Diversity in the ‘Christian Nation’
Muslim Slave's Story Inspires Commentary on Tolerance
Listen to Gustav Niebuhr's commentary on religious diversity in the United States.
Feb. 27, 2002 -- Life of Omar Ibn Said is the earliest preserved Muslim manuscript written in the United States. Long considered one of the treasures of antebellum literature, the manuscript had been missing since the 1920s.
In 1995 it was rediscovered in an old trunk in Virginia, and sold at auction to collector Derrick Beard. Beard loaned the work to The Interfaith Center of New York, where it is the centerpiece of an exhibit on Said's life.
Gustav Niebuhr, a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, was the national religion correspondent at The New York Times and a frequent lecturer and writer on religious issues. He says in a commentary for All Things Considered that Said's life story "points to something many Americans don't seen to recognize: that our country -- in its individuals, if not institutions -- has always been more religiously diverse than it appeared, a trend that certainly continues today.
"A visitor to early America would have found a rich array of often competing groups -- Calvinists, Catholics, Mennonites and Quakers, to name a few, along with small communities of Jews, and scores of Native American tribes unconverted to any church."
"All this gets obscured when people speak wistfully of the United States as a 'Christian nation,' as if religious belief were uniform," Niebuhr says. "Sure, the dominant culture has been Protestant, but the population has never been monolithic.
A visitor to early America would have found a rich array of often competing groups -- Calvinists, Catholics, Mennonites and Quakers, to name a few, along with small communities of Jews, and scores of Native American tribes unconverted to any church."
Said was born about 1773 in Futa Turo, a region between the Senegal and Gambia rivers in West Africa. He spent 25 years studying with prominent Muslim scholars. Then, in 1807, he was captured during a military conflict, enslaved and brought to North Carolina, where he remained a slave until his death in 1864.
His autobiography, written in Arabic in 1831, is just one of several manuscripts Said is known to have authored. Although a slave, he keeps his Muslim faith -- and maintains an openness towards other "God fearing" people.
"These days, the trend toward religious pluralism continues, although far more visibly... The size of their communities is new, but the diversity isn't. One might even call it an American tradition," Niebuhr says.
The story of Omar Ibn Sayyid (also spelled Said) is a featured exhibit at the Interfaith Center of New York in Manhattan. Excerpts of Omar Ibn Said's autobiography read by actor and activist Ossie Davis will be available on the center's Web site beginning Friday, March 1.
Niebuhr is a visiting fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.