The famous Muslim geographer and cartographer AL-SHARIF AL-IDRISI (1099- 1166CE) wrote in his famous book Nuzhat al-mushtaq fi ikhtiraq al-afaq (Excursion of the longing one in crossing horizons) that a group of seafarers (from North Africa) sailed into the sea of darkness and fog (The Atlantic ocean) from Lisbon (Portugal), in order to discover what was in it and what extent were its limits. They finally reached an island that had people and cultivation...on the fourth day, a translator spoke to them in the Arabic language.
And it was from the town of Lisbon that the adventurers set out known under the name of Mughamarin [Adventurers], penetrated the ocean of fogs and wanted to know what it contained and where it ended. [...] After sailing for twelve more days they perceived an island that seemed to be inhabited, and there were cultivated fields. They sailed that way to see what it contained. But soon barques encircled them and made them prisoners, and transported them to a miserable hamlet situated on the coast. There they landed. The navigators saw there people with red skin; there was not much hair on their body, the hair of their head was straight, and they were of high stature. Their women were of an extraordinary beauty…
Unlike other texts I have discussed, that of Idrisi is one of the more famous passages in Arabic literature and is widely discussed, though rarely translated.
I therefore present the text, from section 4.1 of Idrisi’s Nuzhat al-Mushtaq, written around 1153, as translated by C. Raymond Beazley in 1906. Beazley, however, tended to paraphrase in places and made several minor errors in interpreting the 1836 French translation of Pierre Amédée Jaubert, from which he apparently worked. I have expanded and corrected Beazley’s translation against Jaubert’s.
It was from Lisbon that the Maghrurin or Deluded Folk, left on an expedition to find out what the (Atlantic) ocean contains and its limits, as we have discussed above. There is still in Lisbon a street at the foot of the hot baths which bears the name of these Maghrurin.
These were eight in number, all related to one another as first cousins. They built a boat, fitted for ocean sailing and for the transport of a large amount of fresh water and provisions, and thus equipped for many months they set out from Lisbon with the first east wind. After eleven days they reached a sea, whose thick waters had a foetid smell, concealed numerous reefs, and were but faintly lighted. Fearing for their lives, they changed their course, and sailed to the south for twelve days more. In this way they reached an island which they found to be uninhabited, except by large flocks of sheep. Some of these they killed on landing, but they found the flesh so bitter that they could not eat it, and only took the skins. Some wild figs and a spring of fresh water were the only other things they remarked in the island, which they called Al Ghanam (‘the Isle of Sheep’). Again they sailed southwards for twelve days, and so came to another, dotted with houses and cultivated fields. They landed, and were at once surrounded, made prisoners, and carried in their own boats to a city on the sea shore. Here they were confined in a house, where they saw some of the inhabitants, men of tail stature and red color, with little body hair and wearing their hair long (not curly). Along with these were some women of great beauty. For three days they were left alone, but on the fourth day, the king’s interpreter came to them and questioned them in Arabic. Two days afterwards they were brought out of their prison and presented to the king, who asked them the same questions as the interpreter had done. Especially he wished to know what they wanted in his country. They replied that they were seeking out the wonders of the ocean and its limits.
At this the king laughed heartily and said to the interpreter:—“Tell them my father once ordered some of his slaves to venture out upon that sea, and they sailed across the breadth of it for a month, but then they found themselves deprived of the light of the sun, and returned without having learnt anything.” The king ordered the interpreter to ensure the Wanderers of his benevolence so they would have a good opinion of him, which was done. So saying, he dismissed the Wanderers, and sent them back to their prison, where they remained until a west wind arose. At this they were brought out, blindfolded, put into a boat, and sent off to sea again; “We sailed,” they say, “about three days and three nights, and then came to the mainland (of Africa). Here we put ashore, with our hands tied behind our backs, and so left in this sad state until the dawn. Soon after the rising of the sun, we heard shouts of laughter, and the chatter of many voices; and we cried out, to attract the attention of these people. So the inhabitants of the region came to us in our situation so miserable, and they unbound us. They asked questions, and we shared the story of our adventure. One of them told us they were Berbers. ‘Do you know the distance between you and your country?’ At our negative response he added: ‘Between the point where you are and your country it is two months’ journey.’” The leader of the Wanderers exclaimed, “Alas, Alas,”--wasafi; which is why the name of that place is called Asafi today. This is the port of which we have spoken as being located in the extremity of the West.
What makes this text somewhat interesting is that it fits in between two other texts sometimes claimed as proving Islamic voyages to America, and cited by Hamidullah and Mroueh. The first is Al-Mas’udi’s account in chapter 12 of Meadows of Gold (c. 947 CE) that Khashkhash, a Moor of Spain, set off with some young men to explore the ocean, “and nobody knew for a long time what had become of them. At length they came back loaded with rich booty. Their history is well known among the people of el-Andalos (the Moors in Spain)” (trans. Aloys Sprenger). Al-Idrisi’s tale is almost a sequel, and it is interesting to speculate, as some have done, whether the Wanderers sought to follow in Khashkhash’s (legendary) footsteps.
But this text also serves as precedent for a fake text, also cited by Mroueh, as proof of Islamic voyages to America. This is the famous story of Ibn Farroukh, for which I provided the first ever English translation last year. The text seems to be an expansion of and sequel to Idrisi, reversing though some of the themes. As in Idrisi, the Iberian voyagers travel to the Canaries (explicitly named) and again meet a king with whom they chat with the help of an Arabic interpreter. The king, in fact, remembers earlier voyages by Arabic-speakers, possibly an allusion to Idrisi’s Wanderers. But this time the Iberians put one over on the king, and gain the run of the place rather than end up the prisoner of the islanders. The text is a fake, though, composed in 1844 by Don Manuel Ossuna Saviñón, and based on eighteenth century texts, which in turn take some of their history from Arabic sources like Idrisi.