African Muslim

Enslaved in the Carolinas

A Chronological Observation

By Fareed H. Numan (December 1992) (Edited by Ishaq Zahid for islam101.com)

below is an excerpt of an observation taken from the exhibit on display:

In July 1825, a Philadelphia journal, The Christian Advocate, published a short biographical sketch of "Prince Moro" by an unnamed "physician at Fayetteville, in North Carolina." The piece describes a remarkable runaway slave who, after being captured and jailed in Fayetteville, "wrote in a masterly hand, writing from right to left, in what was to [local observers] an unknown language." The unknown language was Arabic, and the remarkable runaway was Omar ibn Said, an African Muslim who had studied arithmetic, business, and theology before he was enslaved, shipped across the Atlantic, and sold in Charleston, South Carolina, at age 37. In 1831 Said composed his autobiography (in Arabic); the manuscript was later translated and published in the American Historical Review. In July 2013, 1182 years after he first recorded his story, Documenting the American South commemorates the life of Omar ibn Said (and other enslaved African Muslims), highlighting several items from our digital collection of North American Slave Narratives.

Omar ibn Said (also referred to as Omeroh, Umeroh, Moro, Morro, Meroh, Moreau, and Monroe) was born around 1770 in an African region then called Futa Toro, near the Senegal River, which now forms Senegal's northern border with Mauritania. After he was enslaved and sold to a South Carolina planter, Said escaped and made his way to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was imprisoned after entering a Christian church to pray. Said garnered attention by writing on the walls of his prison cell in Arabic, and he soon became the legal property of General James Owen of Bladen County, who recognized Said to be an educated man and, according to Said's autobiography, treated him well.

One of the tantalizing mysteries surrounding Said involves his religious faith, or faiths. The anonymous author of The Christian Advocate article proclaims Said's conversion from "the Mahomedan religion" to Christianity, noting that after receiving an Arabic translation of the Bible, he "now reads the scriptures in his native language, and blesses Him who causes good to come out of evil by making him a slave." Said's own language, however, reflects more ambiguity about his religious beliefs than do the accounts of his Christian admirers and advocates. He never explicitly rejects Islam, the religion of his upbringing, or professes faith in a Christian God; rather, Said focuses on the linguistic differences between his old and new prayers. "When I was a Mohammedan I prayed thus . . . But now I pray 'Our Father,' etc., in the words of our Lord Jesus the Messiah," Said writes (p. 794). In any case, Said's (apparent) conversion to Christianity rendered him a celebrity of sorts, and his story—with an emphasis on his conversion—was recounted in several magazines and historical pamphlets. In 1836, Said moved with the Owen family to Wilmington, North Carolina, and again to a farm on the Cape Fear River during the Civil War. He is believed to have died at the age of 94 (circa 1864), but the exact circumstances of his death are unclear.Surat al Mulk transcribed by  Omar bin Said (1770-1864)

Two surviving artifacts of Said's Arabic writing provide insights into the complicated interplay betweenChristianity and Islam during his life as an American slave. The first is a transcription of the 23rd Psalm, which Said recorded in Arabic and which was later translated back into English by Professor R.D. Wilson of the Princeton Theological Seminary. The re-translation reveals that the psalm is prefaced with the statement, "In the name of God, the merciful and gracious. May God have mercy on the prophet Mohammed." In this document, Said had appended a traditional Muslim invocation to a holy text of the Judeo-Christian tradition—in a language which his master(s) could not understand. The second artifact is a card bearing Said's Arabic script. Inscribed on the back is the following explanation in English: "The Lord's Prayer written in Arabic by Uncle Moreau (Omar) a native African, now owned by General Owen of Wilmington, N.C. He is 88 years of age & a devoted Christian." The Arabic text, however, is not the Lord's Prayer, but actually Surat 110 from the Koran (entitled "The Help"), predicting a mass conversion of unbelievers to Islam in which men will "[enter] the religion of Allah in companies." It is unclear how the writer of the English inscription—a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina—came to believe that this Arabic script represented the Christian "Lord's Prayer," but this mistranslation of Said's words should serve as a caveat to his statement in the Autobiography that "now I pray 'Our Father,' etc" (p. 794).


Like that of other Africans who were enslaved and brought to America—including Abdul RahmanIbrahima, Hyuba Jallo, and Nicholas Said—Omar ibn Said's situation was fraught with complexity. He was both African and American, a non-native English speaker, a Muslim surrounded by Christians, a slave in the "land of the free." In order to please a master who was both generous and persuasive, he may have made certain concessions, representing his life and his beliefs in ways he knew would be well-received. The contradictory accounts of Said's conversion to Christianity reflect an identity that was always in danger of appropriation by dubious friends and that may forever be lost in translation.

The original Arabic manuscript of the Autobiography of Omar ibn Said, Slave in North Carolina is currently on display at the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi. The translated version of Said's Autobiography is part of DocSouth's digital North American Slave Narratives collection—a compilation of books, articles, and pamphlets that document the individual and collective stories of African Americans struggling for freedom and civil rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

Works Consulted: African Online Digital Library, "The History and Culture of Futa Toro, Senegal and Mauritania," 5 October 2007; Alford, Terry, Prince Among Slaves, 30th Anniversary Ed., New York: Oxford UP, 2007; Buhnen, Stephan, "Place Names as an Historical Source: An Introduction with Examples from Southern Senegambia and Germany," in History in Africa, Vol. 19 (1992): pp. 45-101; Foard, John Frederick, "A True Story of an African Prince in a Southern Home," North America and Africa: Their Past, Present and Future, and Key to The Negro Problem, Statesville, NC: Brady, 1904; Foard, John Frederick, "Scrapbook of John Frederick Foard," Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Library, North Carolina Collection; Harris, Carrie A., "Omeroh," The South-Atlantic: A Monthly Magazine of Literature, Science and Art, Vol. VI, No. 2 (Sept 1880): 97-100; Powell, William S., ed., "Omar ibn Said, b. 1770?" Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996; "Prince Moro," The Christian Advocate, Philadelphia: July 1825, 306-307; "Report on the condition of the people of color in the state of Ohio from the proceedings of the Ohio Antislavery Convention, held at Putnam, on the 22d, 23d, and 24th of April, 1835" (Microform); "Uncle Moreau," The North Carolina University Magazine, Vol. III, No. 7 (Sept 1854).


“Omar ibn Sayyid”

Portrait  (1770-1863)

Artist: Baba Kenya

below is an excerpt of an observation taken from the exhibit on display:

This is an “artist created” portrait of “Omar ibn Sayyid”-, (1770-1857) based upon an archival photo.  The original painting is acrylic and 16 x 20. The artist is Baba Kenya.


   Omar ibn Sayyid is known for numerous writings of chapters and verses of the Qur’an from memory.  He spent 59 years enslaved in America, never seeing an Arabic Qur’an, but being able to write chapters and verses from memory.


   The background Arabic writing in this painting is the last known writing made by Omar ibn Sayyid dated July 27, 1857, when he was 90 years old.


   The recipient/witness, Mary Jones, mistakenly identified this writing as “The Lord’s Prayer”.  It is the 110th chapter of the Qur’an, titled “Nasr” (The Help of God”).  The chapter is a testament to Omar’s mental and spiritual acuity at the age of 90 because immediately after the first verse, Omar writes in his own commentary or tafsir, which translates as “good news for the Believers”.


  The hole in the painting background appears to be actually a musket ball embed in the wall.

   Omar ibn Sayyid was originally from the area of Podor/Guide, in the Fulani State of Futa Torro.  Podor is the Hajj, or Pilgrimage station in Futa Torro.


   Omar ibn Sayyid was a “mensa child” who became a teacher/scholar, and had made the Pilgrimage to Mecca.


   Omar was 18 years old when the Almamy Abdul Qadir Kane abolished the slave trade in Futa Torro.  Within 2 years after Omar’s return from Pilgrimage, in the year 1807, Omar’s village was attacked in a coup-de-etat, in which most of the men were killed, and Omar was captured and sold off into the slavery of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.  Omar’s family members were officials in the government.


   Omar was sold to Captain James Whitney aboard a ship registered out of Baltimore MD, called the “Heart of Oak”.  Omar, along with 439 other captured Africans, endured the voyage of 45 days across the Atlantic Ocean to Charleston SC.  At least 109 of them had perished during the journey and their bodies had been thrown overboard into the Atlantic Ocean.


   In 1807, the United States and Great Britain entered into an international alliance known as the Slave Trading Act of 1807.  This act made it a capital offense to traffic human beings from Africa to the United States and Great Britain.  If a ship was caught on the high seas carrying a cargo of slaves, offenders were executed by hanging.  The Slave Trading Act of 1807 was created to shut down the entire operation of the infamous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, a business operation that created “extensive human casualties” on a global scale, equivalent to the monolithic drug trade by today’s standards.  Great Britain began to enforce this act immediately.   The United States didn't enforce this act until 1808.


   Omar ibn Sayyid, an extraordinary Fulani Arabic scholar, teacher, tradesman, and religious leader who was captured and sold into slavery, arrived on America’s shore just 4 days before the Slave Trading Act of 1807 was enforced by the United States Navy, and on American soil.

   Omar ibn Sayyid, though severely ill, survived the voyage, and was quickly purchased by a man who treated him better than most.  He was kind, but Omar only enjoyed this kindness for a very short time.  That man died within a short period of time after purchasing him.

   Next, a vile, but wealthy rice plantation owner named Johnson , purchased Omar ibn Sayyid and immediately heaped upon him one endless cruelty after another.


   The daily regimen was tortuous, without any relief. Omar ibn Sayyid was forced to work in the mosquito infested swamps from sunrise to sunset with little or no protection from the sun and very little to eat.  Malaria and typhoid were epidemic, and infected African slaves were continuously forced to work until they dropped dead where they stood.  Omar ibn Sayyid’s health, was already compromised from the tortuous Trans Atlantic voyage to America, and began to deteriorate further under these inhumane conditions.  He had no idea where he was in this strange land, but he did know one thing….. he had to escape.


  In 1810, after two years of suffering hellish cruelties and being driven worse than an animal, Omar ibn Sayyid devised a plan of escape.  With nothing but his instincts, the grace of God and all his years of learning and experience in  Futa Torro as well as  his journey across Africa to Mecca, Omar would travel alone in his quest for freedom.  He hid and slept whenever he could during the daylight hours, and moved stealthily by night.  His tools were his faith in God , the light of the moon and the North Star as his guide.  Omar ibn Sayyid would travel alone and barefoot, for 30 days, almost over the complete State of South Carolina in his quest for freedom. A distance of over 220 miles.


   Omar would eventually stumble upon a church where he thought he would find sanctuary, but he was observed by a young white boy who informed his father that he had seen a black man enter the church.  He was arrested, forced to march 12 miles to the Fayetteville, North Carolina county jail and imprisoned for weeks until someone would hopefully come to claim him. No one ever did.

    In an urgent attempt to communicate with his captors, Omar ibn Sayyid did something that no common people in America had ever seen before.  Using a piece of coal from the jail cell floor, he began to write on the walls the words, verses, and chapters of the Qur’an in the Arabic language.   Although being multilingual, he had not yet learned to communicate in the English language.This peculiar form of writing in an unknown foreign language, coming from a “runaway African slave” amazed the townspeople.  He became an overnight oddity.  Omar became very popular with the townspeople and their children.  They had no idea that he was a Teacher.  After a period of time, with no one coming forward to claim him, the continued imprisonment of Omar ibn Sayyid was costing the jail money to keep and feed him. The jailor schemed to rid himself of the responsibility and further costs for Omar’s upkeep, and unlocked his jail cage leaving the doors wide open and unattended, in the hopes that he would flee and escape.   However, ironically, Omar ibn Sayyid had decided not to flee.  He had traveled alone, in the dark, on foot, almost over the complete State of South Carolina.  A distance of over 220 miles.  The irony was that it felt good to finally be in a warm place, with food to eat, and a place to sleep.   They decided to sell Omar ibn Sayyid for the total $900 cost and fines of being a runaway vagrant African slave.

  Bob Mumford, the benevolent Sheriff of Cumberland County, would finally come and release Omar ibn Sayyid from jail, taking him home with him.  Bob Mumford and his family treated Omar very well.   Bob Mumford was an astute man who recognized and honored Omar ibn Sayyid’s level of intelligence, and he advised his brother-in-law, the wealthiest man in the county, Jim Owen.  Jim Owen was the president of the Wilmington/Raleigh North Carolina Railroad.


    Omar ibn Sayyid’s life with the Owens Family is where the second half of his adventurous life would be begin.  He quickly became the favorite of the family. Due to his firm but gentle nature towards children, as well as his recounting stories and folk tales from his homeland in Futa Torro, Omar was particularly loved by the children of the Owens household.  Due to his good behavior, education and mastery of mathematics, Omar ibn Sayyid was treated with great dignity. Omar was clothed and fed as well as anyone of the Owens Family. He was never in fear of being beaten, and no longer lived in fear or apprehension.  The Owens family shared with him and treated him as he should have been treated;…like a human being.


   Omar would share all of his knowledge with the Owens Family, however he never forgot who he was, or where he came from.  Omar ibn Sayyid maintained his own traditional religion of Islam deep in the heart of a Christian country that, at that time, believed in and practiced the inhumane barbaric practice known as “slavery”.

   Omar ibn Sayyid would die at 96 years of age, revered, and respected.  Omar ibn Sayyid actually wrote his own autobiography in 1821 in the Arabic language and is featured prominently in many scholarly writings as one of the single most educated African slaves in the history of North Carolina.  He is the only documented African slave to write his own autobiography in the Arabic language while still enslaved in America.  His autobiography is American literature.


 Omar ibn Sayyid was born in 1770 in Futa Torro, which is the same year another famous African Fulani Muslim was born in at the opposite end of the Senegal River in Futa Djallon.  His name was Bilali Muhammad.  Both men would be enslaved in America.


Painting-Illustration by Baba Kenya




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