Autobiographical Text Highlights Similarities of Beliefs Between Muslims and Christians, Circa 1930
El-Hajj Omar Ibn Said was a Muslim scholar who was captured in his native Senegal and enslaved. Although he wrote 14 manuscripts, all in Arabic, he is best known for his 1931 autobiographical essay, the narrative of which describes events in his life, including his abduction from his homeland and his acceptance of other “God-fearing people.”
Much of Ibn Said's life is known from this brief document, which is now property of the University of North Carolina library. Although just 15 pages, the short chronicle is profound in many ways. It is one of the few autobiographies written by African slaves, is entirely penned in the Arabic language, and is included as one of the earliest Islamic artifacts in American History.
Although the exact date is unknown, Omar Ibn Said is believed to have been born 1770, or thereabout, in Futa Tora, a part of modern day French Senegal. He was son of a wealthy family known and respected for their observance of the Islamic faith. Ibn Said was brought up with refinement and educated in science, math, and reading -with particular emphasis on Holy Quranic Arabic. He spent 25 years abroad to further his education, made Hajj, and in the course of his travels gained knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, as well.
After returning home in 1807, the last year of the import of slave into America, Ibn Said was abducted by slave traders. He writes, “There came to our place a large army, who killed many men, and took me, and brought me to the great sea, and sold me into the hands of the Christians.”
Once in America, Ibn Said was brought to Charleston, South Carolina, where he was sold to a man named Johnson, but ran away. Ibn Said referred to Johnson a wicked man, a man who did not read the Gospel. He was a “complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”
After running away from his first master, Omar was captured and put in jail where he wrote in Arabic for release on the walls with a piece of coal. When his jailers saw that he was literate in another language he was soon put up for auction. A man by the name of General Jim Owen purchased him and brought him to his family home in Fayetteville, NC where he spent the rest of his life.
Ibn Said was treated well in the care of the Owens, his Christian owners. He was not worked as hard as most slaves were, was well fed and well clothed, allowed to continue reading and writing and was even presented with an Arabic Bible, procured by the Owens.
Omar spoke of the Owens as good people and asks “O ye Americans, ye people of North Carolina–have you, have you, have you, have you, have you among you a family like this family, having so much love to God as they?”
It can be seen that though Omar found himself enslaved, he bore no animosity to his possessors because of their outstanding kindness and Christian values. Through this he came to deeper understanding of Christianity: “General Jim Owen and his wife used to read the Gospel, and they read it to me very much,–the Gospel of God, our Lord, our Creator, our King, He that orders all our circumstances, health and wealth, willingly, not constrainedly, according to his power.–Open thou my heart to the Gospel, to the way of uprightness.–Thanks to the Lord of all worlds, thanks in abundance. He is plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness."
It is believed by some that Omar Ibn Said made a conversion to Christianity, abandoning his faith in Islam. However, it simply takes reading his autobiography to see that he identified with both religions: he opens his manuscript with praise of the Holy Last Messenger, Muhammad (peace be upon him), and quotes the entire Surah Al-Mulk, a chapter from the Holy Quran. He also spoke of his love for the Gospel, wrote the Lords Prayer and paid reverence to the Holy Messengers of God, Moses, Jesus son of Mary, and Muhammad, may peace be on them all.
How can it be that he could have embraced both faiths? Because Christianity and Islam are two faiths have the same reality: the oneness of God Almighty and His Sovereignty over all creation, worship of Him and Him alone, belief in the Messengers sent by God, and just treatment towards other human beings. The chasm that is so highlighted today was obviously bridged by truth and love, and appeared to allow Omar Ibn Said to embrace Christians with conviction.
This historical account is relevant to the time we live in now, wherein Muslim and Christian relations are strained. It highlights the harmony that can exist between the two faiths.
The United Muslim Christian Forum (UMCF), an interfaith group established by El Sheikh Syed Mubarik Ali Shah Gilani, Vice Chancellor of the International Open Quranic University has been established for this reason: to highlight similarities between Muslims and Christians, diminish differences and foster mutual respect based on the 10 Commandments of God and love of all the Blessed Messengers (peace be on them all).
From Omar Ibn Said, an example of forgiveness, understanding, and tolerance can clearly be seen.