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Stories from the Americas

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[S]tories of Muslims enslaved in the Americas are exemplary: they showcase Islamic affiliation as a nominal matter subject to unbounded reconfiguration.

This section concentrates on life narratives of two individuals: Rufino José Maria “Abuncare” (d. ca. 1853) and Omar Ibn Said (d. 1864). Both were born in Africa and died in the Americas (Brazil and the United States). As effects of the Atlantic slave trade during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the documents that make these men’s stories available inform us as much from their forms as their contents. In this section, I concentrate on the high degree of indeterminacy regarding these lives as an important resource to consider issues pertaining to Islamic pasts.

Scholarship on the Atlantic world has shown that a substantial percentage of Africans enslaved and transported to the Americas came from Muslim backgrounds. The exact number involved is a matter of informed conjecture because of the very nature of slavery as an institution. People were captured through a variety of processes, were transported across the Atlantic in horrifying conditions that caused tens of thousands to die en route, and were eventually auctioned across the Americas to be used, often brutally, in occupations such as agricultural labor in plantations, domestic work, and acting as living capital whose labor for hire accrued returns for owners. All stages of enslavement as a process and a condition worked to decimate the expression of personal identity, including religious, cultural, and linguistic worlds that individuals carried with them from their natal contexts.

The racism endemic to European intellectual constructs in the period acted as metaphysical justification for defining Africans as lesser humans. This basic fact made those who were identified as Muslims, capable of writing in the Arabic script, stand out as being worthy of special attention. The possession of literacy and Islam—an intellectual system begrudgingly acknowledged as an inferior but comparable entity to Christianity—marked these individuals as an unavoidable challenge. Their presence highlighted the contradiction between Euro-Americans’ racist commitments and the plain evidence of Africans’ full humanity they encountered while interacting with them daily. While Muslims among the enslaved did not change entrenched racist perspectives, they were often treated as a noteworthy curiosity.

The two individuals who interest me have been the subject of substantial scholarship. This research focuses on understanding enslaved Muslims’ place in the history of the Americas for which the life stories are valuable both in themselves and for generating complex views of the overall social world during the nineteenth century. Scholars have used documentary evidence of these individuals’ marginality to get from biography to history. Under the timeline version of Islamic history, stories of Muslims enslaved in the Americas barely garner a mention. They are, at best, a topic on the extreme periphery of the global Islamic past. In my perspective, these stories are exemplary: they showcase Islamic affiliation as a nominal matter subject to unbounded reconfiguration.

Detail from a bronze statue depicting a man holding broken chains high above his head while a woman holds onto him.

Memorial to the liberation of enslaved Africans. Goree Island, Senegal.


Photo 2162696 © Faberfoto |


Stories from the Americas

A Brazilian Confession

Possessing Arabic script texts can be dangerous business. The truth of this proposition was borne upon Rufino in Recife, Brazil, on September 2, 1853. Our sources of information for this story are a document in the government archive, which is accusatory as befits the genre, and newspaper reports, which vary between being sympathetic and hostile toward him. The city at the time was awash with apprehension regarding an insurrection by peoples of African origin. If such an event were to come to pass, it would have replicated earlier rebellions, most notably one in 1835. Then, enslaved Muslims, duly armed with Arabic script texts as well as weapons, had featured as central characters. In Recife, authorities had swooped in upon Rufino due to his reputation as an influential person in the community who, moreover, plied the healing trades using amulets and prayers of Islamic provenance. In the event, Rufino was released without charge within two weeks of arrest once the texts in his possession were deemed innocuous. It is likely, too, that his clientele included people influential enough to press for his release.

At the time of his arrest and release, Rufino was “the impecunious resident of a basement room in a Recife townhouse in Rua da Senzala Velha [Old Slave Quarters Street]. The other African suspects detained during the investigation that led to his arrest were also humble folk” (Reis, Gomes, and Carvalho, Story of Rufino, 241). However, his life as encapsulated in the account he gave to the interrogators paints a rich picture of the times he inhabited. Matching his details to other available documents, historians have placed him in larger patterns of the relationship between Africa and Brazil during the nineteenth century.

According to Rufino’s account, he was born in West Africa in a Muslim family, captured by a rival Muslim group during war, and sold to slavers transporting people to the Americas. He arrived in Salvador, a city in Bahia, at the age of seventeen around 1820 and was purchased by an apothecary who trained him to work as a cook. A large percentage of this city’s population was African at the time, including a substantial number of Muslims who would later feature in the rebellion of 1835.

After eight years in Salvador, he was sold to a merchant in Porto Alegre, and two years later he was auctioned in public when the merchant went bankrupt. Purchased by the local police chief, he was put out as labor for hire, a practice that allowed slaves to keep some of their earnings. He was then able to save enough to buy freedom from the third owner. The manumission document, dated to 1835, remained one of his crucial possessions through the rest of his life.

As a free man, Rufino moved to (or was possibly expelled to) Rio de Janeiro, where he eventually joined the slave trade by signing up as a cook. He then undertook multiple voyages across the Atlantic, on more than one ship, in which he worked on deck while also being a small investor in goods transported for trade. His choice of occupation was not unusual. Many freed Africans worked on slaving ships, where they faced less racial discrimination than on land and their knowledge of African languages and geography was an asset. The slave trade to Brazil in the relevant period occupied a legal gray zone. Its results were greatly in demand in Brazil, while slave ships faced opposition from the paramount European power, Great Britain, which had abolished slavery in 1833. Rufino was on the ship Ermelinda’s slaving voyage when it was captured and boarded by British forces on October 27, 1841. This resulted in Rufino being taken to Sierra Leone, a British colony, in December 1841.

As a trial took place over many months pertaining to the Ermelinda (the case was eventually dismissed, for complicated reasons), Rufino got the opportunity to attend Islamic schools in Sierra Leone. Here he improved his knowledge of the Arabic script and Islamic religious materials, a process that was interrupted in his youth due to enslavement. He then returned to Brazil in the middle of the 1840s and settled in Recife, changing his occupation from an accomplice in the slave trade to religious healing and instruction. Between his local connections and the prestige and facility acquired in Sierra Leone, he was well placed for the job.

In Recife, he was known under the name Abuncare, which may have come from his childhood in a Muslim community in West Africa. He made a modest living as a healer and spell-maker, catering to Muslims and non-Muslims, Africans, and Whites, and possibly acted as a religious functionary in matters such as conducting marriages. Government officials’ knowledge of Rufino/Abuncare’s reputation led to the interrogation that bequeathed the documents we can now use to tell his story.

Rufino’s narrative has many more details that I have omitted for lack of space. The summary I have presented is useful to treat the story as a node, permeated by diverse and even contradictory forces, in history imagined as a web. Here Islam is marked by textuality and literacy, key elements that distinguished Muslims from non-Muslims among the enslaved in the Atlantic context. But whether as a force to be harnessed or as a threat needing neutralization, the texts signified through their forms, as writing, and not due to the discourses contained in them. They were understood as being powerful as objects and not for the semantic content of the language. We know from comparable materials that Rufino’s texts were likely parts of the Quran and other devotional or legal works in use in West Africa. Their meaningfulness in this context resided outside their linguistic content, in sociointellectual practices that originated in West Africa and stretched across the Atlantic via minds and bodies transplanted through the slave trade.

On the question of Islam’s relationship to slavery, Rufino’s story is equivocal. We see Muslims slaving and being enslaved, the main Muslim character transposing between these roles during his life. In the end, he seems to have used his Islamic affiliation and knowledge to acquire social status across religious boundaries. For matters of healing and fulfilling wishes, his clientele seems to have cared little about his confession. In the Brazilian world formed of colonization and slavery, Islam and its texts could be put to entrepreneurial use across religious, cultural, and racial formations. If Islam’s history is understood as its role in worlds made by human beings, Rufino’s story shows it to consist of ideas and practices transforming to meet circumstantial imperatives unconstrained by preexisting discursive specificity.

Detail from a handwritten Arabic manuscript (with only text).

The autobiography of Omar Ibn Said.


"The life of Omar ben Saeed, called Morro, a Fullah Slave in Fayetteville, N.C. Owned by Governor Owen", Library of Congress, Washington DC, Control Number 2018371864, p. 16


Stories from the Americas

An Autobiography from the United States

Today held by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, Omar Ibn Said’s short autobiography in Arabic is the most famous document related to enslaved Muslims in North America. This work has been discussed by many scholars, the most recent translation into English being published in 2011 (Alryyes, Muslim American Slave, 48–79). Omar Ibn Said was the subject of numerous press reports while alive due to his literacy in the Arabic script. His self-narrative states that he was captured in West Africa and transported to the United States in his thirties, after having acquired considerable competency in Islamic religious sciences. First sold in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1807, he later escaped and was then imprisoned as a runaway. Passing through several owners, he eventually spent most of his adult life in North Carolina, dying in his nineties in 1864, still enslaved.

Omar Ibn Said is the preeminent case for a literate West African Muslim becoming a part of the debate regarding slavery in the United States. His autobiography begins by stating that he was providing details of his life in response to a request from a man named Hunter. He also figures prominently in arguments by Americans opposed to slavery who point out that Africans are as capable as others of acquiring “civilization” embodied in literacy and a scripture-based religion. The autobiography and other texts produced by Omar Ibn Said contained references to Christianity, and in press reports he was described as a Muslim who had become a devout Christian. This claim featured prominently in Protestant Christian abolitionists’ interest in him, who saw the Islamic emphasis on direct access to the text of the Quran as better religious preparation to come to true Christianity than even Catholic Christian “popery.” Use of the Arabic script could thus be portrayed as a boon to the possible conversion of Africans to the right kind of Christianity:

Readers who have neglected Africa may not be prepared to believe that schools of different grades have existed for centuries in various interior negro countries.…Nor is this system always confined to the Arabic language, or to the works of Arabian writers. A number of native languages have been reduced to writing.…Indeed, one of the most gratifying evidences has thus been furnished of the favorable influences exerted by the unrestricted use, as well as the general diffusion of the knowledge of letters; while the truth is not less certain, because hitherto unknown, that large portions of the African Continent lie open to the access of Christian influences through channels thus prepared by education (Dwight, “Condition and Character of Negroes in Africa,” 79).

The author goes on to cite Omar Ibn Said as a case in point for the possibility of Christianizing Africa.

Just as nineteenth-century Christian missionaries celebrated his “conversion,” twentieth-century scholars have pointed to the presence of references to Muhammad in materials produced by him to argue for his continuing Muslimness. In the latter understanding, he should be seen as a Muslim forced to convert due to life under enslavement.

I believe Omar Ibn Said’s relationship to Christianity is important but for reasons different than the ones mentioned above. As a node in the web of Islamic history, the most productive way to see Omar Ibn Said’s life is to not pin him as a Muslim or a Christian. His manuscripts, and reports from people who interacted with him, indicate that he was both, and without triggering a contradiction.

Understanding Omar Ibn Said in this way requires us to not think of Islam and Christianity as independent forces that act upon human actors. Instead, if we prioritize individuals and see religion as the effect of their actions, to be both Muslim and Christian is an eminently understandable position for someone like Omar Ibn Said. From this position, his life circumstances developed such as to enable him to articulate himself in both idioms. He then created and projected an identity in which a strict division between being Muslim and Christian was immaterial.

I would like us to examine a single page of text thought to be Omar Ibn Said’s writing. This page is quite representative of the overall corpus associated with him (Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America, 128–156). One side of the page has Arabic text in Omar’s handwriting, while the obverse has English. The Arabic text is largely the Quran’s chapter 110, with Omar’s version containing some differences in wording (marked in brackets) and additions interpolated from other parts of the Quran (in italics below):

When the [a] help from God comes, and a [the] near victory,

    and give believers the good news

And you see men entering God’s religion in droves

Then glorify your Lord with praise, and seek His forgiveness. Surely He is the one who recompenses.

The note in English on the other side of the page reads:

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. Given to Mary Jones, at the Rockbridge Alum Springs, Rockbridge Country Va. by Genl Owen July 27, 1857.

As commentators have pointed out, the note in English seems to misidentify the text, which is a chapter from the Quran and not the Christian invocation called the Lord’s Prayer. The mismatch seems all the more obvious given that Arabic versions of the Christian Lord’s Prayer translated and inscribed by Omar Ibn Said are available.

Having read the texts, let us stand apart from the object and think through its possible significations. With respect to the Arabic text, I think the difference between the standard text of the Quran and Omar Ibn Said’s version is best understood as his deep internalization of the scripture. My opinion here runs counter to the proposition that the author’s “misquotation” indicates the weakening of his bond with his natal environment. In that view, not living in a Muslim milieu caused his recollection of the text to become muddled or diluted. This interpretation gives the text an existence outside its human reproduction.

Historically, we can be sure that wherever a standard text of the Quran has been maintained, this has happened through institutionalized social (re)iteration. For Omar to reproduce the text decades after interacting with anyone else who would know it speaks to the text’s deep imprint in his mind. In this vein, the slight changes from the standard would also seem to speak to the degree to which parts of the Quran had become a kind of manipulatable language preserved within him rather than being prayers or proof texts alone.

Now let us move from the “misquotation” to the “misidentification” of the text as the Lord’s Prayer. The first thing to note is that the text is in fact recognizable as a prayer to the Lord. In a literal sense, then, it is a Lord’s Prayer. In the context where the text was written and then given to General Owen and Mary Jones, Omar Ibn Said was the only person able to indicate its meaning. It seems highly likely, then, that the author was the one who identified the text as the Lord’s Prayer, which he surely could have done knowing what it said. Going further along these lines, it is reasonable that he would have understood parts of the Quran and the Bible that he knew to have the same contents. Such a view fits perfectly within Islamic theological understandings he may have known, even if he would be aware that American Christians did not understand the Quran as reflecting the same message as the Bible.

In parallel with what I have suggested regarding this single folio, Omar Ibn Said’s famous autobiography presents him as both a Muslim and a Christian. Commentators have usually presumed that only one of these identities could be true. Either he was a closeted Muslim pretending to be Christian due to circumstances or he had become Christian while retaining vestiges of Islam. The actual contents of the autobiography counter a bifurcated view and indicate an enjambed religious understanding. For us to appreciate this requires that we allow, without presuming a contradiction, that a person in Omar Ibn Said’s situation could be Muslim and Christian simultaneously.


Contents of Omar Ibn Said’s Autobiography

  • 1a-3a

    Quran Chapter 67, al-Mulk (Sovereignty) with differences from the standard text

  • 7b-10b

    General prayers;

    Basic facts of early life enslavement, and residence with General Owen (his owner) and his family;

    Statement that before he came to Christian country his religion was the religion of Muhammad, with details of some ritual requirements;

  • 11a

    Quran Chapter 1, al-Fatiha (Opening) and Lord’s Prayer

  • 11b-12a

    Criticism of Christians who took him from his homeland and praise for General Owen as a religious and kind man

Omar Ibn Said’s amalgamated religious position is directly on view on folio 11a of the autobiography. He begins by stating, “On this account, the shari’a was given to Moses while grace and truth were by Jesus, the Messiah.” Then comes the word “first” and a full quotation of the first chapter of the Quran (“The Opening”), which is recited multiple times in daily prayers. This is followed by “and now” and an Arabic version of the Protestant Lord’s Prayer (Alryyes, Muslim American Slave, 74–75). One key here is that the two prayers occupy very similar ritual functions in Islam and Christianity. On this account, “first” and “now” elide into each other rather than being prior or supercessionary. A similar combined perspective is present in the fact that in the text, he lists out Islamic religious obligations (the five pillars, etc.), whereas reports on him describe him as attending church services without fail.

Islamic Nodes in the Americas

The contrast between the two lives I have considered here helps us to see Islam’s multiple pasts in the relationship between West Africa and the Americas. We know of the two lives through very different kinds of documents: an interrogation report versus manuscripts produced on request from those interested in the author’s Muslim identity. One man gained freedom a few years after enslavement, while the other remained a slave until his death. The free one toiled under disadvantageous circumstances, including working in the slave trade, while the one who remained enslaved acquired public acclaim to a certain degree and seems not to have been asked to undertake heavy labor to survive. For the freed one, the Islamic connection was a means to a petty business, while the enslaved produced texts that were to be used in debates among Christians.

Among all these differences between Rufino and Omar Ibn Said, one thing is true for both: put into evolving, even contorting, worlds, Islam can be generated anew to respond to the vagaries of circumstances. In both cases, the protagonists’ identities involved Islam, created in new worlds whose pasts and futures went far beyond their natal environments. Islam mattered to life before as well as after enslavement, but its value was utterly transformed under the force of events.

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