Muslim Legacy in Early Americas
Jose V. Pimienta-Bey
The works of men such as Ivan Van Sertima, Barry Fell and Alexander Von Wuthenau represent 20th century scholarship which has stated directly or indirectly - that there has been a significant Muslim presence in the early Americas. While it is true that there have been a number of Muslim writers such as Clyde-Ahmad Winters who have sought to enlighten folks to that fact, it is perhaps more significant that "non-Muslims" have conceded such evidence of pre and post-Colombian Muslims on this continent.
New Zealand archaeologist and linguist Barry Fell in his work Saga America (1980) pointed to existing evidence of a Muslim presence in various parts of the Americas. In addition to drawing several cultural parallels between West African peoples and certain "Indian" peoples of the southwest, Fell points out that the southwest's Pima people possessed a vocabulary which contained words of Arabic origin. The presence of such words among the Pima is compounded by the existence of Islamic petrogyphs in places like California. Fell informs us that in Inyo county, California, there exists an early American petrogyph (rock carving) which stated in Arabic: "Yasus ben Maria" ("Jesus, Son of Mary"), a phrase commonly found within the surahs of the Holy Qur'an. Fell is convinced that this glyph is many centuries older than the U.S.
Fell also identified the algonquian language as having words with arabic roots, especially words which pertained to navigation, astronomy, meteorology, medicine and anatomy. The presence of such words again illustrates significant cultural contact between the American "Indians" and the Arabic-speaking peoples of the Islamic world. Such Islamic peoples evidently came primarily from the African continent as additional evidence suggests.
Alexander Von Wuthenau
Although German art historian and collector Alexander Von Wuthenau argues that the ancient and early Americas were filled with an international melange of peoples from Africa, Asia and Europe, his artifactual evidence reveals that Islamic peoples were clearly a prominent group within it.
In his classic work, Unexpected Faces in Ancient America (1975), Von Wuthenau specifically identifies a group of carved heads as "Moorish-looking." Found within Mexico, such heads are dated between 300 - 900 C.E. and another between 900 -1500 C.E. (common era). One such artifact of the "classic" (300 - 900 C.E.) is described by Von Wuthenau as "an old man with hat." Such artifacts are worth a thousand words and the photograph of the "old man" artifact clearly resembles that of an old man wearing a Fez.
The presence of the naja among the dineh (a.k.a. "Navjo") is intriguing given the other evidence of Islamic contacts with the early American west. The naja is a crescent moon symbol found among the dineh that is used in such things as decoration and jewelry. While it is indeed possible that the symbol was indigenous to the dineh, a number of Smithsonian scholars apparently think that the symbol: "spread from Moslem North Africa to Spain, then to Mexico, then to the Navajo" (The Native Americans (1991) edited by Colin Taylor). Although the inference of the Smithsonian published text seems to be that the Spaniards brought the naja, it seems very odd to me that the crucifix-centered Catholic Spaniards would introduce such a symbol. After all, the customarily dogmatic Catholic Spaniards would have been introducing a religious symbol which represented the spiritual motif of their nemesis. If it was brought from Spain, I would argue that it probably came via expelled Moorish Muslims or subjugated "Moriscos." "Morisco" was the term used by Catholic officials to designate Moors (Moros) who were allowed to re main in Catholic dominions. It is essentially pejorative.
Ivan Van Sertima
Ivan Van Sertima is of course renowned for his first revitalizing original work: They Came Before Columbus (1976) which outlined evidence of ancient and early African contacts with the American continent. Although it was not the first work to discuss the topic, it certainly consolidated the African evidence in a more interdisciplinary fashion which cried out for renewed attention particularly from the African American community.
Van Sertima's other edited works like African Presence In Early America offered additional information about the African legacy in the Americas. Both of the above works point out proofs of African Muslim settlements/contacts within the pre-Columbian Americas. Van Sertima identifies l2th and l3th century Chinese documents which spoke of "Arab" Muslim trade extending beyond the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
Among the items of evidence which Van Sertima unveils is the presence of African Muslim surnames among American "Indian" peoples. Quoting a French linguist, Van Sertima points out that Ges, Zamoras, Marabitine, and Marabios are a few of the names with clear transcontinental links. Of particular interest to me, however, are the names "Marabitine" and "Marabios" which I noted relate to "Marabout" (Murabit): the "Holy Men and Women" of the Moorish Empire. The Marabouts were the protectors of African Muslim frontiers, they are often remembered for having acted as buffers against Catholic/European encroachment. The famed Ibn Battuta spoke of the Marabouts in his renowned "Travels." The antiquity of such a "Moorish" (African) presence in the Americas is hereby seen to be quite early when one considers the significance of all the evidence presented here-to-for.
De Lacy O'Leary
In his work Arabic Thought and It's Place In Western History (1992), the late British "Orientalist" De Lacy O'Leary also spoke of the area of "western Maghreb" extending "beyond the Atlantic" during the pre-Columbian Islamic era. The question is how far did O'Leary mean? Although O'Leary never clearly states that there was an Islamic presence in the early Americas, his inference compels us to wonder if that is what he meant but was not willing to say overtly. As a scholar of the Islamic world, De Lacy certainly knew that Muslims possessed the organizational, technical and navigational skill to make such a journey. The historic proof of one such journey comes in the form of Abu Bakari II of Mali, who is reported in Roudh el-kartos to have made such a trip in the early l4th century (circa 1312 C.E.). This is noted in Van Sertima's They Came before Columbus.
Caribbean, Panama and Columbia
In Panama and Colombia there were rulers ("princes") whom the invading Catholic Spaniards recognized as having "completely Moorish or biblical" names: such as "Do-Bayda" and "Aben-Amechy." This was revealed by the mid-19th century French scholar Brasseur de Bourboug and is noted in Van Sertima's edited work African Presence In Early America.
Even in the Caribbean the evidence of a significant Muslim presence can be found. P.V. Ramos points out in his essay in African Presence in Early America, that Christopher Columbus' own impression of the "Carib" peoples was that they were "Mohemmedans." Ramos says that the dietary restrictions of the Carib were similar to those of Islamic peoples and this provided one reason for such an impression.
Clyde Ahmad Winters
In the post-Columbian era there were large numbers of Muslims residing within the European colonized Americas. Brother Clyde Ahmad Winters in a 1978 issue of Al-ittihad: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Studies, points outs that large numbers of enslaved Muslims were brought to "Latin America" by (and for) the conquering Catholic authorities of Spain and Portugal. Among the African Islamic peoples which Winters identifies as having been brought to "Latin" territories were the Manding, Fula, Wolof, Berbers and Moors.
The African Muslims of early Latin America were evidently quite successful in converting American Indians to the religion of Islam. Initially allowed to publicly practice their faith, by 1543 Muslims in Spanish controlled American colonies were being expelled from them. Winters informs us that just after an anti-Spanish (Catholic) rebellion of combined Carib and Wolof forces failed in 1532, the Wolof were prohibited from entering the "Latin" Caribbean without special permission from Spanish Catholic authorities. According to Winters, the spread of the Islamic religion among American Indians remained a problem for Spain.
Winters draws several cultural connections between Indian peoples such as the Nanticoke and African Muslims like the Mossi. He also discusses the presence of Islam in places like Brazil whose Muslims were most often literate in the Maghrib style of Arabic. His essay clearly reveals the broad presence of Muslims - especially African Muslims - throughout the Americas: north, central and south. Although Brother Winters doesn't speak directly to the question of whether Muslims reached the Americas before the Catholics of Spain and Portugal, I would venture to say that they did. The earlier evidence cited supports the contention that the arrival of Muslim settlers predated that of the Columbus-era Catholics. In fact, I would contend that the use of Moorish Muslim navigators and navigational information had much to do with enabling the Spanish and Portuguese to even reach and settle the Americas.
I consider it most significant that the African peoples which Winters mentions (such as the Manding, Fula, Moors, Wolof and Berbers) all came from within Moorish Imperial boundaries. Historical records reveal that in Africa the Moorish empire once extended as far south as the Senegal river and as far east as the Egyptian border. Historians of the Maghrib like S.S. Imamuddin remind us of the vast expanse of territory which was recognized as "Moorish" by centralized governments of earlier centuries. Recognition of that fact included the Western/European world. Consequently, it would have been reasonable in previous centuries for people to consider Manding, Fula also a Moorish, in that such designated peoples came from within Moorish territory. This would all change of course, as the recognized territories of the Moors would shrink over time.
It must be said that those persons known as Latino and/or Spanish more than likely possess the blood of Moorish (African) forebearers. There is most certainly a link between them and the former Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus - later known as the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal. That fact certainly makes it quite difficult for such peoples to be racist against Africans or Muslims. Such Catholic communities should only argue theological differences and never "racial" ones. A Catholic Spaniard or Latino is essentially attempting to skate on melted ice when they try to make an argument of racial supremacy or distinction. In addition, they would be denying the historic fact of the Islamic Moors primary role as scholarly tutors and beacons of civilized society for medieval Spain and Europe.
There is much more which can be said about the legacy of Muslims in the early Americas. But this short essay was only intended to illuminate an area of the Muslim experience which is all too often overlooked. In spite of what the proverbial mainstream Christian community may think, the presence of Muslims in the Americas is much older and much more profound than many of them know (or care to admit).
It is my hope that this essay has served to enlighten and strengthen the faith of all those who earnestly seek truth, and choose to submit to the will of the One and Only Creator - Allah (SWT). May the spiritual tenets of Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom and Justice Guide us all. Peace.