Did the Muslims Discover America First? And Does it Matter?

April 26, 2012

There is a “news” item that keeps resurfacing – if you trace it down, you’ll find that the same story keeps getting repackaged again and again.  Last month, Muslim Weekly published an article claiming that Muslims discovered America before Columbus.  Turns out, it was based on a 2004 article, that was based on a 1997 article, which was … well, I stopped searching after that. If you’re interested in finding the root source, go for it.  you can find my source here: http://www.mathaba.net/news/?x=66517

As noted, I checked widely on the Internet, and all of the seemingly scholarly sources are actually Muslim sources – which doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but the all seem to point to the same (as yet hidden) source, which as an historian myself, causes me to look askance at the findings.  As for my own historical credentials, I’ve been on nine History Channel programs as an historian, and was screen-credited on five shows as a behind-the-scenes historical consultant.  In addition, Newsweek Japan paid me a princely sum to write an historical article on the life-saving impact of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings (this in 2007) – so, while I’m not a full-time historian, I do have some credentials (including a lot of other published articles, and a book or two in the works).

In my historical review of what’s available, all of the non-Muslim, non-sectarian sources describe the whole idea as “fringe” and assert that it is not accepted in peer-reviewed scientific/historical journals.  Which doesn’t mean that the Muslims aren’t right, but if they were, and if the sources were there, you’d think at least one credible academic (or even a credible “popular” historian like me) would have come out with a well-sourced, well-written and at least somewhat accepted case for the Muslim discovery of pre-Columbian America.

My take on it, having spent some time and Internet research “elbow grease” reviewing sources I could find is this – while it is at least theoretically possible that Arabic-speaking Muslims had indeed crossed the Atlantic, at least as far as the Caribbean islands, and that African Sub-Saharan Muslims may have crossed the South Atlantic, none of that “took.”  It had no influence on culture at the time, and no influence on the future (what we live in today).

Even if Muslims got here, they weren’t the only ones, and may not have been the first, of the European/African (or even Asian/Chinese) to arrive here, make no influence, then go home to live their lives oblivious to the import of that discovery.

For instance, there is a very strong case, supported by academically-valid research, for Vikings having crossed the North Atlantic to Vinland (North America); and is at least some evidence that at least one long ship made it through the Great Lakes to Minnesota – I learned that in the National Geographic decades ago, and never forgot the photos of the archeological site, or French Canadian explorers’ reports of blond Indians living on the shores of Lake Superior. But so what? It didn’t lead to anything. The Chinese may have reached North America too – a Chinese admiral is reported to have arrived here around 1421 – but the Chinese had a change of Emperors and withdrew from global nautical exploration long before Columbus was born, and their discoveries, and this Admiral’s epic voyages (if true)  had no impact on the development of North America or South America. Neither did any Muslims.  Not even this Chinese admiral, which some Muslims claim was himself a Muslim – unlikely, in my opinion, but if true, so what?  Are we “keeping score,” or are we looking at historically significant events?

Let’s look, instead, at a real historically significant “event” of discovery.

The real – and sole – reason why Portuguese and Spanish exploration is so important is that it led to the expansion of Euro-centric civilization to every corner of the earth, and that expansion ‘stuck’ to the present day. They changed the world. Period.

The Vikings changed a lot of history by their European explorations, but with the sole exception of having colonized Iceland, their North Atlantic influence was nil.  They changed France (Normandy), Italy (Sicily), Turkey (believe it or not), Russia (they founded Moscow, for Pete’s sake) and of course, thanks to William the Bastard, England. But not North America, which was totally bereft of Viking influence when Hudson, Cabot, Drake and other Brits made it to North America and began what became Canada and the US.

Meanwhile, the hypothetical Muslim voyagers of discovery had zero-zip-nada influence on North or South America in terms of ongoing interaction. It isn’t coincidence that the Spanish Monarchs who finally threw the Muslims out of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) – Ferdinand and Isabella – also sponsored Columbus’s first voyage in the very year (1492) that Islam was finally, permanently pushed out of Western Europe. But that’s a back-handed kind of influence and not what those who claim Muslims “discovered” America first mean.

If you get into theories about other cultures having reached North or South America (beyond Donovan’s song “Atlantis”), you’ll find a fairly decent case for at least some contact with Easter Island and Polynesia (they share a word for “sweet potato”), hints of contact with Japan and China long before 1421, contacts from antiquity from Carthage, Greece – even Israel.  There is a legitimate Roman bust from the 2nd Century AD that was unearthed from an indisputably pre-Columbian archeological site, suggesting a single contact from Rome.  And of course, the Mormons believe as an article of faith that ancient Israelis arrived in North America long before the birth of Christ – and there is at least one archeological find (a stellae showing an ancient tree of life) which is the sole known artifact which might support this claim.

However, and this surprised me when I first learned of it – there is also a scholarly school of thought that the Homeric “Trojan War” story in Homer’s Illiad is actually a retelling of an ancient Celtic heroic epic about the invasion of Cornwall by continental Celts – the reason being tin, essential to the making of bronze, and not widely available in continental Europe, but relatively abundant in Cornwall. And Homer’s Odyssey is a retelling of another ancient Celtic epic poem about Odysseus’s voyage home, one that got the hero sidetracked to the Azores, the Canaries and the Caribbean. Clive Cussler wrote Trojan Odyssey, a Dirk Pitt novel based on this seemingly fantastic idea, but in a non-fiction afterward, he cited a scholarly study 0 Where Troy Once Stood – about this original Trojan War, which was the basis for his book.  Where Troy Once Stood, can be found discussed in Wikipedia, here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_Troy_Once_Stood

While fantastic, it can’t be overlooked that the ancient Greeks were themselves Celts, and their artwork, customs and ancient myths were all Celtic in origin.  So it shouldn’t be ruled out – at least  not out of hand – no matter how over-the-top it sounds.  Certainly it’s no more outrageous than some of the Muslim claims about discoveries made by Muslims.

But if Celts did get to North America first, it doesn’t matter. And even if the fringe theories on Muslims (Arabic or sub-Saharan African, or even a seafaring Chinese Muslim), it makes no difference, because they didn’t follow up on it. Columbus’s claim to fame is not that he discovered the West Indies or the Americas, but that he began the discovery-and-colonization process beyond the Old World (that discovery process had begun earlier in the same century, under the Portuguese King Henry the Navigator).  Columbus led the way to others, like Magellan (who planted Spain’s flag as far afield as the Philippines, which the Muslims also “discovered” first, for all the good it did them), the British and French explorers in North America, the Conquistadors, and so much more that we remember from our history lessons.
So, while the Muslim claims are considered “fringe” by academics, they are meaningless even if true.  They rank right up there with Eric the Red and Kon Tiki – interesting side-notes to history (if true), but otherwise no more significant than da Vinci’s unrealized designs for flying machines, submarines and combat tanks.  Perhaps ahead of their time (if true), but not significant, except as “bragging rights.”
Ned Barnett – Nevada Conservative

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