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Omar ibn Said, African Muslim Enslaved in the Carolinas

In July 1825, a Philadelphia journal, The Christian Advocate, published a short biographical sketch of “Prince Moro” by an unnamed “physician at Fayetteville, in North Carolina.” The piece describes a remarkable runaway slave who, after being captured and jailed in Fayetteville, “wrote in a masterly hand, writing from right to left, in what was to [local observers] an unknown language.” The unknown language was Arabic, and the remarkable runaway was Omar ibn Said, an African Muslim who had studied arithmetic, business, and theology before he was enslaved, shipped across the Atlantic, and sold in Charleston, South Carolina, at age 37. In 1831 Said composed his

autobiography (in Arabic); the manuscript was later translated and published in the American Historical Review. In July 2013, 1182 years after he first recorded his story, Documenting the American South commemorates the life of Omar ibn Said (and other enslaved African Muslims), highlighting several items from our digital collection of North American Slave Narratives. Omar ibn Said (also referred to as Omeroh, Umeroh, Moro, Morro, Meroh, Moreau, and Monroe) was born around 1770 in an African region then called Futa Toro, near the Senegal River, which now forms Senegal’s northern border with Mauritania. After he was enslaved and sold to a South Carolina planter, Said escaped and made his way to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was imprisoned after entering a Christian church to pray. Said garnered attention by writing on the walls of his prison cell in Arabic, and he soon became the legal property of General James Owen of Bladen County, who recognized Said to be an educated man and, according to Said’s autobiography, treated him well. One of the tantalizing mysteries surrounding Said involves his religious faith, or faiths. The anonymous author of The Christian Advocate article proclaims Said’s conversion from “the Mahomedan religion” to Christianity, noting that after receiving an Arabic translation of the Bible, he “now reads the scriptures in his native language, and blesses Him who causes good to come out of evil by making him a slave.” Said’s own language, however, reflects more ambiguity about his religious beliefs than do the accounts of his Christian admirers and advocates. He never explicitly rejects Islam, the religion of his upbringing, or professes faith in a Christian God; rather, Said focuses on the linguistic differences

between his old and new prayers. “When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus . . . But now I pray ‘Our Father,’ etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah,” Said writes (p. 794). In any case, Said’s (apparent) conversion to Christianity rendered him a celebrity of sorts, and his story—with an emphasis on his conversion—was recounted in several magazines and historical pamphlets. In 1836 Said moved with the Owen family to Wilmington, North Carolina, and again to a farm on the Cape Fear River during the Civil War. He is believed to have died at the age of 94 (circa 1864), but the exact circumstances of his death are unclear. Two surviving artifacts of Said’s Arabic writing provide insights into the complicated interplay between Christianity and Islam during his life as an American slave. The first is a transcription of the 23rd Psalm, which Said recorded in Arabic and which was later translated back into English by Professor R.D. Wilson of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The re-translation reveals that the psalm is prefaced with the statement, “In the name of God, the merciful and gracious. May God have mercy on the prophet Mohammed.” In this document, Said had appended a traditional Muslim invocation to a holy text of the Judeo-Christian tradition—in a language which his master(s) could not understand. The second artifact is a card bearing Said’s Arabic script. Inscribed on the back is the following explanation in English: “The Lord’s Prayer written in Arabic by Uncle Moreau (Omar) a native African, now owned by General Owen of Wilmington, N.C. He is 88 years of age & a devoted Christian.” The Arabic text, however, is not the Lord’s Prayer, but
actually Surat 110 from the Koran (entitled “The Help”), predicting a mass conversion of unbelievers to Islam in which men will “[enter] the religion of Allah in companies.” It is unclear how the writer of the English inscription—a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina—came to believe that this Arabic script represented the Christian “Lord’s Prayer,” but this mistranslation of Said’s words should serve as a caveat to his statement in the Autobiography that “now I pray ‘Our Father,’ etc” (p. 794). Like that of other Africans who were enslaved and brought to America—including Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, Hyuba Jallo, and Nicholas Said—Omar ibn Said’s situation was fraught with complexity. He was both African and American, a non-native English speaker, a Muslim surrounded by Christians, a slave in the “land of the free.” In order to please a master who was both generous and persuasive, he may have made certain concessions, representing his life and his beliefs in ways he knew would be well-received. The contradictory accounts of Said’s conversion to Christianity reflect an identity that was always in danger of appropriation by dubious friends and that may forever be lost in translation. Patrick E. Horn

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