In some circles, sometimes I encounter people sharing/circulating articles saying that Muslims, not Columbus discovered the continent of America. An example can be found in the Lost Islamic History (LIH) website: Columbus Was (Not) The First To Cross The Atlantic. This view recently gained a new level of prominence, as the Turkish President Erdogan repeated the claim during a conference of Latin American Muslim leaders in Istanbul.
I am not a historian with the appropriate education to professionally judge such claims, but there are some problems that tend to make me skeptical of such claims.
Sailing west across the Atlantic?
Among the “evidence” put forward by such articles (for example, see the LIH article above), they rarely contain definitive evidence that can be easily verified or is accepted by the majority of historians. Sometimes, vague evidence is interpreted to support the claim. The LIH website mentions Islamic historian and geographer al-Mas’udi which documented a landmass across the Atlantic from Africa, or al-Idrisi which mentions a Muslim journey going west from Lisbon and landed on an island.
Even if this account is true, the problem is that there are many islands on the North Atlantic Ocean (west of Spain/North Africa), some of them are large enough to be visible in Google Maps (see red markings below)
Without further evidence, it is likely that these explorers might have just come upon some of these islands.
Piri Reis Map
Another “evidence” from the LIH website is the Piri Reis map. Piri Reis is an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, who in 1513 compiled a map of the world known at the time based on military intelligence and Arab, Indian and Portuguese sources. This map shows parts of Central and South America, which is used to claim that Muslim sources have pre-Columbus knowledge of America. The problem with this is
- This map was compiled in 1513, 21 years after Columbus’ voyage
- Piri Reis himself stated in the map that the map includes “the map of the western lands drawn by Columbus“, so he did not even claim that he got these maps from exclusively Muslim sources
Columbus is actually not the first discoverer of the Americas
Another point to make is that the historical community actually knows that Columbus’ voyage in 1942 is not the first discovery of the Americas. Physical evidence exists that the Norse vikings colonized parts of the Americas as early as the 10th century. A whole settlement called L’Anse aux Meadows were discovered in Newfoundland, Canada, and today is a World Heritage Site.
Crediting Columbus with the discovery of America is therefore technically incorrect. But the reason his discovery was important is because it led to a permanent, large scale colonization of the Americas. For better or worse, this decisively changed the world. It led tragically to the destruction of most of the American civilization (due to diseases and wars), and started Europe’s domination in the world.
The Viking settlement was not widely known in Europe at that time, so it did not lead to change anywhere near that magnitude. Neither did (if such thing even happened) a supposed Islamic exploration.
My opinion is, while there is a non zero possibility that an Muslim voyage may have visited the Americas before Columbus, there doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to support this with a reasonable confidence. Moreover, even when it’s true, the point is moot anyway because historians already know that Columbus was not in fact the first to cross the Atlantic. The Vikings got there first. What was important was not the primacy, but the decisive change that followed it. So even if there was such thing as the Muslim discovery of America, it would not displace Columbus’ journey of its importance.
So, what do you think? Do you believe in this theory, and why? Feel free to let us know in the comments!
 See Occam’s razor