Posted on November 3, 2014

Archeology: Evidence Scant for Ancient Muslims in America

Bradley Lepper, Columbus Dispatch, November 1, 2014


Richard Francaviglia, an adjunct professor of religious studies at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., argues that claims about pre-Columbian Muslims in the Americas, which have become increasingly popular since 9/11, provide a sense of ethnic pride for some contemporary Muslims. In an article in the current issue of the journal Terrae Incognitae, he writes, “The once seemingly esoteric subject of pre-Columbian Muslim exploration of the New World is now front and center in the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ of the early 21st century.”

The evidence for the presence of Muslims in America before 1492 is underwhelming. On Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America, he reported seeing a “mountain like a pretty mosque” along the coast of Cuba. Some Muslim readers think Columbus actually saw a mosque rather than a mountain that only resembled a mosque.

The late Barry Fell, a Harvard biologist, argued that petroglyphs from California to Oklahoma were carved by pre-Columbian explorers from Libya. Petroglyphs, however, tend to be highly stylized. Francaviglia observes that they “can serve as Rorschach tests in that they mean different things to different people, depending on the mind-set of the observer.”

Many North American place names have Arabic roots, such as Medina in northeastern Ohio. Believers in ancient Muslim Buckeyes think this reflects the cultural identity of the city’s founders. Francaviglia explains that these names actually were “given to places in the 19th century by Anglo-Americans who were fascinated by the Muslim/Arab world.”

Francaviglia does not dispute that Muslims could have beaten Columbus to the New World. They certainly possessed the technological expertise to have done so; but, so far, there is no reliable evidence that they did. There are, however, very good reasons for thinking that they didn’t.

Arab maps were the best in the world, but none of the existing early maps demonstrates any knowledge of the Americas. Arabs also were prolific writers. Francaviglia thinks it’s virtually impossible that Arab explorers discovered the Americas and made no mention of the fact.