Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appears to have the same fluid understanding of history as he does civil rights. Erdogan became the latest — and certainly highest ranking — person to proliferate the myth that Columbus not only found that Muslims had discovered the New World before him but that there was an actual mosque left on a mountain in Cuba to greet the explorer.
Erdogan is repeating a myth among some Muslim scholars that has been discredited repeatedly and is based on a clearly false reading of the diary kept by Columbus. The claim was made in a widely ridiculed 1996 paper from Youssef Mroueh of the As-Sunnah Foundation of America. Mroueh wrote that “Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 CE while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the north-east coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.” It is a bizarrely false reading of a clear metaphor used by the explorer in a log of Columbus’ first journey in 1492. Tt was made on October 29, 1492 and recorded by colonization historian Bartholome de Casas: “Remarking on the position of the river and port, to which he gave the name of San Salvador, he describes its mountains as lofty and beautiful, like the Pena de las Enamoradas, and one of them has another little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque.” “Like a graceful mosque” was taken as literal while such a structure would have prompted considerable attention and action from the Christian explorers if it was a literal observation. There is no evidence to support the claim.
Nevertheless, the myth has grown in Muslim circles and led Erdogan to tell an audience of Latin American Muslim leaders summit in Istanbul (people with more than a passing knowledge of such subjects) that “The religion of Islam was widespread before Columbus. Muslim sailors had arrived in the shores of America in 1178. In his diaries, Christopher Columbus referred to the presence of a mosque on top of a mountain in Cuba.”
The myth shows the danger of academics who strive to validate or advance their own religion in history. Islam has an amazing history of scholarship, inventions, and exploration. However, there has been growing effort to prove that it was Muslims who first discovered and colonized the New World. Whatever the truth of such accounts (and there could have been such explorers), the use of the Cuban myth discredits anyone seeking to establish such a connection. Some scholars have even claimed that words like “Seminole” comes from the Turkish ‘Sami nal’ or “Semites who ran away.”
No archeological evidence has been found to support such claims. Erdogan went further in his speech to compare the role of Christianity and Islam — arguing that Christians forced people to convert and killed those who did not. He insisted that “Converting people by force, by the sword, has never been a part of Islam. Our religion has never been a tool of exploitation.” I assume that he is not speaking of the widespread use of apostasy and blasphemy abuses in Islamic countries or such radical groups as Islamic State. However, he is certainly more accurate in describing the abuses of early Christian explorers than he is the discovery of Columbus in Cuba.