The Arab Role in the Discovery of America

<p>Edited by Louis Standish</p>

Were the Arabs actually the first to discover America? If the answer is no, then did they participate in some way or another in that discovery? These questions are the axis of the book “Arab Navigation in the Age of Prosperity” by Tarik al-Hamdani, published by the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation – that lofty scientific institution that has a distinct role in preserving and spreading the Arab legacy.

Since Spain’s discovery of the New World – or what came to be known by the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries as America – questions surrounded possible Arab participation in that achievement. There is no doubt that the Arabs had managed to trigger a revolution in the fields of geography, astronomy and navigation, and that the Europeans benefited from this revolution, as they borrowed the roots of their renaissance from Arab science and learning, to lay the foundations of a new civilization and then spread it around the world.

When European scholars In the Middle Ages were still arguing about the shape of the earth, the earth’s roundness had long been a settled fact for Muslim Scholars, who were in possession of various proofs and arguments. And when Europeans began their studies in geography, Muslim Arabs already had well-developed theories on the topic. When Europeans began developing in philosophy and the science of astronomy, their way of thinking was based upon the knowledge and theories of the Arabs and Muslims. Muslim-Arab scholars had left behind a great scientific legacy, for al-Qalqashandi’s book Subh al-A’sha, al-Idrisi’s book Nuzhat al-Mushtak and Ibn Fadl Allah al-Umari’s book Masalik al-Absar were all lamps that lit the way for Europeans to reach America.

Arab scientific studies had a major impact on the West, so naturally these studies paved the way for the discovery of America by Columbus , who knew about the Arab theories from Latin translations. As cited in Arab writings, the Arabs had called the Atlantic Ocean “The Sea of Darkness,” as an expression of the fear that they associated with this great ocean.

That is why Arab vessels had been content with following close to the African and European coastlines following landmarks. But this doesn’t mean that none of them ventured into the Atlantic, finding its limits and arriving at one of the many islands it contains. There are some reports that author cites, as in al-Idrisi’s book “Nuzhat al-Mushtak” which points out that Muslim adventurers did tour some of the Atlantic islands, bringing back many riches. This tale was called the “Voyages of Sinbad [?];” and it was an adventure for young Arabs of al-Andalus [Spain] about adventurers across the ocean – and it is believed their feet had walked on American soil.

This adventure was known – indeed, it was well-known – in Europe. Whatever its degree of importance, Columbus himself pointed out in his memoirs that he had benefited from the views of Arab geographers about the roundness of the Earth, Arab maps and the sciences of astronomy and navigation. For Ibn Majid [one of the most famous Arab navigators had appeared before Columbus, or during his time, and Westerners were completely aware of Ibn Majid’s scientific research, just as Europeans in the 20th century became aware of the colossal legacy he left behind. So they set out to study him.

Many European and Arab researchers in books and research have dealt with this question. And while some of them deny that Ibn Majid was the sailor that led the ships of Vasco de Gama to India, others emphasize the likelihood of this, as the preponderance of scientific evidence contained in Ibn Majid’s legacy bears this out.

Portuguese interest in navigation and astronomy had been growing throughout the 15th century, with the object of geographical discovery; Arab techniques in these fields – such as the use of the compass and the astrolabe [a very ancient astronomical computer ] aided them in this. The exploratory journey of Pero da Covilhao to the East [Arab Lands] contributed to this period of geographical discovery, as did the journey of Bartholomew Diaz, long before Vasco da Gama was able to undertake his famous voyage in 1497, making two trips around the Cape of Good Hope and East Africa to arrive at the Indian coast.

And while Vasco da Gama was looking east [for a passage to India], Columbus was looking west. In 1492, this Italian sailor was able to reach the islands that the “Voyages of Sinbad [?]” had spoken of, although all he was looking for was a route to India. European historians praised the fact that Ibn Rushd [Spanish Muslim Philosopher, 1128-1198 AD] was one of those who had predicted the existence of a new world beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Similarly, Columbus pointed out in his memoirs that he had benefited from the views of Arab geographers on the roundness of the earth.

The route to India opened, by way of the Cape of Good Hope, numerous opportunities for the Portuguese in the beginning of the 16th century, for colonization, trade and economic influence, and to the vast riches that they controlled due to their domination of the east. Similarly, Columbus blazed a trail for Spain, by means of his discovery of the New World, to control the new continent and its riches. Accordingly, Europe has controlled the entire world since the 16th century, dividing up its riches and controlling the destinies of its peoples.

At the same time, the Arab and Islamic powers began to lag behind because of a number of political problems. The matter was not limited to intrinsic Arab weakness and decline, but rather to the fact that the Arabs themselves submitted to European colonialism; indeed, in some regions colonialism lasted until the end of the 20th century, with Arabs denied full involvement in global civilization, as the torch of knowledge passed into the hands of the Europeans. And while European civilization was progressing by leaps and bounds both scientifically and technically, Arab participation in these fields dropped to today’s dismal levels.

Indeed, this book plays an important role in describing the past achievements of Arabs and Muslims, and reminds a new generation of the achievements of their forebears. Perhaps this recollection will enable Arab and Muslim culture to remain intact and healthy in the face of the West’s occasional organized attacks of skepticism against it, which are designed to create doubts about Arab participation in the world culture.

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