First Contact: What if Muslims had reached the New World first?

As I’ve been studying Islam, I have become increasingly fascinated by the question of whether the Native Americans would have been better off if Muslims had made “First Contact” rather than European Christians. Best of all, of course, would have been a few more centuries of independent development that would allow them to confront new arrivals as something closer to equals. Failing that, however, there would have been several advantages to Muslim rule:

  • Despite stereotypes, Islam did not rely heavily on mass, forced conversion. When entering a new region, they were happy to basically decapitate the current regime and rule by means of already-existing institutions, beginning a gradual process of reconciling local custom with Shari’a law, “nudging” people toward conversion to Islam via tax incentives, etc. In Indonesia, this meant that many inland indigenous cultures were able to exist more or less undisturbed for a surprisingly long time.
  • Differing views of cultural and ethnic pluralism in Islam would make the Islamic rulers much less likely to view the Native Americans as sub-human savages to be enslaved or exterminated.
  • Though Muslims would bring Old World diseases, it’s hard to imagine them “weaponizing” smallpox in the way that European settlers did (it just seems dishonorable) — and in any case, they had superior medical science well into the early modern period. On the plus side, they wouldn’t bring alcoholic beverages with them.
  • Islamic cultural ideals surrounding Bedouins would surely have worked in favor of the more nomadic North American tribes, who appeared especially foreign and incomprehensible to Europeans.

I’m already tensed and ready for someone to say in comments that everything would have played out identically no matter who got there first because humans are humans, etc., and I’m going to go ahead and warn you that any such fatalistic comments will be deleted — unless you have a concrete reason that some specific aspect of the Western conquest of the Americas would have played out similarly.

Two thoughts before I open it up for comments. First, I realize that there are good historical reasons that Muslim traders wouldn’t have bothered heading west from Africa — the whole reason the Europeans were looking for alternate routes to the Far East was that Muslims already had existing routes well in hand. Second, to briefly flesh out the obvious Star Trek analogy I’m evoking — I’d like to suggest that First Contact with the Muslims would have been like humans’ First Contact with the Vulcans, and what the Native Americans actually got was First Contact with the Borg.

7 thoughts on “First Contact: What if Muslims had reached the New World first?

  1. There was a Harry Turtledove story with that element, with Muslims from Spain colonizing South America; the Incas took the Japan route and caught up quickly; they were having major wars around Venezuela when the (white) hero came in and convinced them to write down their stories and tenets in a holy book so they would get accorded People of the Book status.

  2. It doesn’t quite scratch this itch, but I think you’d really like Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternate history novel THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT. 99% of Europe is killed off by the Black Plague, leaving Europe the space of colonization to be competed over by Islam and China. The Native American genocide is avoided too, so you wind up in the twentieth century with a tripolar world…

  3. Laila Lalami’s just published “The Moor’s Account” is a historical novel about ‘Estebanico,’ the “black Arab” who accompanied Cabeza de Vaca from Florida through what is now Mexico in the 1530’s; it’s not the scenario you’re describing, but it brings up aspects of your discussion.

  4. The only reason I think it might have gone off poorly for Native Americans would have been if the Muslim colonizers first made contact with one of the Meso-American civilizations that practiced institutionalized human sacrifice and had a state form of social organization, including institutionalized religion and some form of organized military. It seems at least possible that the coupling of religious and cultural differences with potential military and inter-state conflicts that could have resulted from that particular version of first contact could have negatively impacted things at an early stage, with possible negative consequences for the ways in which the rest of the colonization process went down.

    In saying that, I want to stress that I’m not trying to single out human sacrifice as the only significant feature of those civilizations or to define them according to their practice of it. Nor do I think that a negative outcome would have been absolutely inevitable even in the scenario that I described. But I do think that there’s at least a chance things could have turned out poorly for the reasons I mentioned.

  5. An interesting thought experiment. I would push back on your comment about tax incentive, as the reference are too discriminatory taxes imposed on dhimmi people, i.e. the other peoples of the book, namely Christians and Jews. The case of Indonesia would be a fascinating counterpoint, and also Mughal rule in India re: Muslim rule and non-monotheistic religions. Regarding the Jewish experience under Islam and Christendon, Marc Cohen’s _Under Crescent and Cross_ remains both excellent and judicious.

  6. Um, you might want to do some research into the slave trade. Millions of people were enslaved from Africa and from Europe and taken to the Muslim Middle East. It’s unlikely that the New Workd would have escaped this fate.

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