“Who Is Omar ibn Sayyid?”

By Ahmad Kenya,

The Living History Heritage Project © 2011

“Who is Omar ibn Sayyid?”  Ask that question, and depending on “who” you ask, the response is often, “Who”?  Or if the person is a little more knowledgeable of African American History, the answer will more than often be: “Isn’t that the Prince of Slaves?”

Often confusing one man with another, this is usually about as far as you get. It’s because the “Lost Personalities” and “Forgotten Roots” of so many African and African American historical characters from Islamic backgrounds or heritage, are to date widely unknown.

The summary answer to “Who is Omar ibn Sayyid” is that he was a multi-lingual Fulani teacher and scholar from Futa Torro, one of the five Fulani States that existed in West Africa during the late 1700s to 1890s.

The Fulani people are Muslims.  These Fulani States were “Almamates,” which are States ruled or governed by an ultimate Imam, referred to as “Almamy.” Futa Torro was in present day Senegal, and its territory was bordered by the Senegal River to the north and the Gambia River to the south.  It was referred to as “the land between the two rivers.

Omar ibn Sayyid was a non-combatant, captured in a coup de etat, and sold into the slavery of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

He was sold in Charlestown, S.C., and ultimately within two years fled to Fayetteville, N.C., where he amazed his captors by writing verses and chapters of the Qur’an in the Arabic language on his jail cell walls.

Omar had not yet learned to speak the English language.  This was during 1810, when only 50 percent of North Carolina males could read and write and one-third of North Carolina females could write their names.

Omar ibn Sayyid is the only “documented” African Muslim slave in Ante-Bellum American History to write his own autobiography with his own hand.  It is written in the Arabic language, and the Original Manuscript, owned by Tariq Derek Beard, is currently on exhibit at the Arturo Schomburg Museum in New York.

Omar ibn Sayyid’s autobiography is the only known American literature, written in the Arabic language, by an African Muslim slave.

Facts and details about Omar ibn Sayyid’s life astound audiences, as they discover so many interesting things about his life that have been presented during the past three years in an educational dramatic reenactment, titled “The Life and Times of Omar ibn Sayyid” – 18th Century Dramatic Slave Reenactment.

This production was written and produced by Ahmad Kenya, based upon Omar’s autobiography, research, and interviews.  It has been touring the U.S. as a profound educational dramatic production since its inception.

Only recently, this year in 2011, has a newly released English language translation of Omar ibn Sayyid’s Arabic language autobiography been published by Yale Professor Ala Alryyes, titled “A Muslim American Slave” –The Life of Omar ibn Sayyid.

“The Life and Times of Omar ibn Sayyid” – 18th Century Dramatic Slave Reenactment has been presented at numerous universities, schools, museums, theatres, community centers, and houses of worship.

Some of the numerous venues include Masjid Omar ibn Sayyid (Fayetteville, N.C.), Hajj Association of New Jersey Annual Banquet, American Islamic Heritage Museum (D.C.), African American History Museum of Philadelphia (Penn.), Ware Theatre-Lincoln University (Penn.), Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz Center (N.Y.), Cliveden House – A National Historic Site (Philadelphia), School District of Philadelphia, Newtown Friends Middle School (Penn.), and so many others.

It has had a profound effect on audiences and developed a considerable following. Many people come back to “experience” it again and again.  What is almost as profound as the actual dramatic reenactment is the audience response to the “Timbuktu African Artifacts Workshop” that immediately follows the production – referred to as “the Journey.”

Audiences are taken “back in time” to the 18th Century classroom of the Teacher, Omar ibn Sayyid in Futa Torro. As a result of this, whenever you ask the question again: “Who is Omar ibn Sayyid?”….surprisingly, more and more people are coming up with the “correct answer.”

This has been an interesting case of  “performance art” educating the general public.  A few years ago, Ahmed Kenya decided to do a Muslim historical reenactment, resultant of the urgings of a dearly supportive fan, Abdul Rahim Muhammad, director of New Africa Center in Philadelphia, Penn.

Nationally, there are very few African American male reenactors, and there were absolutely no Muslim reenactors or Muslim personalities being portrayed.  The personality Ahmed chose to reenact was “Omar ibn Sayyid,” which was based upon his actual autobiography, interviews and research.

Ahmad Kenya says he researched and compiled as part of a larger educational project during the early 1970s in college the project titled “An Islamic History of Early West Africa.”

As Kenya began to debut the performance, he also actively searched for other Muslim reenactors, with the ultimate purpose to produce a traveling showcase of reenactments of various African, African American Muslim historical personalities that would exhibit the undeniable impact or stamp that the Islamic cultural heritage has placed upon American History.

With all its various achievements and contributions, Ahmad Kenya hoped that his own showcase of “The Life and Times of Omar ibn Sayyid” would “lure” other Muslim artists, male and female, to show that “this can be done.”

After an encounter with international lecturer, Amadou Shakour, Kenya was then introduced to Khabir Shareef, a Muslim reenactor in Indianapolis, Ind. Khabir already had been working on his reenactment of “Abdul Rahman Ibrahima – The Prince Among Slaves.”

It is these two men, “Omar ibn Sayyid” and “Abdul Rahman Ibrahima – The Prince Among Slaves” who are often confused in their identities.

Abdul Rahman Ibrahima was from the Fulani State of Futa Djallon, which lay to the south of Omar ibn Sayyid’s beloved homeland, Futa Torro.  Futa Djallon was located in the area today known as Guinea, W. Africa.

Abdul Rahman Ibrahima was actually the son of the ruling Almamy of Futa Djallon, whose name was Sori.  Thus, Abdul Rahman’s full name was “Abdul Rahman Ibrahima ibn Sori,” meaning “the son of Sori.”

The Fulani of Futa Djallon were literate people, just like those of Futa Torro, and other locations.  They prized education and literacy tremendously.  Abdul Rahman Ibrahima studied at the famed University of Timbuktu.

Later in life, he became a military leader in his father’s army, which was necessary to maintain the territorial borders in peace.  During one of these military campaigns, after defeating the enemy forces, and while returning back to Futa Djallon, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima’s small army was ambushed, and he was captured and sold into the slavery of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.

Abdul Rahman Ibrahima was ultimately sold in Natchez, Mississippi, to a man who had absolutely no idea “who” he was.  Although Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, like Omar ibn Sayyid, was multi-lingual, he could not yet speak the English language, so he attempted to get others o explain to his slave master, that his actual identity was the son of the Almamy (Ruler) of Futa Djallon.

Ibrahima wanted to explain that his father, Almamy Sori, would pay his slave master a handsome ransom price to set him free and return him to his homeland.  Abdul Rahman’s slave master scoffed at the idea, and called him “Prince” in mockery of his true identity.

It would be sometime later when a ship surgeon’s life was saved, who had fallen desperately ill long ago in Futa Djallon, who recognized Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, that he would confirm the Abdul Rahman’s identity to his slave master.

This ship surgeon offered to buy Ibrahima, so that he could return him to his father, Almamy Sori, in repayment of the debt of saving his life long ago.  The obstinate slave master refused to sell Abdul Rahman Ibrahima and thus began his long years of enslavement, but as a semi-farm manager, over the other slaves.

Abdul Rahman would ultimately marry and come to the attention of  members of abolitionist groups like American Colonization Society, due to his ability to read and write multiple languages.  They played a key role in his emancipation.  He would travel the U.S. seeking subscriptions to raise money to purchase the freedom of his children.

All these details regarding the life stories of “Omar ibn Sayyid” and “Abdul Rahman Ibrahima” and much more have been compiled and portrayed in a master enhanced enrichment education project titled: “The Living History Heritage Project.”

This unique and powerful program includes three hours of the most amazing educational experience available.  It includes one hour of “The Life and Times of Omar ibn Sayyid” 18th Century Dramatic Slave Reenactment,  one hour of  “Abdul Rahman Ibrahima –The Prince Among Slaves,” and 45 minutes of “Timbuktu African Artifacts Exhibit and Workshop,” as well as lectures by humanities scholars.

There also are Lesson Plans for educators and teachers.

With these great works, very soon, the names of Omar ibn Sayyid, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, and others like them, will be common knowledge to the American public in general and the African American public in particular, due to an effort underway to launch a 2012 National Tour for The Living History Heritage Project.

Pepsi’s “Refresh Everything Grant Program” is the grant being vied for.   The Living History Heritage Project tour plans to travel to multi-cities, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, during 2012. But this will only be possible if the general public votes every day during the month of November for the play; to go http://www.refresheverything.com/livinghistoryheritageproject

The voting deadline is 12 mid-night on Nov. 30, 2011. This project must get the top number of votes in the Education Category. Each person can submit three votes daily for “LIVING HISTORY HERITAGE PROJECT.” Follow the instructions below:

Go to:  http://www.refresheverything.com/livinghistoryheritageproject or  http://pep.si/VOTE4LHHPNow

If you are on Facebook, sign in and VOTE. Text your VOTE: Text 109800 to PEPSI at 73774.
Or sign-up using your e-mail address at Pepsi Refresh and VOTE: http://pep.si/VOTE4LHHPNow

Ahmad Kenya can be reached at 215-848-3651; visit http://www.facebook.com/livinghistoryheritageproject





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