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Was a Muslim scholar the first to discover America?


For centuries, the world has given Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus to be the man who discover the Americas (never mind the people who already lived there).  However, new research shows that Central Asian Muslim scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni discovered the continent centuries before Columbus.  This theory was proposed in around 1037, by which point al-Biruni would have been 70 years old, and perhaps too old to travel it himself.

Writing in History Today, S. Frederick Starr says al-Biruni, born in what is modern-day Uzbekistan was the first person to officially suggest that a landmass exisited Europe and Asia. Al-Biruni’s expertise on geography and mapping led him to the conclude that Europe, Africa and Asia, only accounted for two-fifths of the world.

Starr writes that al-Biruni’s knowledge of both Middle-Eastern and Indian languages, as well as being trained in mathematics, astronomy, mineralogy, geography, cartography, geometry and trigonometry under great scholars like Ahmad al-Farghani, gave him deep insight into the sciences of various fields and civilizations. Al-Biruni also mapped the latitudinal and longitudinal locations of various cities in central Asia, India, the Middle-East and the Mediterranean.

Al-Biruni was one of the most important figures in developing Greek science. The work of al-Biruni’s teacher al-Farghani, is thought to be the basis for Columbus’s own explorations.  Al-Biruni also provided an estimation of the earth’s circumference, only off by 10.44 miles from modern measurements.


Al-Biruni continued a remarkable career in the early 1000s, doing research into fields such as:

How the earth spins on its axis

How wells and springs transport water to the surface

Combining statics and dynamics into the study of mechanics

Recording the latitude and longitude of thousands of cities, which allowed him to determine the direction towards Makkah for each city

The optical nature of shadows, particularly their use for the calculation of prayer times

Separating scientific astronomy from superstitious astrology

During his 75 years, al-Biruni managed to revolutionize the way numerous subjects were understood. By the time he died in 1048, he had authored well over 100 books, of which many have not survived till today. His intellect and mastery of various subjects, and his ability to relate them together to gain a better understanding of each puts him among the greatest Muslim scholars of all time. His life serves as proof of the ability of Muslim scholars of the past to push the limits of knowledge and establish new frontiers in the sciences. It also serves to show the ability of the best scholars to rise above political problems, wars, and and general instability to still do world-changing research and make remarkable discoveries.