Life Story and Major Works of Omar ibn Said, the West African scholar who became a slave in America
In spite of the less-than human conditions that many slaves in America lived, there were quite a good number of them that went on to leave their mark on the history of the United States. One of such slaves was Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese-born scholar and steadfast follower of Islam. After arriving in the United States, Omar’s writings would later attract the attention of the white community. By the time of his death, he was well known in America, particularly for his Arabic literary works.
What was his life like before slavery?
Omar ibn Said was a member of the Tukolor Fulani tribe hailing from Fula Turo, located in modern-day Senegal. It’s likely that he was born between 1765-1770.
He lost his father when he was only five years old in an inter-tribal conflict. Following his father’s death, Omar and his family were forced to move to another town. He grew up in wealth nonetheless and that provided him with the opportunity to pursue various academic interests, including mathematics, theology, astronomy, and business.
Omar studied for more than two decades under the supervision of his brother Sheikh Muhammad Said and two other scholars. By the time he was an adult, he had become a scholar of high repute. He also knew how to study and interpret the Qu’ran.
How Omar ibn Said got sold into slavery
Life in Fula Turo might have been good for the scholar who was born and raised in wealth. But his life would quickly turn upside down. In 1807, the Fulani tribe entered into conflict with other Muslim ethnic groups. At that time, he had returned home from his studies for about six years. In the ensuing confrontations, Omar was captured and then transported to the coast to be sold into slavery.
Upon arrival to the coast, around 1799, he was made to board a ship bound for Charleston, South Carolina in the United States. It was one of the last Transatlantic slave ships that sailed from West Africa to the United States, as the latter abolished international slave trade with an act of Congress passed in 1800.
Omar, who was in his late thirties at the time, called his new home “the Christian country.”
The New World: Early years as a slave in America
Omar was likely to be in his thirties to early forties when he was enslaved. After a month-long travel across the Atlantic, he safely arrived in Charleston and was bought by a man named Johnson at a slave market. He described his new owner as a “small, evil man”, as well as an “infidel who did not have the fear of Allah.”
His early years of slavery saw him toil away on Johnson’s plantation. For someone who grew up in a rich home in West Africa, Omar loathed every second of his experience. When he got his chance, he escaped from the plantation and headed north, where former slaves and escaped slaves lived freely. Unfortunately, he was arrested in Fayetteville, North Carolina and jailed for 16 days.
The Writings on the Wall
While behind bars, Omar started writing in Arabic on the walls of his cell. His unique writings quickly caught the attention of his captors who had never really seen such writings and were unfamiliar with the Arabic language.
His ability to write also dispelled the assumption made by the white people that the all enslaved Africans were illiterate. Upon his release, Omar was sold to another slave owner called General James Owen.
General Owen & Conversion to Christianity
James Owen was completely different from Omar’s previous owner. In his texts, the scholar described his new owner as a kind man. But might have Omar been a tool to progress a religious agenda that Owen was involved in?
Owen and his brother John were members of a group called the American Colonization Society (ACS), which they joined in 1816. The goal of the group was to send free slaves back to West Africa. But as noble as it sounded, the other goal was also to convert the freed slaves to Christianity so they could spread the religion once they arrived home. To the Owens, Omar would have been one of the perfect people to play that role.
Omar wrote a letter to John, which included several Qur’anic verses, as well as a talisman placed in the middle of the letter. In his letter, which was written in Arabic, he expressed his desire to go back to Futa Turo in West Africa. Because John was unable to read Arabic, he could not understand the contents of the letter. Because most of the whites did not understand Arabic, Omar used his style of writing to hide his true feelings from the people that owned him.
In an attempt to make sense of what his slave had written, John sent the letter to another member of the American Colonization Society, a judge named John Louis Taylor. While Taylor was able to make out Omar’s hometown, he mistakenly misinterpreted the letter and stated that the scholar had expressed his desire to remain in the United States.
So, Taylor and the Owen brothers gifted him with an Arabic Bible and converted him to Christianity. He would then convert the other black slaves and put their plans for the group back in motion. Omar started attending church services at the local Presbyterian church and was baptized in 1821.
Did Omar really convert to Christianity?
On the outside, it appeared Omar was now a Christian. But was that really true of him? Many of the scholar’s writings revealed that he still maintained his Islamic faith and the whites’ inability to comprehend Arabic, helped him to conceal his true meanings in his texts.
In the Bible that he’d received from Taylor and the Owens, he wrote, “Praise be to Allah or God”, as well as “All good is from Allah.” Perhaps, his conversion to Christianity was a front for him to continue practicing Islam, especially in a community that was predominantly white and Christian.
Omar also wrote the Arabic version of the Fatiha, which is the introductory chapter of the Qur’an, and convinced his white friends that it was the Lord’s Prayer. He also included Islamic prayers after writing sections of the Book of Psalms, which is a book from the Bible.
So, was Omar truly a Christian? Probably not. It was most likely a way for him to not make life much worse than it was.
This technique is known as Taqiya in Islam. It is described as feigning unbelief when under threat of persecution, torture or compulsion. Some scholars describe it as being all friendly and kind to the disbelievers outwardly, but never inwardly.
Therefore, it’s possible Omar maintained an open and friendly posture towards the Owens, whom he saw as God-fearing people.
Throughout his life in the United States, Omar wrote 14 literary pieces, all in Arabic. One of these included his famous autobiography “The Life of Omar ibn Said”, which he authored in 1831.
His autobiography shed light on his life in Futa Turo before his enslavement, as well as his new life in America. Over the years, his writings have been studied by many others. A common perception of his writings was that he wrote for two groups: the white community and his people. For example, some sections of his book speak positively of slavery. However, in another part, he recognizes “Allah as the sovereign ruler of all people.”
Omar’s writings were curated by a man named Theodore Dwight, who was an abolitionist. There were two main things that made Omar’s autobiography stand out. Aside from being the only slave with an autobiography written in Arabic, his book was also the first to not have been edited by a white owner, as had been the case with other slaves who had written about their experiences. Also, perhaps most importantly, it showed that many of the African slaves were in fact highly educated, scholars in their own right, and already practiced various religions.
Omar’s works never supported slavery
On the surface, it might appear as if Omar’s writings are in support of slavery. However, that could not be farther from the truth. One must take into the consideration the times Omar lived in. Even though his owners, the Owens, were kind to him, he was still seen as a property.
In order not to appear as if he was criticizing the institution of slavery, Omar delicately hid his true opinion on slavery in his text. For example, in one of his writings, he opens with a chapter from the Qur’an, which says that only God has sovereignty over human beings. Clearly, that could not be a view held by someone who supports slavery.
Omar ibn Said’s influence in contemporary times
Omar died in 1864 while still enslaved. He spent 50 years in the United States but missed his chance to taste freedom. One year after his death, the United States finally abolished slavery with the passage of the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865. Omar was buried in Bladen County, North Carolina. Despite never having lived as a free man, his story continued to have a tremendous impact, as well as serve as a source of inspiration for many people in the United States.
In 1991, a mosque in Fayetteville was renamed Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid after the enslaved scholar to celebrate his life as a Muslim slave.
Many of Omar’s writings can be found in several colleges and libraries across the United States, including the Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His letter to John Owen resides at the Andover Theological Seminary.
In 2022, two musicians, Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels, wrote the opera “Omar”, inspired by the life of the scholar. The opera made its debut at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
Other interesting facts
In Omar’s own words, he stated that he hailed from the Fula ethnic group of West Africa. The population of the group is estimated at around 45 million people today. Spread across West Africa, the group predominantly lives in countries such as Senegal, the Gambia, and Nigeria.
Below are some other interesting facts about this West African scholar:
- Omar describes his birthplace, Futa Toro in present day Senegal, as “between the two rivers”. He was undoubtedly speaking of the rivers – the 700-mile (1120 km) Gambia River and the 675-mile (1086 km) Senegal River – that separate Senegal and Gambia.
- He had his formative education in Bundu, which is in present-day Senegal.
- In his autobiography, he states that his captors in West Africa took him “to the big Ship in the big Sea”. He was referring to the slave ship that transported him from the West African coast across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.
- It’s said that he was around 37 years old when he was sold into slavery. He would then go on to spend the rest of his life as a slave in the U.S., living to the ripe age of 93 or 94.
- His second owner, Jim Own, was the brother of John Owen, who was the then-Governor of North Carolina. Omar was full of praise of the Owens, stating that they treated him way better than his first owner. He called them “good men” who gave him the Bible.
- His 14 manuscripts covers a host of things, ranging from history to theology.
- The reason why his autobiography is seen as very authentic is because it was not edited.
- With the help of Francis Scott Key – author of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” – he received an Arabic translation of the Bible.
- There are some who say that Omar was given a number of opportunities to return to West Africa; however, he declined, stating that he was unsure whether his family were still there.
- He died in 1864 and was buried in Bladen County, North Carolina.
- In the Owens household, he went by nicknames such as “Uncle Moreau” or “Prince Omeroh”.