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The Writing on the Wall

A photograph of Omar ibn Said, likely taken in the 1850s.

A photograph of Omar ibn Said, taken some time before the Civil War, and after his autobiography was published.

Around 1810, a man began writing in a mysterious script on the walls of his jail cell in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fascinated onlookers soon came to marvel, and to guess what the symbols meant. Eventually, someone identified the language as Arabic, and the man as an escaped slave named Omar ibn Said.

Omar, who had been an Islamic scholar in West Africa before he was captured and enslaved, was returned to slavery after his imprisonment in the Fayetteville jail. He was sold to a prominent North Carolina family, the Owens, and ostensibly converted to Christianity. In the years following his sale to the prominent Owens family, his fame as a literate slave — and literate in Arabic, no less — grew. Omar remained a slave. But, most unusually, he was also allowed to write and publish an account of his life. The Life of Omar Ibn Said, Written by Himself was published in 1831, decades after his capture in West Africa.

“You asked me to write my life…I have much forgotten my own, as well as the Arabic language. Neither can I write very grammatically or according to the true idiom. And so, my brother, I beg you, in God’s name, not to blame me, for I am a man of weak eyes, and of a weak body.”

For our guest Ala Alryyes, the mere fact that such a narrative exists is remarkable:

“This is the only extant autobiography written in Arabic by a Muslim American slave. Through it we have access to both his original world that is the world he came from – West Africa – and an attempt to negotiate his situation in the U.S. as a slave.”

But Alryyes says that what you see in that document isn’t necessarily what it seems, either when it comes to religion or to his feelings about being owned. For example, Said opens his autobiography with a chapter, or sura, from the Koran. Its central idea is that God exercises power over, and is the supreme owner of, all things and persons.

Omar ibn Said's original manuscript

The sura which opens the text. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Opening your slave narrative, as it were, with a text that says that God is the only one who has ownership of all things seems to be it couldn’t just be an accidental or negligible feature of his autobiography but a choice that has an organic connection to his possession as a slave, right? In other words, he’s using the the sura to negate the idea that one man can own another man.”

Omar continues his autobiography by describing how he was taken from the region of current day Senegal all the way to the great sea, put on a great ship, and “sold into the hands of the Christians.”

“My name is Omar ibn Seid. My birthplace was Fut Tûr, between the two rivers. I sought knowledge under the instruction of a Sheikh called Mohammed Seid, my own brother, and Sheikh Soleiman Kembeh, and Sheikh Gabriel Abdal. I continued my studies twenty-five years. Then there came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship and we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half, when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.”

 

He goes on to describe his life as a slave, first with a brutal master named Johnson, “a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.” Because Omar was still enslaved when he composed his narrative, it’s perhaps not too surprising that his account of life with his then-masters the Owenses isn’t so critical. Nor does he seem unhappy about his public conversion to Christianity.

Though Omar’s story is unique, as a Muslim in a strange land, he was far from alone. As many as 15 percent — maybe more — of the half million African slaves brought to what became the U.S. were Muslim. But within a generation or two, the memory and practice of Islam had largely faded away in America. And that, says Alryyes, is what makes this unique document so important.

“Omar’s autobiography is not the full story. But it is a clear example of the fact that Islam and America did not just meet on Sept. 11, 2001. And that they had a lengthy, complex and more interesting relationship than that.”

This is a story from our show on the history of Islam & the United States. You can listen to the whole episode here. If you’d like to know more about Omar ibn Said’s story, you can read a translation of his autobiography here.