In one of the more absurd news stories of the past week or two, Turkish president Erdogan claimed last week that when Columbus reached the New World he found Islam already spreading throughout the population and even saw a mosque on top of a hill in Cuba. He went on to offer to build a mosque on top of that same hill in Cuba. Needless to say, Erdogan’s remarks – which are not in fact a joke – have been met with near-universal mockery. Despite this, Erdogan is continuing to insist that what he said is true. The Washington Post has some interesting thoughts on why Erdogan isn’t backing off his comments and also has a blog post reviewing the sources he’s probably citing. The Post’s Ishaan Tharoor thinks that maybe Erdogan doesn’t actually care about the truth and this whole affair is a purely cynical political ploy to shore up support for Erdogan by somehow declaring that denying these claims is tantamount to insulting Muslims. The Guardian also reports on this but avoids any editorial comments.
Reportedly, the story about the mosque comes from some random paper from the ’90s that used a version of Columbus’ journal recorded by Bartolomé de las Casas in the mid-1500s. The actual journal has been lost, so there is no true primary source. Wikisource has a copy of the Spanish text of an 1892 edition here. The relevant portion is the entry for October 29th, where it says:
Señala la disposición del río y del puerto que arriba dijo y nombró San Salvador, que tiene sus montañas hermosas y altas como la Peña de los Enamorados, y una de ellas tiene encima otro montecillo a manera de una hermosa mezquita. [from Wikisource]
Which I would translate (my Spanish isn’t great but you can easily find better translations online) as:
He [Columbus] describes the position of the river and port mentioned above and named San Salvador [Holy Savior], which includes beautiful tall mountains similar to the Peña de los Enamorados [Lovers’ Rock], and one of them has on top of it a ridge [or mound/hill] that looks like [lit. in the manner of] a beautiful mosque.
The Spanish text looks like it’s been modernized but if we assume that it is a reasonably faithful rendering of de las Casas’ manuscript it’s clear that the mosque Erdogan mentions exists only in his own mind. The reports that the mention of a mosque in the journal are metaphorical are understating how clear it is that it’s not describing an actual building.
As for the additional claim that Islam was spreading throughout the Americas prior to Columbus, there is no credible evidence accepted by legitimate historians of this. To a non-expert like me this seems highly unlikely even if we accept the claim that contact between the Muslim world and Latin America (and the Caribbean in particular) was common before Columbus’ first voyage.
Consider the political context of Spain in 1492 – at that time a union between Castile [Castilla] ruled by Isabel I [called Isabella in English for some reason even though that’s Italian and the name is actually Elizabeth] and Aragón, ruled by Fernando II [i.e. Ferdinand in English]. At the beginning of the year, the emirate of Granada fell and was subsumed into Castile. Shortly after, all Jewish people in Spain were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave the country. However – and this is very important to note – Muslims were still allowed to remain for another 10 years until the Spanish monarchy broke the terms of the Treaty of Granada ensuring the rights of Spanish Muslims.
So, when Columbus left from a port in Andalucía, he and his crew left a country that had just ended centuries of warfare between various competing Christian and Muslim states (and Granada had been allied with Castile at various points anyway) and still had a large minority of Muslims who were supposed to be tolerated by the authorities. Some of the crew may have even been converts or descendants of recent converts. They traveled west, expecting to reach Asia. Had they reached the Caribbean and found that many among the Taíno people practiced Islam, we would almost certainly know. Columbus and his crew must have been at least somewhat knowledgable about Islam (even the metaphorical usage of the word mosque assumes that the reader knows what one looks like), and they thought that they had reached Asia, where it might not be surprising to find people practicing a familiar religion. Furthermore, had many in the Americas already practiced any religion known to Europeans, we might expect the writings of men such as de las Casas (who, though he came to regret it, was shamefully one of the first to call for the use of African slave labor in the colonies) and Sepúlveda to have very different views on the treatment of the native people of the New World.
Now, is it possible that an errant ship here or there from Asia, Europe, Africa, or Oceania could have reached the shores of the Americas? I don’t see why not, but to the extent that this ever happened, it would be little more than a historical curiosity. Even the purported (as far as I know its identity has largely been confirmed by archaeologists) Norse colony in Newfoundland and any possible related colonies on the North American mainland left little to no influence on the course of history other than inspiring some some literature. At the very least, the lack of Old World diseases in pre-Colombian America and the staggering death tolls of the plagues introduced by Europeans soon after arriving would appear to preclude any significant or sustained contact between the people of the Americas (or at least people outside the Arctic region where the continents are close together) and the various interconnected societies of Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Thus, this appears to be just one in a long line of dubious attempts to stake a claim to a discovery of the New World prior to Columbus and just one in a long line of even more dubious attempts to co-opt the cultural identities of the native peoples of the Americas. Columbus remains important not because he was the first to make the trip – he almost certainly wasn’t – and not because he was a good man – he wasn’t – but rather because of what happened after his first voyage. For better or worse, Columbus brought knowledge of the existence of the New World (even if he still thought it was Asia) to the rest of Europe and helped usher in an era of European colonialism.