I Cannot Write My Life

Islam, Arabic, and Slavery in Omar ibn Said's America

By Mbaye Lo, Carl W. Ernst

232 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 1 drawing, 8 halftones, 3 tables, appends., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7467-4
    Published: August 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7466-7
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7468-1
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6352-2
    Published: August 2023

Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks

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Omar ibn Said (1770–1863) was a Muslim scholar from West Africa who spent more than fifty years enslaved in the North Carolina household of James Owen, brother of Governor John Owen. In 1831 Omar composed a brief autobiography, the only known narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in North America, and he became famous for his Arabic writings. His enslavers also provided him with an Arabic Bible and claimed Omar as a convert to Christianity, prompting wonder and speculation among amateur scholars of Islam, white slave owners, and missionaries. But these self-proclaimed experts were unable or unwilling to understand Omar's writings, and his voice was suppressed for two centuries.

Mbaye Lo and Carl W. Ernst here weave fresh and accurate translations of Omar's eighteen surviving writings, for the first time identifying his quotations from Islamic theological texts, correcting many distortions, and providing the fullest possible account of his life and significance. Placing Omar at the center of a broader network of the era's literary and religious thought, Lo and Ernst restore Omar's voice, his sophisticated engagement with Islamic and Christian theologies, his Arabic skills, and his extraordinary efforts to express himself and exert agency despite his enslavement.

About the Authors

Mbaye Lo is associate professor of the practice of Asian and Middle Eastern studies and international comparative studies at Duke University.
For more information about Mbaye Lo, visit the Author Page.

Carl W. Ernst is William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For more information about Carl W. Ernst, visit the Author Page.


“Drawing on scrupulous close readings of Said’s work, Lo and Ernst make a worthy contribution to the scholarship on slavery in America and testify to the importance of evidence left behind by enslaved people themselves. This edifies.”—Publishers Weekly

I Cannot Write My Life is the most detailed and disciplined study of one of the most important figures of antebellum American and Muslim history. It is a must read for students of Islam in America and should be of interest to anyone engaged in Black transatlantic studies.”—Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, author of A History of Islam in America

"Lo and Ernst unshackle new insights and complex truths hidden inside the life and agency of Omar ibn Said. Inshallah, may his free spirit return to his two rivers."—Jaki Shelton Green, North Carolina Poet Laureate

“This fresh and insightful look at the texts and contexts of Omar ibn Said debunks gross misinterpretations of Omar’s biography and thoughtfully juxtaposes his ‘unfreedom writings’ against the literary genre of formerly enslaved people’s freedom narratives.”—Rudolph T. Ware III, University of California, Santa Barbara