‘Impossible Documents’ — How An Enslaved Muslim Scholar Illuminates Southern Identity

Jun 9, 2020

A creative portrait of Omar ibn Said
Credit Baba Kenya

In the 1700s, approximately 5% of the pre-colonial United States was Muslim. Most of them were enslaved, and one of the foundational figures of early American Islam lived in North Carolina. Omar ibn Said has confounded scholars and translators for more than a century. 

An educated scholar from an aristocratic family, Said was enslaved and brought to the port of Charleston in 1807 from his homelands in the Futa Toro region of modern-day Senegal. His autobiography is written in Arabic with a Southern accent and includes references to West African locations and Sufi literature. In it, Said attacked his enslavers and the conditions of the American South while also illuminating his struggle to overcome the psychological imprisonment of slavery. He wrote because he needed to.
 

Fayetteville, NC circa 1825, near the time of Said's capture and sale.
Credit John McRae / Library of Congress

Host Frank Stasio talks with 21st century translators of Said, Professors Mbaye Bashir Lo and Carl Ernst. The two scholars dispute earlier commentary that cast Said’s writing as unintelligible. Contextualizing Said within the linguistic and cultural landscape in which he was raised, they find evidence of Sufism and Islamic syncretism.

Their translation and commentary assert the ways Said underscores Islam and the African diaspora’s foundational role in the making of Southern culture and society. Lo is an associate professor of the practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University and Ernst is a professor and the co-director of the Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The partners taught a course on the subject and their critical edition of Said’s writings will be published digitally by the University of Maryland.