Sometimes historical scholarship tells us more about the present than about the past.
In June 2005, an exhibit of Omar ibn Said’s The Life, the only known autobiography written by an American black while in bondage, was on display in the lobby of the U.N. headquarters. What made it even more significant was that The Life was written in Arabic and included chapters of the Koran. The United Nations displayed the slave narrative—an unusual and noteworthy find, to be sure—not as an historical curiosity but as evidence that the “roots of Islam in America” run deep and that “Islam has created a major, positive impact in the United States.”
The discovery of The Life has been described as the “tip of the democratic iceberg.” Some scholars assert, for instance, that possibly 30 percent of all slaves were Muslims—although there is actual evidence for only a couple hundred. Others offer a more modest claim of ten percent. And the vast majority of this percentage, these scholars claim, were probably like Said: religiously devout, yet educated and broad-minded. He steadfastly adhered to Islam, the story goes, “throughout his long years, along with an openness towards other ‘God fearing’ people.”
Much about Said’s life is left unsaid, however—probably because it complicates the simple and anachronistic presentation of a modern-day multiculturalism in the antebellum South.
Born in Futa Toro, a Fula state in what is now Senegal, Said had a privileged childhood. Although some speculate he was of royal pedigree, one thing is sure: Said was born into a wealthy family. The son of a slaveowner, who had approximately 70 slaves (according to Northern missionary reports), Said rarely performed manual labor. At the age of five, he lost his father to tribal warfare. Afterward, he was fortunate to live with an uncle, who enrolled him in schools. Embarking on a 25-year educational journey, he achieved not only literacy and numeracy but knowledge of the art of business negotiation.
There is no question that, while in Africa, Said was a devout Muslim. In his teens and 20’s, he waged “holy war against the infidels,” gave alms, prayed four or five times per day, regularly attended the local mosque, and even made a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1807, one year before the U.S. Constitution abolished the importation of slaves, Said was captured by an invading army and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina.
There, he was sold first to a kind master, who died soon after acquiring him. His second master, recalled Said, was a “complete infidel, one who had no fear of God at all.” Slightly built and unaccustomed to manual labor, Said was beaten frequently for failing to fulfill daily work requirements. So, he ran away. Wandering through the Carolinas exhausted and no doubt bewildered by his circumstances, he sneaked one night into a country church to pray, where he was spotted by a young boy. Shortly thereafter, he was captured by a slave patrol and then imprisoned in Fayette-ville, North Carolina.
In jail, Said fascinated jailers by writing Arabic on the walls. Soon, people visited the jail to see his elegant handwriting. Eventually, Bob Mumford, the sheriff of Cumberland County, released Said from jail to meet with Mumford’s brother-in-law, James Owen, a former state legislator who later served one term in Congress and was, for many years, a militia general and president of the Wilmington and Raleigh Railroad. After obtaining Said’s consent, Owen sought and obtained the legal right to purchase him from his cruel Charleston master, and Said lived out the remainder of his days in Bladen County, North Carolina.
For seven years while living with the Owens family, Said practiced Islam openly and dutifully. He observed Ramadan and read the Koran in Arabic; friends of the Owens had provided a copy. A spiritual man, Said listened curiously to the daily Bible readings of Jim Owen. In time, “Uncle Moreau” (the name many whites later gave him) expressed more interest in Christianity and even asked for an Arabic translation of the Bible. No doubt remembering his troubled past in America, Uncle Moreau often expressed his gratitude for the Owens’ paternalism: “O ye people of North Carolina, O ye people of South Carolina, O ye people of America all of you,” asked Said in his autobiography, “have you among you any two such men as Jim and John Owen?” “These men are good men,” he continued. “What food they eat they give me to eat. As they clothe themselves they clothe me.” Even Northern missionaries remarked that, for a slave, Said was fortunate; he knew that, too. Such Christian paternalism certainly contributed to Said’s conversion. Sometime during 1819-1822, he professed Christianity and joined the Presbyterian Church, where he was baptized and later missed few Sunday services. Although he denounced the slave trade and considered God to be the only sovereign, Said is reported to have encouraged missionary efforts to Africa and believed that Providence had placed him in America.
Thus, the evidence suggests that Said genuinely converted to Christianity and did not, as many modern scholars claim, “steadfastly hold on to Islam.” Most scholars do not mention Northern missionary reports or explain Said’s written and spoken statements that reflect Christian doctrine and principles. Those who do dismiss the missionary reports, written by four people over three decades, as uninformed claims and Said’s own statements as nothing more than an insincere outward conversion. It is unlikely, however, that Uncle Moreau, a house slave, fooled the entire Owens family for more than 50 years. And why would he want to? As a slave of Jim Owen, he could openly read the Koran and pray to Allah; he worked sparingly; and his Arabic literacy had made him a local celebrity. He had no practical reason to convert to placate Jim Owen.
In their evangelical fervor, certainly, Northern missionaries many times exaggerated the success of their outreach efforts and the need for them in the South. A leader in the American Colonization Society, Ralph Randolph Gurley, in particular, seems to overstate Said’s religious enthusiasm. Yet after dismissing evangelical hyperbole, a researcher can find the accounts reliable in many ways. In fact, Said’s words, written in Arabic, reinforce much of what the whites described. Said wrote,
They [the Owens family] permit me to read the gospel of God, our Lord, and Savior, and King; who regulates all our circumstances, our health and wealth, and who bestows his mercies willingly, not by constraint. According to the power I open my heart, as to a great light, to receive the true way, the way of the Lord Jesus the Messiah.
Paraphrasing Scripture, he also stated, “The law was given by Moses but grace and truth were by the Jesus the Messiah.”
Current descriptions of Said’s literacy are also misleading and distorting. Though a fascinating and, in many ways, accomplished figure, Said is being presented by scholar-activists, desperate to uncover an antebellum Islamic underground, as erudite. A friend of mine, a scholar of Islam, who is almost fluent in Arabic, commented that Said’s Arabic passages contain elementary grammatical errors—real gaffes that someone fully literate is unlikely to make. At the beginning of his narrative, Said even admitted, “I cannot write my life because I have forgotten much of my own language.”
Omar ibn Said is a very important historical figure—not because he brings to light a hidden yet substantial number of Muslims who have contributed greatly to this country, but because an honest study of his life reveals that many mold history into what they wish it had been and use that distorted past to forge America into what they hope it to be.