Muslims are having some trouble entering the United States these days, but there was a time when tens of thousands were enthusiastically welcomed for a permanent stay, no visa needed. These were slaves from Africa who arrived under duress in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s estimated they made up about 20 percent of all slaves and were often esteemed, even by their owners, for their scholarship and attainments.
One was Omar ibn Said who was born to well off parents in present-day Senegal. He started studying Islam at age five and learned to read and write fluently. That did not save him from eventual capture by slave traders, followed by a grueling sea voyage to America with manacled prisoners piled on top of one another, many not surviving a trip that could be worse than slavery itself.
Said landed in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1807 and became the prisoner of a particularly harsh master. His faith kept him going, writes Peter Manseau, religion curator at the Smithsonian Museum. He tried to escape but was caught and jailed. In prison he impressed his captors with his quiet dignity and prayers. He also scratched Arabic writings on his cell walls that caught the attention of a prominent land owner, James Owen, who purchased his release and was intent on converting him to Christianity.
It worked, if only partially. Said managed to combine the two faiths, inserting Mohammed in the Lord’s Prayer. He had his own reserve seat in the family’s church and was admired for his Christian behavior. A reporter noted that he had “thrown aside the blood-stained Koran and now worships at the feet of the Prince of Peace.” When he was offered an opportunity to return to Africa, he stayed put and died at 94 just as Union forces were winning the Civil War and freeing slaves, but not in time for him.
Omar bin Said was austere. Job Ben Solomon was the opposite – lively, voluble, a slave galante with social skills. He got off to a bad start in Senegal when he attempted to sell two family slaves and in the process was enslaved himself. He thereby joined his captors on an ocean trip to Maryland, where he proved unsuited to work in the tobacco fields or even with cattle. He tried to escape, was caught and jailed, but his erudition impressed a local judge who considered him a recruit for conversion: “He shewed upon all occasions a singular veneration for the name of God and never pronounced the word Allah without a peculiar accent and a remarkable pause.”
Enough pause to become a Christian, though like Said, not altogether. But that was sufficient to become something of a celebrity, mingling with royalty on a trip to Britain and earning the approval of U.S. President John Quincy Adams. With that kind of support, he was freed from slavery and was able to return to Africa, one of the few American slaves who made it back. He continued to read the Bible and admired its precepts, though he wished Christians would follow them.
Islam was said to be “the engine of upward mobility in the structure of slavery.” It also provided comfort and strength for those under the lash. Once slavery was abolished, there was, practically speaking, less need for Islam, and that may account for its decline in the black community in America. But its memory, crucially, lingers.