Wednesday 3 May 2017

Omar ibn Said: the Islamic scholar who became a slave

Omar ibn Said was the son of a wealthy father and was born in 1770 in the region of Futa Toro. He would take on Arabic and other Islamic studies and eventually become a teacher of Qur’an in his village. In 1807, he was on a military campaign with a rival tribe and was enslaved. Said, was sent to Charleston, South Carolina; and owned by “Johnson” who, in the words of Said, was “weak, small, and evil”. Said, escaped from Johnson and found himself in the woods of North Carolina where he came upon a house. Omar decided to enter to pray, it can be said Said, had no idea where he was on the social stratification in the United States.

Said would have been familiar with the slave system in Islamic West Africa, which is described by Sylviane Diouf in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslim enslaved in the Americas. According to Diouf, slaves in many African societies lived with the families or in a near by village. This form of slavery resembled European serfdom more so than American chattel slavery. As far as slavery in an Islamic context, Said knew he was a prisoner of war, and never seemed to question his enslavement but only his treatment as a slave.
Returning to Omar ibn Said’s life, after he entered the house he was later arrested and placed in a jail in Fayetteville, North Carolina. In the cell there was a pile of coal. With this coal he would write Qur’an verses on the jailhouse walls. It should be noted that West Africa had no concept of jails, this would be another foreign concept to Omar ibn Said. Said became a local celebrity of sorts and caught the attention of General James Owen of North Carolina. It was under the ownership of James Owen that Said openly converted to Christianity. He was even gifted an Arabic Bible by Francis Scott Key (Key and Said had exchanged letters in 1819. In one of these letters Said wrote Key, Surah Nasr(The Victory). The conversion of Said has been questioned by many historians and scholars such as Ala Alryyes but, this shall be covered later.

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