John Hamed, Jr., Barry Fell, and the Backdating of Islam in America
by Hugh Fitzgerald
John Hamed, Jr.’s letter criticizing a previous correspondent’s assertions about Islam first made the point that the Qur’an is full of references to “love” and “mercy” and “peace,” that where in the Qur’an violence appears, it was merely descriptive of what the early Muslims, suffering from the “relentless onslaught” of its enemies, were forced engage in to survive, that Islam teaches monotheism and “accepts the prophecies Moses and Jesus,” and that 7 million Muslims now live in America, “educated and middle-class,” and this part of his letter ends on a defiant note: “we are not going anywhere.”
He now proceeds both to backdate the presence of Muslims in America to many centuries before Columbus, and to claim that Muslims served important roles in Columbus’s voyages. He brings in, as his chief authority for the backdating, Dr. Barry Fell, to support the astonishing claims of his finding “the ruins of Muslim schools” in the American West:
Muslims have been here for a very long time. Dr. Barry Fell, an American historian, discovered the ruins of Muslim schools in Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Indiana dating back to 700 to 800 C.E. In 1492, Columbus had two captains for the Pinta and the Nina who were Muslim. Columbus and others later discovered ruins of mosques and minarets with inscriptions of Qu’ranic [sic] verses in Cuba, Mexico, Texas and Nevada. We can go on and on, but suffice to say, Islam was here even before there was a U.S.A. There are more than 500 places in the U.S. today with clearly Islamic names: Mecca, Indiana; Medina in New York, Ohio and Texas; Toledo, Ohio; Mahomet, Illinois; Islamorada, Florida; etc.
Let’s start with the reference to Dr. Barry Fell. He was not an historian, though John Hamed, Jr. describes him as “an American historian.” Nor was he a professional epigraphist, nor an archaeologist. He was a professor of invertebrate zoology, who concentrated on sea urchins and starfish. An amateur student of epigraphy, he claimed to have found evidence, all over America, of writings using the alphabets of many Old World peoples who, he said, had arrived in America many centuries before Columbus. These included Celts, Phoenicians, Libyans, Minoans, Basques, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Minoans, and Arabs. None of the well-regarded scholars of epigraphy, none of the archaeologists who specialized in the New World, found his work the least bit convincing. But they did not just reject it; many called Fell a crank, a loony, while others accused him, in print, of deliberate fraud, by which they meant that he created the rock inscriptions he claimed to have discovered. Some scholars wondered if he was trying through these sensational and baseless claims to win readers, and thus fame and some fortune, for his books, especially America B.C. Ancient Settlers in the New World.
But among Muslims, Barry Fell is not a crank, not a loony, not a fraud. He is presented as a respected authority, because of his claim of a Muslim Arab presence in America dating back to 700 or 800 A.D. That would be as far back as the first century of Islam. We are being asked to believe the bizarre claims of Barry Fell that he found “writings” in Arabic (and in ten other alphabets, including the Ogham of Old Irish, which was the major focus of his epigraphic studies) on rocks in the American Far West. He initially dated these (he does not tell us how) to between 700 and 800 A.D., later claiming that not only did he find inscriptions in Arabic, but also the ruins of mosques and madrasas. One other detail: Barry Fell did not know any Arabic. Here is how one Muslim, a certain “Dr.” Youssef Mroueh, described Fell’s claims:
Dr. Fell discovered the existence of the Muslim schools at Valley of Fire, Allan Springs, Logomarsino, Keyhole, Canyon, Washoe and Hickison Summit Pass (Nevada), Mesa Verde (Colorado), Mimbres Valley (New Mexico) and Tipper Canoe (Indiana) dating back to 700-800 CE. Engraved on rocks in the arid western U.S, he found texts, diagrams and charts representing the last surviving fragments of what was once a system of schools – at both an elementary and higher level. The language of instruction was North African Arabic written with old Kufic Arabic scripts. The subjects of instruction included writing, reading, arithmetic, religion, history, geography, mathematics, astronomy and sea navigation. The descendants of the Muslim visitors of North America are members of the present Iroquois, Algonquin, Anasazi, Hohokam and Olmec native people.
So not only did Muslim Arabs, according to Fell, arrive in the New World during Islam’s first century and somehow travel to the American West, but also had the ability to set up a whole system of schools, both for elementary and higher education. And they had the time to engrave on rocks not simple inscriptions, but copies of “texts, diagrams and charts” used in these schools, where a vast gamut of subjects, including history, geography, mathematics, astronomy, sea navigation, and so on — far more than would have been taught in schools at home — were all taught. Dr.Fell does not, however, mention religious studies. Does he think that any school for Muslims anywhere could exist without study of the faith?
All of this is fantasy.
Barry Fell did not know Arabic. He did know how to copy Arabic writing out of books, and could make inscriptions on rocks. Barry Fell made large claims, but his work has not been accepted as valid by professionals in the field. A survey of 340 teaching archaeologists in 1983 showed 95.7% had a completely “negative” view of Barry Fell’s claims (considering them pseudo-archaeology), 2.9% had a “neutral” view, and only 1.4% had a “positive” view (regarding them as factual). It is only his studies of writings in Ogham, the early Irish alphabet, that might explain that figure of 1.4%, for a handful of people thought he might actually have discovered real examples of writing in Ogham.
Fell has been accused of many things. Archeologists have been highly critical of Fell’s conclusions and methodology. As noted, the only area where he was deemed to have even the tiniest hint of possible credibility was in his study of Ogham, the Early Irish alphabet. Yet even here he was severely criticized. In a 1983 article, the archaeologist and historian W. Hunter Lesser described Fell’s claims for an Ogham inscription in West Virginia as “pseudoscientific and unreliable.” In 1989, lawyers Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz wrote an article based on opinions of academic archaeologists and linguists to dispute that the inscription [in West Virginia] was written in Ogham script. They further accused Fell of deliberate fraud. David H. Kelley, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary who is credited with a major breakthrough in the deciphering of Mayan glyphs, complained about Fell in a 1990 essay: “Fell’s work [contains] major academic sins,” including “distortion of data.” Many have simply called him a crank, crazed, or a fraud. He was most likely all three.
Let’s understand what Barry Fell, and his uncritical admirer John Hamed, Jr., are claiming. In the first century after the death of Muhammad, Muslim Arabs were fully occupied in conquering Iraq (the first victim of Jihad warfare outside Arabia), and then the Sassanian Empire to the East, and Egypt to the West. And while doing this, not just conquering but subjugating peoples far more numerous than the Arabs themselves, they apparently had the ability, according to Barry Fell, even though they were a desert people without any seafaring experience, all of a sudden to be able to build vessels capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean, and found experienced seagoing navigators (from where?) and maps (drawn by whom in 700 or 800 A.D.? The Muslim maps of Al-Idrissi (1099-1166) came several centuries later). Then we are expected to believe that these same Arab seafarers landed safely, somewhere on the coast of North America and, encountering no insuperable difficulties, managed to cross the Continent, and make it all the way to Colorado and Nevada. By what means of transportation did they make that journey? Did they travel on foot? Did they have horses or wagons? And how did they cross the Mississippi or other rivers? Did they have to scale the Rockies in Colorado, or did they stay to the east of that forbidding mountain range? Where did they get their food? Their water? What weapons did they possess? How did they avoid any trouble with the Indians whose paths they would have crossed? With what material did they build those “mosques and madrasas,” the ruins of which Barry Fell claims he found? Who were the students in those schools? Did Muslim women accompany men on these journeys? He never asked, much less answered, any of those questions.
John Hamed, Jr. then repeats the astonishing claim of Barry Fell that “the descendants of the Muslim visitors of North America are members of the present Iroquois, Algonquin, Anasazi, Hohokam and Olmec native people.” In other words, Muslim Arabs supposedly interbred with Indians all across America, from what is now northern New York State (Iroquois) to Colorado (Anasazi), and to southern Mexico (Olmecs). There is no evidence presented, linguistic or through DNA testing, by Barry Fell for this claim, but for John Hamed, Jr., no evidence is needed. The claim again places Muslims far back in pre-Columbian history, and even claims they intermarried with many different tribes of indigenous Indians.
John Hamed, Jr. appears not to know — why did he not bother to spend a minute googling in order to find out? — that almost all archaeologists completely rejected Barry Fell’s work as without merit, “negative,” pseudo-archaeology, and that he has further been accused of deliberate fraud by noted archaeologists, epigraphists, and historians. Others regarded him as “crazy,” and still others, as ‘“devious.” Not a single reputable scholar has endorsed any of Barry Fell’s claims about “Old World settlers” in the New World before Columbus. But for John Hamed, Jr., Barry Fell is a legitimate scholar of epigraphy in the New World, and his “evidence” somehow “proves” that Muslims were not only in the New World by 700 or 800 A.D., but were already building schools with a curriculum far broader than that in madrasas today. If Mr Hamed would like to read any of the scathing comments by epigraphists and archaeologists on Fell’s work, many of whom believe he was a fraud or “crazed,” he can find them here. Of course, if Hamed has a modicum of sense, he will cease to cite Barry Fell as an authority. It only invites, because it deserves, ridicule.
First published in Jihad Watch.