My Name is Omar

omar-photo-2 In 1998 Harvard University unveiled one of the most important Islamic artifacts in American history – ‘The Autobiography of El-Hajj Omar Ibn Said’. The rediscovery of the 167-year-old manuscript, in an old trunk in Virginia, after an absence of 100 years, resulted in its first critical look by six professors seeking to contextualize America’s earliest writing of the Qu’ran. Among them was Dr Ala Alrryes, whose translation of the manuscript was the first in 150 years.

First, how did such an Arabic manuscript come into existence? During the transatlantic slave trade, numerous Muslims were brought to the Americas, although only a few retained their Islamic identity. Ibn Said himself was born in 1770 in Futa Toro (a region that includes Mauritania, Senegal and Mali, the area through which Islam first entered West Africa) and was of Fullah descent, a Bedouin group of people from Yemen. He came from a wealthy family respected for their strict adherence to Islam. Ibn Said had knowledge of Christianity and Judaism prior to his coming to America, probably from his homeland or through his travels via Timbuktu or Cairo en route to Mecca to perform the hajj. However, during the 18th and 19th centuries, Islam in Africa was undergoing a series of changes with the expansion of the faith throughout Senegal, Gambia and the Gulf of my name is omar Guinea, alongside the collapse of older, more established Islamic empires. The result of European military invasion and a developing transatlantic slave trade led to the capture of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike for sale as chattels in the Western hemisphere. Ibn Said’s capture took place around 1807. He was brought to Charleston, South Carolina and sold to an, “Evil, small, weak, and wicked man, named Johnson who did not fear God at all, nor did he read nor pray.” Ibn Said feared his captor and later escaped, only to be recaptured and thrown into jail. Unable to communicate in English, he wrote petitions for his release in Arabic on the wall using coal. After Ibn Said was put on the auction block by his jailer to pay for his keep, he was bought by General Owen of Fayetteville. It was while he was with the Owens that Ibn Said was commissioned to write his narrative by a request from somebody named Sheikh Hunter.

omar-book-big His 15-page tale was written in 1831 over a period of several months. Dr Alrryes’s translation refutes the long-held assumption that Ibn Said had converted to Christianity. The manuscript not only glorifies the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the Qur’an, but also speaks of Ibn Said’s love for the teachings of the prophets Jesus and Moses through the Bible and the Torah. The genius of the manuscript lies within its resonance of contemporary interfaith dialogue; the first in the Arabic language ever produced in America or Europe. Ibn Said’s faith was relentlessly challenged by the insistence that all slaves accept Christianity or face dire consequences. He was forced to replace the writings of the Qur’an with those of the Bible and visit the Presbyterian
Church, yet his Christian experience helped him through his religious isolation in America. Through his use of Qur’anic references, he both identifies and  differentiates with the Christians by whom he was surrounded, distinguishing himself as a Muslim. Finally, Ibn Said’s writing indicates his belief in the authority of the Qur’an. He writes the entire ‘Soorat Al-Mulk’ (Dominion) to delineate that no man has ownership over another, de-emphasising his position as a slave by highlighting that all human beings are ultimately owned by Allah. Towards the latter years of Ibn Said’s life, he was asked to write down the Lord’s Prayer, which he had done before. Instead, he wrote ‘Soorat Al-Nas’r’ (Victory), and signed it, “My name is Omar.”