In his monthly column in the Columbus Dispatch, archaeologist Brad Lepper writes about the wave of claims that assert Muslim exploration of the New World prior to Columbus, and, in some cases, even prior to Leif Erikson. Lepper expands upon the column on his blog, and there isn’t a whole lot I can add to it, so I encourage you to visit both and read what Lepper has to say. His piece is predicated on a recent article by Richard V. Francaviglia of Willamette University, who wrote about the issue in the September 2014 edition of Terrae Incognitae (46, no. 2).
Francaviglia traces the idea back to Leo Wiener in 1922 and notes the close connection between the claim of Islamic discovery and Afrocentrism—tying the emergence of both to African American cultural revitalization during the 1920s through the Civil Rights era, and their growth to anti-colonialism following the collapse of the European imperial system. Francaviglia’s article covers everything from Ivan Van Sertima to Barry Fell to the Piri Reis map and is a great read. (Francaviglia, it should be noted, feels that transatlantic contact with Africa was quite possible, but can find no proof to support the idea that it actually happened.)
It’s a fascinating subject—not because there is any evidence for an Islamic presence in pre-Columbian America but because of the sociology behind the myth. Francaviglia discusses the case of the so-called “hip-hop imam” Abdur-Rashid, who argues that “Muslim explorers came to the land of the Original Americans, met them, peacefully interacted with them, traded with them, intermarried with them, and perhaps even gave another relative handful of them dawah.” Does it sound familiar? What if we changed the terms involved. Consider exactly how close it is to Scott Wolter’s contention that the Knights Templar came to the land of Native Americans, met them, peacefully interacted with them, traded with them, intermarried with them, and gave them the secret rituals of Freemasonry.
And both claims rest on equally dubious evidence. In the case of the Templars, the entire edifice rests on a “confession,” extracted under torture in 1308, from a Templar named Jean de Châlons who claimed that some of the Templars fled persecution by setting sail in eighteen small dinghies (Vatican Secret Archives, Registra Avenionensia 48, f450r), later misinterpreted as oceangoing vessels when modern authors confused medieval galeae for eighteenth century galleons. Similarly, the claims for Muslim adventures across the Atlantis come from similarly massaged historical sources, which I covered in a series last years. These include testimony from Christopher Columbus comparing a hill to a mosque (Journal of the First Voyage, entry for October 29, 1492) and al-Mas‘udi’s Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems (12), in which a sailor named Khashkhash traveled over the ocean and returned with booty.
Interestingly, both Abdur-Rashid and Scott Wolter share another similarity. Abdur-Rashid rails against those mainstream scholars who fail to appreciate the patent obviousness of Muslim exploration of ancient America: “those who study the evidence and continue to deny the obvious, reveal themselves to be rooted in the old racist European renditions of American history.” Compare this to Wolter’s claims that the evidence for his revisionist history of America is “overwhelming” and that scholars are “willfully ignoring” this evidence in order to support what he incorrectly terms “Manifest Destiny,” a Eurocentric approach to American history.
Since there is such a similarity, does it not follow that Francaviglia’s analysis of the motives behind the claims of an Islamic discovery of America is applicable to an extent to claims of a Templar discovery of America in the name of a New Age Jesus myth?
In addition to stifling further study, this imam’s line of reasoning does at least three things. First, it renders Islam as a greater force in exploration than European expansion. Second, it depicts Islam as kinder and gentler on the natives than Christianity was known to be. And, third, it brands as bigots those who disagree. In no uncertain terms, the premise has become part of – and sustains – the culture wars between East and West.
There is a political dimension to both claims, and in the case of the New Age Templars, it allows believers to identify with a non-standard Christianity that frees them from the consequences of the Conquest and its devastation of Native populations. It also gives believers a way of sustaining a different type of culture war—between what they see as a corrupt, overbearing, and conservative mainstream American culture and the more enlightened New Age values they would prefer.
Heck, both even make dramatic claims of ownership over America: Islamic extremists argue that because of these phantom Muslim voyages, the Americas are part of the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community, and therefore potentially subject to a global caliphate. Templar fanatics, following Scott Wolter, believe that most of North America “belongs” to the Templars in some sense because of an alleged land claim on the Kensington Rune Stone—and the rest from other, hidden land claims that Wolter asserts exist in secret. (He recently, for example, claimed on his blog that the Kensington Rune Stone may have a still-buried second half with a larger land claim.)
The two claims are mirror images of one another, each seeking to empower a different group by finding a deeper connection to an America that seems disconnected from their everyday lived experience. It is impossible not to see reflected in either claim an effort to rejuvenate one’s cultural heritage, whether it be Black Muslim (conflating African American and Islamic) or northern European.
But the interesting question is this: What does it say that so many can easily recognize the political and cultural motivations behind Islamic revisionist history yet turn red with anger at any suggestion that New Age Eurocentrism is in any way similar?
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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