Did Muslims Visit America Before Columbus?
By Rebecca Fachner, 5-08-06

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.

Sources

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.com.

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.

Advertisements