The Incredible Story of Omar ibn Said: Celebrate A Black Muslim Scholar’s Written Legacy This Juneteenth

The Incredible Story of Omar ibn Said: Celebrate A Black Muslim Scholar’s Written Legacy This Juneteenth

Omar ibn Said was a remarkable man. He was a Muslim scholar kidnapped from his home in Africa and sold into slavery who wrote an autobiography in Arabic, putting into record his own story. His manuscript is the most complete surviving manuscript of an enslaved person’s story in Arabic and one of the earliest examples of Black Muslim American authorship.

Born in 1770 in Futa Toro, Senegal, Omar ibn Said was raised in a wealthy family, was well-educated and had studied the Quran intensively. He was taken from his home country in a war at the age of 37 in 1807, and survived the perilous Middle Passage to North Carolina. In 1831, ibn Said wrote his story.

Ala Alryyes, a professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York, translated ibn Said’s “The Life of Omar ibn Said” in his book “A Muslim American Slave: The Arabic Life of Omar ibn Said.” Notably, ibn Said wrote in formal Arabic in the Maghribi West African script — a language his enslavers could not read. Other narratives written by enslaved people were often subject to scrutiny from enslavers, and were likely impacted by this dynamic, but ibn Said’s story may have been closer to reality because it remained out of the reach of his oppressors. ibn Said was a prolific writer and his work was of great interest to people who had no former experience with Arabic, leading to several articles about him in the press.

The autobiography itself is short. It begins with Surat al-Mulk (“Sovereignty”) from the Quran, which proclaims Allah as the one who has power over everything. This can be read as a challenge to ibn Said’s enslavers’ concept of owning people. The first translation of ibn Said’s manuscript was published in 1925 by J. Franklin Jameson, the founder of the American Historical Association. As Alryyes notes in his book, the self-written narratives by enslaved people were mediated by mostly white owners and abolitionists with agendas of their own, who had the actual means of circulating the stories in the antebellum era. ibn Said’s work, however, was unique in that it was written in Arabic, which allowed it to stand on its own with little interference even in translation from those who published his work.

Alryyes also consulted in the writing of the new Pulitzer Prize-winning opera based on Omar ibn Said’s life story, “Omar.” The opera was written and composed by Rhiannon Giddens, and debuted at the Spoleto Festival USA on May 27, 2022, down the road from where ibn Said was sold into slavery. Giddens noted the uniqueness of ibn Said’s story in an interview with NPR, saying, “Somebody or an event that’s from my home state that’s massive, such a huge story. And I’ve never heard this story, having lived the majority of my life in North Carolina.”

A significant number of Muslims were brought from West Africa into slavery in the U.S., but their narratives are not often spotlighted. With “Omar,” however — made possible by ibn Said’s own storytelling — this may change. The opera has been staged at several other venues across the U.S., including in Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.

ibn Said spent 50 years of his life on a plantation, and died in 1863 at the age of 93, in the middle of the Civil War. He was buried in an unmarked grave on one of his enslaver’s plantations. This location of his life and death is now marked by the Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid in Fayetteville, North Carolina.


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