Vital Signs

A Different Past

Sometimes historical scholarship tells us more about the present than about the past.

In June 2005, an exhibit of Omar ibn Said’s The Life, the only known autobiography written by an American black while in bondage, was on display in the lobby of the U.N. headquarters.  What made it even more significant was that The Life was written in Arabic and included chapters of the Koran.  The United Nations displayed the slave narrative—an unusual and noteworthy find, to be sure—not as an historical curiosity but as evidence that the “roots of Islam in America” run deep and that “Islam has created a major, positive impact in the United States.”

The discovery of The Life has been described as the “tip of the democratic iceberg.”  Some scholars assert, for instance, that possibly 30 percent of all slaves were Muslims—although there is actual evidence for only a couple hundred.  Others offer a more modest claim of ten percent.  And the vast majority of this percentage, these scholars claim, were probably like Said: religiously devout, yet educated and broad-minded.  He steadfastly adhered to Islam, the story goes, “throughout his long years, along with an openness towards other ‘God fearing’ people.”

Much about Said’s life is left unsaid, however—probably because it complicates...

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