Painting of slaves working in a sugar cane field.


Pulitzer Center Grantees Talk Race, Religion in the Life of Omar Ibn Said at Berkley Center Event

By: Henry D. Brill

November 17, 2021

Journalists Jennifer Berry Hawes and Gavin McIntyre discussed their groundbreaking journalism on Omar Ibn Said (d. 1864), a Senegalese Muslim scholar sold into slavery in the American South, at a Berkley Center panel on November 15.

"While Omar was living in North Carolina, where he spent the vast majority of his enslavement, he wrote a number of texts in Arabic,” explained Hawes, a reporter at the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. “His most important piece was an autobiography that he wrote in 1831.”

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which supported Hawes and McIntyre in their work on Omar Ibn Said, co-sponsored the event as part of a collaboration with the Berkley Center to bring leading journalists to campus and to support reporting projects by Georgetown students as part of its Campus Consortium initiative.

Searching in Senegal

Hawes and McIntyre set out to search for the historical Omar Ibn Said, who was known in his own time for reportedly converting to Christianity, in addition to writing works in Arabic. 

“A big thing for us was really trying to get into the essence of who Omar was, and something we tried to address through our project was his identity,” explained McIntyre, a staff photographer at the Post and Courier. “Did he convert? Was he still Muslim?”

That focus brought the two to Senegal, where they worked closely with local imams and scholars, including linguistics professor Mamarame Seck and Arabic translator Abdoulaye Gueye, to explore the life and times of Omar Ibn Said. 

“We set out to really talk about Omar’s life there: what was the history of the region, what did the geography look like, how did the Islamic faith of people look in practice,” says Hawes. “A lot of our journey was really going from village to village, trying to see what he wrote and did the imams and historians there think he wrote this word or that word.”

Religious Conversion?

During the course of their fieldwork in Senegal, Hawes and McIntyre gained critical insight into different understandings of the reported conversion of Omar Ibn Said. 

“In the United States, we have at times talked about his story more in terms of he was either Christian or Muslim,” said Hawes. “But in Senegal, there was much more of a view that those things could be more harmonious, that he could have had a faith that involved both.” 

The autobiography of Omar Ibn Said stands to illustrate this point, suggesting the complex roles of both Christianity and Islam in his faith life. As McIntyre explained: 

In his autobiography, Omar goes back and forth between verses from the Quran and the Lord’s Prayer, so you see the dichotomy that is happening within him.

Hawes and McIntyre hope to improve popular understandings of the history of enslaved Muslims in the United States, estimated to represent 20% of the enslaved population. 

“We have a tremendous historical narrative about the Black Christian church, but we don’t have as much understanding about the Muslim faith of so many people who were brought here and who came to Christianity later,” explained Hawes. 

New Narratives

Diving into the biography of Omar Ibn Said helps to add fresh perspectives to popular understandings of slavery in the United States, according to the panel. 

“It goes against the narrative of enslaved people being this monolith,” says McIntyre. “With Omar, he had this whole history before he came here.”

Since the release of their project, Hawes and McIntyre have received positive feedback from readers, who are eager to learn more about the finer points of Omar Ibn Said’s story. 

As Hawes explained, 

I think that they resonate with the idea of looking at this real person. We have these surviving images of him, you can see him, and you can read his own voice. That’s just something we don’t have enough of.

This event was co-sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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