From Margin to Center: Omar Ibn Said, A Short Biography

As much as the stories of Black peoples are already marginalized, there are stories within the canon which are almost completely unknown but are now coming up to the surface – like that of Omar Ibn Said, an African Muslim scholar who was enslaved in the United States in the 1800s. His manuscripts have been the inspiration for multiple artworks of mine since over a decade ago. After nearly 200 years, his autobiography was translated into English and published in 2011 and his story  is now the focus of a new traveling opera called Omar. In this blog post I will share some highlights of his biography and why I want him to be known as an important figure in American history and black history in particular. 

Portrait of Omar ibn Said African Muslim scholar who was enslaved in America and wrote the only existing Arabic slave narrative. This photo was taken circa 1850
Portrait of Omar ibn Said African Muslim scholar who was enslaved in America and wrote the only existing and unadulterated American slave narrative written in Arabic. This photo was taken circa 1850.

I first learned about Omar Said in the late 90’s when I read the books African Muslims in Antebellum America by Allan D. Austin and Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas by Sylviane Diouf. My parents loved to go to lectures at various universities in New York City and it became an intellectual past-time of mine as well. When Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust came out in 1991 I was peaked to the idea that there were Black Muslims who carried thereligious and cultural tradtions of Africa to the United States through the bondage of slavery – Omar Ibn Said was one of them. His autobiography is in fact the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic. Reading it gives us a window into the rich educational tradition that raised him and the Islamic spiritual beliefs and practices of West Africa at that time.

Not only is Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic, it is also the only American slave narative that was written – openly – by an African while he was still enslaved in America. In his autobiography Omar Ibn Said shares with us that he was born around 1770 in Futa Toro on the Senegal River to a wealthy family and educated in the Quran and other religious sciences, he married, had children and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca prior to being abducted and sold into slavery in America when he was about 40 years old. 

Muslim slave & scholar. African-born, Omar ibn Said penned autobiography in Arabic, 1831. Lived in Bladen County and worshipped with local Presbyterians. This historical marker is in North Carolina

Once in America, he came to the attention of a prominent North Carolina family after filling the walls of his room with prayers petitioning for his release from bondage written in Arabic. His writing made him a local celebrity, and in 1831 he was asked to write his life story. Unlike any other American slave narrative – because his is written in Arabic, it could not be edited, censored and rearranged by white slave masters or abolitionists who regularly altered the writings of Black Americans to fit their specific agendas. In his autobiography, Omar gives us insight into the rich educational and Islamic religious culture of his native West African country, the political situation in West Africa which led to his enslavement, and his reverence for, and understanding of Islam.  

It is clear that Omar knew that the American people and Europeans were grossly ignorant about Africa and Africans and that none of his readers had heard about the type of learning he had been pursuing or about the scholars who had taught him in Africa. In A Muslim American Slave, scholar and translator Ala Alryyes offers both a definitive translation and an authoritative edition of this singularly important autobiographical work.  Omar Ibn Said’s writing gives us new insights into the early history of Islam in America. In his commentary, Alryyes explores the multiple, shifting interpretations of Ibn Said’s narrative by the nineteenth-century missionaries, ethnographers, and intellectuals who championed it.

Nsenga Knight 2010, This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word For It, 2 30 x 20 inch Screenprints on Paper, Detail (Installed at Project Rowhouses), this detail appropriates writing from one of Omar Ibn Said’s manuscripts

Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography sat in North Carolina archives for centuries as objects that could be looked at but which were not understood. Looking and seeing are different. We must understand that, as much as a particular item of our history may be weighty in its importance, it has to be valued to be seen as such. Because Americans have been so invested in putting forth specific narratives about Africans and Muslim people – investing via translation, in the amplication of a voice that doesn’t fit neatly into the popular narratives of who African and Muslim people are was simply not a priority.

Omar Ibn Said has a complicated identity which doesn’t fit neatly into the popular narratives of who African and Muslim people are. There’s a tendency to reduce or even erase the Blackness of African people when they are also Muslim. For example, with Omar Ibn Said, he is sometimes referred to as an Arab. Though Blackness and Arab-ness are not exclusive to one another, Omar Ibn Said was not Arab. As with Ibrahim Ibn Sori – the African Muslim prince who was enslaved in the US, he starts to be referred to as a “Moor”. Even the title of Alrryyes’ book refers to Omar Ibn Said as Muslim, American, and as a “slave” – there is no mention of his African-ness and his Blackness. Nonetheless, these categorizations and omissions do not make Omar any less Black and African. In fact, Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography is a window into Africa, Black and Islamic tradition from one of the most authentic and informative perspectives which is rarely reflected in American slave narratives. 

For me, as a Black and Muslim American international artist, I often get frustrated by the lack of knowledge that arts leaders have about Islam and Black Muslims in particular. Islam is not new to America, and it is certainly not new to Black people. In fact, nearly half of Africa is Muslim. Omar Ibn Said represents the approximately 30% of Africans enslaved in America who practiced the religion of Islam. As with many others, like more contemporary figures who include Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, for Black people, Islam has been a means for connecting us in more meaningful ways to the international human family. Black Muslims like Omar Ibn Said form a bridge to understanding Africa, Islam and important aspects of Black and American history which have been ignored for too long.

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