By Dr. Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad
Daughter of Ameenah Beyah
Daughter of Marion Reese
Daughter of Doris Davis
Daughter of Ellen Knight
Daughter of John Knight
Son of Ned Knight born in North Carolina in 1807.
My three decades of family history (which began when I was 12 years old) is, in many ways, a quintessential American story – that of a descendant of people enslaved in the U.S. and Caribbean. Over a span of 200 years, I’ve traced births, marriages, deaths, migrations and more across and to the Southern, Midwestern and Northeastern United States.
I have learned that I am a descendant of people who found ways to be and endure despite unimaginable oppression. I am a descendant of people who (because I am here), were resistant and resilient against the arrogant, persistent, unrepentant narrative of a country, which will only see itself as earnest and triumphant in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.
It is this story of faith, resilience and resistance that I am most drawn to – it fuels the questions I often ask myself: What enabled our ancestors to remain steadfast? What profound belief comforted them? How do we recognize and honor what will forever remain unknown, though its presence courses through our veins? How do we channel the faith or faiths which have all contributed to our existence?
As a psychologist, I wonder about the dance between sure faith and abject despair, certainty and confusion, devastation and wholeness, trauma and healing, connectedness and isolation?
I recognize the danger, rigidity and limitations of binaries – life and spirit flows. However, this context, this country, excels in these extremes. And so they seep into our collective consciousness. How do we find ourselves in the counter-narrative, processing the nuances and complexities of life in this American context?
The life, legacy and writing of Omar ibn Said offers us rich guidance and wisdom. In 1807, Omar ibn Said was kidnapped in Fouta Toro (Senegal), enslaved and brought to America. My own 4th great grandfather Ned Knight was born in North Carolina in this very same year.
Is it possible for Said’s harrowing and remarkable life circumstances to help Americans like myself understand my own family story, as well as the journey of many other enslaved Muslims, the journey of “Black Islam” in America, and the ongoing evolution of American Muslim communities across the country? Absolutely!
MWF establishes the Omar ibn Said Institute of
Black Muslim Studies & Research on Juneteenth 2021
Muslim Wellness Foundation (MWF) is celebrating 10 YEARS of service to American Muslim communities across the country. We have been a powerful and consistent voice in advocating for spaces and dialogue which elevate the importance of faith, healing, identity and wellness as justice.
In commemoration of this grounding-breaking decade of work, particularly related to Black Muslim mental health, we have established the Omar ibn Said Institute for Black Muslim Studies & Research. This is the ONLY Institute of its kind in the United States.
Honoring the legacy of the esteemed scholar, Omar ibn Said, the mission of the Muslim Wellness Foundation’s Omar ibn Said Institute is to become the nation’s premier institution for transformative scholarship on the Black Muslim experience, and like Said’s autobiography, unfettered by the constraints of the white gaze and white supremacy.
The aim of the Institute is to explore, deepen and enhance understanding of the content and context of the lives of Black/African American Muslims in the United States, many of whom are descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas. This exploration focuses particular attention on the rich intersection of race, religious minority identity development, well-being and community building. The establishment of this Institute underscores MWF’s ongoing commitment to center and uplift those narratives within the American ummah [community] and beyond, which are often marginalized and overlooked in health and interfaith outreach efforts, yet offer profound lessons in resilience, wisdom, hope and healing.
The Institute will house major MWF initiatives, such as the Black Muslim Psychology Conference (BMPC), Deeply Rooted Emerging Leaders Fellowship (DREL), National Black Muslim COVID Coalition and various research projects. It will also offer experiential and innovative learning opportunities, academic courses, special intensives, grounded, community-based participatory research, and independent study and fellowships for graduate students and emerging and seasoned leaders.
Our first major project and international research collaboration serves to reclaim the narrative and power of the historical figure for whom this Institute is named.
Who was Omar ibn Said?
Omar ibn Said was a West African Muslim scholar born in Fula Toro, Senegal, in 1770. He was a learned man who had spent 25 years engaged in deep Islamic study and achieved the equivalent of a tenured professorship.
Said was kidnapped and enslaved in 1807 and forcefully brought to America. He was sold at the age of 37 years old in Charleston, South Carolina, to a man called Johnson. Due to the cruelty of this master, after a short time, Said ran away to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was imprisoned and then sold again to a man named James Owen.
During his imprisonment, he wrote his autobiography in Arabic, chronicling his life and education prior to enslavement. Said eventually wrote 14 manuscripts in Arabic over the course of his life, the most well-known being his autobiography. This document is one of few enslaved narratives not written by or dictated to a white person or enslaver.
It is the ONLY known account written in Arabic. Therefore, the veracity of his account is likely free of interpretation through the white gaze. Said died, still enslaved, in Bladen County, N.C., in 1864. Ultimately, it was Omar ibn Said’s profound faith that provided him with peace, fortitude and courage to endure almost 60 years in bondage.
There are many (though not enough) interpretations and reflections of the incredible life of Omar Ibn Said. Readings of his work speak to quiet resistance, resolute faith and wise presence. But how much of this is simply a flattened white man’s narrative of this esteemed scholar? How much more is there to know and understand? A LOT more.
“I wish to be seen in our land called Africa, in a place on the river called….” ~ Omar ibn Said, 1819.
Where was Omar Ibn Said born? This remains a critical yet unanswered question. The ongoing search for clues to his origins and the village he called home intrigue us as well.
“Was He A Prince? Mysterious Slave.” This was the headline of an article featured in the Rocky Mount, N.C. Telegram on Wed., July 31, 1974. Author Dr. D.H. Jones wrote, “Prince or not, Omeroh (Moro, Omar Ibn, Seid, or whatever his real name) was certainly a curiosity at Owen Hill up the Cape Fear River from Elizabethtown.
“Unfortunately, until some scholar unearths more solid documentation on his life, we will have little to go on except hand-me-down information.” Fortunately, interest in Omar Ibn Said’s life has grown and “solid documentation” is now within reach.
The Omar ibn Said Project: Part 2 – Return to Fouta Toro: Journalists Jennifer Hawes and Gavin McIntyre of the Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., received a Pulitzer Center grant in 2020 to research the life of Said.
After some delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in February 2021 they set off for West Africa in the hopes of discovering more definitive clues as to his origins. Hawes and McIntyre were joined by Senegalese scholars Dr. Mamarame Seck, a linguistics professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar and Abdoulaye Gueye, an Arabic teacher, translator and certified interpreter.
They journeyed to Fouta Toro, Senegal, seeking clues as to Said’s birthplace. Read more about that incredible journey: “I Am Omar”: A quest for the true identity of Omar ibn Said, a Muslim man enslaved in the Carolinas.
Dr. Seck recalls, “Our first trip to Fouta was to look for Omar’s hometown. The only information we had at that time, which is still valid, was that he was from a town in Fouta Toro, between the two rivers.
“The most meaningful moment and discovery from the trip to Fouta with journalist Jennifer Hawes was the meeting with Imam Ahmet Baïdy Sy of Dimat when he pronounced the word Koppe with certainty in his gaze. He then consulted with his guests to verify his reading, and they all confirmed it. “Imam Sy is a highly respected person in Fouta who was recommended to me by the Tall family, descendants of El Hadj Omar Tall from Alwar. After the Imam suggested Koppe, we went there. But we also decided to go to other places, including Barobe Jakkel, another possible direction mentioned in previous studies.
“But none of those villages seems to be the right place, except Koppe. The population of Koppe embraced the story of Omar when we visited them and are willing to further the investigation as to where he is actually from.”
MWF is proud to collaborate with Dr. Mamarame Seck and Abdoulaye Gueye and support this next phase of research: the Omar ibn Said Project: Part 2 – Return to Fouta Toro and the Village of Koppe. The aim of this project is to explore these clues and the possibility of confirming Said’s birthplace. The outcome of the trip will also be an insider’s translation/interpretation of Said’s manuscripts in Pular, Wolof, French & English.
Dr. Mamarame Seck: “As a linguist, I believe there is no writing that is neutral. We always write from a perspective, which will likely be local. Our writing somehow reveals our personality to others. A text written by a Foutanke (someone from Fouta) would necessarily include something from Fouta as it is the case in Omar’s text.
“A local reading and translation of Said’s manuscript and autobiography will certainly make a big difference in our understanding.”
Senegalese researchers Mamarame Seck and Abdoulaye Gueye are currently in the village of Koppe. There is a palpable excitement in the air as the local people read Said’s story. We pray that there might also eventually be a gathering to connect the lands and people who have been so deeply enriched by Omar ibn Said and his writing.
As a Black Muslim woman, I would have never imagined being part of such amazing diasporic conversations about identity, belonging, and what it means to be seen (and known) by one’s own people. Researching my own family’s 200+-year-old roots in North Carolina and the launching of the MWF Omar Ibn Said Institute for Black Muslim Studies & Research have been the most personally and professionally enriching endeavors of my life.
At MWF, we’re looking forward to sharing more news of the ‘Return to Fouta’, the launching of new Institute endeavors – such as a graduate certificate in Black Muslim psychology, an academic publication: Journal of Black Muslim Studies & Research and funds to support a research fellowship and scholar in residence.
And through it all, how we grow, discover, process, grieve, ground, enrich and nourish one another and our communities through all of the marvelous ways we are fully, and finally, SEEN.
Learn more about the Omar ibn Said Institute for Black Muslim Studies & Research and Omar Ibn Said Project: Part 2 – Return to Fouta Toro, Senegal.
Lead Researcher: Dr. Mamarame Seck, Cheikh Anta Diop University, Dakar. Collaborating Institutions: Muslim Wellness Foundation – Omar Ibn Said Institute for Black Muslim Studies & Research.
The aim is to explore the origins of Omar ibn Saïd based on his manuscript. It is a follow-up from previous visit to nine villages of Fouta: Dimat Walo, Dimat Dieri, Koppe, Alwar, Horefonde, Gababe, Barobe Jakkel, Guia, and Podor.
The main destination for this trip will be Koppe, where Omar might be from based on the geography and history of the place and the suggestion of local readers, especially Imam Ahmet Baïdy Sy of Dimat Walo.
Outcome: Translation and interpretation of Said’s manuscripts in Poular, Wolof, French and English by the local residents of Fouta Toro. Dates: July 23 – August 1, 2021
Dr. Kameelah Mu’Min Rashad is the Founder and President of the Muslim Wellness Foundation (MWF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting healing and emotional well-being in the American Muslim community through dialogue, education and training.
Through Muslim Wellness Foundation, Dr. Mu’Min Rashad has established the annual Black Muslim Psychology Conference and the Deeply Rooted Emerging Leaders Fellowship for Black Muslim young adults.
She is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Psychology and Muslim Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) and CTS’ Project Director for the InterAct on Race Project: Engaging Diverse Faith Communities in Anti-Racist Work. She is also Visiting Faculty at Bayan Islamic Graduate School.
Dr. Mu’Min Rashad graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Psychology and MEd in Psychological Services. She has pursued further graduate education, completing a second Master’s in Restorative Practices & Youth Counseling (MRP) from the International Institute for Restorative Practices and obtaining a post-Master’s certificate in Family Therapy from the Philadelphia Child & Family Therapy Training Center.
She completed her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, Penn.
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