In Search of Pre-Columbian Muslim Americans

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antique compass with miniature sextant sits atop an old world map.
Pre-Columbian Muslim explorers made modern America possible as the European explorers built upon their maps and routes.

By Tori Dominski

In recent years, there have been differing opinions and theories concerning possible evidence of a pre-Columbian Muslim presence in the Americas. We will discuss some select theories and research with their respective evidence and, insha’Allah, help to bring light to this complex and fascinating subject.

Cartography was one of many sciences advanced by the Muslim Golden Ages. For example,in the 800s, during the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun, the brightest minds were gathered to calculate the Earth’s total circumference and the calculation is only off by 4% of the measurement determined by 21st century science! As early as 956, Abu Al-Hasan al Masudi wrote of voyages from Al-Andalus to what he referred to as “The Unknown Land” where trading was done across the ocean.

There were several excursions from Muslim Spain across the Atlantic that were recorded; one in the early 1100s included the brilliant geographer al- Idrisi. This group was captured by a native tribe somewhere in the Caribbean and was later freed when a member of the tribe who spoke Arabic was able to help them negotiate. How did this Arabic translator come to be? Who was he? How did he encounter Muslims prior to the 1100s?

As proof of pre-columbian Muslim exploration, this map was penned before any major European exploration was done.
The World map from 956, penned by Abu al-Hasan al-Masudi indicating the lands we now know as America. This data could only have been known if pre-Columbian Muslim explorers were visiting America.

Jose V. Pimienta-Bey uses linguist/ archaeologist Barry Fell’s findings of cultural and language similarities between Muslims from the African continent to present his claim that Muslims had indeed visited the area preceding Christopher Columbus, interacted with the natives, and influenced their customs. Fell says that there are petroglyphs predating Columbus’ arrival that are written in Arabic. These appear in California and other parts of the Southwest. Another example is the appearance of the naja, or a crescent moon shape that is found predominantly among the Navjo people and is used as decoration for dress and decor. Pimienta-Bay says that he finds it abnormal that the Christian Spaniards would tote around crescent-moon symbols since they had only recently finished a war with Muslims before exploration of the Americas began.

Pimienta-Bey then moves on to Ivan van Sertima and his research on African Americans for more evidence and support. Van Sertima points out that a few 12th-13th century Chinese scripts mention Arab Muslim commerce spanning past West Africa’s Atlantic shore. Author and Orientalist DeLacy O’Leary wrote that the so-called “western Maghreb” was reaching still beyond that.

Barry Fell’s entire research on the topic of pre-Columbian Muslim explorers outlines a trade system between the Americas and the “Old World” that began with the Phoenicians in the 3rd century BCE and increased with frequency and diversity. Muslims were not the first to discover America across the Atlantic, but the fact that they came far before Columbus did and apparently established settlements is significant. The oldest Islamic inscriptions are dated between 700CE and 1000CE and are in a combination of Kufic Arabic script and the Mandinka language (which uses Arabic script).

The inscriptions catalogued by Barry Fell are:

  • Ismi’Allah – In the name of Allah
  • Nabi `llah Muhammad – Prophet of God, Muhammad
  • Shaytan maha mayam – Satan is a fount of lies
  • Isus bin Mariyam – Jesus, Son of Mary
  • Hamid (just a name)

These inscriptions all escaped archaeologists prior to the late 20th century as the people studying native American languages were not equally versed in Kufic Arabic, Mandinka and other African written languages. Barry Fell, being an expert on languages, was able to bridge the gap.

While quite a bit of Fell’s work has come under harsh criticism for his conclusions regarding the Islamic influence in pre- Columbian America, none of his critics are able to discredit the fact that the Arabic script that he found was written when he says it was written and says what he has translated it to say.

Christopher Columbus himself knew of the Muslim interaction with this “New World” as evident by the fact that he hired “Moorish” Muslim navigators in spite of heavy criticism from the Spanish crown who were fresh from heavy fighting to expel Muslims from Andalusia. In fact, many of Columbus’s crew were Muslims that had been conscripted after the Battle of Al-Uqab. These Muslims guided Columbus across the ocean and he accounts that many fled to join the tribes in America. This indicates that the Muslims felt that they would have shelter and companionship with the people that they encountered.

One of the most popular stories told is that Christopher Columbus wrote down that he saw a masjid (mosque) built on the top of a mountain off the Cuban coast. Still, others dispute this and say that Columbus did not see an actual masjid, but that the mountain itself resembled a masjid or that there was a similar structure that could cause confusion. Ruins of masjids are also said to have been discovered in Mexico, Texas, and Nevada.

Columbus’s crew members reported interesting things while exploring South America. They said that the native peoples were using large woven cotton cloths and clothes that very much resembled those of Guinea. The cloths were called “Almayzars” – stemming from an Arabic word roughly meaning “cover” that Spanish/North African Muslims took from Guinea to nearby countries. Columbus himself remarked that married native women covered more significantly. A Spanish conqueror, Hernan Cortes, said that the native women wore “long veils” and that the men wore interestingly colored pants in a “Moorish” style.

An interesting claim is that anthropologists say they’ve proven that a group of people called “Mandinkas” adventured to various areas in North America via its rivers, and even brought elephants with them. These Mandinkas were likely the companions of Mansa Abu Bakr of Mali and their descendants.

In the 700s, Islam entered the region of Mali, in West Africa. Mali was already a wealthy empire with a center of learning that only grew exponentially as they adopted the Arabic script to enhance the written form of the language of Mandingo. The tenth Mansa (King) of Mali was Musa I, who came to power when his brother, Mansa Abu Bakr led an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the Americas; abdicating the throne to Musa. Musa explained this entire scenario during his epic Hajj of 1324. As Mansa Musa I travelled with an entourage of 60,000 people from his kingdom in Mali to Mecca for Hajj, he distributed gifts of gold to the poor along the way and told the history of his people to others in Egypt, Ethiopia and in Mecca. This journey left a massive impression on the people of the time, so his account of the history of his brother’s journey was left behind with the people he encountered.

Mansu Musa depicted on an old manuscript describing his kingdom.
Mansa Musa told stories of his brother Abu Bakr who sent pre-Columbian Muslim explorers by the hundreds to the Americas.

During his reign, Mansa Abu Bakr was inspired by stories that he had heard of lands across the seas, so he commissioned 400 ships to go exploring. Only one ship returned to report about the land that had been found. In response, Abu Bakr abdicated his throne and outfitted 2,000 ships with people, animals and goods and set sail with the intent of colonization. They were never heard from again in Mali, however evidence of their landing can be found across the Americas. The Spaniard Conquistadors were familiar with Mandinka culture and they recorded the presence of settlements and abandoned cities from areas as far south as Brazil to as far north as the United States. There are modern petroglyphs (more current than 1000CE) which depict elephants (no longer native to the Americas) and inscriptions in the Mandinka language.

Returning to Barry Fell’s archaeological work, research, and findings, there is supposedly “solid scientific evidence” to prove that Muslims preceded Columbus. Fell discovered remains of Islamic schools throughout the mid and southwest of the United States from about 700-800 C.E. He found engravings in a form of Arabic that suggested many different subjects and grades being taught.

It is likely that many Native Americans are descendants of these early Muslim explorers of the Americas. The existence of pre-Columbian Muslim explorers in America along with the settlement of those explorers is an important thread in the tapestry of Muslim American history. It is our hope that others will take the inspiration to dig deeper and uncover more knowledge about the past, so that we have a clearer foundation upon which to build our future.

Resources:

  1. www.hispanicmuslims.com/articles/other/ beforecolumbus.html
  2. www.sunnah.org/history/precolmb.htm
  3. Saga America, Barry Fell 1980
  4. lostislamichistory.com
  5. elwahat.univ-ghardaia.dz/annonce/03/ Pre-Columbian%20Islamic.pdf
  6. Winters, Clyde-Ahmad. “Islam in Early North and South America.” Al-Ittihad Volume 14. July-October (1977): pp57-67. Print.
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