Omar Ibn Said: A Muslim American Slave

Among the millions of slaves brought to North America through the transatlantic slave trade, several million were Muslims. Some of these people were literate and left behind manuscripts that attest to their experience of slavery, their continued commitment to Islam, and their ability to negotiate a space to express their identities. In the next Inside Islam radio show on November 7th, Jean will talk with Ala Alryyes, the author of the book  A Muslim American Slave: The Arabic ‘Life’ of Omar Ibn Said. In his work, Alryyes examines Omar Ibn Said‘s autobiography, which he maintains is “the only extant Arabic autobiography written by a slave in the United States.”

What makes Omar’s work particularly interesting is the many stories told about him that were all that was known about him until the Arabic text was translated. According to these stories, Omar was a model slave who had accepted enslavement and who had even abandoned Islam in favor of Christianity. It was documented that he was given a Bible in Arabic and attended church. However, this new translation makes it clear that Omar did not abandon Islam; rather, he incorporated aspects of Christianity that did not contradict his Islamic worldview.

Omar begins his story by writing out almost in its entirety Surat Al-Mulk, the 67th chapter of the Qur’an, that explicitly describes God’s absolute dominion over all things. He also includes Surat Al-Fatiha, the opening chapter of the Qur’an. Moreover, whenever Omar makes reference to the Prophet Muhammad, he would write immediately after the name “Peace be upon him,” a standard practice of Muslims. All these aspects of his text suggest that he continued to maintain a connection to his faith, even if he was not permitted to practice it openly. He does, though, include references to Christianity, but in every instance, these references are juxtaposed with Islamic references indicating a process of negotiation rather than conversion.

Of course, there are well known examples of slave narratives, like those of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Brent Jacob, and Olaudah Equiano written in English, but what makes Omar’s narrative unique is that he was encouraged to write it and that he wrote in a language most people could not read. In the upcoming show, the focus will be literacy and its role in resistance and what does Omar’s text tell us about that. Make sure to tune in to a live webstream of the show or listen on air.

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2 thoughts on “Omar Ibn Said: A Muslim American Slave

  1. Sulaiman, you can find the recording and other Inside Islam radio shows on our Chronological Listings page. Scroll down to “A Muslim American Slave: The Life of Omar Ibn Said” to listen to Jean’s interview with author Ala Alryyes.