Tayyip Erdoğan and Christopher Columbus

Tayyip Erdoğan and Christopher Columbus

After 12 years in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by now has established a good record of initiating unexpected controversies. Last week, he ignited yet another one, which went globally viral, by claiming, “Muslims discovered America, not Christopher Columbus.”

While speaking to an audience of Latin American Muslims, apparently with the intention of establishing the deep roots of Islam in the New World, Erdoğan claimed: “Muslim sailors arrived in America in 1178. Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast.”

He did not unveil the sources of his claim, but those who did a Google search found out that it was probably a short online article by Muslim historian Youssef Mroueh. In that 1996 piece, Mroueh refers to some records of medieval Muslims’ expeditions to the West, which could perhaps have gone as far as the Americas. But the “mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast” that Mroueh quoted from Columbus, and to which Erdoğan referred, seems to be a misquotation. In that quote, which is available online, Columbus does not write about a mosque. He writes about “beautiful mountains ... one of them containing on its summit a protuberance in the form of a handsome mosque.” In other words, he just likens the shape of a hill to a mosque.

What this means is that, first, Erdoğan’s advisor who gave him this note about Columbus did not do a good job. A reference that can be found just with a simple Internet search, but can also be checked and refuted by an additional Internet search is not the sign of meticulous speech writing.

In fact, had Erdoğan really been willing to advance an argument for a possible Muslim discovery of the Americas before Columbus, he could have referred to a much more solid source: “The Pre-Columbian Discovery of the American Continent by Muslim Seafarers,” a meticulous article by Fuat Sezgin, a Turkish historian of science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Germany. In that notable work, Dr. Sezgin infers a “considered opinion” from medieval Muslim maps that “it must have been Muslim navigators who had not only reached the new oceanic continent certainly by the beginning of the 9th/15th century, but even started to survey it.”

It is also true that even if Muslims did not discover the New World, they discovered other things that were exported to the West. Some of these can easily be traced today in English words with Arabic roots. A short list that I also gave in my book (Islam without Extremes) includes algebra, alchemy, alkali, almanac, amalgam, alembic, admiral, alcove, mask, muslin, nadir, zenith, tariff, sugar, syrup, checkmate, lute, and guitar.

What I want to say is that the Islamic world, indeed, was quite advanced when compared to other civilizations, including the West. The era from the 7th to the 13th centuries, especially, can be easily branded as the golden age of Islam.

Today, pious Muslims such as Erdoğan can be proud of this past. But first they should get their facts right, and come across as accurate rather than propagandist. They should also think about why that golden age ended, and the Islamic world gradually stagnated, to ultimately become dramatically backward when compared to the West, if not also other cultures.

They can begin by comparing the open-mindedness and cosmopolitanism of medieval Muslim pioneers to the dogmatism and xenophobia that dominates the Muslim world today.