Echos of What Lies Behind the 'Ocean of Fogs' in Muslim Historical Narratives

This article is an edited version of the article originally written by the late Professor Mohammed Hamidullah, "Muslim Discovery of America before Columbus", Journal of the Muslim Students' Association of the United States and Canada. It accounts in part for the ongoing debate about a possible discovery of America before Columbus.

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This article is an edited version of the article originally written by the late Professor Mohammed Hamidullah, "Muslim Discovery of America before Columbus", Journal of the Muslim Students' Association of the United States and Canada vol. 4, issue 2, Winter 1968, pp. 7-9. It accounts in part for the ongoing debate about a possible discovery of America before Columbus.

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Figure 1: A section of the World Map produced by Pîrî Reis and presented to Sultan Selim I in 1517 (The original is in Topkapi Palace Museum Library, no. H. 1824.)

In Islamic learning, as well as in the Ancient world, it was known that the earth was like a ball, and that any point on it could constitute its center. In about 890, the geographer and explorer Ahmad ibn 'Umar ibn Rustah wrote in his geography: "There is a unanimity among men of learning that the earth with all its territorial and oceanic parts is a sphere, like a ball. The proof is furnished by the fact that the rising of the sun, of the moon and of the stars does not take place at the same moment in different parts of the world; they rise in eastern lands earlier than in the western ones. The setting of these heavenly bodies answers to the same exigencies." In another place the same author says: "The earth is spherical like a big ball, in the midst of the concave sky, suspended in the air, the sky surrounding it on all sides in equidistance, be that from on high or from on below or from on sides. It is, in the midst of the sky, like the yellow of the egg in the shell" (ibid, p. 8). The geographers Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn al-Faqih al-Hamadhani (fl. 902.), 'Ubayd Allah ibn 'Abd Allah Ibn Khurradadhbeh (ca. 820-ca. 912.), Abu al-Hasan 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Ali Mas'udi (d. 956?) and others all opine alike.

It is this notion that led them to think that one can start from a given point of the earth, to go in any direction, right or left, one will one day reach back to the starting point. Even more: In his geographical work Taqwim al-Buldan [1], Abu'l-Fida (d. 1331) says if a person goes from a given point to the east, another to the west and the third remains on the spot, and if the two passengers one day return back to the starting point, the one who has gone in the eastern direction to make the round trip of the globe will count one day more, and the one gone in the west one day less (judged by the risings and settings of the sun) in exactly the same space of time! For the one who goes in the west marches in the same direction as the sun, and thus his day is always a bit longer than the day of the one who goes in the east, with the result that when the round trip of the earth is completed, that makes the difference of a whole day. Readers will remember the charming romance made of this phenomenon by Jules Verne in Around the World in Eighty Days, in which a Londoner had thought that he had come one day too late, yet he won the bet since the Londoners themselves had seen one rising of the sun less than this hero of the romance, who had made the round trip of the earth.

On his return Al-Biruni (Jamahir, p. 167) says that on the two poles the sun does not rise continuously for six months.

These scientific theories did not remain in books and seminars, but were actually put to practice. When the Muslims entered Spain in 646, under the caliph Uthman, only fifteen years after the death of the Prophet, they saw the endless Atlantic Ocean before them. Explorations soon began. In his Muruj adh-Dhahab [2], Mas'udi (who wrote in 956) writes: "In the ocean of fogs (Atlantic) there are many curiosities which we have mentioned in detail in our Akhbar az-Zaman [Alas! Now lost], on the basis of what we saw there, adventurers who penetrated it on the risk of their life, some returning back safely, others perishing in the attempt. Thus a certain inhabitant of Cordoba, Khashkhash by name, assembled a group of young men, his co-citizens, and went on a voyage on this ocean. After a long time he returned back with booty. Every Spaniard knows this story."

Another very interesting report is recorded by Idrisi (d. 1166) in his geography Nuzhatul Mushtaq (partly published long ago in Paris). This is what he narrates:

"The Commander of the Muslims Ali ibn Yusuf ibn Tashfin sent his admiral Ahmad ibn Umar, better known under the name of Raqsh al-Auzz to attack a certain island in the Atlantic, but he died before doing that… [3]"

He adds, later on:

"Beyond this ocean of fogs it is not known what exists there. Nobody has the sure knowledge of it, because it is very difficult to traverse it. Its atmosphere is foggy, its waves are very strong, its dangers are perilous, its beasts are terrible, and its winds are full of tempests. There are many islands, some of which are inhabited, others are submerged. No navigator traverses them but bypasses them remaining near their coast [4]."

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Figure 2: Portrait of Christopher Columbus, conjectural image by Sebastiano del Piombo in the Gallery of Illustrious Men (Corridoio Vasariano), Uffizi, Florence. (Source)

And it was from the town of Lisbon that the adventurers set out known under the name of Mugharrarin (seduced ones), penetrated the ocean of fogs (Atlantic) and wanted to know what it contained and where it ended. In the town of Lisbon there is still near al-Hamma (source of thermal water, maybe modern Estoril), a street called Darb al-mugharrarin ila akhir al-abad (street of those seduced till the eternity). In fact eight persons, all cousins, prepared a boat of mercantile transport, filled it with water and victuals sufficing them for several months, then set sail. When the winds from the east began to blow, they profited by it to voyage for eleven days. They reached a part of the ocean with strong waves, ill smelling water, numerous shallow places and bad visibility. Sure of perishing there, they turned the sails in another direction, and sailed towards the south for twelve days. They arrived then in face of the island of goats. In fact there were herds of goats, countless in number, pasturing freely without anyone herding them. The sailors went to the island and landed. There they found a source of water near which was a tree of wild fig. They captured some of the goats and slaughtered them, but found that the meat was so bitter that nobody could swallow it. So they kept only the skins and departed again, the southern wind pushing them. After sailing for twelve more days they perceived an island that seemed to be inhabited, and there were cultivated fields. They sailed that way to see what it contained. But soon barks encircled them and made them prisoners, and transported them to a miserable hamlet situated on the coast. There they landed. The navigators saw there people with red skin; there was not much hair on their body, the hair of their head was straight, and they were of high stature. Their women were of an extraordinary beauty. The navigators were shut in a house of the village for three days. On the fourth day somebody came to them who talked Arabic. He asked them who they were and why had they come. They gave all necessary information. The inquirer promised everything good, and told them that he was the interpreter of the king. The day following this inquiry, they were led before the king, who put to them the same questions and they gave the same answers, telling him that they had undertaken the adventure in the ocean to know what new and curious thing there was and also to ascertain where it ended. When the king heard that, he told the interpreter to inform them; 'My father had also commanded a group of slaves to navigate on this ocean, who did that for one whole month until they reached a place where there was no more light; they returned without seeing anything curious or obtaining any advantage.' Then the king told them through the interpreter that they need not fear, and that they could expect from the king nothing but good. Then they returned to their house-prison and remained there until the west breeze began to blow. Then the aborigines prepared a boat, blindfolded the navigators and sailed for a certain lapse of time. These unlucky (Muslims) supposed that they might have sailed for three days. Then they landed, and transported us, with hands tied behind our backs, and left us on the coast. We remained there till we felt the growing light of the rising sun. We were in a pitiable state. At last we heard sounds of men. We cried, and people came to us and found us wounded by the ropes tying us. They interrogated us. We gave them all the information they desired. These were Berbers. One of them asked us; 'Do you know how far you are from your country?' We said: 'No.' He continued: 'From here to your country there is a distance of two months.' The leader of the navigators exclaimed: 'Wa Asafi (woe be to me!).' The region took this name and is still called Asafi. It is a port, as we have mentioned, in the extremity of Morocco."

This is what Idrisi recorded. Apparently the navigators had reached one of the Canary Islands. Asafi is still well known (in European maps it is called Safi, but in Arabic script it is written Asafi, as I noticed on the railway station during a visit). It is between Casablanca (Dar al-Baida) and Essaouira (previously Mogador).

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Figure 3: Map showing the possible route of the expedition from West Africa to Southern America.

The most interesting report is the following recorded by Ibn Fadlullah al-Umari (d. 1348), whose encyclopaedia Masalik Al-Absar is only partly edited as yet; its French translation by Gaudefroy-Demombynes says: "In the North of Mali there live white Berbers under their ruler. Their tribes are Antasar, Yantar'aras, Meddusa and Lemtuna ... I asked their ruler Sultan Musa Ibn Amir Hajib (who was in Egypt returning from the pilgrimage): "How had you become ruler?" He replied: "We belong to a family where the son succeeds the father in power. The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach to that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, as many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient enough for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life [5]."

A possible explanation of this behaviour: apparently the ruler did probably not want the news of the discovery of America to reach his rivals. So he caused the captain to tell discouraging things in public, and real facts in private. And for this reason, he prepared a military expedition of several thousand men, and most probably settled in the place he captured.

The river in the ocean where the boats sank may have been the Amazon. In this case, the black soldiers and some of the white Berbers of the first and the second expedition must be the ancestors of the black population which Columbus encountered in his voyage and recorded in his journal. He says he saw there tribes of black skin and of red skin fighting with each other. Most probably they (the Berbers) reached Brazil, the nearest point from West Africa.

Another significant fact is what the son of Christopher Columbus records. He says that his father learned in Genoa from Muslim shipmen that visited that place that it was possible to reach India by sailing west of the European continent as by sailing eastwards.

Philologists have discovered in Red-Indian languages words of Arabic origin, from pre-Columbian days. Columbus found on the coast of Cuba dogs that do not bark. This is a West-African race of dogs.

For further reading:

BBC report: "Africa's 'Greatest Explorer'" (13.12.2000): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1068950.stm.

"Abubakari II", in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abubakari_II.

Hakim Quick, Abdullah, "Muslims in the Caribbean Before Columbus": http://muslimsonline.com/babri/columbus6.htm.

Hamidullah, Mohammed, in Pensée Chîite Revue islamique, culturelle, religieuse, morale, (Now Connaissance de l'islam) Paris, No.11, 1962, p. 8-14.

Fachner, Rebecca, "Did Muslims Visit America Before Columbus?", (George Mason University's History News Network): http://hnn.us/articles/23662.html.

Huyghe, Patrick, Columbus was Last: A Heretical History of who was First. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

Pimienta-Bey, Jose V., "Muslims were in America before Columbus!": http://www.hispanicmuslims.com/articles/other/beforecolumbus.html.

Pre-Columbian Africa-Americas Contact Theories: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Columbian_Africa-Americas_contact_theories.

Pre-Columbian Trans-Oceanic Contact: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-Columbian_trans-oceanic_contact and at: http://www.answers.com/topic/pre-columbian-trans-oceanic-contact.

Sorenson, John L. & Martin H. Raish, Pre-Columbian Contact with the Americas Across the Oceans: An Annotated Bibliography. 2 vols. Provo, Utah: Research Press, 2nd ed., 1996.

Sorenson, John L. and Johannessen, Carl L. (2006) "Biological Evidence for Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Voyages." In: Contact and Exchange in the Ancient World. Ed. Victor H. Mair. University of Hawai'i Press, pp. 238-297.

Van Sertima, Ivan, They Came Before Columbus, Ivan Van Sertima, Random House Trade, 1976 (paperback 2003). Reviewed by Femi Akomolafe (19 January 1995): http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/010.html.

End Notes

[1] Géographie: traduite de l'arabe en français et acompagnée de notes et d'éclaircissements par M. Reinaud. Paris : Imprimerie National, 1848-1883, II/I, p. 3-5.

[2] Al-Mas'udi, Les prairies d'or. Texte et traduction par C. Barbier de Meynard et Pavet de Courteille. Paris : Imprimerie Imperiale, 1861-1917, I, 258-9.

[3] Le Livre de Roger, French translation by Pierre Amédée Jaubert, Paris, 1837-1839, 2 vols, p. 55.

[4] Le Livre de Roger, French translation by Pierre Amédée Jaubert, Paris, 1837-1839, 2 vols, p. 165.

[5] Al-Umari, 1927, Masalik al Absar fi Mamalik el-Amsar, French translation by Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Paris, Paul Geuthner, 1927, pp. 59, 74-75. See also Qalqashandi, Subh al-A'sha, V, 294.

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