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Rare autobiography of Muslim slave goes online via Library of Congress

The title page of Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography, left, translated into English in 1848 by Alexander J. Cotheal, treasurer of the American Ethnological Society, after conservation treatment. A restored, colorized portrait of Omar Ibn Said, right, around the 1850s. Book photo by Shawn Miller/LOC; portrait courtesy of Yale University Library

(RNS) — The only known existing autobiography of a slave written in Arabic in America is now freely available to the public online, thanks to the Library of Congress.

Omar ibn Said, born in about 1770 in modern Senegal, was captured at age 37 and taken to Charleston, S.C., to be sold. In 1810, he ran away and was captured again, as he had stopped to pray, in Fayetteville, N.C. There, he was bought by James Owen and remained enslaved until his death in 1864. Like an estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans taken to the Americas, Said was Muslim. He was also a wealthy and highly educated Islamic scholar who studied under his brother and other Muslim religious leaders.

The Library of Congress acquired Said’s 15-page autobiography, written in 1831, from British auction house Sotheby’s in June 2017. The digitized version was published this week on the library’s website and facsimiles have been made available for public viewing in Washington, D.C.

Michelle Smith from the Conservation Division disbinds the autobiographical manuscript “The Life of Omar ibn Said” in preparation for further preservation treatment on June 15, 2018. Said was abducted from Senegal in 1807, sold into slavery in South Carolina, and after escape and recapture in North Carolina, became famous for his pleas for release written in Arabic. Photo by Shawn Miller/LOC

“This autobiography creates a completely different picture of who the people brought as slaves to America were,” Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division at the Library of Congress, told Religion News Service. “It shows that many of them were monotheists who followed an Abrahamic faith, and that some were very highly educated. So our concept of who was a slave is turned upside down.”

Including the Arabic manuscript of “The Life of Omar Ibn Said,” the Omar Ibn Said Collection includes 42 original documents in both English and Arabic, along with Arabic texts written by another West African slave in Panama. The collection was put together in the 1860s by abolitionist Theodore Dwight, who was a founding member of the American Ethnological Society and wanted to educate Americans about Muslim and West African cultures. Since then, the documents have been passed through the hands of several private collectors before reaching the Library of Congress and entering the public domain.

“The Life of Omar Ibn Said” is particularly valuable to researchers because it is written in Arabic, the only known narrative in that language written during enslavement.

When an enslaved person wrote in English, the credibility may be different,” Deeb explained. “Someone could be looking over their shoulder, editing, dictating or punishing them for writing something negative. But when they are writing in Arabic, it is more authentic. It is a truer voice.”

Though Said outwardly converted to Christianity in 1821, scholars say he likely remained Muslim: He included Islamic prayers and texts in his writings, and his autobiography begins with Quranic passages.

Said’s last known Arabic manuscript, titled “The Lord’s Prayer,” actually paraphrased a chapter of the Quran that speaks of Islam’s ultimate victory, according to Richard Brent Turner’s book “Islam in the African-American Experience.” Turner, who called Said the “most famous African Muslim slave in the antebellum period,” also noted that Said’s case shows how sophisticated African Muslim slaves manipulated their paths through slavery through an “inner jihad or the struggle within himself to maintain his faith in an alien environment.”

On Feb. 5, the Library of Congress will host a public program for African American History Month featuring scholars focused on the diaries of Said and other enslaved people.

Deeb noted that there may be other Arabic manuscripts that researchers have not yet uncovered. “I would urge people to look in their attics and see if their grandparents left something in there,” she said. “If you see something in a squiggly writing, don’t throw it away. It could be very precious.”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

81 Comments

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  • Fascinating!!! It is a shame that the policy of the Southern states was to keep their slaves illiterate as much as possible. It would be very valuable to have a more substantial body of black writing from 1650 on.

  • Some of the Deep South states still have lousy education systems. For instance, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi rank very near the bottom in the percentage of people who hold high school diplomas, bachelor, and advanced degrees. Certainly, African-Americans aren’t the only residents of those states to suffer from poor support for educational achievement.

  • From the Autobiography of Omar ibn Said (source):

    “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 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.”

  • The policy came into place AFTER the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831.

    Despite that a substantial number of slaves were literate, including tradesmen who lived independently and were “tithed” by their owners.

  • States with low per capita incomes rank lower educationally than those higher. It has nothing to do with location.

  • Exactly. The “poor support for educational achievement” is reflected in inadequate school funding. There are some school districts in my state – Oklahoma – which have only enough money to stay open four days a week.

  • Lower income rates and lower education have a lot to do with each other. Further, Southern culture never put the premium on education that the North with its northern European immigrants did.

  • “… Southern culture never put the premium on education that the North with its northern European immigrants did.”

    On a per capita basis, the southern United States founded as many or more college or universities in the antebellum era than the northern US.

  • “It shows that many of them were monotheists who followed an Abrahamic faith,” from the article,I would say he never became a Christian. Christians do not worship the islamic idol

  • for the elite . not for the masses . some are playing catch up, but many deny there is a problem educating the general population .

  • but the monotheist muslims look back to abraham as a prophet and a father of their faith .

    and the muslims have no idols . they worship the god that abraham did, that jesus pointed to throughout his ministry . their difference is that they accept jesus as but a prophet but not as the son of god as we christians do .

  • they are general public schools that had to cut schedules after governor sam brownback’s tax cut didn’t pay for itself . the state legislature had to cut most everything including k-12 . many districts ended up with 4 day school weeks .

  • The idea of “Africans” as a singular group is a European colonialist idea. People generally didn’t enslave their own population (tribes, nations, ethnicity) but neighbors or rivals.

  • African scholars shanghaied by American predators and sold into slavery – a tragic indictment on Christian ethics. Islamophobe this is your Cross to bear !

  • You need to bone up on your history.

    They were shanghaied by fellow African Muslims, sold to primarily British slavers, and then transported to America for sale.

    Slavery is still practiced in parts of the Islamic world.

  • no, they do not worship the God that Abraham did.
    Their “god” (idol) wants Christians and Jews killed. Christ would not desire that for His people.

    But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Romans 9: 6
    “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” 1 John 2:22 – English Standard Version

  • we can go around on this time and time again but you are wrong .

    muslims and their faith of islam worships the god that they knew and we know through abraham .

    and islam does not call for jews or christians to be killed .

    it does allow for self defense should anyone attack them .

  • nope, and we will gothrough it again

    no, they do not worship the God that Abraham did.

    Their “god” (idol) wants Christians and Jews killed. Christ would not desire that for His people.

    But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” Romans 9: 6

    “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” 1 John 2:22 – English Standard Version

  • Thanks you so much for whitesplaining to me what you learned last fall in your first year of college.

  • That was silly. How could the guy have felt betrayed by his fellow Africans if he most likey didn’t even consider his enslavers fellows?

    You framed the question in an anachronistic fashion.

  • Nope. Quite the opposite. I was thinking you were being overly bleeding heart college student type here.

  • you can repeat “Their ‘god’ (idol)” all you want . it just displays again your lack of knowledge .

    when the jewish and christian scriptures are translated into arabic, what is translated as god in english is translated as allah in arabic . because allah represents to those who read arabic the same god that we think of in our english . the islamic god is not an idol . the qur’an completely identifies the god they worship–allah–as the god that abraham worshiped .

    that is the way it is . live with it .

    “…wants Christians and Jews killed.” there are not any texts from the qur’an or later writings that say that unless you rip verses out of their context and force meaning on them that they don’t say .

  • slavery is still practiced in all parts of the world, including areas allegedly christian . you have heard of the recent problem with women held in america against their wills ?

  • “Christians do not worship the islamic idol.”

    muslims do not worship any idol . no monotheist does .

  • “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.” 1 John 2:22 – English Standard Version
    That displays God’s wisdom. Islam follows an idol

  • your comment displays that you still rip verses from the bible and try to paste them on subjects that the author of the verse did not talk about .

  • write of the context in which paul in romans was speaking and john in 1john and show that you do . spell out for us the whole chapter in which the verses you ripped from the bible make sense .

  • i asked for knowledge, Sandi . you evaded .

    again : what is the context in which paul in romans was speaking and then john in 1john was speaking ? how does that relate to the context of whether or not the muslims worship the god of abraham ?

  • but not even google can tell me what you think . why do you think that you can rip off a verse from one place in the bible, and use it to make your point about another issue entirely ?

  • here your are simply repeating your non answers .

    what is the context of your quotes ? what is all there ? yes, my friend, you take quotes out of context and apply to things that are quite different .

    and your refusal to give your analysis or reason for doing that suggests that you can’t explain .

  • the christ is held by most followers as part of the trinity, that is to say, one of the three persons or expressions, of the christian god .

    you do believe in the trinity don’t you ?

    now of course muslims, nor mohammed, believe in the trinity . that is one of the main differences between muslims (and jews) and christianity .

    but they do believe in the god of abraham . they believe in the god who spoke to hagar in genesis . that god surely is not an idol to you, is god ?

  • You mean you made a comment that you cannot substantiate it? I directed you to where my comment could be substantiated.

  • simply repeating where you can find the substantiation. Don’t be so silly as to trying to find fault without learning the truth yourself

  • yes they do not accept the christiand development of doctrine that insists that jesus is the second person of the trinity . that has nothing to do with the muslims worshiping the god of abraham .

    abraham had not knowledge of a trinity either .

  • sandi, stop playing games .

    you are the one using the quotes . you are the one who must substantiate .

  • honey, I know you are enamoured with me this afternoon, as you have chased me around. Do as I suggested, and you will learn,

  • They do not believe that God has a Son. Christ is the God of Abraham
    If you are going to follow me around trying to refute me, I suggest you do your research

  • Yet, I told you where to go to get the answers. You just follow me around making childish statements with no substantiation

  • what i want to learn is what you think .

    your use of quotes needs explaining . that is not online .

    you can explain yourself, can’t you ?

  • I told you how to find out what I think.
    From the amount of times I have needed to tell you, I’m beginning to suspect you may not understand anyway.

  • you told me to google . everything on google is what you think?

    i think you told me to get lost : go google . and you did that because you can’t or are afraid of trying to explain why you use the verses from the bible as you do . why you use them out of context about things they were never written about .

  • it is reasonable to ask people to explain why they do things or how they interpret things . you did not tell me where to get answers . you told me to google . that is to say where to get a zillion contradictory views and interpretations .

    no one thing that would explain what you are doing with the bible .

  • christ is the son of the god of abraham .

    we could both do more research . i will enjoy it . you just seem to tell others to do it .

  • Christ is the Son of God – and He is God.
    They deny that and try to make Him a Prophet
    I still suggest you do some research

  • nothing you say there is news to me or any christian .

    but the question is not if islam measures up to what we believe or think . the question is what do the muslims believe and think .

    and they believe in the god of abraham who they call, in their language, allah .

  • google also could be your friend to use the word “cult” correctly . your current use only suggests that you find it useful word to slur a religion that you do not understand or like .

  • besides, whether or not islam lives up to what christ taught and died for has nothing to do with the fact that islam worships the god of abraham and jesus .

  • Again, they don’t. Christ would not want His people killed because they didn’t worship the Islamic idol

  • i would be surprised if you didn’t use the same criteria to condemn other christians who, in your mind, do not live up to what “Christ taught and died for” .

  • so you say . and it shows that you have no handle on what the two words mean . only that you have a strong and opinionated reaction to islam .

  • again all you do is use the same idle (pun intended) words to express what you don’t understand .

    1) there is no idol . only the god of abraham .

    2) islam is not threatening the christians generally . the verses you used (again out of context) talk about christians and jews who were joining with the “pagans” of arabia and threatening the new islamic community . self defense was allowed .

    3) the qur’an speaks highly of “people of the book” which refers to christians and jews that believe in the bible and live by it .

    4) an explicit example of this is the letter that muhammad wrote for the monks of the eastern orthodox monastery of st catherine monastery (present on mount sinai since the mid 500s a.d.) . muhammad guarantees that safety and the rights of christians . read it on wikipedia : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashtiname_of_Muhammad .

    p.s. see how even if you will not educate yourself, i will actually give you a precise reference for information . something you have never had the kindness to do .

  • No, It is not the god of abraham.
    Christ would not have His followers killed for not following a cult
    No – Christians and Jews are just that – whether in arabia or not
    “people of the book” and Islam wants them dead
    the safety of Christians if they pay a sum of money – not exactly protection
    Learn your stuff, more

  • one can’t prove nonsense statements wrong . one can only point out the truth .

    and you won’t read that or try to understand it . you just repeat the nonsense .

  • muslims pay a tax .

    christians and jews pay a tax . they have different names . the tax does the same thing as modern taxes . it pays the government bills .

    as far the rest of your comment, you only repeat the nonsense you have stated from the first . i keep urgingyou to read the whole context of the qur’an quotes that you use to see that they are talking about a particular situation . they are not a general threat to christians or jews .

    but you won’t do that .

  • Christians pay a protection tax. Learn your stuff more
    I suppose it would be nonsense from someone who isn’t educated on the matter.

  • Of course you cannot. You don’t know the truth. You just erroneously keep repeating that I am wrong with no substantiation (edited)

  • Sandi you sound like pilate right now . he claims not to know it . you refusing to believe in any truth but your own .

    you refuse to accept the muslim’s faith even when they parallel yours as in the worship of the god of abraham .

    your refuse to respect a people and their faith because it differs from yours : they look to mecca and you to, i assume, jerusalem .

    you belittle and deny their truth because it isn’t yours .

    you don’t have to embrace theirs . i embrace the christian vision of reality .

    but no one has to trash others as you do the muslim .

  • it is nonsense for anyone who has read on the subject .

    you say it is a protection tax . please substantiate .

  • in the history of islam there is no tradition of killing jews or christians just because they are jews or christians .

    there are extremists, as isis, that do . but that is another discussion altogether–as the religious wars of europe would be .

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