This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 2: Did Muslims Discover America?
Nobody knows for certain who was the first Muslim to reach the New World.
There’s general agreement that the first prehistoric people came via waves of migration from Asia starting about 20,000 years ago. The historical consensus is that the Vikings later “discovered” America around the year 1,000, with Christopher Columbus following about 500 years later.
Naturally, non-European cultures would love to snatch the glory from the Vikings and Columbus, and claim the honor of American discovery for themselves. China, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East—all have thinly supported or completely unsupported theories of pre-European contact. So it should come as no surprise that the Islamic world makes such claims.
An admiral with the impressive name of Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad supposedly sailed westward from Islamic Spain in the 10thcentury, returning some time later with booty from a “strange and curious land.” (If his story is true at all, it’s far more likely he visited the Azores, the Canary Islands, or even just part of West Africa.) And as late as 2014, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech, “In fact, Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178. In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.” Level heads counter that Columbus was merely describing the appearance of a geographical feature rather than literally claiming to have seen a mosque.
Another claim involving Islamic discovery comes from the other side of the world. Admiral Zheng He (pronounced “zhung huh” was a real-life person, a Chinese Muslim born in southern China in 1371, who became a major player in 15thcentury China. During the early 1400s, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions using extraordinarily large ships (120 meters long, by some accounts) and thousands of men, which traveled throughout the China Sea, and along the coasts of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and even the Arabia peninsula and East Africa.
But did Zheng He also discover America? This remarkable claim is outlined in a 2003 book titled 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by retired British naval officer and amateur historian Gavin Menzies, who has been roundly criticized by mainstream historians and scholars for playing fast and loose with the facts.
The only notable corroboration for Menzies comes from a Chinese lawyer named Liu Gang, who owns a world map, supposedly drawn in the mid 1400s based on information from Zheng He, that shows the New World in extraordinary detail.
As intriguing as these claims are, there is currently no archaeological evidence for a pre-Columbian Islamic presence in the Western Hemisphere, and no credible historian who supports such a theory.