The amazing story of Omar ibn Said

ibnsaidOmar ibn Said

Omar ibn Said (1770-1864) was born to a wealthy Fulani family in present-day Senegal. He spent the majority of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars, and was fluent in Arabic. Omar was captured during a military conflict in 1807 and sold into slavery. After serving a harsh slave-owner in South Carolina, Omar escaped to North Carolina, but was re-captured and sold to James Owen, whose brother would one day be governor of the state.

Omar continued to study religion informally, and became something of a public intellectual. In 1819, James Owen travelled to Morocco and brought back an Arabic-language Bible for Omar, who started attending the First Presbyterian Church of Fayetteville, where he was baptized in 1820.

However, it is not clear if Omar ibn Said actually converted to Christianity. He refused several offers to return to Africa as a missionary, and his Bible contains benedictions written to the Prophet Muhammad. Most telling was a handwritten chapter from the Qur’an, written in Arabic, that until recently was mistaken for the Lord’s Prayer.

In 1831, Omar wrote his autobiography in Arabic, the only such work written by an enslaved person in his native language. Christian ministers would meet with Omar to discuss their sermons, and he received visitors often. He sat for portraits at least twice, and received an obituary in the newspaper when he died, all very unusual honors for an enslaved person.

When Omar died in 1864, at over ninety years of age, he was still enslaved to the Owens family. He is buried in Bladen County, North Carolina. In 1991, an American mosque was named after Omar ibn Said, and in 2010, the state erected a historical marker honoring him.

During Black History Month, stories like Omar ibn Said’s remind us that Muslims were not strangers to early America, and have, in fact, been an important part of our collective history. Many more stories of enslaved African Muslims, and the stories of their descendants, appear in our curriculumĀ A History of Muslims in America.

Teachers can also request a live presentation or webinar by an ING speaker on the topic.