinating than a pre-Colombian Islamic inscription in America, but since the author made the mistake of saying that the phrase in that form is in the Qur'an - which it is not - it makes me wonder about the "inscription" itself. Where exactly is it? Is it not possibly the work of Arabs ("Moors") who accompanied the Spaniards after Columbus? Such people are known to have been present. Dating an inscription on a rock is not a simple matter and uncontroversial matter, even if it indeed exists.
Then there are the Bahamian Islands named Guana Hani which supposedly comes from the Arabic for "Hani Brothers". Actually, that would be al-Ikhwan Hani" in Arabic. Is such linguistic corruption from al-Ikhwan Hani to Guanahani possible? I suppose so, but I personally would like to see a bit more corroborating evidence than just a name that "sounds like" something.
The same goes for the "almama" tribe who supposedly were descended from some Imam.
It seems to me that if these tribes were so influenced as to take on the names of Arab visitors, that they would also adopt a number of customs that are typically Arab or Islamic, yet there is no mention of that here.
It also would seem likely that there would be medieval Islamic artifacts around if - as these stories tend to suggest - such visits were not chance shipwrecks of individuals.
It is known that the Vikings landed in North America prior to Columbus and I believe there have been artifacts dug up that attest to Nordic settlements in the precolombian period. Of course one might claim that we simply have yet to find the Islamic ones in the Bahamas and South America. That well may be, but it seems that pending such discoveries, we must be cautious when approaching this evidence.
Finally, as to the historian Abu al-Hasan 'Ali al-Mas'udi who supposedly mentioned a voyage to the Western Hemisphere.
His imposing historical-geographical-travel work "Muruj adh-Dhahab wa-ma'adin al-jawahir" ("Meadows of gold and mines of gems")is well known and is one of the great medieval histories. It was written around 943 CE. The basis for the work are al-Mas'udi's own travels. Al-Mas'udi was reportedly born in Baghdad and visited lands as far to the south as Sri Lanka and to the east as China before coming back to Syria and Egypt.
Al-Mas'udi is very informative and entertaining, but unfortunately also famous for being full of good stories that are not always as reliable as the writing of other Arab-Islamic historians of the Middle Ages.
I would appreciate a more detailed reference to where this "tale of a voyage to America" appears in his history - which is several volumes in length. There might well be such a story, but I don't happen to know of it. I have never heard of a map showing the Western Hemisphere being included in al-Mas'udi's history.
It's quite possible that such a tale does exist in al-Mas'udi and it might indeed point to early Arab - Islamic trips to the New World, but if so, al-Mas'udi's text should be presented with more care than passing reference.
So did Muslims visit America before Columbus? I think it quite possible, but to go from there to any measure of certainty we need more information than that reflected by the various authors quited in this interesting article. And we also need to examine the evidence with a critical eye, certainly not inflating possibilities into supposed "facts" to be included in text books.
Muhammad Abu Nasr
Vernon Clayson - 5/8/2006
I believe the best argument against Muslims coming to America before even Columbus is that society and culture has advanced and not become mired in the stagnant and acerbic lifestyle seemingly chosen by the Muslims. I've not followed this hypothesis closely but the earliest Muslim in this country I've heard of is Hadji "Hi Jolly" Ali, a camel driver, circa 1856, who is buried in Quartzsite, AZ.