Two 19th-Century Tales of Muslims and American Slavery

Born with the same name in the same region, two men took different paths toward educating us about sub-Saharan Africans and Islam

Two 19th-Century Tales of Muslims and American Slavery
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson

In the Middle Senegal River Valley, the start of the 19th century would witness the birth of two remarkable Omars. One would become the enslaved Muslim who wrote the first autobiography of a slave in the Americas in Arabic; the other stands as one of the most influential and erudite Muslim scholarly warriors in West Africa. The two Omars grew up in Futa Toro, a semi-arid region along the Senegal River, hence their teknonym of “al-Futi,” which is commonly attached to their names in Arabic. Coincidentally, they both died (or in the case of Shaykh Omar Tal the erudite scholar-warrior, disappeared in a cave) in 1864. But it is not their shared name that matters; it is rather what they have come to symbolize.

Knowledge production has remained a cornerstone in the spread of Islam in Africa, arguably since the 11th century. In his essay “Muslims in Early America,” Michael Gomez notes that “a consideration of the historical development of Islam in West Africa is essential in trying to formulate an idea of the size and character of the Muslim presence in early America.” The scholarly project of the latter Omar, Shaykh Omar ibn Sa’id al-Futi Tal (whom we will refer to as Shaykh Omar Tal in this article to avoid confusion), would reshape the very landscape of Islam in 19th-century West Africa. He left Futa Toro sometime in his mid-20s on a knowledge-seeking mission that took him to Futa Jallon (now Guinea), Sokoto (northern Nigeria) and Masina (Mali). Like his homeland of Futa Toro, these were all polities that had undergone significant political transformations as kingdoms ruled by Muslim scholars called “almamis” and were known as important sites of scholarship at a time of political turmoil. The 19th-century West Africa in which the two Omars came of age was a tumultuous milieu. The numbers of Muslims being sent into Atlantic and Saharan slavery in the Senegal River Valley was at an all-time high. Since the Futa Toro revolution in 1776, many new Muslim scholar-led imamates would seize power through a series of military campaigns.

Though the two Omars never met, their stories intertwine around the abolitionist figure of Almami Abdul Qadir Kan, the leader of the Futa Toro revolution and arguably the most important abolitionist figure in Islamic history. It is arguable that Kan’s Imamate of Futa Toro became the inspiration and the institutional model for the creation of Shaykh Omar Tal’s state, the so-called Toucouleur Empire, which he founded in 1852. Kan forbade the slave trade based on Islamic jurisprudential grounds and prevented slave ships from docking in Futa’s ports. In his seminal work, “The Walking Qur’an,” Bilal Ware states that “rather than learning abolitionism from Christian Europeans, [Kan] showed them how it was done … evidence suggests that in 1787, when the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade held its first meeting in London to discuss how to gradually end the trade … Kan had already abolished it in Senegambia.” At a time when the French and the British were embroiled in the slave trade, the region of Futa Toro stood in vehement opposition to it and to both its local and colonial sponsors.

Though the legacy of Kan inspired Shaykh Omar Tal, his violent demise was calamitous for the less fortunate Omar ibn Said (pronounced “Sayyid ”). In his autobiography written in the Carolinas, Omar ibn Said narrates that in 1807, there was a war between the Muslim state of Futa Toro and Kaarta, a non-Muslim Bambara kingdom. This war led to the death of the antislavery leader Kan as well as to the capture of Omar ibn Said. He describes this harrowing moment: “Then there came to our place a large army who killed many men and took me and brought me to the great sea and sold me into the hands of the Christians, who bound me and sent me on board a great ship. And we sailed upon the great sea a month and a half when we came to a place called Charleston in the Christian language.”

Obviously, the two Omars’ struggles and experiences were a world apart and cannot be compared. One was taken as a slave to North America and died there, and the other was a ruler of a briefly existent empire, the largest ever seen in Senegambia. One lived a life in chains, exiled among slave-owning “Christians” in the Americas, while the other had resources to undertake the Hajj and to visit other Islamic centers of knowledge. While he is not remembered as an abolitionist, Shaykh Omar Tal was known to have freed other slaves in his homeland and had a following of thousands of “murids” (wayfarers seeking spiritual enlightenment) as well as leaving a legacy of being a fierce warrior of the pen and the sword, fighting “pagan” and French colonial forces in the last decade of his life.

While the two Omars can’t be compared, the sum of their lives, taken together, can tell us a great deal about trans-Atlantic slavery, Islam in West Africa and the onset of a new colonial world order. Appropriately, their namesake is Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of Islam, who reigned from 634 to 644 and was also known as the “faruq” (the distinguisher between falsehood and truth) for his no-nonsense fearlessness when it came to defending truth. This trait reverberates in the legacies of both Omars. The stories of the two can remedy blind spots not only in our understanding of America but of Islam as a whole. Muslim scholars of West Africa in general are the faruqs not only of American history but of our understanding of Islam in Africa. The two Omars remind us that Arabic is both an African and an American language, and that Islam is both an African and American religion.

The little that is known about the history of Muslim slaves in the Americas is directly proportional to the lack of knowledge about the vast history of Islamic scholarship in West Africa—and the place of Africa generally—in the Muslim tradition. Bilal Ware’s theory of embodiment of the Quran as being central to West African Muslims’ relation to the Islamic epistemology stands at the heart of this blind spot: If the likes of Omar ibn Said and other Muslim slaves “were understood as embodiments of the Qur’an, then enslaving them was akin to desecrating the Book of God. … If attempts to burn ink-and-paper copies of the Qur’an sparked emotional reactions from Muslims worldwide at the beginning of the 21st century, how would Senegambians respond to seeing the Walking Qurʾan carried away in chains?” asks Ware. So long as this framework is sidelined, our understandings of both Islam and America will always fall short.

Despite the rampant transience and instability of this era in Futa Toro—what is today the region along the border of Senegal and Mauritania—Islamic education flourished. It was commonplace for young boys and girls to memorize the Quran with learned scholars and receive instruction in a range of subjects such as hadith, poetry, mathematics, astronomy and theology. Before his capture by slave traders in 1807 and throughout his life in Futa, Omar ibn Said would have received his Islamic education from a minted scholar such as Shaykh Omar Tal. (Historical sources indicate he was under the tutelage of Sulayman Bal.) He would have studied the basics of the Maliki legal school and memorized the Quran from a young age. Recent commendable efforts have been taken to document his life and the autobiographical manuscript he wrote. His handwritten copy of some short chapters from the Quran are now part of the North Carolina Collection in the Wilson Library at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an opera about his life premiered last year in Charleston, South Carolina.

Thanks to works like that of Ala Alryyes and Sylviane Diouf, author of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas,” we know that “African Muslims like Omar were a familiar presence” in America since its earliest days. “Among the 400,000 Africans who spent their lives enslaved in the United States,” Diouf wrote, “tens of thousands were Muslims.” We also know through various accounts that for other Muslim slaves, like Ayuba Sulayman Diallo and Yarrow Mamout, it was typical for them to be committed Muslims who prayed five times a day, regularly performed “thikr” (remembrance of God) on their prayer beads and fasted during the month of Ramadan.

In his autobiography in Arabic, Omar ibn Said narrates how he landed in South Carolina on the plantation of a cruel master, only to escape to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was recaptured, sent to jail and later sold to James Owen, whom Omar ibn Said describes as a kinder owner than the previous one. Omar is described by his American contemporaries as “a scholar” and “a prince” for his “unlikely” erudition, but he was not, in fact, a remarkable scholar, as there is little evidence to suggest he studied more than the fundamentals of Islamic belief and practice before his capture in West Africa. Furthermore, there is nothing “unlikely” or unusual about his knowledge of Arabic and his literacy. They called him endearing names such as “Uncle Moreau” and “Prince Omeroh” to signify his status as a marvel. This is a sign of their exoticizing fascination with the literate Omar ibn Said and other Muslim slaves from West Africa as well as an indication of their ignorance about how normal it was for West African Muslims to know Arabic and be well educated. Their knowledge of Arabic while in chains, however, stood as a form of resistance in the face of their enslavers.

For Shaykh Omar Tal, to say that he was “well educated” is an understatement. Tal transmitted original knowledge and produced many written works whose reach and influence would reshape the landscape of West Africa itself. It can be argued that through his authority and scholarship, he single-handedly transformed what a Sufi order in West Africa, as we know it today, looks like.

He enjoyed a vast network of scholarly relations across West and North Africa, all the way to Cairo. In fact, primary and secondary sources document how he left the scholars of Al Azhar dumbfounded as they quizzed him in a famous “munathara” (debate) that became the subject of many a ballad sung by “griots” (traditional West African storytellers). In a thousand-page encyclopedic hagiography entitled “Rare Pearls on the Life of al-ḤājjʿUmar” by his descendant Muntaga Tal, a poem describes the Cairene scholars’s reaction to Tal’s erudition:

They gathered for him the scholars of Cairo, those of the brilliant sciences
One asked about the similar verses of the Qur’an, the other about ḥadīth
He was asked about this and that, and not a question was asked
Except that he answered it in the best of ways without consulting any book.

I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Tal’s magnum opus, “Kitab al-Rimaḥ” (“The Book of Spears”). Tal’s work is an integral part of an important corpus of West African Islamic scholarly literature in Arabic, but its most salient status is how it has come to serve as the blueprint for Tijani Sufi outlook and doctrine as well as how it helped in the enormous spread of Islam and Sufism in West Africa in the 19th century. Because of its clear prescriptive narrative, its copious quotes and commentary, and the erudition of its masterful writer as well as his ability to weave varying sources and chapters with careful precision, “al-Rimah” can thus be seen as a microcosm of the corpus of the entirety of Sufi thought, with specific focus on the methodology of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, the Sufi revival movement that arguably saw its apex in the 18th century. The power of the work’s wide-ranging, persuasive rhetoric aided in this spread and empowered Tal to spread Sufism based on an intensified connection with the Prophet Muhammad as the ultimate path to God across large swaths of West Africa. By centering the authority of the Prophet as a living, palatable source of guidance, West African sages like Omar Tal are therefore not only “Walking Qur’ans” but walking “prophetic inheritors” too.

Historically in the Western academy, neither Islamicists nor Africanists paid enough attention to the likes of important figures such as the two Omars. This is understandable, though inexcusable. The academy has had longstanding shortcomings in taking seriously the study of African Muslims as being both Muslim scholars of Arabic as well as African transmitters of knowledge. Western scholars tend to approach African and Islamic studies in separate lenses: “too Islamic” to be a legitimate subject of study for most anthropologists and Africanists, and “too African” to be of interest to Islamicists, thereby causing African-Muslim scholarly voices to fall through the cracks.

Historians of 19th-century Islamic intellectual history often tend to focus on Middle Eastern reformist thinkers in Egypt or Damascus, who were preoccupied with reacting to rising Western hegemony through reformist or revivalist lenses and approaches. It was all too common for later 20th-century scholars across the Muslim world to be preoccupied with decolonization. At the same time in West Africa, it can be argued that black Muslim scholars were transcending that threat altogether through an epistemology of actualization (“tahqiq”), a paradigm that is often ignored in Islamic studies but lies at the heart of West African Muslims’ (and others’) experiential approach to Islam and its primary sources — the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad.

In his recent article entitled “The Ultimate End of Decolonization,” Wendell Hassan Marsh boldly suggests that “African epistemic self-affirmation is the ultimate end of decolonization.” By highlighting the importance of a recently published work entitled “Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts,” Marsh points to a new “wave of academic work on the histories, cultures and meanings of Islamic thought in Africa” that does not yield to the long-held idea of Islam as “foreign” to Africa and defies the idea that autochthony (nativeness) is the only qualifier for what constitutes “African religion.” The lives and works of Shaykh Omar Tal and other prolific West African sagely scholars like Usman dan Fodio, Ahmadu Bamba and Ibrahim Niasse are ripe areas for exploring the case for “ending decolonization” and centering a self-affirming approach of tahqiq (realization) at the center of new epistemic frontiers in Islamic thought and practice.

In Tijani West African lore, it is professed that one of the reasons for the rising recognition of Shaykh Omar Tal’s spiritual abilities was a litany he recited frequently entitled “ḥizb al-sayfi” (“the litany of the sword”). The warring imagery between his favored litany and the title of “The Book of Spears” is uncanny. Tal understood that the most difficult jihad he would undergo is the struggle against his own self. Similarly, Omar ibn Said would begin his autobiography with the Quranic chapter al-Mulk (the Dominion), which Alryyes contends points to Omar’s own private resistance using Quranic edicts and his refusal of bow down to the right of his owners over him “since only God has the ‘mulk’ (power and ownership)” over him. For both Omars, their unyielding trust in God as the ultimate victor animates their status as “walking Qurans” and “prophetic inheritors.” It seals their status as warriors of the pen and as guiding faruqs in not only our understanding of America but of Islam itself.

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