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.