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The Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, A Muslim Slave

In 1807, Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar, was stolen from Senegal & sold into slavery in America. He left behind an autobiography written in Arabic. To mark the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade & its Abolition, here is the remarkable story of Omar…

Written in Arabic and recently acquired by the ‪Library of Congress, "The Life of Omar Ibn Said” is not only a rare handwritten personal story of an American slave, but it's also one of the first intimate accounts of the early history of Muslims in the United States.

Omar wrote his brief autobiography, 190 years ago, & it spent much of the last century forgotten in an old trunk in Virginia. When he wrote it, Omar was 61 and more than two decades into a long enslavement in America, first in Charleston and then North Carolina.

Omar ibn Said was born to a wealthy family in the Imamate of Futa Toro, located along the Middle Senegal River in West Africa. He was an Islamic scholar & a Fula who spent 25 years of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars, learning mathematics, astronomy & business.

Omar was enslaved & taken to Charleston South Carolina. In his autobiography, the description of his capture by "a large army who killed many men" & his crossing of "the great sea" for a month & a half testifies to the violence of the slave trade & terrors of the middle passage.

Omar was among the approximately one-third of American slaves who were Muslim. While the exact number of enslaved Muslims is unknown, up to 40 percent of those who were captured and enslaved came from predominantly Muslim parts of West Africa.

Scholars estimate that the slave ship that brought Omar to South Carolina landed in 1807. The next year, the United States abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade making it illegal to bring new enslaved people to the United States (though the illegal slave trade continued).

Not long after his arrival to Charleston, Omar was sold to a cruel local and intensely violent slaveholder, he escaped and made his way to Fayetteville, North Carolina.

As a runaway, Omar sought a place of worship, & found a church & began praying. When discovered, authorities took Omar into custody. He gained notoriety for writing on the walls of his jail cell in Arabic, challenging beliefs that enslaved Africans were illiterate.

Omar was eventually purchased by a prominent man in the area, General James Owen. Knowing of Omar’s Islamic faith and Arabic literacy, Owen provided him with an Arabic copy of the Bible. Said attended the local Presbyterian Church and was baptized as a Christian in 1821.

Omar's later apparent conversion to Christianity rendered him a celebrity of sorts. Many around Omar commented on his full conversion & his solid Christian faith. However, inside of his Bible, Omar inscribed in Arabic, “Praise be to Allah, or God” & “All good is from Allah.”