An enslaved West African scholar’s story is being told by the translation work of an Islamic studies professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Professor Carl Ernst spoke about his work at Middle Tennessee State University on Tuesday.
The scholar in question, Omar Said, was born in Futa Tora in modern-day Senegal. He studied for 25 years in a religious academy in West Africa. In 1807 he was captured and transported to America, where he died enslaved in 1863. During his enslavement, he created multiple documents in Arabic including a short autobiography. Ernst and his co-author Mbaye Lo, Associate Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, have translated Said’s documents and will be releasing their book “I Cannot Write My Life: Islam, Arabic and Slavery in Omar Ibn Said’s America” in the spring.
Ernst described Said’s story as a “little-known topic.” He first learned about him when he saw Said’s Arabic Bible on display at the Davidson College Rare Book Room in North Carolina. It was originally bought by Said’s enslavers in an attempt to convert him to Christianity.
All that remains of Said’s work is 18 documents, all in Arabic. Small, one-word translations from 19th-century experts sparsely populate the pages. First-hand accounts report that Said’s English was poor and he was unable to write in it. When modern scholars got a hand on Said’s manuscripts, no critical edition was published, a step that Ernst noted as basic footwork. A critical edition is a detailed analysis of a manuscript that includes a translation if needed, literary criticism and an editor’s extensive annotations.
While previous work suggests that Said had converted to Protestantism, Ernst found a different story while translating. Said quoted the 26 passages from the Quran and six from the Bible. When including the bible verses, Said offered written praise to the Prophet Muhammad and used Islamic theology to interpret them.
“The people who looked at these documents who knew a smattering of Arabic could not connect it to the Arabic literary tradition because they were not familiar with it and they were deeply immersed with scientific racism of that day,” Ernst said.
He drew attention to one quote Said utilized from “Jewel Poem Rhyming in A” by Abu Madyan.
“You who is turning gray / What are you waiting for? / Do you not recognize, my brother, the fate of those who have departed? / Either you are insane or an idiot / Your hair is white, but your heart is black,” Ernst translated.
He believes the quote was included by Said to criticize slave owners. John Owen, Said’s slave owner, graduated from UNC where Ernst teaches today. The oldest student organization, the dialectical society, still has a portrait of Owen.
Said’s longest piece is an 8-page autobiography, part of around 100 slave narratives that were published before the civil war. His is the only one written from the perspective of a slave rather than a freedman.
“There was no audience, no one to read it, no one to understand it,” Ernst said. “Yet, he had to accept his destiny because that was part of his faith. There is something surprising, shocking, moving about the spectacle of an educated man who was forced to endure the conditions of slavery for 50 years in North Carolina.”
As for how his work survived, it was the children of Owen’s family who preserved his documents and passed them down.
“The scholars were careless, they threw (the documents) away,” Ernst said. “We’re talking about the failure, indeed the betrayal, of the experts, who were unable and unwilling to read what he wrote and understand that he wanted to go back to Africa.”
As a scholar, Said feels he has a responsibility to make Said’s voice heard.
“We hope this will permit a reconsideration of the way we understand early America,” he said. “We would like to argue that Arabic is an American language and Islam is an American religion.”
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