By Jose V. Pimienta-Bey
The Message, 1996, ICNA
The works of men such as Ivan van Vertima, Barry Fell and Alexandervon Wuthenue 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-Columbian 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 south-west, Fell points out that the south- west’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 country, California, there exists an early American petroglyph (rock carving) which stated in Arabic: “Yasus bin 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 earlier than Columbus’ discovery of America.
Fell also identified 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.
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 artefactual 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 to 900 CE and another between 900- 1500 CE (common era). One such artifact of the “classic” (300-900 CE) is described by von Wuthenue as “an old man with hat”.
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 jewellery. 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 Muslim North Africa to Spain, then to Mexico, then to the Navajo”.
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 centred 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 remain in Catholic dominions.
Ivan van Sertima is of course renowned for his first revitalising original work: They came before Columbus 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 inter- disciplinary 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 proof of African Muslim settlements within the pre-Columbian Americas.
Van Sertima identifies 12th and 13th century Chinese documents which spoke of “Arab” Muslim trade extending beyond the Atlantic coast of west Africa. In his work Arabic Thought and it’s Place in Western History, the late British Orientalist, DeLacy 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.
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 trans-continental 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 Batutah 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 herefore.
In Panama and Colombia there were rulers whom the invading Catholic Spaniards recognised as having “completely Moorish or biblical” names such as “DoBayda” and “Aben-Amechy”. This was revealed by the mid-19th century French scholar Brasseur de Bourboug and is noted in van Sertma’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 a 1978 issue of Al-Ittihad: A Quarterly Journal of Islamic Studies, points out that large numbers of enslaved Muslims were brought to “Latin America” by 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 Mandig, 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 there.
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. For when they insult the African Muslim, they undoubtedly insult a significant part of themselves.
In addition, they would be denying the historic fact of the Islamic Moors’ primary role as scholarly tutors and beacons of civilised society for medieval Spain and Europe.
(Saudi Gazette) – The Message