First-of-its-Kind Memoir of Omar ibn Said Narrates an American Muslim Slave Story

Published January 21st, 2019 - 12:09 GMT
((Left)One of Omar ibn Said's memoir acquired by the Library of Congress/(Right) Formal portrait of Omar ibn Said (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/))
((Left)One of Omar ibn Said's memoir acquired by the Library of Congress/(Right) Formal portrait of Omar ibn Said (http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/))

A very rare and unique memoir of a noted African-American collector was acquired by the Library of Congress last week and posted online.

According to Mary-Jane Deeb, the Chief of the Congress library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, the library bought the collection in summer 2017 from Sotheby’s in London.

Written in Arabic and narrating details in the daily life of an enslaved Muslim abducted from Africa and taken to the US, the 28-page script is written on paper in iron gall ink with a brown paper cover.

It narrates real incidents took place in the life Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar in West Africa.

Ibn Said narrated incidents between the period between 1807 and 1831 when the army of a “wicked man” invaded his village Fut Tur, in modern-day Senegal, murdered many and abducted him along with others and shipped them for a six-week journey to Charleston, South Carolina.

The unique memoir tells ibn Said’s story after arrival in Charleston where he was sold to “a small, weak and wicked man called Johnson, a complete infidel who had no fear of God at all”.

The memoir was considered unique and first-of-its-kind for being the only autobiography of a Muslim American slave in that period of time.

Another reason adding to its importance is that ibn Said, or as he was called “Morro” or “Uncle Moreau”, was writing his memoir in Arabic in a time when owners used to edit their slaves’ diaries that are written in English, which gives it a credit of authenticity. It also show the high level of education that was reached in Africa at that time, contradicting prior assumptions of African life and culture at that time.

In the document, ibn Said writes several chapters of Quran. It opens with Surah 67 that states God is dominant over all things. He also writes Quran verses warning of God’s fiery punishments

Deeb, the Chief of the Congress library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, said: “Of all the chapters in the Koran, he picked that one… In Islam, everything belongs to God. No one really is an owner”.

Later on in time, historical texts indicated ibn Said converted to Christianity in 1820. He also referred to Jesus as the messiah in his memoir, however, Jesus was referred to as the messiah in Quran as well which raised questions whether his conversion was authentic or was his way to impress his owners in order to acquire his freedom.


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