Eurocentric and Afrocentric believers are not the only people who want to remake the prehistory of the Americas in their own image. There is also a movement among some Muslim advocates to claim that Middle Eastern or North African Muslim groups came to America centuries before Columbus. Most of their “evidence” is vague accounts of Muslim travelers who sailed west from Islamic Spain and returned some time later claiming to have reached new lands. However, Dr. Youssef Mroueh of the As-Sunnah Foundation of America made a particularly fanciful claim in 1996 to celebrate the “millennium” of Muslim America that bears a bit of scrutiny since it is yet another example of alternative history’s slipshod scholarship and fabricated quotations.
Here is what Mroueh claimed Christopher Columbus said during his first voyage to the Americas, in October of 1492:
Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 CE while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the north-east coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.
Now that would be a surprising turn of events were it true. So where did Mroueh get his information? His source, he says, is Nigel Davies’s Voyagers to the New World (1979), a book that actually sought to debunk most trans-Atlantic contact theories. I can’t find a reference to this claim in the book, but Google’s search function may have missed it. Other sources attribute the claim to Ivan van Sertima, but in what publication I do not know. That isn’t important though because pretty much everything Mroueh reports is utterly wrong.
First, October 21, 1492 was not a Monday. The actual date of the event in question was Monday, October 29, 1492. Columbus and his crew were sailing near a particularly pleasant river that he had named San Salvador. There he encountered the source of Mroueh’s fictitious claim, as given (in the third person, from the redaction of Bartolome de las Casas) in his journal of his first voyage, describing what historians now believe is the region near Bariay, not Gibara, as Mroueh—following older sources—claimed:
Remarking on the position of the river and port, to which he gave the name of San Salvador, he describes its mountains as lofty and beautiful, like the Pena de las Enamoradas, and one of them has another little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque. The other river and port, in which he now was, has two round mountains to the S.W., and a fine low cape running out to the W.S.W.
And there you have it: The “mosque” was merely a poetic description of a natural formation.
But let’s take a moment to consider the impact of this dumb idea. First, and most disturbingly, this idea has been repeated time and again on the internet and in Islamic literature as support for the idea of a preexisting Islamic claim to the Americas predating European claims. (Native Americans, in this view, still don’t count.) It shows up in Christine Huda Dodge’s introduction to Islam, The Everything Understanding Islam Book (2003), and in Islamic websites far and wide. The Cuban government has done little to counter the speculation, and some scattered reports, including one in Frederick William Dame’s Muslim Discovery of America (2013), suggest that Cuba favors such speculation as a way of increasing financial ties with Arab nations.
The claims for a Muslim presence in America can be traced back to a passage in Al-Masudi, the tenth-century Islamic historian whose Meadows of Gold (c. 947 CE) offers this account of a voyage across the ocean, which, to my knowledge, is typically excerpted in highly redacted form by advocates of Islamic discovery of America:
On the limits where these two seas, the Mediterranean and the Ocean join, pillars of copper and stone, have been erected by King Hirakl the giant [i.e. Heracles]. Upon these pillars are inscriptions and figures, which show with their hands that one cannot go further, and that it is impracticable to navigate beyond the Mediterranean into that sea (the ocean), for no vessel sails on it: there is no cultivation nor a human being, and the sea has no limits neither in its depths nor extent, for its end is unknown. This is the sea of darkness, also called the green sea or the surrounding sea. Some say that these pillars are not on this strait, but in some islands of the ocean and their coast.
This is the oldest text advocates use to claim a Muslim voyage to America, and a truncated translation, comprising only the last few sentences, appeared in 1968 in a Journal of the Muslim Students’ Association article by Mohammed Hamidullah about the “Muslim Discovery of America before Columbus” and thereafter became canonical alternative history.
Alternative thinkers have read into this story a voyage to the Americas and back, though it’s clear from the first paragraph, often omitted, that Masudi himself assumed this impossible and that at any rate no regular commerce across the ocean was occurring. If this voyage ever really happened, it’s possible it actually went along the old Carthaginian route of Hanno toward sub-Saharan Africa, where medieval African kingdoms were known to have great wealth. Had Khoshkhash (also spelled Khashkhash) actually thought he had voyaged across the Atlantic, it surely would have occurred to Masudi to note that there were humans of some sort on the other side of the “limitless” ocean.
Special thanks to blog comment poster Mansa Musa for bringing this to my attention in comments on an earlier blog post.
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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