You will recall that not long ago the president of Turkey resurrected claims that Islamic sailors had reached America long before Columbus. In previous blog posts, I’ve shared many of the texts on which this fictitious belief rests, so I thought I’d provide one more, which forms a sort of missing link connecting some of the other texts I’ve previously examined. First, let’s review what Islamic writers have to say before I share the text itself.
In his 1996 article on Islamic voyages to America, Dr. Youssef Mroueh states the following:
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.
Mroueh implies that the “island” was America and that this was evidence that Muslim voyagers had visited it long before. Mroueh derived this information from Prof. Muhammad Hamidullah’s famous 1968 article on the “Muslim Discovery of America before Columbus” where the text of Idrisi is translated thus:
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…
The implication, of course, is that they reached America and found Native Americans with their red skin.
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.
As should be clear from the king’s statement, he is located on the same side of the Atlantic as Africa and Portugal, or else his father could not have sent sailors out across the ocean for a month’s journey; from the island to Africa was but three days’ sail. Modern writers typically identify the islands reached by these sailors with Madeira, the Azores, or the Canaries, if they credit the story at all. The Guanche people of the Canaries are as red as Native Americans (which is to say, not particularly red) and could equally well fit the description, and were known to have had contact with Arab Berbers.
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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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