Omar Ibn Said

Omar ibn Said, also known as Umar ibn Said, was a West African Muslim scholar who was enslaved and brought to the United States in the early 19th century. He is known for his remarkable autobiography, written in Arabic, which provides insight into his life as an enslaved person and offers a unique perspective on the experiences of African Muslims during that time.

Omar ibn Said was born in 1770 in the Futa Tooro region of present-day Senegal. He was educated in Islamic scholarship and was well-versed in Arabic, Quranic studies, and various Islamic sciences. In 1807, he was captured during a military conflict and sold into slavery. He was eventually transported to the United States and ended up in North Carolina, where he was owned by several different slaveholders.

A handwritten chapter from the Qur’an. ‘Surat al-Nasr.’ Omar Ibn Said. ca. 1820s.

Despite his enslavement, Omar ibn Said managed to maintain his faith and continue his intellectual pursuits. In 1831, he wrote his autobiography, known as the “Omar ibn Said Narrative” or the “Autobiography of Omar ibn Said.” It is one of the very few surviving Arabic manuscripts written by an enslaved African in the United States. The autobiography of Omar ibn Said provides insights into his life before and after enslavement. He reflects on his education, his knowledge of Arabic literature and Islamic teachings, and his experiences as an enslaved person. The manuscript contains religious texts, Arabic calligraphy, and personal reflections on his faith.

Historic marker for Omar Ibn Said outside of the mosque named after him, photograph by Gerry Dincher, Fayetteville, North Carolina, April 2018. The historic marker is placed outside of the mosque of a predominately African American Muslim congregation that named their mosque after Said.

The narrative gained attention in the United States and Europe during the 19th century as a curiosity, attracting interest from scholars, theologians, and intellectuals. It was often cited as evidence of the intellectual capabilities of African Muslims and the potential for their conversion to Christianity.

Omar ibn Said lived out the remainder of his life in North Carolina, continuing to write and study. He passed away in 1864. The autobiography of Omar ibn Said is an important historical document that sheds light on the experiences of African Muslims in America and challenges the prevailing narratives of the time. It serves as a testament to the resilience and intellectual achievements of individuals who were forced into bondage but managed to retain their cultural and religious identities.

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