Omar ibn Sa’id was born in present-day Senegal in Futa Toro, a region along the Middle Senegal River in West Africa, to a wealthy family. He was an Islamic scholar and a Fula who spent 25 years of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars, learning subjects ranging from arithmetic to theology in Africa. In 1807, he was captured during a military conflict, enslaved and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. He escaped from a cruel master in Charleston, South Carolina, and journeyed to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was recaptured and later sold to James Owen. Sa’id lived into his mid-nineties and was still enslaved at the time of his death in 1864. He was buried in Bladen County, North Carolina. Omar ibn Sa’id was also known as Uncle Moreau and Prince Omeroh.
Omar ibn Sa’id describing his two slave masters
Although Omar converted to Christianity on December 3, 1820, there are dedications to Muhammad written in his Bible, and a card dated 1857 on which he wrote Surat An-Nasr, a short sura which refers to the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam ‘in multitudes.’ The back of this card contains another person’s handwriting in English misidentifying the sura as the Lord’s Prayer and attesting to Omar’s status as a good Christian. Additionally, while others writing on Omar’s behalf identified him as a Christian, his own autobiography and other writings offer more of an ambiguous position. In the autobiography, he still offers praise to Muhammad when describing his life in his own country; his references to “Jesus the Messiah” in fact parallel Quranic descriptions of Jesus (who is called المسيح ‘the Messiah’ a total of eleven times in the Quran), and descriptions of Jesus as ‘our lord/master’ (سيدنا) employ the typical Islamic honorific for prophets and is not to be confused with Lord (ربّ); and description of Jesus as ‘bringing grace and truth’ (a reference to John 1:14) is equally appropriate to the conception of Jesus in Islam.
Literary analysis of Sa’id’s autobiography suggests that he wrote it for two audiences, the white literates who sought to exploit his conversion to Christianity and Muslim readers who would recognize Qur’anic literary devices and subtext and understand his position as a fellow Muslim living under persecution. In a letter written to Sheikh Hunter regarding the autobiography, he apologized for forgetting the “talk” of his homeland and ended the letter saying: “O my brothers, do not blame me,” with the knowledge that Hunter would require Arabic-speaking translators to read the message. Scholar Basima Kamel Shaheen argues that Sa’id’s spiritual ambiguity may have been purposefully cultivated to impress upon a wide readership the injustices of slavery.