A chapter from One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau
In a faded photograph of the nineteenth-century Cumberland County jail, the squat assemblage of thick walls and barred windows stands like a child beside the more imposing courthouse that dominated the public square of Fayetteville, North Carolina. On the day in 1810 when an escaped slave found himself standing in front of these two buildings, the local authorities pushed him toward the former without hesitation. As far as his captors were concerned, runaways had no right to expect due process or legal protection. Even if he had been given the chance to plead his case, he would have found it impossible. Inside a courtroom, he would have understood neither the words spoken by the judge nor those within the book upon which he might have placed an oath—swearing hand. He was no stranger to laws, but his were found in another scripture, formed of another tongue.
His home for the foreseeable future, he soon discovered, was a dirty cell, its floor blackened with the dust of charcoal shards that fueled the sooty fires that in the colder months provided prisoners with their only source of warmth. As he awaited his fate — most likely an unwelcome reunion with Mr. Johnson of Charleston, from whose cruel treatment he had fled four weeks before — he passed the days as he had throughout his life: with prayer.
Decades earlier he had learned the proper way to express submission to God: Five times through the day a man should fall to his knees, press his forehead to the ground, and speak words in the language of the Prophet.
It was his devotion, in fact, that had caused him to be captured. After his escape from Johnson’s farm, he had wandered in fright across much of the Carolinas, sleeping where he could, living on whatever found sustenance tobacco country could provide. He was somewhere on the northern side of the border between the two states, almost three hundred miles from where he had started, when he looked to the evening sky and noted it was a new moon. According to his faith, this was a sight that marked the beginning of things, a period of reflection and thankfulness, no matter one’s present circumstances. As he walked, he had spotted what seemed to him a few “great houses,” as he would later call them, in which it seemed no one lived. They were clearly gathering places, possibly sites of worship not too dissimilar from those he had known in his youth. He approached one of them with the hope that he had found shelter for his prayers.
At the time he had been taken from his homeland, three years before, he was already a man of middle age. His name, then, had been Omar ibn Said. Thirty-seven years old, set in his ways, he had been well instructed in the tenets of his faith. From boyhood, he had walked each morning to the mosque, where he washed his face and neck, his hands and wrists, his feet and ankles, all in preparation for coming before the presence of the divine. Before he was forced to scurry anonymously in the Carolina darkness, he had been a pillar of his community, a man who lived in the open in the country of the Fula people, in what is now Senegal.
In that other life, he had given tithes — gold and silver, livestock and grains — to support the less fortunate, and at the time he had never imagined he would one day count himself among them. A man of means and of family, he had five sisters and five brothers, one of whom was a learned scholar who had taught him to read and write in the manner of their holy book. So instructed, he himself had become a teacher of religion to the youth of his village.
“Then there came to our country a big army. It killed many people,” he later recalled. “It took me, and walked me to the big sea, and sold me into the hand of a Christian man, who bought me and walked me to the big ship in the big sea. We sailed in the big sea a month and a half until we came to a place called Charleston. And in a Christian language, they sold me.”
It had taken years, but finally he had managed to free himself from the one who had bought him. The “weak, small, evil man called Johnson,” he remembered, was “an unbeliever who did not fear God at all.” With the distance between himself and the man he called a kafir, an infidel, growing with ever y step, he was not without reason to be grateful. Aware of the new moon through its seeming absence, just as he was aware of Allah, he knew the prayers fitting for the occasion, which could not have seemed more appropriate to a man stolen from the country of his birth, unimaginably reduced from his former stature.
“I have faith in Him who lights up the darkness through thee, illuminates jetblack shadows by thee,” the new moon prayers declare to the moon itself, “and humbled thee through increase and decrease, rising and setting, illumination and eclipse.”
Omar ibn Said slipped into one of the great houses under the cover of the dark new moon night. He might have merely rested and passed a few hours there unnoticed before moving on, but a boy who lived nearby saw him and rode off to report to his family that an escaped slave — the bogeyman of southern fantasies — was hiding in their church. The boy and his father returned on horseback with dogs and reinforcements, a miniature militia that seized Omar ibn Said and marched him twelve miles to the jail in Fayetteville.
Despite the bitter disappointment of capture, and the inevitable terror at the prospect of being sent back to the evil place from which he had escaped, Omar ibn Said endured his latest imprisonment with apparent equanimity. He fell back on the solace of prayer, and turned to the walls around him as another venue for his devotion. Among the ashy cinders that littered the floor, he found a piece of coal large enough to hold between his fingers like a calligrapher’s pen. With it, he began to inscribe the walls with thoughts and verses in a language he had not spoken to any person since before he had been taken. The words he wrote were, to him, as sacred as any that might be found in Fayetteville’s Bibles.
As he decorated his walls with Arabic script — most likely snippets of prayer and Quranic chapters, or suras, given the type of religious education he had received — it fell to his jailer, Cumber land County sheriff Robert Mumford, to find a way to dispose of this unusual fugitive. Word had begun to spread of the dignified man redecorating the jail cell with coal-black strokes that might have looked to the locals like sketches of fish hooks strung with cat gut lines. Gawkers came to get a closer look, to see the spectacle of an African writing words his supposed betters could not understand. The small lockup was becoming more of a gallery than a jail, and Sheriff Mumford had to do something about it.
It was common practice at the time to post notices in the local press of runaway slaves, both those who remained at large and those who had been caught and held awaiting their masters’ claims of lost property. If Mumford had checked the local papers, he would have read dozens of advertisements either in search of way ward humans or reporting their capture, each cataloguing the appearance and effects of desperate men and women like an immoral lost and found. On one page of an 1810 edition of the Raleigh weekly The Star, for example, Mumford would have seen these notices a few inches apart:
RunAway: A Negro man named Prince, about five feet eleven inches high, twentyone years of age; had on when he went away a white furred hat, a light mixed cotton coat, cotton shirt, white & striped overalls, and walks with a halt which is occasioned by his having had his right thigh broke, and is shorter than the other.
Runaway: A Negro man named Emanuel . . . He is about 5 feet
8 or 9 inches high, stout made, is of a dark copper colour, has lost two of his fore teeth, has a bold look, speaks quick with great confidence.
Capture of either Prince or Emanuel, the paper reported, offered a twenty-dollar reward.
Interspersed with such runaway announcements were other notices, usually printed at the request of jailers like Mumford, providing information about African Americans who had been apprehended as probable escapees. With phrases such as “Passing himself as a free man,” these reports fostered suspicion even of those who had managed to win their release from bondage, some times resulting in the re-enslavement of recently liberated men and women who had believed their new freedom irreversible.
In the case of either type of advertisement, a crude depiction of a man was frequently shown beside the descriptive text. If the fugitive’s whereabouts remained unknown, the image showed a silhouette of a body in motion, one arm forward, one leg back, a stick-and-parcel sack on his shoulder, a jaunty hat on his head, as if the image of a slave unrestrained and moving with apparent speed through the countryside would be enough to stir the citizenry to action. If the runaway had been caught, this same figure was shown shorn of his hat, stick, and parcel — all those symbols of his illicit and frightening autonomy. In these images, the recaptured fugitive is reduced to little more than an inked slash on the page, his bowed head barely a serif on a narrow line.
Placing such an ad in the Raleigh Star or the Fayetteville Observer surely would have been the protocol for Omar ibn Said, as with any other black man the sheriff had found unable or unwilling to account for his freedom. Yet Mumford had not been able to glean anything about who this fugitive was, where he had come from, or whose supposed property he might be. With no way to communicate, no mention of him in the press, and no one arriving at the jailhouse to claim him as their own, little could be known about him. He apparently knew no English and, except for the foreign warbling of his prayers, seemed disinclined to speak.
He was not without obvious talents, however, as the growing numbers of visitors to the jail attested. The markings he made in his cell perhaps held an unexpected, exotic beauty for the residents of Fayetteville. Because the practice of importing slaves directly from Africa had been outlawed three years before, he was the last of his kind that many in Fayetteville were likely see, which only heightened his mystery.
When the crowd at the jail got to be too much, Sheriff Mumford decided he had waited long enough. He knew what to do with his prisoner. With an impatient mob outside, the sheriff made a rash decision to take matters into his own hands, and allowed a hurried removal of the accused black man from his cell.
Such a scene has played out with horrific consequences through out the nation’s history, often ending with a stout tree branch and a deadly stretch of rope. After he had led Omar ibn Said from his cell, however, Mumford did what no white small—town sheriff in the mythology of the South had ever done: He brought him home.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of the half—million men, women, and children of African descent who were brought against their will to North America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, the escaped slave who found his way to Sheriff Mumford’s jail left a record of his life, composed at the request of his eventual owners. His brief autobiography — The Life of Omar ibn Said, Written by Himself — allows us a window into the inhumanity of slavery. It also reveals the estrangement of those marginalized by race and faith in a nation that often used religion to justify the practice of treating human beings as property.
Yet while Omar ibn Said’s autobiography is singular — the only extant personal history written in Arabic by an American slave — his life was not. He was but one of the perhaps 20 percent of African—born men and women who were followers of Islam before losing their faith and their history when transported as captives first to the English colonies and later to the young United States. Their presence is affirmed in documents dated more than one hundred years before Omar ibn Said’s arrival, as in a Virginia law of 1682 which referred to “negroes, moores, molatoes, and others, born of and in heathenish, idollatrous, pagan, and Mahometan parentage and country” who “heretofore and hereafter may be purchased, procured, or otherwise obteigned, as slaves.”
In an era of fracturing traditional affiliations and endless schisms among the newly established churches, the number of Muslims brought to this predominantly Christian land would have rivaled the populations of many Christian denominations in eighteenth-centur y America. In fact, to compare several groups that have historically faced discrimination at the hands of the majority religious culture, the number of Muslims in the newly independent United States would likely have dwarfed the number of Roman Catholics or Jews through the early years of Omar ibn Said’s life. Considered another way: While Muslims accounted for less than 1 percent of the total population of the United States in 2010, enslaved Africans with a connection to Islam likely made up more than 5 percent of the population two hundred years before.
The presence of Muslims in early America has been largely for gotten in part because the complicated role of religion in the origins of slavery has been written out of history in favor of the distinctions made according to race. Some of the original laws regarding the importation of enslaved men and women were more concerned with the content of forced laborers’ beliefs than with the color of their skin. The reason for this, from the perspective of Europeans of the time, was clear: Belief could spread in a way that color could not. As a Spanish law of 1685 stated, “The introduction of Mohammedan slaves into America is forbidden on account of the danger which lies in their intercourse with the Indians.” As in so many moments in American history, religious difference was regarded as highly contagious, and thus dangerous.
Having a less fraught history with Islam than the Spanish, the English colonists paid less attention to the religious commitments of the people they enslaved, but they too were not blind to religion’s role in the creation and maintenance of a colonial economy built on forced labor. In the beginning of slavery in the English colonies of North America, it was assumed that Christians should not be slaves. Christian servants might work for a predetermined period under strictures of indenture that were often barely distinguishable from slavery, and their indenture could be bought and sold as if they were slaves, but the duration of their servitude was limited by definition. Non-Christians, on the other hand, could be trapped in bondage for life.
This arrangement proved untenable, however. If slavery was defined in relation to belief, then conversion would become a potential path to freedom. This possibility put Christian slaveholders in the uncomfortable position of accepting the theory that the Gospel should be spread to all people in all lands, but recognizing that conversion of the enslaved would have ruinous financial effects. Another law reflected this concern: “The conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom,” a Virginia statute of 1667 states, “divers masters, freed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavor the propagation of Christianity.”
The development of this approach to the religious lives of the enslaved suggests another reason for the disappearance of Islam from popular understandings of slavery: the belief that Africans brought to America could be spiritually transformed by the will and at the word of Europeans. As the Virginia law continues, all enslaved men and women “brought or imported into this country, either by sea or land, whether Negroes, Moors, Mollattoes or Indians, who and whose parentage and native country are not Christian . . . they shall be converted to the Christian faith.”
The legal possibility of keeping Christians as slaves did not immediately translate into widespread conversion of the enslaved, however. Throughout the colonial period, most slaveholders remained reluctant to offer salvation to the people they considered their property. To begin with, conversion was seen as needlessly expensive — the hours spent in religious instruction and then in worship were hours in which a valuable resource was not being properly invested. Allowing Christianized slaves to honor the Sabbath with a day of rest, for example, would mean a loss of one seventh of their productivity. Moreover, many slave owners did not care enough about religion themselves to even entertain the notion of converting their slaves. A common understanding of plantation owners in the eighteenth century was that they had “No other God but Money, nor Religion but Profit.” One newspaper wit of the day suggested, “Talk to a Planter of the Soul of a Negro, and he’ll be apt to tell ye that the Body of one of them may be worth twenty Pounds, but the Souls of an hundred of them would not yield him one Farthing.” The traveler Peter Kalm, who provided a view of colonial America similar to that of the new nation offered ninety years later by Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1745 that it was “greatly to be pitied that the masters of the Negroes in most of the English Colonies take little care of their Spiritual welfare and let them live on in their pagan darkness.” The reason for this, Kalm noted, was that even the pious among the slave owners feared what would happen if the people they kept in bondage came to see themselves as spiritual equals.
As the majority of the enslaved population became natives of this country — that is, born in the newly birthed United States of America rather than transported across the ocean in chains — the tendency to avoid or even prevent the conversion of slaves began to change. By the time of Omar ibn Said’s enslavement in the early nineteenth century, the position of many slave owners was that, contrary to previous generations’ assumptions about Christianity’s potentially destabilizing influence, conversion could be good for all concerned, provided it was properly deployed. Slave owners frequently gave voice to the religious justification that it was their Christian obligation to educate their servants in the tenets of their faith. As the attendees of an 1845 meeting on “the religious instruction of the negroes” suggested, “the duty of imparting a Revelation which Divine Providence has placed in our hands, to those whom the same Providence has made dependent on us, we trust may be assumed.”
The motivation for this duty, however, was of course not purely spiritual. It was also a matter of control. “I am perfectly satisfied, from long observation, of the beneficial effects of religious instruction on the minds and hearts of the blacks,” one slaveholder wrote. “Those who have grown up under such instruction are more honest, truthful, moral, and well—behaved, more neat and clean in their dress, more improved in their manners, and devoted to their owners’ interests than those who have not enjoyed the same advantages.” With less pretense of piety or the niceties of good manners, another slave owner put it plainly, “plantations under religious instruction are more easily governed, than those that are not.”
Such understandings transformed the faith that had been seen as an obstacle to slavery into a virtual requirement, as exposure to Christianity became part of the experience of bondage. Haven Percy, the mid — twentieth—century historian of American Christianity, summed up the religious assumptions of slaveholders as follows: “The Negro, like other men, is innately religious, and he will get his religion in distorted form through leaders of his own race if deprived of white guidance. Since the Christian life consists in grateful acceptance of the station to which one has been called, and faithful performance of the duties of that station, conversion will produce the most obedient slaves.”
The basic assumption that Christianity was an unqualified benefit to the enslaved was not only a matter of self-justification on the part of those who profited from the arrangement, however. It was shared also by those who opposed slavery. Abolitionists told stories of men and women who won their freedom by becoming Christians and making their lives into living versions of Exodus. Such tales of emancipation were often approached through the model of religious conversion narratives, in which Christian terms were applied to both the condition of slavery and the desire to overcome it.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for example, described the moment at which Douglass, born a slave on a Maryland plantation, first was moved to resist mistreatment by his master, a “nigger-breaker” called Covey. When he found the courage to raise his fists against this cruel man, it was, he wrote, akin to spiritual conversion. “My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.” Thereafter, he experienced “a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”
Another example can be found in the controversial leader of an unsuccessful slave uprising in 1831, Nat Turner, who is often remembered for the biblical tropes of his message. Exposed to the Christian faith by the Methodist minister who was his first owner, Turner infamously was inspired by otherworldly visions to lift a hatchet against a later master’s family, and then to lead a revolt against other plantations nearby. As he later described his visions in the “Confession” he gave before his execution: “I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened — the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams — and I heard a voice saying, ‘Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.’ ” Moved by what he took to be an experience akin to those of biblical prophets, he was baptized in a river, as Jesus himself was when he began his mission, and then, Turner said, “I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men.” In the model of Christ, he would “fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.”
Both Douglass and Turner describe their experiences in terms clearly drawn from Christian scripture, but neither man was informed exclusively by Christianity. In Douglass’s case, before the showdown with Covey that left him so elated, he had been urged by a friend, in accordance with traditional African beliefs, to find a particular plant and keep it in his pocket. “He told me, with great solemnity, I must go back to Covey,” Douglass wrote, “but that before I went, I must go with him into another part of the woods, where there was a certain root, which, if I would take some of it with me, carrying it always on my right side, would render it impossible for Mr. Covey, or any other white man, to whip me. He said he had carried it for years; and since he had done so, he had never received a blow, and never expected to while he carried it.” Doug lass expressed incredulity that this practice would have any benefit, despite American precedents dating back to the aduru magic used during colonial slave revolts, and even to the Hoodoo of Tituba. Still, he recognized that it was an expression of belief from which many of the enslaved drew strength. The decidedly non-Christian practice of carrying the root, then, was part of his explicitly Christian “resurrection.”
Turner, too, was shaped not only by the biblical lessons he had first learned from the Methodist minister who had owned him in his youth but by traditional beliefs his mother and grandmother had brought with them across the Middle Passage. Such traditions knew the “Spirit” Turner had heard speak not as the Holy Spirit of the Gospels but as a Yoruba figure known variously as Eshu or Legbo, the god of messages, known for communicating with elements of the natural world. “Laboring in the field, I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven,” Turner recalled, “and I then found on the leaves in the woods hieroglyphic characters, and numbers, with the forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood, and representing the figures I had seen before in the heavens.” These messages, together with the prophetic model of the Bible, formed the revelation that led to his rebellion.
In the stories of Douglass and Turner, and others like them, focus on the Christian elements at the expense of perhaps less respected religious influences has served to create a kind of conversion narrative of the entire experience of slavery and its eventual end, making it seem as if becoming Christian was a necessary step in the struggle for freedom. Certainly a shift among the enslaved from beliefs brought to beliefs imposed did eventually occur on a communal level, giving rise to the distinctly syncretic tradition of African American Christianity, also known as the black church; but this evolution often elides the complexity of the individual lives and the struggles of those caught between one faith and the next.
This was particularly true in the case of Islam, the one set of beliefs brought by the enslaved that stressed its singularity as fervently as did Christianity. The seventeenth-century laws mentioned above allude to enslaved followers of Islam as a group, but the experiences of individuals can also be found throughout the historical record. The historian Allan Austin has catalogued and described the captivity endured by seventyfive Muslim men in both the English colonies and the young United States, many of whom left written evidence of their enduring religious affiliation with Islam. Indeed, among those who became known outside the households or plantations by which they were enslaved, literacy was not only a common bond but the trait that set them apart. The ability to read and write commanded respect in a society that did not yet take these skills for granted. Moreover, such skills represented a potential danger to a well-ordered plantation, suggesting the possibility of slaves communicating across distances and in the silence of the written word. These two implications of literacy — respect and risk — occasionally conspired to win enslaved Muslims their freedom.
Such was the case for the earliest recorded individual Muslim enslaved in North America, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who became known in both England and the colonies as Job ben Solomon Jallo in the 1730s. The story of Diallo’s capture and enslavement — published by the Annapolis judge Thomas Bluett in London in 1734 — serves as a reminder that while slavery may have become our nation’s “peculiar institution,” it was not particular or unique to the United States. Diallo, born in Catumbo, in presentday Angola, had assisted his father as an imam, or Islamic teacher, in their com munity. From his father he learned to read the Quran as well as to read and speak Arabic in addition to the local Wolof language.
Just as Christian ministers in the colonies were as likely as any one to purchase slaves (or, like Cotton Mather, to receive them as a gift), in his native land Diallo’s family of religious leaders had been wealthy enough that they had slaves of their own. As he later recounted the tale of how he came to be enslaved, in February of 1730 he had been sent by his father to sell two men, members of a neighboring non-Muslim nation, either for cash or in exchange for paper, a prize commodity in a family of scholars. When he could not reach an agreement with the English shipping captain acting as slave merchant, Diallo traded the two men for livestock and then prepared to rest for the night. After he had put down the sword he had carried with him for the journey, he was ambushed and brought back to the same Englishman with whom he had dealt the day before — this time not as a seller negotiating a price but as the one being sold.
Diallo was transported to the Americas in chains and was soon purchased at the harbor in Annapolis, the same site at which Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunta Kinte would be sold to a Virginia plantation owner twenty-seven years later. Put to work on Kent Island across the Chesapeake Bay — not far from the scene of Jacob Lumbrozo’s trial for blasphemy — he harvested tobacco until the work proved too physically demanding for a man of slight frame unused to long stretches of manual labor. In a bitter turnabout given the exchange he had made for two men before his capture, he was put to the task of tending livestock.
He might have passed the rest of his days as a cowherd. Like Omar ibn Said eighty years later, however, Diallo’s future would be determined by his frequent seeking of solace in the prayers of his youth. While in the pastures of Kent Island, Thomas Bluett notes, “Job would often leave the Cattle, and withdraw into the Woods to pray; but a white Boy frequently watched him, and whilst he was at his Devotion would mock him, and throw Dirt in his Face. This very much disturbed Job, and added to his other Misfortunes; all which were increased by his Ignorance of the English Language, which prevented his complaining, or telling his Case to any Person about him.” And once again like Omar ibn Said, he soon decided to take his chances as a runaway. He headed off to the woods as if to pray but then kept going, and did not stop running until he reached the Delaware Bay.
It was not long before he was captured. When Judge Bluett heard of a strange man locked in his jail, he brought a contingent of curious gentlemen to see him. They found that he “could not speak one Word of English,” but “Upon our Talking and making Signs to him, he wrote a Line or two before us, and when he read it, pronounced the Words Allah and Mahommed; by which, and his refusing a Glass of Wine we offered him, we perceived he was a Mahometan, but could not imagine of what Country he was, or how he got thither; for by his affable Carriage, and the easy Composure of his Countenance, we could perceive he was no common Slave.”
In time, they found ways to communicate. “As to his Religion,
’tis known he was a Mahometan,” Bluett writes, “but more moderate in his Sentiments than most of that Religion are. He did not believe a sensual Paradise, nor many other ridiculous and vain Traditions, which pass current among the Generality of the Turks. He was very constant in his Devotion to God; but said, he never pray’d to Mahommed, nor did he think it lawful to address any but God himself in Prayer. He was so fixed in the Belief of one God, that it was not possible, at least during the Time he was here, to give him any Notion of the Trinity; so that having had a New Testament given him in his own Language, when he had read it, he told me he had perused it with a great deal of Care, but could not find one Word in it of three Gods, as some People talk: I did not care to puzzle him, and therefore answered in general, that the English believed only in one God. He shewed upon all Occasions a singular Veneration for the Name of God, and never pronounced the Word Allah without a peculiar Accent, and a remarkable Pause: And indeed his Notions of God, Providence, and a future State, were in the main very just and reasonable.”
With his captors convinced he was a man not fit for slavery, Diallo’s freedom was soon purchased. He was returned home by way of England, where some well—heeled supporters first introduced him to the royal family before sending him back to Catumbo to be reunited with his own.
All told, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo remained in America less than two years, and so it is perhaps not surprising that he managed to maintain and even publicly affirm his faith. Perhaps more unexpected is the case of the man considered by Allan Austin to be the most famous African in antebellum America. Nearly a century after Diallo used his religious education to prove his humanity and escape the suffering of enslavement, a slave in Mississippi was discovered to be a prince after forty years of forced labor. He, too, revealed the extent of his education in Islam, and became a cause célèbre as a result.
Abd al-Rahman, as a contemporary newspaper account reported, was a man who “though sixty—five years of age” had “the vigour of the meridian of life.” After he was recognized by an Irish doctor who had spent time in what is now Mali four decades earlier, Rah man attracted intense interest particularly among the members of the American Colonization Society, also known as the Society for the Colonization of Free People of Color of America, which advocated sending free blacks to the newly founded colony of Liberia on the west coast of Africa. ACS members, including Secretary of State Henry Clay, believed Rahman might serve as an intermediary to Muslim nations. When the sultan of Morocco heard of the slave’s plight through Clay and announced that he would pay for the prince’s return to his homeland, Rahman’s freedom was obtained by order of President John Quincy Adams.
“Prince was educated and perhaps is still nominally at least a Mahomedian,” the newspaper reporter remarked. “I have conversed with him much upon this subject, and find him friendly disposed to the Christian religion. He is extremely anxious for an Arabic Testament. He has heard it read in English, and admires its precepts. His principal objections are that Christians do not follow them. His reasoning upon this subject is pertinent, and, to our shame, is almost unanswerable.”
While Omar ibn Said, Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, and Abd al-Rahman each found themselves the accidental beneficiaries of their non-Christian religious backgrounds, most other enslaved Muslims allowed their faith to slip under the surface. Understand ably, many who received religious instruction from those who enslaved them or from traveling preachers repeated back the terms of Christian devotion they had been compelled to learn but kept their true religious inclinations hidden. The emergence at this time of a fully blended Muslim Christianity on southern plantations was noticed far more often in the middle of the nineteenth century than is remembered today. Describing what he would have viewed as the poor progress of slaves learning the true religion, the missionary Charles Colock Jones lamented that the “Mohammedan Africans remaining of the old stock of importations, although accustomed to hear the Gospel preached, have been known to accommodate Christianity to Mohammedanism. God, say they, is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed — the religion is the same, but different countries have different names.”
Jones and others of his ilk saw this as a general inability on the part of enslaved Muslims to understand Christian revelation, but it more likely reflects an unwillingness to fully reject beliefs and practices smuggled aboard slave ships, even while nominally and pragmatically accepting the terms of the dominant creed. Ignoring the lessons of those who claimed to own them, enslaved men and women clung to what Jones called “dreams, visions, trances, voices — all bearing a perfect or striking resemblance to some form or type which has been handed down for generations.” Jones, whose 1842 book The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States was both a history of plantation—based proselytization and a how—to guide for pious slave owners, regarded the continued spiritual connection of slaves to their old ways as mere obstinance. For others, however, such acknowledgment that enslaved Africans had their own enduring traditions of belief, practice, and learning was the beginning of the realization that they were also entitled to basic human rights.
Though there was a connection between awareness of the traditions maintained by enslaved Muslims and growing wariness of slavery among some Christians, it would be an overstatement to say that Sheriff Mumford bringing Omar ibn Said to his home suggests he had abolitionist sympathies of his own. He may have simply been an opportunist, or the worst kind of public servant. Omar ibn Said had come into his sphere of influence through his role as an officer of the law, but in short order the escaped slave seems to have become his property. He did not stay long with Mumford, however, but soon came under the authority of one James Porterfield Owen, a general in the War of 1812 and scion of a prominent political family that included a future governor, his brother John.
Making the best of a bad situation, Omar ibn Said remained with the family of General Owen for the rest of his life. When asked if he would like to leave the Owen plantation, he is said to have responded emphatically, “No no no no no no no.” We know this and other details of his life only because, twenty years after he found himself locked in the Fayetteville jail, twenty years during which his reputation grew and he entered the service of this well known North Carolina household, he was asked to write the story of his life.
Composed in Arabic in 1831 but not translated until 1848, The Life of Omar ibn Said, Written by Himself is, like many other slave memoirs of the time, framed as a conversion narrative. Yet to read between the lines is to discover a different story — a story about the surprisingly flexible meaning of religious conversion in American history.
Instructed to write the story of how he was brought to America and there found the Christian faith, he did so dutifully. The account he produced, however, is not exactly what his Christian patrons must have had in mind. Perhaps pragmatically, he mentioned more than once his newfound belief in Jesus Christ, but before any such affirmation of the tradition he had been compelled to join, he took the opportunity to make his own life story a testimony of and memorial to the way of life from which he had been torn. He had known liberty and autonomy in another language, and so writing in Arabic now, he expressed both the longing to be free, and his judgment against those who had captured him, with a fervor he apparently never expressed off the written page.
“In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate,” he wrote, beginning his life story with the Basmala, the phrase that begins the Quran itself, as well as 113 of its 114 suras. On the pages that follow, before a single mention of his place of birth, his family, or any other information about his life, he transcribed from memory most of the sixty-seventh sura, Sura al-Mulk, the identifying word of which, mulk, is often translated as “ownership,” “dominion,” or “control.” As the most recent translator of Omar ibn Said’s words, the scholar Ala Alryyes, points out, this meaning makes the sura the “perfect allusion to slavery.” It is fitting, then, that the verses that follow are concerned primarily with divine judgment and wrath directed at those who do not know the true God — the “Christian men” who stole Omar ibn Said and the kafir, infidel, who purchased and abused him.
“Blessed be He in whose hand is the mulk,” he writes, identifying the source of true ownership or control, no matter the laws that allow one man to presume to own another. This holder of mulk alone “has power over all things.” And as for those others who defile God’s dominion with delusions of their own: “We have adorned the lowest heaven with lamps, missiles to pelt the devils with,” he writes. “We have prepared the scourge of fire for these, and the scourge of Hell for those who deny their Lord: an evil fate! When they are flung into the flames, they shall hear it roaring.”
Only after establishing through scriptural evidence the punishment due to those who usurp the power of the divine by presuming to own others does Omar ibn Said recount the tale of how he came to be captured, brought to America, and eventually introduced to the Christian faith by the Owen family. He sings their praises as slaveholders who are kinder than most, but presents his conversion with little fanfare — as more of a practical than a heart felt reshaping of his spirit.
When he lived in a Muslim land as a follower of Muhammad, he explained, “To pray, I said: Praise be to Allah, Lord of all Worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful; Sovereign of the Day of Judgment; It is you we worship, and to you we turn for help; Guide us to the straight path; The path of those whom you have favored with grace; Not those who have incurred your wrath; Nor of those who have strayed. Amen.”
Now that he was in a land of Christians, however, other prayers were required: “And now I pray in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one for thine is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
By entwining the story of his life with verses from the Quran and an acknowledgment of the new Christian terms to which he must adapt, Omar ibn Said created less a tale of conversion than a syncretic narrative: Like that of so many others, his is a story not of the religious remaking of a people but of a people remaking religious traditions to serve their altered circumstances. Viewed through the lens that understands conversion not merely as a change of heart or the adoption of new beliefs but rather as a negotiation that takes place on the margins of a dominant faith, Omar ibn Said’s entire autobiography becomes an invocation of judgment on those who deserve it. To read of cruelty perpetrated with religious justification is to see the spiritual unsustainability of slavery laid bare. From the start of his story, when he explains that he was sold in “the Christian tongue,” Omar ibn Said stubbornly asserts, to any Christian who might read his tale, that a supposedly Christian nation has been built on the most un—Christian system imaginable.
Commenting on Omar ibn Said’s handwritten words in the early twentieth century, the historian John Franklin Jameson pro posed that the “earlier pages of the manuscript are occupied with quotations from the Koran which Omar remembered, and these might be omitted as not autobiographical.” Yet it could be argued that the judgment alluded to by these quotations was perhaps the truest expression of Omar ibn Said’s thoughts on the source of the traumas of his later life. His quoted verses serve as reminders of what should have been obvious: that the men and women who had been taken in shackles from Africa brought with them their own religious assumptions, their own religious learning, their own sense of the forces, despite their current circumstances, that controlled the world.
It was perhaps the very stubbornness of Islam among its adherents that led to its broader impact on American culture. The fact that Muslims who had received religious training, as Omar ibn Said had, could recall elaborate texts and prayers decades after they had last heard or seen the Arabic language challenged Christian pre-conceptions about the kinds of places their enslaved population had come from, and exactly what kinds of lives they had seen stolen away.
Reflecting this, there was a noticeable shift in the purposes to which Muslim stories were put in American culture during Omar’s lifetime. Mention of Islam or “Mohammedanism” in the press in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was largely limited to accounts of captivity — white captivity — among the supposedly barbarous Moors. In the year of Omar ibn Said’s capture and transport to the Carolinas, for example, a popular account of one such supposed enslavement of an American in North Africa reworked the traditional tropes of kidnap and spiritual infection that had made tales of whites trapped among the Indians so popular in the previous century. The History of the captivity and sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin (subtitle: who was six years a slave in Algiers, two of which she was confined in a dark and dismal dungeon, loaded with irons for refusing to comply with the brutal request of a Turkish officer) offered readers a salacious story couched within an overview of the history and religion of the people of Algeria. “Among these are the Moors or Morescos, who were driven out of Spain about the end of the sixteenth century,” the preamble to the book’s action explains, “and the Arabians who trace their descent from those disciples of Mahomet who formerly subdued this country.” The role of Muslims in this and other narratives was to serve mainly as fearful villains in far—off places: dark counterpoints — in complexion and morals — to the virtue of white Americans.
Yet a half-century before the Civil War, some early abolitionists began to propose that Islam might have something to teach Christianity. This inversion of expectations can be seen in the remark able trend that emerged in which Muslims who were slave owners in other countries began to be described by Christian opponents of slavery as being fair and just to those they enslaved. The point of such stories, at first, was to shame Christian slaveholders into acting likewise. Shouldn’t followers of Jesus show themselves to be even more magnanimous than the supposedly perfidious Moor?
An 1810 edition of the New Hampshire Patriot recounted a tale it called “Mohammedan Forbearance,” in which a Muslim is presented as a model of religious devotion and moral uprightness. “With whatever contempt a Christian may regard the faith of Mohammed,” the unsigned writer states, “certain it is, that the strictness with which the observance of religious ceremonies is enforced, the alacrity with which the performance of moral duties is distinguished, and the reverence paid to the Koran by most of his followers, might be usefully imitated by the professors of purer doctrines.” The case in point for this writer was, not accidentally, the treatment of slaves.
A singular instance of forbearance, arising from the powerful influence of religious principles, is recorded in the history of the Caliphs. A slave one day during a repast, was so unfortunate as to let fall a dish which he was handing to the Caliph Hassan, who was severely scalded by the accident. The trembling wretch instantly fell on his knees, and quoting the Koran, exclaimed: “Paradise is promised to those who restrain their anger.”
“I am not angry with thee,” replied the Caliph, with a meekness as exemplary as it was rare.
“And for those who forgive offences,” continued the slave.
“I forgive thee thine,” answered the Caliph.
“But above all, for those who return good for evil,” adds the slave.
“I set thee at liberty,” rejoins the Caliph, “and give thee ten dinars.”
At a time when the abolitionist cause was in its infancy in New England, Islam was used as a parable — a moral instruction that seeks at once to enlighten, and perhaps to embarrass its audience. Not only should slaves be freed, this story suggests, they should be paid reparations. Fifty-five years before some freed slaves were granted “forty acres and a mule” in the last days of the Civil War, it was unheard—of for even the staunchest abolitionists to call openly for such a plan. Yet couched in a story of another place and another faith, such dangerous notions could be put before the conscience of the public. If a Muslim Caliph could heed his supposedly lesser religion’s call to free slaves and improve their lives, how could Christians, even if they held the religion of Muhammad in contempt, not be moved to do likewise? That this was the intended message of the New Hampshire Patriot is reinforced by the newspaper’s slogan, a well-chosen line from James Madison: “Indulging no passion which trespass on the rights of others, it shall be our true glory to cultivate peace by observing justice.”
Nor was this message always so subtle. Seven years later, the Connecticut Courant published a lengthy report called “Treatment of Negro slaves in Morocco,” calling for Christians to learn moral virtues from those who professed Islam. The abolitionists responsible for the report did not deny that Muslims were implicated in the slave trade — often as owners, sometimes as merchants — but they made the argument that followers of Muhammad treated their captives more humanely than did the followers of Christ.
The Moors, or Moselmen, purchase their slaves from Tombuctoo. . . . These slaves are treated very differently from the unhappy victims who used to be transported from the coasts of Guinea, and our settlements on the Gambia, to the WestIndia islands. . . . After being exhibited in the souk, or public marketplace, they are sold to the highest bidder, who carries them to his home, where, if found faithful, they are considered as members of the family.
Problematic though it may be as a variant on the infantilizing treatment Africans endured under the Christian yoke, the alternative model of Islamic slavery championed by the abolitionists was based on spiritual principles that would have been familiar to a Christian audience. Leading the enslaved to faith was regarded in both religious environments as a benefit to all.
Being in the daily habit of hearing the Arabic language spoken, they soon acquire partial knowledge of it; and the Mohammedan religion teaching the unity of God, they readily reject paganism, and embrace Mohammedanism.
The more intelligent learn to read and write, and after wards acquire a partial knowledge of the Koran: and such as can read and understand one chapter, from that time procure their emancipation from slavery; and the master exults in having converted an infidel, and in full faith expects favour from heaven for the action, and for having liberated a slave.
Even for those who were not so quick to learn to read Arabic and recite the Quran, slavery was considered, in the Muslim context (at least as far as the abolitionists believed), a temporary condition. The enslaved within Islam, the article claims, “generally obtain their freedom after eight to ten years of servitude; for the more conscientious Mooselmin consider them as servants, and purchase them for about the same sum that they would pay in wages to a servant during the above period; at the expiration of which term, by giving them their liberty, they, according to their religious opinions, acquire a blessing from God.” Granting freedom to the enslaved was not an act of charity by which property was sacrificed. It was an opportunity to accumulate merit through an act considered more holy “than the sacrifice of a goat, or even a camel.” Lest this notion fully undermine the social fabric of a nation built on slavery, the article’s author rushes to suggest, “I have known some slaves so attached to their owners from good treatment, that when they have been offered their liberty, they have actually refused it, preferring to continue in servitude.”
As to the conclusions that Christians should draw from this, the author pulls no punches. “While we contrast the account given above . . . with the manner in which the negroes have been treated for three centuries past by people calling themselves by the hallowed name of Christian,” he writes, “what can we say other than that, the one with his heart believeth in the religion he professes, and the religion of the other lies only in his lips.” Muslims, in other words, were the true people of faith — at least as far as bringing their beliefs to bear on the practice of slavery was concerned.
Now that the abominable slave trade is no longer legalized; now that it is abolished and strictly prohibited by the general laws of Christendom, excepting Spain and Portugal: even now there are apostate Americans, who, sailing under Spanish and Portuguese colours, are robbing Africa of her sons and daughters and transporting them in fetters under every afflicting and appalling circumstance, to hopeless and most cruel servitude — even now there are American merchants, sitting in their counting room and coolly casting up their probable gains from such nefarious voyages, who, peradventure, on Sunday, appear at church with devout faces, and bow their heads at the name of Jesus!
A scathing attack on religious hypocrisy, but also an affirmation of a set of beliefs previously regarded as barbarous, if not demonic, this passage proposed the unthinkable: Not only could Islam provide moral instruction to Christianity, perhaps Christians themselves had something to learn from the enslaved Muslims in their midst.
After the story of Omar ibn Said became known — first in newspaper reports published in the 1830s, and then again when his Life was published in the English translation in 1848 — the former fugitive slave became even more famous than he had been for filling the Fayetteville jail with Arabic graffiti.
Now a frail old man who had spent decades in the United States, he happily met those who came to see him — journalists, missionaries, scholars, and the simply curious. He claimed that though he had lived half of his life as a Muslim, those days, and those beliefs, were long behind him. An 1837 article in the Boston Reporter hailed him as “A Convert from Mohammedanism” and devoted two columns to an exhaustive catalogue of his Christian virtues. A magazine reporter suggested in 1854 that anyone hoping to steal a glimpse of the “venerable coloured man” could find him in the local Presbyterian congregation, where he was “a consistent and worthy member.” Though he had been discovered in a church on the night he was returned to slavery forty—four years before, he now apparently sought out such “great houses” for comfort.
“There are few Sabbaths in the year in which he is absent from the house of God,” the magazine writer noted.
Perhaps unwittingly, Omar ibn Said was presented in the press as a “safe” Muslim to the Christian nation. It was surely not a coincidence that his story became known in the aftermath of a slave revolt in the Brazilian city of Bahia that focused the fears of slave holders in the South and captured the imagination of the country as a whole. A report typical of the dozens that appeared through out the winter and spring of 1835 was published in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Though far removed from the immediate threat of slave revolt, the piece described the events in Brazil in breathless detail: “On the morning of the 25th of January the whole city of Bahia was thrown into a state of the greatest excitement in consequence of an insurrection of the slaves of the Nagoa tribe, one of the bravest and most warlike of African slave nations. It was by far the best planned and most extensive rising ever contemplated by those unfortunate beings . . .”
According to the estimates of the day, 800 to 1,000 African born slaves, inspired by the teachings of local Muslim teachers, had armed themselves with swords and pikes and launched an organized assault directed not just at individual slaveholders but at the government and military support that made slavery possible. According to the Gloucester Telegraph, the targets of the attack included “the Barracks of the Municipal Guard, the Arsenal and lastly the Palace of the President. . . .”
Later called the Malê rebellion — from the Yoruba word for Muslim — this slave uprising was Islamic not only in the sense that most of those who fought and died were followers of Muhammad (the Nagoa tribe mentioned — now known as Nagu — accounted for the majority of Muslims in Brazil); it was also regarded as a religious battle waged against Christian slavery. Many of the nearly two hundred dead were found to be wearing protective amulets made of leather pouches containing slips of paper upon which were inscribed Quranic verses much like those Omar ibn Said had written on his jailhouse walls. Armed with this spiritual protection, the Malês “displayed the greatest intrepidity and fearlessness,” the Telegraph continued, “many of them rushing on the bayonets when they found their project defeated, thus preferring death to continuance of slavery.”
It was, in other words, every Christian slaveholder’s worst nightmare — a potential holy war on every plantation. Though the revolt was ultimately quashed, news of its religious motivation spread all over the United States. The terror it caused revealed that the desire to see Muslim slaves either freed and deported (as in the cases of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo and Abd alRahman) or converted and brought under the control of the slaveholders’ faith (as in the case of Omar ibn Said) were two means toward the same end: the eradication of Islam among the enslaved.
In the shadow of the Brazilian revolt, Omar ibn Said was cast as a formerly Muslim slave now made harmless both physically and spiritually. He was given the folksy nickname “Uncle Moro”:
Being of feeble constitution, Moro’s duties have been of the lightest kind, and he has been treated rather as a friend than a servant. The garden has been to him a place of recreation rather than toil, and the concern is not that he should labor more but less. The anxious effort made to instruct him in the doctrines and precepts of our Divine Religion have not been in vain. He has thrown aside the blood stained Koran and now worships at the feet of the Prince of Peace.
He was portrayed, in short, as everything the Muslim slaves of Bahia were not, and offered as living assurance to American slave holders that such unpleasantness could not happen here.
“Mohammedanism has been supplanted in his heart by the better faith in Christ Jesus,” his magazine biographer wrote. No longer a fugitive, he lived now “in the midst of a Christian family, where he is kindly watched over.” “Since his residence with General Owen,” another observer noted, “he has worn no bonds but those of gratitude and affection.”
Of course, the Christian family who owned him never attempted to test this claim by setting him free.
Omar ibn Said was ninety-three years old when the Emancipation Proclamation formally liberated the enslaved African Americans of the rebelling slave states. Yet because its effects were not immediately felt across the South, he did not live long enough to again live in submission only to God and the holy book of the Prophet. His words survived him, however, and soon came to seem prophetic.
Within a year of his death in 1864, the city in which he had been jailed as a runaway slave fifty-four years earlier fell to General William Tecumseh Sherman as part of the Union army’s infamous scorched-earth campaign through the Carolinas. Fayetteville had grown considerably by then, and was home to an arsenal and rifle machining facility that was one of the Confederacy’s major sources of ammunition and small arms. “Since I cannot leave a guard to hold it,” Sherman wrote to General Ulysses S. Grant concerning the arsenal, “I therefore shall burn it, blow it up with gunpowder, and then with rams knock down its walls.” In recompense for the city’s reputation as a rebel stronghold, he also ordered the destruction of “railroad trestles, depots, mills, and factories,” calling for the “utter demolition” of entire neighborhoods and the wholesale pillage of the town for food and supplies. As one witness later remembered, before Sherman moved on, “the nights were made hideous with smoke.”
Through this dark cloud of war, the flag of the United States again rose over the courthouse in which Omar ibn Said had never had a chance to plead his case. The Arabic verses he had written on the jail cell walls by then had been gone for more than half a century. Assuming the words he wrote then were similar to those he later committed to paper, he did not predict the destruction of this society built on the suffering of slaves. Nor did he plainly express hope that such destruction would come to pass. He did, however, ask questions fraught with the portent of prophecy:
O people of America, O people of North Carolina . . .
do you have a good generation that fears Allah so much?
Turning the terms of his religious upbringing against the institution of slavery, just as Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass had done with theirs, he directed his most chilling challenge toward the nation that had become his own:
Are you confident that He who is in heaven
will not cause the earth to cave in beneath you,
so that it will shake to pieces and overwhelm you?
As Fayetteville shook with falling buildings and gunpowder blasts, and the peculiar institution of slavery crumbled on its cracked foundation, it was as if the city walls had finally succumbed to the weight of his prayers.
An excerpt from One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau. In stores January 27, 2015.
“A thorough reimagining of our nation’s religions…. Engagingly written, with a historian’s eye for detail and a novelist’s sense of character and timing.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)