Omar Ibn Sayyid was born in Futa-Toro, a region that lies between present-day Senegal and Gambia. He spent his first thirty-one years there studying with prominent Muslim scholars in Africa. In 1807, he was abducted from his homeland during a period of African warfare and sold into slavery. He was sent to America–to Charleston, South Carolina–and sold to a violent master (the “evil Johnson”) from whom he escaped to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was bought by Jim Owen, brother of a former NC governor. He remained enslaved until his death in 1964. Omar Ibn Sayyid was in his nineties.
Omar left behind at least fourteen Arabic manuscripts, including some short chapters (suras) from the Quran. He had a Bible in Arabic which has some of his annotations in the margins. This Bible is now part of the rare book collection at Davidson College in North Carolina. Omar’s copy of an English Quran is no longer extant.
Omar is best remembered for his autobiography written in Arabic in 1831 and first translated into English in 1848. While other slave writings in Arabic exist, Omar’s is the only extant Arabic autobiography by a slave written in the United States. Arabic is firmly anchored in the American linguistic landscape, and Omar’s autobiography represents the roots of Muslim heritage in American history.
The main question that has interested scholars of Omar’s autobiography concerns the authenticity of his conversion. For Christian missionaries, Omar truly converted to Christianity and his example served as a model to other slaves. For Muslims, Omar’s conversion a nominal conversion only that protected him from his masters and the evils of slavery. His last preacher, Rev. Mathew B. Grier, himself allowed some doubt about Omar’s conversion, who commented that Omar was a true Christian “by all outward signs.”
Read more about Omar ibn Sayyid at the National Humanities Center webpage (PDF).