Tuesday, November 25, 2014

So Muslims Discovered America?

On November 15th Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech at a meeting of Latin American Muslim leaders challenging Christopher Columbus' supposed discovery of the Americas. Historians now agree that Columbus was not the first European to see or set foot in the Americas. However, Erdogan went on to explain that Muslims made contact with the Americas in 1178 AD, and therefore the Muslim world should be credited with the "discovery." While the Arabic world was more advanced than most of Europe in the twelfth century and a voyage from one of those countries would not have been strictly impossible, we know of no records indicating that one was ever undertaken.

Quoth Erdogan: “Contacts between Latin America and Islam date back to the 12th century. Muslims discovered America in 1178, not Christopher Columbus….Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.” The conservative Turk referred to a mention in Columbus’ diary of a hill in Cuba shaped like a mosque.

Spain was busy ejecting Muslims from Spanish land, pushing them back to the Strait of Gibraltar. The Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to Spanish King Ferdinand V in 1492, the year that lives in infamy among the surviving Taino people in the Caribbean. Columbus would have known what a mosque looked like, but finding Muslims in the “New World” would have been a terrible calamity, since his King was at war with Muslims and his “right” to claim the land and enslave the occupants was based on the Doctrine of Discovery.

Erdogan’s remarks were met with derision among academics and quickly became a partisan political issue in Turkey. On November 18, The Guardian reported that Erdogan was doubling down, quoting him, “very respected scientists in Turkey and in the world…supported his claim. Some youth of our country have begun objecting to this without doing any research or paying attention to discussions.”

There are two serious problems here with Erdogan's assertion. The first and most significant is that America was actually "discovered" by the ancestors of modern day Native Americans, not Europeans. While the dark ages were going on in Europe, both North and South America were already populated by plenty of people. The second problem is that even if Muslims reached the Americas in 1178 AD, the Vikings did it around 1000 AD. They even established a settlement in what is now Newfoundland. The first Viking known to have landed in the Americas was Leif Erickson, who converted to Christianity just prior to his voyage. However, Erickson was following the voyage of Bjarni Herjólfsson, a Norse pagan who is believed to be the first European to see North America.

So the first European to see the Americas was pagan, and the first European to set foot on the continent was a recent Christian convert who himself grew up pagan. Christopher Columbus' voyages may have kicked off European colonization of the Americas, but they took place nearly five hundred years later. It's not clear who Erdogan's "respected scientists" are, and if he's going to make extraordinary claims like this he should at the very least name his sources.

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5 comments:

Melissa Lamb said...

Melissa Lamb said...

I was just defending this guy to some feminists who were hating on him due to some articles quoting him out of context.

This is pretty awful tho. Where do u even start? I get the impression that if he could go on to 'boast' that it was actually Muslims who annexed the Americas, committed loads of genocide etc etc ...he would totally go for it.

It sends the wrong message to people from parts of the world were there is no exposure to the difficult predicament of indigenous peoples. They think all these western 1st world countries are so great and that whatever we did to get where we are is worth emulating.

When woman and minority groups ask for the same rights as everyone one else, that can be given, begrudgingly or otherwise but Indigenous peoples require more complicated things, what government will look someone in the eye an admit they they are illegally occupying your land and just hand your sovereignty back? Not being able to do this leads to other complications and the need to restrict the power and influence of these communities which leads to the need to do even more sly and back handed things to them. Middle Eastern countries are supposed to be working on their PR, if he thinks claims like this are good to make then it suggests the world at large is ill-informed on what it's like for countries with dodgy colonial pasts.

There's a lot of residual issues that are unsolvable and basically no opportunity for prior colonial powers to redeem themselves in the eyes of indigenous groups. president Kennedy was still having Native American women forcibly sterilized in his day and Australians counted Aborigines as 'fauna' rather than human beings on the census until 1971, voting and citizenship was a whole other story. To this day, many Aboriginal communities live below 3rd world standards according to UN statistics and there's similar information about certain indian reservations not having access to safe drinking water. It's not as if these countries are backward and oppressive, it's just that in the particular case of original inhabitants we're left with a distasteful mess left by our ancestors that is so staggering, successive governments would rather wet their pants and run away.

The prez must have advisers look at his speeches right? So is this representative of a general attitude? Does Turkey really want to be like this?? It's partly because of the kind of legacy evangelism and colonialism built in the West that so many Westerners become disenchanted with their own religious heritage. This guy seems to think it would make Muslims seem more cool, to claim they did something so un-zeitgeisty.

Also what's with the scientists? His whole claim is based on a passage from Columbus's journals, which by the way, are available on Project Gutenberg for everyone to download and read for free in order to verify whether Chris C sighted any mosques anywhere. Did he need a team of scientists to figure out how to print the pdf out for him or something? Or maybe he needed them to blow up the font so he could check whether the mosque was on the hill or whether the hill looked like a mosque??

just give this guy his alzheimer meds and check him into a nursing home already.

Seti Amon said...

Actually there is some evidence including ottoman maps this was put foreward in the 90's but there isn't enough to substaniate it.eitherway what does it matter?

Scott Stenwick said...

That's kind of my thought as well - why does it matter? I think it would be an interesting historical tidbit if true. But people arrived in the Americas long before the dawn of our recorded history, and credit for the discovery most properly belongs to them.

In the 12th century science in the Arabic world was ahead of that in Europe, so it's not impossible that an expedition from the Muslim world might have reached the Americas. But the proof that this guy cites "the hill Columbus thought looked like a mosque was an actual mosque" is pure ignorance, which tells me he has no idea what he's talking about. That's really what I'm making fun of, not the hypothetical voyage itself.

If you have any links to the story from the 1990's that you mention I'd be interested in checking that out.

Melissa Lamb said...



It's pretty established that various groups of people with limited technology time and again completed pretty staggering journeys and didn't always go out of their way to record where they'd been. Finding any group popping up anywhere shouldn't be surprising by now, except for people who are really invested in a dated version of history.

So is it important anyway? nope.

But don't you think it's important to deplore the attitude that would make someone want to claim something like this? He's espousing a world view that cultures and religions can be ranked in superiority to each other, that other people's countries can be 'discovered', that colonizing land is evidence of superiority, be it racial or cultural, it's just a nasty, insipid way to think, especially for a political figure, it's a red flag. This guy is in charge of a country full of ethnic groups, I sure hope he finds their historical achievements up to scratch. I sure hope Armenians have discovered a continent since last time they got massacred :P

Melissa Lamb said...

Oh yeah Seti Amon is talking about the Piri Reis map??

It should have a wiki page.