In the year 1807, a wealthy scholar was captured in West Africa, brought to the United States and sold into slavery. His name was Omar Ibn Said. He was 37 years old at the time, and he spent the rest of his life enslaved.
Said was one of many enslaved Muslims in early U.S. history. Up to 40 percent of Africans captured and brought to the U.S. were from mostly Muslim countries in West Africa.
Said’s story might have been forgotten, but he wrote about it in a book called The Life of Omar Ibn Said. The U.S. Library of Congress recently received the book, which was written in Arabic.
The book is one of only a few personal stories written by a slave in America. It is also one of the first intimate reports of the early history of Muslims in the United States.
The book challenges the idea that the U.S. is a Christian nation, says Zaheer Ali. He is a historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society in New York. Ali adds: the book “opens us up to the understanding” that people who were not Christian helped build the United States.
What records did enslaved Muslims leave?
Most enslaved African Muslims did not leave written records. But we can learn about their lives from public evidence and the memories of their families.
How long Muslim slaves practiced their faith is unknown. Some became Christians. Others acted as if they did to better deal with their captors.
But there is evidence that some remained Muslim.