On Apr 19, 2022, a livestream debate between the Baltimore-based Moorish Science Temple representative, Taharka Bey, and the D.C. area-based Sunni Muslim, Tariq Ibn Jamil, was posted to the Moorish World Tv YouTube channel. The stated topic was “Can the Qur’an be translated?” With Tariq arguing the affirmative and Taharka arguing the negative. I find in this debate many teachable moments in terms of Islamic literacy, linguistics, the rules of engagement with regards to intellectual debate, and simple logic.
After hearing both sides of the core debate (there are many tangential debates), I will have to say that Taharka Bey is the victor for reasons that I will explore in this post.
Taharka Bey’s Argument
Taharka’s presentation of his position was stronger due to some key strategies that are align with sound scholarship and argumentation, which I will enumerate below. I will also point out flaws in his argument and gaps in his knowledge.
1) He argued the majority opinion.
The common position of Muslims is that the Qur’an is inimitable and it cannot be precisely translated, only explained through the lens of a combination of auxiliary sciences, not the least of which is Arabic linguistics. Arguing the majority opinion has its benefits in a debate. It makes supporting evidence easier to access and counterarguments easier to make because predecessors have already done the work.
2) He had a logical sequence.
Taharka has a clear logic. He begins by stating his premise, which is that in the “Common Tradition:”
Any translation of the Quran will be termed inauthentic if it goes against the established hadith (sayings and actions) of the Prophet and against the understandings of the companions of the Prophet.
According to the epistemology of Black Orientalists, transmitted reports are not valid evidence of a fact, which is diametrically opposed to the underlying epistemology of hadith science. Orientalists often use this as the first mode of attack, because in the modern age, oral transmissions are no longer perceived as valid. They prefer written evidence and documentation.
He uses this premise to make a number of points, before moving on to his next point:
In order to extrapolate the meaning of a particular Quranic verse, Muslims rely on exegesis, or commentary rather than a direct translation of the text.
He then makes a distinction between exegesis/commentary and translation. For instance, he takes a number of different English translations of a verse that uses the word taqwā to demonstrate that the various translators are making an exegesis of the word, because there is no direct equivalent in English.
2) He used substantial evidence that was relevant to the argument he was attempting to make.
Taharka’s used a mixture of primary and secondary source evidence. The examples of Qur’anic words without easy English equivalents were clear and plentiful (primary). Then he used statements from experts on the subject to back up his point (secondary). Taharka even cited an academic journal article, whose main author was a Libyan linguist who looks like an African American. The article can be found here: http://www.ijssh.net/papers/178-A10061.pdf.
He made a good point when he said that knowledge of linguistics is a prerequisite for translation (1:01:00). Unfortunately, not all translators have this background. Reading knowledge of a language alone does not always suffice for translation. Linguistics often gives the translator a bird’s eye view of how the two different languages function.
For more reading on this topic, you might want to read Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qurʹān by the Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu. He was not a Muslim, but his work is respected in the Muslim world due to his ontological approach to Qur’anic ethical terminology.
Critiques of Taharka Bey
1) He began his argument on a faulty premise.
Taharka’s first premise, whose source he begged the audience not to ask about, though logical, is faulty because it is simply not true. While hadith and the understandings of the companions can contribute to the understanding of the Qur’an, they are not the primary determinants of a valid translation. For instance, the Shi’ah have different standards of hadith and do not accept the understandings of all the companions, but this does not render their translations of the Qur’an invalid. What renders a translation invalid is if it is not consistent with the original language and apparent meaning of the Qur’an.
However, I understand that the epistemology of Western Orientalism (in this case Black Orientalism) does not accept orally transmitted reports as valid evidence of a fact. Although this was the epistemology of the ancient world. They often claim to prefer written reports (“receipts” if you will). However, they do not acknowledge that they too accept oral transmission of information, as evidenced by the fact that they are engaging in a live oral debate rather than an exchange of written publications.
Also, when Tariq was showing a number of books to say that a translator needed to study a number of subjects to produce a translation, I noticed a few comments in the chat:
Showing off books is a weird way to prove a point. You should be able to recite and orate the contents of the books without referencing them. This guy only knows how to recite stories
ALL BOOKS ARE MAN MADE AND CAN BE TRANSLATED BY MAN WOMAN AND CHILD
Black Orientalists still have reservations about the written word despite their rhetoric about wanting “receipts” and written documents.
2) He relied on a few straw man arguments.
A straw man argument is a fallacy many debaters fall into when constructing arguments agains their opponents. Taharka’s first premise was a prime example of this. It was as if he propped up a dummy to beat up on to show that he is tough. Of course, we know dummies don’t hit back.
He also used a straw man argument on his point about the translation of the term maqām as “shrine” in surat al-Baqarah: 125. He used the most strict (Salafi) interpretation of Muhsin Khan’s Noble Qur’an to establish that the word “shrine” is a mistranslation. Khan translates it as “stone on which Ibrāhim (Abraham) stood.” However, this is an argument over semantics and what people understand when they hear a word in a particular language. It is possible that “shrine” is the most appropriate equivalence for the word maqām as understood by Arabic speakers. But the issue is that Taharka assumes that Muhsin Khan has the correct opinion with regard to Muslims creating shrines (which in the context of the verse is an anachronism because it is referring to Abraham, who predates historical Islam). This causes Taharka not to question Muhsin Khan’s word choice, which might be influenced by his Salafi ideology, or his understanding of the word shrine, which some English speakers might associate with pagan worship.
To further drive home my point, he used the example of the word kāfir to say that words have “implied meaning” (as do all words in any language) and an exegesis is needed to reveal its connotations (1:00:00). I would argue that the English language has a single equivalent to the word kāfir in the word “infidel.” The root k-f-r (ك – ف – ر) has a connotation to ingratitude, betrayal, and infidelity as evidenced in other the Qur’anic verses (see surat al-Isrā: 27 and surat Ibrāhīm: 7). However, modern translators avoid the word “infidel” because they are aware that it carries negative connotations in the English-speaking world, even though it might be loyal to the Arabic meaning (no pun intended). The avoidance of the term demonstrates my point about semantics, mental associations, and ideology.
3) He differentiated between exegesis (commentary) and translation.
This point is a matter of personal opinion, but one that is backed up by some scholars of translation theory. I believe that translation is a type of commentary. A translation should not simply be reduced to an exchange of words in one language to another. A translator looks at more than just the lexical meanings of words. A good translator is looking at the overall effect of the work. While I understand the distinction Taharka is trying to make, I simply do not agree.
Tariq ibn Jamil’s Argument
As for our friend, Tariq, there are a few reasons as to why he lost the debate.
1) His presentation was not compelling.
Quite frankly, I think he bored the listeners because his points were not easy to follow. He was also very cerebral and soft-spoken. Furthermore, he interspersed his speech with too much Arabic terminology and quotations of Arabic passages. This shows a disregard for his audience, who primarily do not speak Arabic.
Moreover, his approach resembled that of a traditional Muslim scholar rather than a “hotep” debate. In these types of venues, a Muslim cannot appear to be too academic, because in the minds of the audience he will be acting “too white.” Likewise, if his approach is too “traditionally Muslim,” then he would be deemed “too Arab.” These are unfortunate facts.
2) He attempted to argue a minority opinion.
Those who argue a minority or unpopular opinion have an uphill battle. Not only are they less likely to have a wealth of supporting evidence, but their arguments and primary sources must be overwhelmingly convincing.
Tariq presented his argument in the form of a rare narrative gathered from an uncited Sunni tradition. His focus was on a translation of the Qur’an officiated by Salmān al-Farsī. By this, he demonstrated that it “can” be translated and it “was,” but his evidence was not strong enough to show that his translation was a complete or quality translation.
First of all, the story of Salmān al-Farsī’s translation of the Qur’an into Persian is not common knowledge, even among Muslims. So he has the added task of proving the existence of this translation. Otherwise, the listener will need to take his word for it. But even if he could produce this early Persian translation of the Qur’an (which I do not believe is extant), his audience would not have the tools to determine its accuracy, because the majority of the audience does not read Persian or Arabic.
Although I would not have taken his approach, Tariq could have emphasized more the fact that Salmān al-Farsī was not an Arab, but a Persian; although most Americans probably cannot differentiate between the two. A historical approach does not usually hold up in a debate unless it is backed up with a clear purpose and sound logic.
3) He entered a lot of unclear and irrelevant information.
The many details of Salmān al-Farsī’s story, the showing of books, and preachy statements were not relevant to his argument.Therefore, he lost momentum and wasted a lot of time speaking on the contours of his argument but making very few points.
Additionally, I don’t think the points he did make were clear to the audience. He could have devoted more time to discussing how vital the various subjects he mentioned in the books he displayed were to translating the Qur’an. Yet, he should have had a better selection of books because those that he presented were mostly not pivotal works in the fields he was referring to. However, the true scope of these fields would have required much more than 30 minutes.
Finally, there was also a woman (I’m assuming) named, Amutalha Abdul Rahman, who sought to aid Tariq’s argument, but it was not coherent. What I understood from it was that the Tafsir of Ibn Kathīr (mistakenly wrote Ibn Khair) had an AEU seal of authenticity. These things needed to be explained exactly how it contributes to the argument.
As we can clearly see, there is a lot to learn from this debate. However, one thing lingered in my mind throughout. Why were they debating such a pointless topic? The answer to the debaters’ central question: Can the Qur’an be translated? is an emphatic yes. There have been multiple attempts at translating the Qur’an in various languages. Each attempt could be placed on a scale of subjectivity to just how loyal the translation is to the Arabic original. However, they could have asked a better question.
In honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2020, I would like to share the following paper I wrote for a course on Sira and Hadith, which I took Spring 2020 with Dr. Mohamed Serag of American University in Cairo.
Is it possible that early Arab Muslims knew about America and its native peoples? Moreover, is there evidence for this in hadith? Since my childhood I have heard of Pre-Columbus discovery of America. These assertions range from Afrocentric perspectives, which posit that there was a substantial African presence in the Americas prior to Columbus to those of heterodox Islamic movements such as the Moorish Science Temple, which holds that Muslims had contact with the Americas centuries before that of Europeans and that a number of Native American tribes had adopted Islam. In order to make their arguments, they have all referenced Arabic sources to some extent. On the other hand, it caught my attention in recent years that contemporary Arab Muslims have picked up on some of this scholarship to demonstrate that their ancestors and coreligionists indeed discovered America.
One such example appears in the cryptic hadith narrated on the authority of ‘Amir ibn Sharahil al-Sha’bi (d. c.103/721) alludes to this sentiment. The hadith, reported in at least four 4th/10th century hadith works with similar chains of narration and wording reads:
God Almighty has worshippers (people) beyond Andalus, [the distance] between us and Andalus, they do not see God the Almighty disobeyed by creation. Their pebbles are pearls and sapphire, their mountains are gold and silver, they do not farm or plant, nor do they trade or work. They have trees over their doors with fruits [that serve as] their food and the trees have wide leaves [that serve as] their clothes.
In this paper, I will attempt to add greater context to this hadith and debate its role in the studies of Pre-Columbus exploration of the Americas through an analysis in the fashion of Motzki, Cook, and Juynboll. I will first examine the life and standing of the narrator, ‘Amir al-Sha’bi, using the primary source tools of tabaqat literature from the likes of Ibn Hajar, al-Dhahabi, and other Classical Muslim scholars’ to understand their perceptions of him as a hadith narrator. Then, I will attempt to add greater context by examining the language in the hadith and other hadiths that mention or describe places at a distance from the Islamic heartland of the Hijaz on the Arabian Peninsula to understand more fully the early Muslim community’s conception of geography. Finally, I will employ an interdisciplinary approach to discuss the implications of this hadith in modern debates over Pre-Columbus exploration of the Americas in the Arab and Western worlds.
Al-Sha’bi: the Man and His Men
‘Amir ibn Sharahil ibn ‘Abd ibn Dhi Kibar al-Sha’bi was born in Kufa sometime within the early part of the Islamic first century. Reports in al-Dhahabi’s Siyar ʾAlām al-Nubalāʾ place his birth between 28 and 33, while Ibn Hajar gives a range between 19 and 31 in his Tahḏhīb al-Tahḏhīb. Juynboll gives a even wider range; as early as the year 16 and as late as the year 40. He was of Himyarite lineage, particularly the Sabian Hamdan tribe of ancient Yemen. Not much is known about his early life, but it appears that he was positioned to have met over 500 Sahabas, including all of the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. However, we can rule out his meeting with Abu Bakr since he died in the year 13. It is possible that he met Umar since he died in the year 35, but this meeting could vary in significance depending on the year he was born.
Nevertheless, al-Sha’bi became a respected scholar and trustworthy narrator of hadith of the Tabi’i (Successor) generation. He was known to report on the authority of a number of notable Sahaba and Tabi’in (See Table 1). Ibn ‘Uyayna counted him amongst the major scholars of his time. Other early scholars stated that he was more knowledgeable than the likes of Sa’id ibn al-Musayyib, Tawus, ‘Ata, al-Hassan (al-Basri) and ibn Sirin. Al-Sha’bi boasted of having a robust memory. In one statement he said, “I have not written black on white until this day. No man has narrated to me a hadith except that I committed it to memory, nor did I like for him to repeat it to me.” One report explicitly states that he was illiterate and did not read or write.
Table 1: Notable Sahaba and Tabi’in in al-Sha’bi’s Narrations According to al-Dhahabi
Al-Sha’bi’s authority as a scholar and narrator is uncontested, at least within Sunni sources. Hundreds of his legal opinions survive in the later hadith works. He was known to give fatwa (religious rulings) even when there were plenty of Sahaba alive. He was considered an expert in inheritance problems, due to his education in arithmetic (despite his apparent illiteracy). He disapproved of insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wife, ‘A’isha and was quoted as saying: “The Ummah has become four factions; 1) lovers of ‘Ali, haters of ‘Uthman, 2) lovers of ‘Uthman, haters of ‘Ali, 3) lovers of them both, and 4) haters of them both.” When asked to which of these factions he belongs, al-Sha’bi stated, “A hater of whomever hates them both.”
Perhaps his only point of controversy was his participation in politics. He was initially a Shi’i but was supposedly displeased by their “excesses.” He is reported to have participated in more than one rebellion, including al-‘Ash’ath’s insurrection against al-Hajjaj. However, he purportedly apologized for his role in the insurrection and was pardoned. He was also known to work for the Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan. However, he maintained a “healthy” disdain for rulers as evidenced by reports in Siyar in which a man related a hadith in the court of ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan in the presence of al-Sha’bi to the effect that a believer should always obey his leader whether they are good or bad. Al-Sha’bi said to the man, “You have lied!” Others have understood this to mean that the man was mistaken. Likewise, after ‘Abd al-Malik sent him as a messenger to the emperor of Rome, the emperor complimented his demeanor in his return letter to the caliph. Al-Sha’bi allegedly retorted by saying, “Oh Commander of the Faithful, that is because he saw me and not you.”
It suffices us to say that al-Sha’bi was a religious, intellectual, and political authority of his time who was active in various aspects of early Islamic intellectual history. His narrations appear in all of the major hadith collections as well as some of the lessor known collections. While the hadith in question about a land beyond Andalus does not appear in any of the major collections, perhaps due to the absence of any legal or theological value, it appears in four different lesser known hadith collections published in the 4th and 5th centuries, al-Mujalasa wa Jawahir al-‘Ilm by Abu Bakr Ahmad al-Dinuri (d. 333/944), Mu’jam Ibn al-‘Arabi by Abu Sa’id al-Basri (d. 340/951), al-‘Uzma by Abu al-Shaykh al-Asbahani (d. 369/979), and al-‘Asma’ wa al-Sifat by Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1065). In the next section, I will attempt to add more context to the hadith in question by analyzing some popular hadiths that might shed light on early Arab Muslim knowledge of foreign lands.
Hadith on Foreign Lands
How much did the early generations of Muslims know about the world outside of the Arabian Peninsula? While one might assume that the Arabs, whether Bedouins or those settled in desert cities like Mecca and Medina, could not have known much about the world due to their remoteness, there is evidence to the contrary. Historical evidence suggests that there was extensive interaction between Arabs and surrounding peoples. Jurji Zaydan details outside influences on the Arabian Peninsula in his work, Al-‘Arab Qabl al-Islam. He discusses how the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Egyptians tried to conquer or exert their influence on the Arabs at one point or another in history. There appears to be ample influence of Ethiopia, Rome, Persia, and other surrounding empires on the political environment of the Arabian Peninsula since antiquity.
Most historians mark the birth of Muhammad with the Year of the Elephant. In a hadith narrated by Ibn Hisham as well as other notable hadith scholars and historians such as Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Tabari, Ibn Kathir, al-Dhahabi, and al-Bukhari, the Prophet Muhammad appeared to have an intimate knowledge of the Abyssinian king of his time. According to these traditions, after witnessing the types of torture and adversities to which his followers were subjected in Mecca, he informed them, “If you all departed to the land of Habasha (Ethiopia), then surely in it is a ruler who does not wrong anyone in his presence and it is a land of truth so that God will release you from what you are in now.” Based on this proclamation, 83 followers representing different Meccan families relocated to Ethiopia.
While the above-mentioned hadith is significant for introducing the concept of hijrah (migration) to the early Muslim community, some questions linger as to the nature of the Prophet’s statement if we accept it as authentic. How was he so certain about the character of the Abyssinian king and his subjects without first-hand experience with them? Why did the Prophet not send his followers to more familiar lands such as the Sham and Yemen? In the reports of conversations between the Meccans and the Abyssinian court we never hear of a translator. Did they understand each other’s language or was the translator omitted from the reports? Furthermore, in the report in which Ja’far ibn Abi Talib recites verses from Surat Maryam for the Abyssinian king, how was it that he was affected without understanding the original language? While spontaneous interpretation is possible, it is difficult for translation experts today to render accurate translations of literary works, let alone something as nuanced as religious scripture. While we may never know the answers to these questions (and they are certainly beyond the scope of this paper) they give an indication that the relationship between Arabia and Ethiopia have deeper roots than we may ordinarily imagine.
Similar connections can be drawn between Arabs and the Byzantines (Rum) as well as the Persians. These connections are recorded in the Qur’an and much of the tafsir and sira literature. We witness an example of this in the lengthy account of how Salman al-Farsi met the Prophet Muhammad and embraced Islam. In the Sira of Ibn Hisham, Salman recounts his story in first person. He tells of how he was the son of a Persian leader and later became the fire bearer of the Zoroastrians in his area. After being exposed to Christianity, he fled his home to learn and live among them in Syria. In Syria, he found a corrupt bishop and exposed him. From there, he traveled seeking to learn under pious and learned Christian figures until one of them told him that there was an awaited prophet who would appear on the Arabian Peninsula. So he set out to meet this prophet and payed a cow to some traders to take him to Arabia, but they betrayed him and sold him as a slave to a Jewish man from Medina. He worked for him and another man until he met the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
Salman al-Farsi’s story demonstrates that the lands of Persia, Syria, and Arabia were connected through travel and trade. Likewise, there was an awareness of each other’s lands and that there was an exchange of ideas that took place via these travels. While this was the case, we get a sense that the Arabian Peninsula was on the periphery of these exchanges as it did not add a unique religious perspective until the spread of Islam outside the region.
In the eschatological chapters of Ibn Majah’s Al-Sunan, a number of traditions describe and mention people and places beyond the Arabian homeland. They largely mention conflicts with Byzantium (Rum) and Central Asians (Turks). The following presents some selected translations of those traditions that discuss the prelude to the Battle of Armageddon (al-Malhama):
“The Romans will make a peace treaty with you, then they will war with you as enemies. You will be victorious, take the spoils, and be at peace. Then you will go out to a prairie with hills and a man among the people of the cross will raise the crucifix and say: ‘The crucifix is victorious!’ One of the Muslims will be angered by this; he will rise and break the cross. At this moment, Rome will betray the treaty and gather for the Battle of Armageddon.”
“You will fight the Arabian Peninsula and Allah will conquer it. Then you will fight Rome and Allah will conquer it. Then you will fight the Anti-Christ (Dajjal) and Allah will conquer him.”
“The Great Battle of Armageddon, the conquering of Constantinople, and the appearance of the Anti-Christ will happen in seven months.”
“You all will fight the Banu Asfar (the Romans) and so will your successors until the elect of Islam go out to fight them – the people of the Hijaz who do not fear the blame of the blameworthy for the sake of Allah. They will conquer Constantinople with takbir and tasbih and acquire spoils like they have not acquired before, so that it will be distributed on shields. Then someone will come and say that the Messiah has appeared in your land, but it will be a lie. Whosoever takes the spoils will regret and whosoever leaves it will regret.”
“The Hour will not come until you fight a people whose soles are made of hair and the Hour will not come until you fight a small-eyed people.”
“The Hour will not come until you fight a small-eyed, thick-nosed people, as if their faces are bowed and shielded; and the Hour will not come until you fight a people whose soles are made of hair.”
“The Dajjal will emerge from a land in the east called Khurasan. People whose faces are bowed and shielded will follow him.”
The first four of the above-mentioned hadiths all mention Rome/Rum (Byzantium) by name, with numbers 3 and 4 mentioning its capital, Constantinople, specifically. These accounts allude to the ongoing battles between Arab Muslims and the Byzantine Empire, which represented the European Christian world. These battles had begun during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, but in no way did the Arabs have any leverage over their Byzantine adversaries until after his death. The final three appear to associate the end of the world with battling an Asiatic people, most likely the Turks. Only the final hadith mentions a geographical location (Khurasan), while they all attempt to describe their appearance. Interestingly, the only description given for the Byzantines is the epithet, “Banu Asfar,” the sons of a blonde. However, the final three hadiths provide descriptions of a people we can identify as Asian. More specifically, it describes Central Asians or Turkic people from Khurasan.
In summary, while the hadith about Ethiopia, Persia, the Levant, Byzantine, and Khurasan show an awareness of the lands surrounding the Arabian Peninsula, we do not get a sense that the early Arab Muslims had a depth of knowledge about these lands. The Prophet Muhammad’s knowledge of Ethiopia and its ruler remains an object of speculation. Early Arab attitudes about Persia and the Levant appear to be ambivalent, while their attitudes towards Byzantine and Khurasan were largely adversarial. Beyond that it is difficult to gather much more information about Arab knowledge of other lands from hadith.
It is possible that the hadiths as they have been transmitted were deficient of the original detail in which these lands were described. Although we would expect the detail to appreciate over the years as Arabs came in to contact with these lands. Perhaps a broader sample of hadith is needed to ascertain a more complete picture. Nevertheless, it appears from these popular hadiths about foreign lands that there is not enough evidence to show that the Arabs knew much about lands beyond the Arabian Peninsula, at least those in the Eastern Hemisphere. Al-Sha’bi’s hadith, if authentic, is an anomaly among hadiths on lands outside the Arabian Peninsula.
They Came Before Columbus… An Ongoing Debate
One aspect of al-Sha’bi’s hadith that is worthy of exploration is its relation to contemporary myths and scholarship concerning pre-Columbian contact between the so-called Old World and New World. These theories range between the plausible and implausible, depending on the strength of their evidences. It is not my intention to argue the veracity of every alternative theory, rather to show how al-Sha’bi’s mysterious hadith is in-tune with many of these contemporary theories.
In the Arab world, the Palestinian writer, Jihad al-Turbani, is a proponent of the theory that Muslims discovered America before Columbus. He devotes two chapters of his acclaimed book, One Hundred Great People of Islam Who Changed the Course of History, to this topic.
In the chapter titled, “The Discoverer of America: Piri Ries,” he credits this Ottoman scholar (also known as Ahmet Muhittin Pîrî Bey) with the discovery of America due to the detailed maps he drafted of the world, which show parts of the Americas such as Brazil, Florida, and Cuba among other lands. While there is no doubt that these maps represent some of the oldest extant maps of the Americas, there is no evidence that he ever traveled there. It is also not true that his maps pre-date Columbus’ journey as they date back to the 16th century. What is more, some have speculated that his maps show evidence that he received assistance from extraterrestrial life forms!
Nevertheless, Piri Reis stated in his own words where his inspiration for the maps came from. In addition to mentioning Columbus, he credits the Arabs, Indians, and Chinese. For the purpose of this study, it is only the Arab cartographers or explorers that concern us. Is it possible that al-Sha’bi was one of the Arab inspirations for his maps? Pinto states that they are unknown in current scholarship. This is partially due to their lack of knowledge of Islamic cartography. In the meanwhile, Svat Soucek, a specialist of Ottoman cartography, has not yet revealed anything conclusive on this front. A positive link between this map and al-Sha’bi has not yet been made, but remains a possibility.
In the chapter titled, “The Muslims Who the Muslims Do Not Know Of,” al-Turbani attempts to give a list of evidences that allude to Muslim discovery of the Americas. Among them are the hadith of al-Sha’bi, which he deploys among other historical reports that allude to pre-Columbian contact between Muslims and the Americas. In brief, he counts the report of ‘Uqbah ibn Nafi’ who upon reaching the Atlantic Ocean said, “Oh God! If I knew there was a land beyond this sea, I would enter it for Your sake in order to raise over it the testament: ‘there is no god but the God!’” In addition, he cites reports of westward travel by Muslim explorers in the works of al-Mas’udi, Yasin al-Jazuli, al-Idrisi, and al-‘Umari. Al-Turbani also pulls on an undercurrent of western scholarship, which posits that other civilizations explored the Americas prior to Columbus. For instance, he quotes (and occasionally mis-cites) Leo Wiener’s 1922 publication, Africa and the Discovery of America.
While al-Turbani’s work can hardly be called scholarship, he does bring attention to this recent body of scholarship to the Arab world. However, his citations appear sloppy and selective. In one example, he opens the former chapter with a quote of Wiener’s book, “Christopher Columbus was completely aware of the Islamic presence in America before he came to it.” However, I have not found the quote that he translated anywhere in the original work. In fact, there are only a few passing mentions of Islam or Mohammedanism throughout the book. There are references to Arabs in as much as their influence on Africans, who Wiener is attempting to demonstrate had extensive pre-Columbian contact with Native Americans, not necessarily Muslims.
Another glaring omission of al-Turbani is his reticence to mention any of the more recent literature on the topic, which popularized these ideas, such as They Came Before Columbus by Ivan Van Sertima and Deeper Roots by Abdullah Hakim Quick. Such works are deeply influenced by the Black Studies Movement and the African-Centered (Afrocentric) perspective. In this perspective, the connection to pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas and ancient Arab knowledge is always made via West African Muslims. Had al-Turbani looked into They Came Before Columbus, he would have found that Van Sertima credits pre-existing Arab Muslim knowledge to West African exploration of the Americas prior to Columbus. In many areas of this book, in order to establish that Africans explored the Americas before Columbus, Van Sertima pulls on many secondary sources about Arab and Muslim travels, such as Jeffreys’ “Pre-Columbian Arabs in the Caribbean,” Hui-Lin Li’s “Mu-lan-p’i: A Case for Pre-Columbian Transantlantic Travel by Arab Ships,” and Cauvet’s “Les Berberes en Amerique.” While al-Sha’bi is not directly referenced by Van Sertima or his references, he is a proponent of the idea that the Arabs in particular possessed knowledge of world navigation, that fed into other cultures such as the Chinese, the Berbers, and most of all, the West Africans.
Similarly, Quick has done much in recent years to popularize the idea of Muslim pre-Columbian contact among Muslims. Quick is an American convert to Islam of Afro-Indigenous Caribbean origins. He is also one of the first two American graduates of the Islamic University of Madinah. He brings all his backgrounds into conversation through this study. His world-wide lectures, based on his 1998 monograph Deeper Roots, kindled an Islamic-centered approach to pre-Columbian American history. Many of the sources alluded to by al-Turbani, such as the map of Piri Reis, can be found in Quick’s publication a full 12 years prior. However, Quick chooses to emphasize the accomplishments of West African Muslims. He restates the evidences of Van Sertima, Winters, Weiner, and others that argue for a pre-Columbian Mandingo presence in the Americas and the Caribbean on the grounds of Mandingo inscriptions, accounts of European explorers, and the remnants of their trade in gold and cotton. He is unique in that he adds to this body of evidence the origins of the Garifuna people of Belize and Honduras, who he argues are the descendants of those Mandingo explorers. In addition, he points out that they have traditionally held on to some Islamisms such as the avoidance of pork, the wearing of crescent accessories, close-knit family structures, conservative sexual mores, and a belief in one creator. One can only speculate if these were the people alluded to in al-Sha’bi’s hadith.
If we were to take the meaning of the hadith at face-value, then we could say that the inhabitants of the land beyond Andalus were a monotheistic people, whose practice of religion was approved of by Arab Muslims. This line of thinking is consistent with the beliefs of some religious sects that originated in the United States, such as the Church of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism) and the Moorish Science Temple.
Early followers of John Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, understood the book of Mormon to describe the history of the Native Americans. It tells how a small group of people from Jerusalem, led by God, trekked through the Arabian Peninsula to eventually settle in the Western Hemisphere. The common understandings amongst Mormons is that the Native Americans are descendants of the original tribes of Israel.
Similarly, the Moorish Science Temple, founded by Noble Drew Ali following the turn of the 20th century expressed a belief that overlapped the identities of Native Americans, Moors (Muslims from North West Africa), and African Americans. Ali claimed to possess esoteric knowledge that was kept hidden by the Muslims of India, Egypt, and Palestine that pertained to his doctrine. In his doctrine, there was no race. Instead, he preferred to identify people by their “nationalities,” by which he meant their ancient tribal origins. For instance, the Moors (African Americans) were initially from the land of Moab (current-day Mecca and the Hijaz). The Pharaohs of Egypt permitted them to rule over North West Africa (current-day Morocco), whose kingdom extended into the American continent. As such, the Moors were related to or descended from the “Asiatic nations” that built the great civilizations of the past. Thus, the Moors of America, who were descendants of the ancient Moabites from Mecca along with their other indigenous counterparts, were subsumed within the Muslim civilization.
The myths of both the Mormons and the Moorish Science Temple express a belief that the Native Americans were a religious community from the east who migrated to the American continent to live in a utopia. This corresponds with the theme in al-Sha’bi’s hadith that the people beyond Andalus were pious “worshippers.” The hadith alludes to the notion that the Native American conception of God was similar, if not identical to that of Semitic peoples from the Middle East. Furthermore, al-Sha’bi describes their lifestyle as one of simplicity but opulent. Indeed, often times Native Americans portray themselves and are portrayed as a people who lived in harmony with the Earth and in turn the Earth provided for them.
Al-Sha’bi’s report about a land beyond Andalus remains a mystery that needs and deserves much more research. His authority as an early hadith narrator and jurist is well-established. Even if we were to doubt the accuracy of the report’s attribution to al-Sha’bi, the mere mention of a land “beyond Andalus” in the 10th century is a matter worthy of speculation. Furthermore, contemporary scholarship and folklore on pre-Columbian exploration of the Americas consistently points to ancient knowledge from the Middle East, although they have yet to find the smoking gun. And though other reports on foreign land from the hadith corpus do not seem to give us a link between al-Sha’bi’s seemingly advanced knowledge of geography, we can contemplate a myriad of reasons as to why that is so. Perhaps al-Sha’bi’s knowledge was not common or had not yet become common among the early Muslims. Or perhaps this knowledge did not originate with the Arabs, but only surfaced after their contact with non-Arabs. Whatever the case may be, we are certain that knowledge of the existence of the American continent was not widespread among the early Muslims or ‘Uqbah ibn Nafi’ would not have made his infamous remark upon arriving to the Atlantic Ocean.
Nevertheless, recent scholarship on pre-Columbian Muslim contact with the Americas has highlighted the expeditions of West Africans, Chinese, Turks, and Berbers, in addition to Arabs. However, more research is needed to pinpoint exactly when and how these groups learned of the Western Hemisphere. It appears that these different ethnic groups lived worlds apart, but they were united by a single religion: Islam. Therefore, it is not entirely baseless to assume that knowledge of the Americas was circulated in Islamicate cultures throughout the Middle Ages with European societies, emerging from the Dark Ages, becoming the last to learn about them. The issue remains exactly when Muslims first became acquainted with the Americas and how did they obtain this knowledge. Al-Sha’bi’s hadith is an outlier in terms of this history and much work needs to be done to connect it to the main body of evidence.
Ali, Drew. The Holy Koran of The Moorish Science Temple of America. Hogarth Blake Ltd., 1927. hh-bb.com.
Cauvet, Gaston Édouard Jules. Les Berbères en Amérique: Essai d’ethnocinésie préhistorique. Nomenclature et examen des tribus homonymes des deux rives de l’Atlantique. Part des Berbères dans le peuplement de l’Amérique. France: J. Bringau, 1930.
Davies, Douglas James. An Introduction to Mormonism. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Pinto, Karen. “Searchin’ His Eyes, Lookin’ for Traces: Piri Reis’ World Map of 1513 & Its Islamic Iconographic Connections (A Reading Through Bağdat 334 and Proust).” Osmanlı Araştırmaları / The Journal of Ottoman Studies XXXIX (2012): 63–94.
Quick, Abdullah Hakim. Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present. London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1998.
Sertima, Ivan Van. They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America. New York: Random House, 2003.
 Jihad al-Turbani, Miʾah Min ʿUẓamāʾ ʾUmmat Al-Islām Ġhayyū Majrā al-Tarīkẖ, 1st ed. (Cairo: Dar al-Taqwa, 2010), 280-282.
 Svatopluk Soucek, Pîrî Reis & Turkish Mapmaking after Columbus (İstanbul: Boyut Yayınları, 2013), 50, quoted in Karen Pinto, “Searchin’ His Eyes, Lookin’ for Traces: Piri Reis’ World Map of 1513 & Its Islamic Iconographic Connections (A Reading Through Bağdat 334 and Proust),” Osmanlı Araştırmaları / The Journal of Ottoman Studies XXXIX (2012): 70-71.
 Al-Turbani, Miʾah Min ʿUẓamāʾ ʾUmmat Al-Islām, 284. The author cites the hadith in a book called, al-Huth ‘ala al-Tijarah by Abu Bakr al-Khilal, but I was not able to locate the hadith in this work. Furthermore, this work is not a book of hadith so a learned individual will not seek out hadith narrations from a work that is essentially about encouraging pious Muslims to make an honest living.
 Al-Turbani, Miʾah Min ʿUẓamāʾ ʾUmmat Al-Islām, 284-290. Al-Turbani repeatedly refers to the author of Africa and the Discovery of America as “Leon Feerneel.” I am not sure where he got this name from, but the author’s proper name is Leo Wiener.
 Ivan Van Sertima, They Came Before Columbus: The African Presence in Ancient America (New York: Random House, 2003), 69.
 M.D.W. Jeffreys, “Pre-Columbian Arabs in the Caribbean,” The Muslim Digest 5, no. 1 (1954).
 Arab Ships and Hui-lin Li, “Mu-Lan-p’i: A Case for Pre-Columbian Transatlantic Travel by Arab Ships,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 23 (1960): 114–26, https://doi.org/10.2307/2718572.
 Gaston Édouard Jules Cauvet, Les Berbères en Amérique: Essai d’ethnocinésie préhistorique. Nomenclature et examen des tribus homonymes des deux rives de l’Atlantique. Part des Berbères dans le peuplement de l’Amérique (France: J. Bringau, 1930).
 Abdullah Hakim Quick, Deeper Roots: Muslims in the Americas and the Caribbean from before Columbus to the Present (London: Ta-Ha Publishers, 1998), 32-34.
 Douglas James Davies, An Introduction to Mormonism (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 52.
 Drew Ali, The Holy Koran of The Moorish Science Temple of America (Hogarth Blake Ltd., 1927), 6, hh-bb.com.
The declaration of a free national name and religion is a concept that was popularized by Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He rejected a color-based identity in favor of one based on heritage. While I am not an expert on Moorish Science, I found a fitting parallel to this concept in the history of Copts in Egypt, one of the oldest Christian sect in the world.
Some years ago, I came across a documentary series about various Arab religious communities on Al Jazeera. In the episode about the Copts, there was an interesting remark made by Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Starting around the 5:20 until the 5:40 mark he states what can be translated as:
“The origins of the Copts are Pharaonic and not Arabic. However, they now possess Arab citizenship and the Arabic language, but their origins are not Arab.”
Arabization in Egypt
The Coptic Christian community of Egypt are not ethnically Arabs, despite being native Arabic speakers and being physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians. Technically, their ethnicity should represent the majority in Egypt and their presence predates Arab Muslim hegemony in the region. The same can be said of Berbers in Northwest Africa. How is it, then, did they assume an Arab identity?
It suffices us to know that Arabization in Egypt, like much of North Africa, was a slow and complicated process. The early Muslims played a major role in ending Byzantine oppression of indigenous Christian sects in Egypt and the rest of North Africa in 7th century CE. Their initial social contract was that of a dhimmi status, which guaranteed them protection as long as they paid the jizyah tax.
The Cairo Geniza papers reveal the rich linguistic environment of the Nile between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century CE. These papers consist of papyri written in languages such as Hebrew, Syrian, Ethiopian, Middle Persian, and hieroglyphics to name a few. However, the majority of these documents are in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They suggest that by the 7th century Arabic was used side-by-side with Coptic and Greek until 705 when a decree made Arabic the official administrative language.
We know that by the 12th century Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) had officially made Arabic the language of Coptic liturgy. His reasoning for this was that Copts had already been Arabized and that they should worship in a language they understand. Of course, the true extent of Arabization at this point in time is debatable. Perhaps only urbanized Copts had become comfortable with conversing in Arabic, while rural Copts were not.
Furthermore, scholarship on the topic shows that there were a number of factors that led to the ultimate Arabization of Egypt.These factors were an interplay of “Arab” migration, their intermarriage with Coptic women, willing and coerced conversion to Islam, popular Muslim distrust of and violence against Copts, and official policies of the state. (To learn more read: Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt and Coptic Language and Identity in Ayyūbid Egypt).
Lessons for America
Even after a difficult history under Muslim rule, the Coptic population has survived as Egypt’s largest national minority. While their Arabness is a topic of continued debate in their communities and within Egypt, I will suggest a few lessons that the so-called African American can learn from this history.
As we note from Pope Shenouda II’s statement, the Coptic community is an indigenous community with a distinct heritage. While their heritage is initially Pharaonic, it is their Christian heritage that allows them to maintain a social contract under Muslim rule. It is an Islamic belief that Islam abrogated Christianity, just as Christianity abrogated Judaism and so forth, which might have served as the basis for Muslims’ harsh treatment of the Copts throughout history, especially after the Crusades.
However, it was only after they proclaimed their free national and religious identity that they were able to attain Arab citizenship. While much was lost in this transaction, they were also able to maintain their legal sovereignty in a nation ruled by Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law, like American law, guaranteed them the right to govern themselves.
Additionally, by Arabizing their heritage they were able to preserve what they could of their history in a living language. This is an important point for so-called African Americans, as the language of our history and scholarship provides access to different audiences and influences the types of discussions we have around topics of concern to us.
Finally, their citizenship is not simply tied to a nation (Egyptian), but to a heritage (Arab). As Arab citizens, the Copts were not only able to secure a place within Egyptian society, but in the greater Arab world. As Arab citizens, they have the right to produce culture, scholarship, and engage in the current events of the Arab world.
 This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?