Last winter I visited the New Hanover County Public Library in Wilmington, N.C., to see a rare and extraordinary group of historical manuscripts: a collection of four inscriptions written by Omar ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim scholar, teacher and trader from West Africa. He wrote them while he was being held captive on the North Carolina coast two centuries ago.
The library is one of the few places in the world with manuscripts written in Omar’s own hand, and there are four of them: a few lines each, handwritten in Arabic and accompanied by pentacles, geometric designs and sets of symbols that reminded me of a rolling sea.
I had been hearing about Omar’s life and writings since I was a college student. So when I learned that New Hanover County’s public library had the four inscriptions, I just wanted to see them for myself.
I wanted to look at anything connected to Omar’s life. I guess I thought they would make his life seem realer to me, and that I might come to know, through his words, this place I call home better.
I wanted to hold the now brittle pages that he had once held in his hands in my own hands.
A Library Journey
Beverly Tetterton first told me that Omar ibn Said’s inscriptions were at the New Hanover County Public Library.
Beverly is retired now, but at that time she was still the tour de force behind the library’s fabulous local history collection—a treasure house of books, manuscripts, photographs and maps related to the history of Wilmington and the Cape Fear region.
One day maybe 10 or 15 years ago, Beverly told me that she had acquired Omar’s inscriptions. They were in a pair of journals that were part of a collection of family papers given to the library by a descendant of one of the men that had kept Omar in bondage.
That man’s name was James Owen (1784-1865), a planter and businessman who divided his time between Wilmington and Bladen County, farther up the Cape Fear River. The journals had belonged to two of his children in the 1840s and perhaps into the early 1850s.
The children’s names were Eliza Henrietta Owen and James Porterfield Owen. They lived in Wilmington at the time that Omar wrote in their journals.
The Owen children used the journals to collect poetry and prayers, as well as advice about life and words of endearment from their friends, family, their minister and other people that were important to them.
But perhaps most importantly, one of them used the journal to seek consolation and solace at a time of grief.
The striking thing, of course, is that one of the elders that offered that consolation and solace was Omar ibn Said.
A Fula from Senegal
The story of Omar ibn Said is well known. He was born in or about 1770 in Futo Toro, a region along the middle Senegal River valley east of Dagana in present-day Senegal.
His ethnic group, the Fula, had been established in that part of West Africa for more than a thousand years. The Fula had a long history of Arabic scholarship, and they were among the earliest Africans to convert to Islam, beginning to do so as early as the 8th century A.D.
As a young man, Omar studied with Islamic scholars in his homeland and in Futa Bundu, a region on the west side of the Faleme River.
He was a scholar and teacher for 25 years, but he eventually returned to his hometown in or about 1801.
Six years later, in 1807, he was apparently taken prisoner in a military raid and sold to European slave traders and shipped to the U.S.
He was taken to Charleston, S.C., and sold into chattel slavery possibly at one of the city’s auction houses.
“In a Christian language, they sold me,” he later wrote.
He quickly passed to two more slavers, including one that worked him in rice fields, a type of slave labor that was often debilitating to body and spirit.
Omar rebelled and escaped from that plantation and traveled north, surviving for a month in hiding. Eventually, however, a posse captured him and confined him in the county jail in Fayetteville, N.C.
His jailors discovered that he was educated when he took coal from his jail cell’s fireplace and wrote prayers to Allah, in Arabic, on the walls.
On hearing about Omar, James Owen bought him as a slave and sent him to his plantation, which was on the Cape Fear River, west of Wilmington in Bladen County, N.C.
Omar remained enslaved for the rest of his life. Over the years, he learned English, though perhaps not especially well, and studied the Bible in an Arabic translation that Owen obtained for him.
Some scholars believe that Omar eventually converted to Christianity. Other scholars are just as sure that he did not.
In 1836 James Owen sold his plantation in Bladen County and moved his family and Omar to Wilmington.
While in Wilmington, Omar wrote the four inscriptions in the Owen children’s journals that are now at the New Hanover County Public Library.
During the Civil War, the Owen family, along with Omar, returned to Bladen County. They settled at James Owen’s late brother’s plantation, where Omar died in 1863, evidently well into his 90s.
The Life of Omar ibn Said
Omar ibn Said is best known for his own writings and he is best known through those writings. He is most famous for a 15-page manuscript that tells the story of the first 60 years of his life.
Written in formal Arabic in a West African (Maghribi) script in 1831, The Life of Omar ibn Said is remarkable in many respects.
It is, for one thing, the only known American slave narrative written in a language other than English (Arabic).
Above all, Omar’s words bring forward the significant presence of Muslims among the millions of enslaved people in early America.
In recent years, the study of The Life of Omar ibn Said and other Arabic manuscripts has spurred a major reassessment of the numbers of Muslims that were enslaved in the U.S. and the ways in which Islam and Arabic culture shaped the Early Republic.
We may never get a reliable estimate of the number of Muslim and/or Arabic speaking people that were enslaved in the U.S., but scholars are gaining a deeper appreciation for the large numbers of Muslims that were scattered across the Americas by the Slave Trade.
You can find a barebones, older version of The Life of Omar Said, translated into English, here. You can find a link to a fuller, more recent scholarly edition, edited by Ala Alayyes, also translated into English, here.
You can also find Omar’s original Arabic manuscript, now preserved at the Library of Congress, here.
Surat, Letters and Marginalia
In addition to The Life of Omar ibn Said, Omar also wrote at least 14 shorter Arabic manuscripts that have survived to the present day.
They include a collection of surat (short chapters) from the Qur’an and Arabic translations of “The Lord’s Prayer” and the 23rd Psalm that are preserved at the North Carolina Collection in the Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC-Chapel Hill.
They also include the notes that Omar wrote in the margins of his Arabic language Bible. Published in 1811, that Bible can be found in the Rare Books Room in the E. H. Little Library at Davidson College.
An English professor at Northern Illinois University, Einboden is author of a forthcoming book on Arabic slave writings called Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives, to be published next year by Oxford University Press.
Omar also wrote at least four letters that have survived.
The first and longest is an 1819 letter to James Owen’s brother, John Owen, a planter and one of the state’s future governors. In that letter, Omar sought to be given his freedom and returned to West Africa.
That letter is preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. If you’re interested, you can find a translation and an interesting analysis of that letter here.
A second letter is from Omar to Lamine Kebe, a fellow African Muslim who was a freed slave and was living in New York City in the 1830s. Kebe was also from Futa Toro and was getting ready to return to Africa at that time.
The third letter is from Omar to a Muslim man called Yang, in Canton, China. Yang had apparently written Omar after learning of him from a Christian missionary from the U.S.
The final letter is from Omar to John Allan Taylor, a white resident of Wilmington.
In the late 1990s, an American scholar named Muhammed al-Ahari located that letter at the Spartanburg County Historical Association in Spartanburg, S.C.
You can find a photograph, translation and absorbing analysis of that letter at Dr. Jeffrey Einboden’s Arabic Slave Writings and the American Canon web site that I mentioned above.
In comparison to those manuscripts or to his autobiography, Omar’s inscriptions at the New Hanover County Public Library do not seem as widely known yet.
At least one scholar, Allan D. Austin, has published a photograph of one of the inscriptions. That was in his African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles.
But I have not found an English translation of any of the inscriptions in Wilmington or an analysis of them, and they never seem to be mentioned in bibliographies of Omar’s writings, such as the one that accompanies the Omar ibn Said Collection at the Library of Congress.
I don’t know why that is, but the paucity of scholarship on Omar’s writings at the New Hanover County Public Library certainly piqued my interest in them and made me want to learn more about them.
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Beverly Tetterton, by the way, thought I would be interested in Omar’s inscriptions because I have written a fair bit about slavery and slave narratives on the North Carolina coast.
* * *
Beverly was right of course: I was interested in Omar’s inscriptions. Unfortunately, it took me forever to get to them. Years passed, but every time I was in Wilmington I seemed to be on some pressing deadline or having to rush off somewhere.
Then one day last winter I was in downtown Wilmington to do an interview at WHQR, the local NPR station, and I ended up with some free time after the interview.
As soon as the NPRers let me go, I headed to the New Hanover County Public Library, which is only a few blocks from WHQR.
After all that time, I was spurred to go to the library partly because, against all odds, Omar ibn Said had recently been in the news.
More than 150 years after Omar’s death, The Washington Post, CNN and other national news outlets had run stories on the Library of Congress’s acquisition of the original, handwritten copy of The Life of Omar ibn Said.
Prior to the Library of Congress’s acquisition, Omar’s autobiography had been in the hands of a private collector and was not available to scholars or the general public. Now it is available to the whole world.
The Journals of Eliza and John Owen
That day when I visited the New Hanover County Public Library, I located Omar’s inscriptions in a pair of journals preserved in the Owen and Barry Family Papers, a collection of approximately 150 family documents.
Omar had written the inscriptions in journals kept by two of the children of James Owen and his wife, Eliza Mumford Owen.
Omar wrote two of the inscriptions in Eliza Henrietta Owen’s journal. She lived from 1824 to 1905.
He wrote the other two inscriptions in the journal kept by her older brother, John Porterfield Owen. He was born in 1818 and died while he was in the army, in 1847, of yellow fever.
To my knowledge there has not been any published research on the circumstances of Omar writing in the two young people’s journals. However, I have been corresponding with David Babaian, an Arabic scholar and translator in Boston, and I think Babaian has reached a compelling conclusion about them.
Babaian, by the way, is part of a loose-knit community of scholars with a long-standing and very passionate interest in Omar. He recently earned his M.A. thesis at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and has examined the four manuscripts in Wilmington.
Babaian has concluded that Eliza Owen began her journal in 1848, soon after the death of her brother. He believes that she was seeking comfort for his loss and sought reflections and prayers to help her through the darkest days of her grief.
Babaian has also concluded that Omar first wrote inscriptions in her brother’s journal, while, of course, he was still alive. After his death, Eliza found her brother’s journal and Omar’s inscriptions.
According to Babaian’s theory, she then started her own journal and asked Omar to write in it.
One might then expect that Omar’s inscriptions to Eliza were words of solace and consolation, and as we will see below, that was indeed the case.
Like Fall Leaves Blowing in the Wind
I found Omar’s inscriptions breathtaking. The calligraphy is beautiful. Omar’s gracefully rendered Arabic letters, and the splay of diacritics, make the script almost seem to be in motion, like fall leaves blowing in the wind.
Omar wrote the two inscriptions in Eliza’s journal on what was white paper that has yellowed with age. He wrote the two in John’s journal on blue paper that has grown splotchy and discolored with age, to the point where it is sometimes hard to make out.
On three of the pages, Omar drew 5-pointed stars called “pentacles.” I didn’t know if he did so just for decoration or, if more than that, what they meant.
On one of those pages, Omar also drew a strikingly beautiful geometric pattern that is that inscription’s central feature.
Somewhere in every inscription, he also drew a line of shapes—resembling parallel hyphen marks alternating with wavy lines that reminded me of a cursive little letter “L” in English.
I found all of those shapes and patterns rather mysterious. I did not know what they meant, and I had no idea why Omar would draw them in a young man or woman’s journal.
Of course, I could not read the Arabic script either, so for me the inscriptions were utterly indecipherable.
The Next Step
Professor Mbaye Lo generously stepped in to help me. He’s a professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke and when I got home I found him by going to Friday prayer services at my local mosque and asking the congregation for its help.
Imam Greg Rashad and his congregation at Masjid Ar-Razzaq here in Durham, N.C., warmly welcomed me and sent me to Mbaye.
I was very fortunate to find him. Not only is Mbaye a leading scholar of Islam and Arabic language, culture and history in Africa, but also he was already very familiar with Omar and his writings.
Indeed, Mbaye had first written about Omar in 2004, in his book, Muslims in America: Race, Politics and Community.
In a way, Mbaye also has a personal tie to Omar. His roots, too, are in Islam and Senegal. His grandparents were even Fula, the same ethnic group as Omar all those generations ago.
“I am Omar ibn Said”
Mbaye hopes to do a fuller study of Omar’s inscriptions in the future, but the other day we got together at a local coffee shop and he shared his first thoughts on them.
We spread copies of the inscriptions out before us and he began with one of the yellowed pages from Eliza Owen’s journal. It is the inscription that I find most striking.
Mbaye explained that the page begins in a way typical of Islamic/Arabic writings and speeches: In the name of Allah most merciful.
On the bottom of the page, Omar had written, “I am Omar ibn Said,” as well as his mother’s name (though it’s mostly illegible) as well as the names of the Owen family.
In the center of the page, Omar had drawn the striking geometric design that I mentioned earlier— a series of a dozen interlinked shapes that remind me of Islamic tile mosaics that I have seen in museums.
Mbaye made clear to me that the design was not merely an artistic adornment to the Arabic script: it was a talisman, an object or a drawing believed to have magical or sacred powers.
Struggling to find the right English words to describe the complex function of a talisman in Fula society in Omar’s lifetime, Mbaye first used the terms “local medicine” and “black magic.”
I don’t think he was quite satisfied with either term, however. Their meaning, I gathered, was more complex, layered and nuanced.
I also don’t believe he meant to infer a sense of evil or malevolence to the term “black magic” (at least not necessarily so).
Instead Mbaye described this kind of talisman as being used to call forth the powers of God to bring about very specific kinds of healing or to impart good fortune.
I have to assume that the geometric design meant something important and very specific to Omar: he drew the same design in at least two other surviving letters, the one he wrote to John Owen in 1819 and the one to John Allan Taylor in 1853.
The Meaning of a Pentacle
Mbaye told me that pentacles (the 5-pointed stars) were also a powerful talisman among the Fula and other West African Muslims, though he cautioned me that a pentacle could mean many other things in Arabic and Islamic culture.
Some years ago, John Hunwick, then a history professor at Northwestern University (now deceased), wrote an article about another of Omar’s letters that also included a pentacle—the 1819 letter in which Omar sought his freedom and return to Africa.
Professor Hunwick, by the way, is best known for his work with the Timbuktu Manuscripts, a collection of hundreds of thousands of Arabic and other writings preserved in individual households in Timbuktu, Mali.
The manuscripts concern science, philosophy art, medicine and religion, and some of them date as far back as the 1200s.
In an article in The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Hunwick described the talismanic power of the pentacle in Arabic/Islamic culture in this way:
“. . . It is in fact a very powerful talismanic symbol . . . said to be the “seal of Solomon”, and the first of seven “seals” that are frequently found in talismans or inscribed over doorways of buildings to protect them. It is said to represent the secret 100th name of God and to have miraculous powers.”
At this point, I was feeling quite out of my depths. Mbaye understood that I was not a scholar of Islam or Africa and was going slow with me, but I still felt that these simple-looking passages in Arabic were turning out to be far more complex than I had expected.
Indeed, they were opening up a vast, complex world of philosophy, history and religion of which I had little knowledge, and making me see my own home differently. I found it all tremendously interesting and exciting, but I also found it daunting.
“A beautiful poem”
At the coffee shop, Mbaye and I nonetheless pressed forward. The next inscription was also from Eliza Owen’s journal.
Arabic script fills most of that second page, but Omar had also drawn more talismanic figures on it. He had placed a pair of pentacles at the bottom of the page, and he had written his name inside the pentacle on the left.
He had also drawn a double line of curls and dashes beneath the second line of Arabic. That, too, was part of the talisman, Mbaye advised me.
The page begins, “Goodness is only with God.” The central text, though, is, in Mbaye’s words, “a beautiful poem.”
Mbaye began to translate and read a few phrases from the poem to me. They included “the still waters,” “you anoint my head with oil” and “the valley of the shadow of death.”
It was of course the 23rd Psalm—this is the English version from the King James Bible:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
On this page, Mbaye told me, Omar was using classic Arabic tradition to interpret a Christian text.
He is quoting the Christian Bible, but he is introducing the psalm with a classic Arabic and Islamic phrase that gives praise to Allah and he is using talismanic figures common in Islamic art, literature and architecture.
In this text, Mbaye was telling me, Omar was bringing two worlds together, and in a way making a new world.
The Last Inscriptions
Omar wrote the third and fourth inscriptions in the more age-worn pages of John Porterfield Owen’s journal.
Mbaye and I were running late by the time we got to these inscriptions, so we agreed we’d look at them more closely another day.
However, before we said our good-byes, he told me that both inscriptions were a series of verses from the Qur’an.
At the bottom of both pages, Omar had also drawn talismanic figures, much as he had in the other inscriptions—a pentacle on one page, and a line of wavy curls and dashes on both pages.
According to Mbaye, Omar likely considered each of the Qur’anic verses in these inscriptions to have had specific, talismanic intentions as well: West African Muslims in Omar’s day, he said, associated the written word itself (and most especially the words of the Qur’an) with healing, the divine and the otherworldly.
The Writing on the Wall
Mbaye’s words have stayed with me as I have continued to look at Omar’s manuscripts from Wilmington and as I have grown more familiar with his Arabic writings at the Library of Congress and elsewhere.
They have all made a deep impression on me. Of all Omar’s writings, however, the one that I find myself thinking about most is not preserved in a library or archive.
It is not his autobiography or any of his letters or the notes he made in the margins of his Bible. He did not even write it on paper.
Instead, my mind returns again and again to the verses from the Qur’an that Omar wrote on the wall of his jail cell in Fayetteville.
That, to my knowledge, is one of the very few times in Omar’s life here in the U.S. that I know with confidence that he wrote something for himself, and not for others.
That was in the first decade of the 19th century, you will remember, after a posse had captured him while he was a fugitive slave.
When I think of that moment in Omar’s life, I try to imagine him in that jail cell: a slight, quiet, dignified man, no longer young, completely alone in a foreign land.
He did not even know the language of his captors and he was completely at their mercy.
I would understand if Omar had given into hopelessness and despair, but he does not seem to have.
Instead, faced with an almost impossible situation, he reached into his jail cell’s fireplace, removed a piece of coal and began to write. He wrote prayers to Allah, in Arabic, on the walls.
Omar was praising God. He was refusing to be alone. He was asserting who he was, no matter where he was. He believed in the power of the written word to rescue us and set us free.
For all their help with this essay, I want to extend my most heartfelt thanks to Beverly Tetterton, the Rev. Marilyn Hedgpeth, Dr. Akram Khater, Kat Charron, Jeff Einboden, David Babaian, Imam Greg Rashad, the congregation at Al-Rassaq Islamic Center and most especially Professor Mbaye Lo.
I am also deeply grateful to the librarians in the North Carolina Collection at the New Hanover County Public Library for their assistance while I was there.
One of Mbaye Lo’s research areas that holds a great deal of interest to me is on jihad’s nonviolent intellectual traditions in Africa. You can learn more about one aspect of that scholarship by looking at his current project on the life and works of Cheikh Moussa Kamara here.
Looking even briefly at Omar ibn Said’s life took me quite out of my league when it comes to Islamic and Arabic history in Africa. I cannot thank the people I named above enough for their assistance.
If I made any errors, the fault is of course all mine. I will look forward to learning from any such errors brought to my attention.