Anthony Janszoon van Salee- New York’s first Muslim American

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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, commonly known as Murat Reis the younger (circa 1570 – post 1641?) was the President and Grand Admiral of the Corsair Republic of Sale, Governor of Qualidia, and a Dutch pirate, one of the most notorious of the Barbary pirates from the 17th century; the most famous of the “Sale Rovers.”

In 1619, the Sale Rovers or Salle Rovers declared the Moroccan port of Sale to be an independent Republic free of the Sultan. They set up a government that consisted of 14 pirate leaders, and elected Janszoon as their President.  He would also serve as the Grand Admiral of their navy. The Sale fleet totaled about eighteen ships, all small because of the very shallow harbor entrance.

Even the Sultan of Morocco, after an unsuccessful siege of the city, acknowledged its semi-autonomy. Contrary to popular belief that Sultan Zidan Abu Maali had reclaimed sovereignty over Sale and appointed Janszoon the Governor in 1624, the Sultan merely approved Janszoon’s election as President by formally appointing him as his ceremonial governor.

Under Janzoon’s leadership, business in Sale thrived.  The main sources of income of this republic remained piracy and its by-trades, shipping and dealing in stolen property. Historians have noted Janszoon’s intelligence and courage which reflected in his leadership ability.

Janszoon had become very wealthy from his income as piratical admiral, payments for anchorage and other harbor dues, and the brokerage of stolen goods. The political climate in Sale worsened toward the end of 1627, so Janszoon quietly moved his family and his entire piratical operation back to semi-independent Algiers.

In 1596, by an unknown Dutch women, Janszoon’s first child was born, Lysbeth Janszoon van Haarlem.

After becoming a privateer, Janszoon met an unknown woman in Cartagena, Spain, who he would marry.  The identity of this woman is historically vague, but the consensus is that she was of some kind of mixed-ethnic background, considered “Moorish” in Spain.  Historians have claimed her to be nothing more than a concubine, others claim she was a Muslim Mudejar – a name given to individual Moors or Muslims of Al-Andalus who remained in Iberia after the Christian Reconquista but were not converted to Christianity, unlike Moriscos who had converted- claims have been made that she worked for a Christian noble family, and other claims have been made that she was a “Moorish princess.” Through this mariage, Janszoon had four children: Abraham Janszoon van Salle (b. 1602), Philip Janszoon van Salle (b. 1604), Anthony Janszoon van Salle (b. 1607), and Cornelius Janszoon van Salle (b. 1608).

It is speculated that Janszoon married for the third time to the daughter of Sultan Moulay Ziden in 1624.

Jan Janszoon’s fourth child, Anthony Janszoon van Salee (1607-1676), was an original settler of and prominant landholder, merchant, and creditor in New Neatherlands (New York city).  Anthony Janszoon van Salee was New York’s first Muslim, an arguably one of the first in the New World. His Qur’an was eventually auctioned in the following centuries, having passed through a descendant, Robert Bayles, a one-time President of the Market and Fulton National Bank of New York.

Anthony Janszoon van Salee was born in 1607 in Cartagena, Spain. In 1624 Anthony was in Sale, Morocco with his father, leaving in 1627 for Algiers with his family. Van Salee was living near the harbor in Amsterdam when he obtained a marriage license on December 15, 1629 to marry a 27-year old German native Grietse Reyniers two days before his ship was to set sail for the New World. In 1630, at the age of 22, he had immigrated to New Neatherlands (New York city), along with his bride, as a colonist of the Dutch West India Company.

It is speculated that Anthony’s father had provided him a considerable fortune, and by 1639 he was one of the largest landholders on the island, as well as a prosperous farmer. The relationship with his father after arriving in New Amsterdam (New York) is unclear.

One of Van Salee’s  first properties was  a farm on the island of Manhatten acquired in 1638 which was named “Wellenstein”, titiled in memory of Albrecht von Wellenstein. Becoming one of the original settlers of the area, the plat was located on the north side of the stockade along present-day Wall Street. The bouwery was surveyed from Broadway to the East River between Ann Street and Maiden Lane.  He transfered the deed the following year.

Following numerous legal disputes, including with the church, Anthony was ordered to leave New Neatherland, but on appeal to the Dutch West India Company, was allowed to settle on 200 acres (0.81 km) in what would become  New Ultretch and Gravesend, Brookyln.  This made him now one of the largest and most prominent landholders on Long Island.  In 1643 he purchased a house on Bridge Street in New Amsterdam, in defiance of the court order restricting such. He would go onto become a successful merchant and creditor in New Amsterdam, while owning several properties throughout the region.

Anthony was a defender of minorities in the colony and subjected to repeated discrimination.  Neighbors called him ” A Turk”, a rascal, and a horned beast.” He was engaged in many legal disputes, from his dog attacking the hog of a black townsman, Anthony the Portuguese, to pointing loaded pistols at slave overseers from the Dutch West India Company.

The first grantee of Conyne Eylandt (Coney Island), he helped found many long Island settlements, including New Ultrecht, Gravesend, and in 1660 Boswijck along with 23 settlers which included Franciscus the Negro, a former slave who had won his freedom. Religiously, he read his Qur’an freguently, partioned for Christian missionaries, and was fined for housing an English Quaker at his home on Bridge Street who was to repair a Dutch church.  He was the neighbor of Lady Deborah Moody, of whom he was on good terms with,  although he had disputes with her husband Sir Henry who filed speech charges against him.

Claims have been made that Grietse Reyniers, a woman from the Neatherlands was previously the mistress of Woulter van Twitter.  She encountered him while an employee of the tavern belonging to Pieter de Winter. Grietse was dubbed the first Manhatten “lady of the night” by some accounts, while some have called her the “Carrie Bradshaw” of colonial Manhatten.

Between 1638 – 1639, the couple accounted for 10% or 15 of the 93 cases brought before the Dutch legal system in the colony. During this period the Dutch legal system was heavily invested in quarrels, and the cases included actions of petty slander from the likes of Anneka and Domine Bogardus after Grietse accused of them of lying, Grietse mooning the naval fleet and Anthony’s drunkenness.

Grietse died in 1669, and Anthony married Metje Grevenraet, before dying in 1676 after passing his final years at his home on Bridge Street. Metje was a Quaker who helped Anthony tolerate the church.

He had four daughters with Reyniers who married into repectable colonial commercial families:

  • Eva Antonis, who married Ferdinandus van Sycklin, an original immigrant to New Neatherlands for whom Van Siclen Avenue in Brooklyn is named for. He was a descendant of a crusader and banker named Simon van der Sicklen, whose family possesed the domain of Nazareth, Belgium during the medieval ages and founded the town of Siclin, now in France. The families original surname was de la Faucille.
  • Cornelia, who married William Johnson.
  • Annica, who married Thomas Southhard, born Thomas Southworth, cousin to Constant Southworth, stepson of Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, Annica and Thomas daughter Abigail was the great-great grandmother of Cornelius Vanderbilt.
  • Sara, who married John Emans.

Anthony Janszoon van Salee’s physical appearance and race is the subject of much debate, and like his mother, the consensus was that he was of mixed-ethnic background.  He was incredibly tall with superior strenght.  Van Salee has been described many ways, with some calling him a “semi-Dutchman” of “tawny” complexion, erecting the first “European” house in New Ultrecht.  Other descriptions have said he was a “former black slave” who was a “mullato”, others include “half Moroccan”, “Turk”, “Berber” and “swarthy”.

Anthony was very wealthy and had made many enemies, falsely being attributed to certain history written well after his death.  Anthony’s appearance is consistantly used in court documentation alongside his name with the phrase “Turk”, indicating his appearance and/or lifestyle was a main emphasis for documentarians and historians during  that period.  From deduction, he was not a “free black”, claimed in 2008, and a “former slave”, as claimed in 2001, because he was the wealthy heir of a former head of state.  It is also noted that Anthony was considered “European” enough to be credited in 1643, for building the first “European” settlement in New Ultrecht, while even historic Southern African-centric collections cannot determine what his actual appearance, race or origin was.  It is also noted that he had four daughters who married into respectable, colonial New Amsterdam families of European origin.

Anthony Janszoon van Salee’s notable descendent’s include the Vanderbilt dynasty in the United States and Europe, while it is unclear if a brother or himself was a progenitor of the Bouvier line of the Kennedy dynasty according to family legacy.

It is claimed that Jan Janszoon van Harleem, Murat Reis, President and Grand Admiral of the Corsair Republic of Sale had many prominent descendent’s in North America and Europe.  They include William Henry Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, Dr. John van Salee de Grasse, John Vernou Bouvier III, John H. Hammond, Princess Lee Radziwell, Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, Gloria Vanderbilt, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Dutchess of Marlborough; James Spencer- Churchill, 11th Duke of Marlborough; Lady- in- waiting to Queen Elizabeth II, Rosemary Mildred Spencer-Churchill, George Spencer-Churchill, Earl of Sunderland, Christopher Denys Stormont Finch Hatton, 17th Earl of Nottingham, Countess Gladys Vanderbilt Szechenyi of Hungary, Countess Sylvia Szechenyi of Hungary, and: Jacqueline Kennedy, former American First Lady, Humphey Bogart,  Academy Award Winning Actor, Caroline Kennedy, American First Daughter, Gertrude Vanderbilt, American Socialite, John F. Kennedy Jr., American First Son, Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, American Senator, Anderson Cooper, American Media Personality.


Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

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Written by Sebastian Prange

Photographed by Aasil Ahmad

Saudi Aramco World

July/August 2011

Volume 62, Number 4

Facing the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. stands the Jefferson Building, the main building of the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, with holdings of more than 140 million books and other printed items. The stately building, with its neoclassical exterior, copper-plated dome and marble halls, is named after Thomas Jefferson, one of the ‘founding fathers” of the United States, principle author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and, from 1801 to 1809, the third president of the young republic. But the name also recognizes Jefferson’s role as a founder of the Library itself. As president, he enshrined the institution in law and in 1814, after a fire set by British troops during the Anglo-American War destroyed the Library’s 3000-volume collection, he offered all or part of his own wide-ranging book collection as a replacement for the losses, commenting that “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Among the nearly 6500 books Jefferson sold to the Library was a two-volume English translation of the Qur’an, the book Muslims recite, study and revere as the revealed wordd of God.  The presence of this Qur’an, first in Jefferson’s private library and later in the Library of Congress, prompts the questions why Jefferson purchased this book, what use he made of it, and why he included it in his young nation’s repository of knowledge.

These questions are all the more pertinent in light of assertions by some present-day commentators that Jefferson purchased his Qur’an in the 1780’s in response to conflict between the US and the “Barbary states” of North Africa – today Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. That was a conflict Jefferson followed closely- indeed, in 1786, he helped negotiate a treaty with Morocco, the United States’ first treaty with a foreign power. Then, it was relations with Algeria that were the most nettlesome, as its ruler demanded the payment of tribute in return for ending semiofficial piracy of American merchant shipping.  Jefferson staunchly opposed tribute payment. In this context, such popular accounts claim, Jefferson was studying the Qur’an to better understand these adversaries, in keeping with the adage “know thy enemy.” However, when we look more closely at the place of this copy of the Qur’an in Jefferson’s library- and in his thinking- and when we examine the context of this particular translation, we see a different story.

From his youth, Thomas Jefferson read and collected a great number of books, and a wide varity of them: The collection he eventually sold to the Library of Congress comprised 6487 volumes, ranging in subject from classical philosophy to cooking.  Like many collectors of the time, Jefferson not only cataloged his books but also marked them. It is his singular way of marking his books that makes it possible to establish that, among the millions of volumes in today’s Library of Congress, this one specific Qur’an did indeed belong to him.

In the 18th century, the production of books was still an essentially manual process.  By means of a hand press, large sheets of paper were printed on both sides with multiple pages before being folded. They were folded once to produce four pages for the folio size, twice to produce eight pages for the quarto or four time to produce the 16-page octavo.  These folded sheets, known as “gatherings,” were then sewn together along their inner edges before being attached to the binding. To ensure that the bookbinders would stichthe gatherings together in the correct sequence, each was marked with a different letter of the alphabet on what, after folding, would become that gathering’s first page.

Thus, in an octavo volume like Jefferson’s Qur’an, there is a small printed letter in the bottom right-hand corner of every 16th page.  It was Jefferson’s habit to take advantage of these preexisting marks to discreetly inscribe each of his books. On each book’s 10th gathering, in front of the printer’s mark J he wrote a letter T, and on the 20th gathering, to the printed T he added a J, thereby in each case producing his initial. This subtle yet unmistakable signature appears clearly on the two leather-bound volumes in the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s system for organizing his library has often been described as a “blueprint of his own mind.” Jefferson kept his Qur’an in the section on religion, located between a book on the myths and gods of antiquity and a copy of the Old Testament.  It is illuminating that Jefferson did not class religious works with books on history or ethics- as might perhaps be expected- but that he regarded their proper place to be within jurisprudence.

The story of Jefferson’s purchase of the Qur’an helps to explain this classification.  Sifting through the records of the Virginia Gazette, through which Jefferson ordered many of his books, the scholar Frank Dewey discovered that jefferson bought this copy of the Qur’an around 1765, when he was still a student of law at the College William and Mary in Virginia. This quickly refutes the notion that Jefferson’s interest in Islam came in response to the Babary threat to shipping. Instead, it situate his interest in the Qur’an in the context of his legal studies- a conclusion that is consistent with his shelving of it in the section on jurisprudence.

Jefferson’s legal interest in the Qur’an was not without precedent. There is of course the entire Islamic juridical tradition of religious law (Shari’ah) based on Qur’anic exegesis, but Jefferson had an example at hand that was closer to his own tradition. The standard work on comparative law during his time was Of The Law of Nature and Nations,  written by the German scholar Samuel von Pufendorf and first published in 1672.  As Dewey shows, Jefferson studied Pufendorf’s treatise intensively and, in his own legal writtings, cited it more freguently than any other text.  Pufendorf’s book contains numerous references to Islam and to the Qur’an.  Although many of these were disparaging- typical for European works of the period- on other ocassions Pufendorf cited Qur’anic legal precedents approvingly, including the Qur’anic emphasis on promoting moral behavior, its proscription of games of chance and its admonition to make peace between warring countries. As Kevin Hayes, another eminent Jefferson scholar, writes: “Wanting to broaden his legal studies as much as possible, Jefferson found the Qur’an well worth his attention.”

In his reading of the Qur’an as a law book, Jefferson was aided by a relatively new English translation that was not only thechnically superior to earlier attempts, but also produced with a sensitivity that was not unlike Jefferson’s own emerging attitudes. Entitled The Koran; commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed, it was prepared by the Englishman George Sale andpublished in 1734 in Lodon. A second edition was printed in 1764, and it was this edition that Jefferson bought. Like Jefferson, Sale was a lawyer, although his heart lay in oriental scholarship.  In the preface to his translation, he lamented that the work “was carried on at leisure time only, and amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession.” This preface also informed the reader of Sale’s motives: “If the religious and civil Institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so.” Like Pufendorf, Sale stressed Muhammad’s role as “lawgiver” and the Qur’an as an example of a distinct legal tradition.

This is not to say that Sale’s translation is free of the kind of prejudices against Muslims that characterize most European works on Islam of this period.  However, Sale did not stoop to the kinds of affronts that tend to fill the pages of earlier such attempts at translation. To the contrary, Sale felt himself obliged to treat “with common decency, and even to approve such particulars as seemed to me to deserve approbation.” In keeping with this commitment, Sale described the Prophet of Islam as “richly furnished with personal endowments, beautiful in person, of subtle wit, agreeable behavior, shewing liberality to the poor, courtesy to every one, fortitude against his enemies, and above all, a high reverence for the name of God.” This portrayal is markedly different from those of earlier translators, whose primary motive was to assert the superiority of Christianity.

In addition to the relative liberality of Sale’s approach, he also surpassed earlier writers in the quality of his translation. Previous English versions of the Qur’an were not based on the original Arabic, but rather on Latin or French versions, a process that layered fresh mistakes upon the errors of their sources.  Sale, by contrast, worked from the Arabic text. It was not true, as Votaire claimed in his famous Dictionnaire philosophique of 1764, that la savent Sale had acquired his Arabic skills by having lived for 25 years among Arabs; rather, Sale had learnt the language through his involvement in preparing an Arabic translation of the New Testament to be used by Syrian Christians, a project that was underwritten by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in London.  Studying alongside Arab scholars who had come to London to assist in this work, he acquired within a few years such good command of the language that he was able to serve as a proofreader of the Arabic text.

“Translation” or  “Interpretation”?

“In this Qur’an, We have put forward all kinds of illustrations for people, so that they may take heed- an Arabic Qur’an, free from any distortion.”

That quotation from Surah 39, Verses 27-28, of the Qur’an was rendered into English by Muhammad A.S. Abdel Haleem, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School Oriental and African Studies in London.  It emphasizes a basic yet far-reaching fact about the holy book of Islam: It was received and recorded in the Arabic language.  Muslims believe that the Qur’an is inseparable from the language in which it was revealed, and for this reason, all Muslims worldwide recite it in Arabic, even though today the vast majority of Muslims are neither Arabs nor native speakers of Arabic. Many Muslims also regard the eloquence of the Qur’an as evidence of its divine provenance. A popular story recounts how, in the time of Muhammad, the most famous poet of Makkah converted to Islam after reading one of its verses, convinced that no human could ever produce a work of such beauty.

This makes any attempt to render the Qur’an into another language a daunting task, and explains why Muslims prefer to call non-Arabic versions of the Qur’an “interpretations.”  The difficulties are compounded further by the interpretive problems inherent in all translations, that is, the word-by-word demand for decisions about the intended meaning of the original and most suitable equivalent in the target language.  These issues the Qur’an itself seems to anticipate: “Some of its verses are definite in meaning- these are the conerstone of the scripture- and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly persue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and pin down specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning.” (Surah 3, Verse 7, Abdel Heleem version)

Most modern-day “translators” of the Qur’an explicitly engage these issues and explain their particular approach and decisions.  While there will never be a definitive Qur’an in any language other than Arabic, these days English readers are able to choose from among a wide selection of careful “interpretations.”

It is thus not so surprising that Sale turned from translating the holy text of Christians into Arabic to rendering the holy text of  Muslims into his native English. Noting the absence of a reliable English translation, he aimed to provide a “more genuine idea of the original.” Lest his readers be unduly daunted, he justified choice of fedelity to the original by stating that “we must not expect to read a version of so extarordinary a book with the same ease and pleasure as a modern composition.”  Indeed, even though Sale’s English may appear overwrought today, there is no denying that he strove to convey some of the beauty and poetry of the original Arabic.

Sale’s aspiration to provide an accurate rendition of the Qur’an was matched by his desire also to provide his readers with a more honest introduction to Islam. This “Preliminary Discourse,” as he entitiled it, runs more than 200 pages in the edition Jefferson purchased.  Fairly presented and conscientously documented, it contains a section on Islamic civil law that repeatedly points out parallels to Jewish legal precepts in regard to marriage, devorce, inheritence, and lawful retaliation and rules of warfare.  In this substantial discussion, Sale displays the same quality of dispassionate interest comparative that later moved Jefferson.

But did reading the Qur’an influence Thomas  Jefferson? That question is difficult to answer, because the few scattered references he made to it in his writtings do not reveal his views.  Though it may have sparked in him a desire to learn the Arabic language (during the 1770’s Jefferson purchased a number of Arabic grammars), it is far more significant that it may have reinforced his commitment to religious freedom.  Two examples support this idea.

In 1777, the year after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was tasked with excising colonial legacies from Virginia’s legal code.  As part of this undertaking, he drafted a bill for the establishment of religious freedom, which was enacted in 1786.  In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted his strong desire that the bill should not only should extend to Christians of all denominations but should also include “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan (Muslim), the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”

This all-encompassing attitude to religious pluralism was by no means universally shared by Jefferson’s contemporaries.  As the historian Robert Allison documents, many American writters and statesman in the late 18th century made reference to Islam for less salutary aims. Armed with tendentious and often grossly distorted accounts, they portrayed Islam as embodying the very dangers of tyranny and depotism that the young republic had just overcome.  Allison argues that many American politicians who used “the Muslim world as a reference point for their own society were not concerned with historical truth or with an accurate description of Islam, but rather with this description’s political convenience.

These attitudes again came into conflict with Jefferson’s vision in 1788, when the states voted to ratify the United States Constitution.  One of the matters at issue was the provision- now Article VI, Section 3- that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.” Some Anti-Federalist singled out and opposed this ban on religious discrimination by painting a hypothetical scenerio in which a Muslim could become president. On the other side of the argument. despite their frequent opposition to Jefferson on other matters, the Federalist praised and drew on Jefferson’s vision of religious tolerance in supporting uncircumscribed rights to bothto faith and elected office for all citizens.  As the historian Denise Spellberg shows in her examination of this dispute among delegates in North Carolina, in the course of these constitutional debates ” Muslims became symbolically embroiled in what it meant to be American citizens.”

It is intriguing to think that Jefferson’s study of the Qur’an may have inoculated him- to a degree that today we can only surmise- ainst such popular prejudice about Islam, and it may have informed his conviction that Muslims, no less and no more than any other religious group, were entitled to all the legal rights his new nation could offer.  And although Jefferson was an early and vocal proponent of going to war against the Barbary states over their attacks on US shipping, he never framed his argument for doing so in religious terms, sticky firmly to a position of political principle. Far from reading the Qur’an  to better understand the mindset of his adversaries, it is likely that his earlier knowledge it confirmed his analysis that the root of the Barbary conflict were economic, not religious.

Sale’s Koran remained the best available English version of the Qur’an for another 150 years.  Today, along with the original copy of Jefferson’s Qur’an, the Library of Congress holds nearly one million printed items relating to Islam- a vast collection of knowledge for every new generation of lawmakers and citizens, with its roots in the law student’s leather-bound volumes.

“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to freguent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or effect their civil capacities'” – From the Virginia Stutue For Religious Freedom, ratified 1786; drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777.

“The style of the Koran is generally beautiful and fluent, especially where it imitates the prophetic manner, and scripture phrases.  Its is consise, and often obscure, adoredn with bold figures after eastern taste, enlivened with florid and sententious expressions, and in many places, especially where the majesty and attributes of God are described, sublime and magnificent; of which the reader cannot but observe several instances, though he must not imagine the translation comes up to the original, notwithstanding my indeavours to do it justice.” – From ” A Preliminary Discourse” by George Sale

Omar ibn Said

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Omar ibn Said

From Wekepedia, the free encyclopedia

Omar ibn Said (1770 – 1864) was born in present day Senegal in Futa Tooro, a region along the Middle Senegal River, in West Africa, to a wealthy family. He was an Islamic scholar and a Fula who spent twenty five years of his life studying with prominent Muslim scholars, learning subjects ranging from arithmitic to theology in Africa.

In 1807, he was captured during a military conflict, enslaved and taken across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States.  he escaped from a cruel master in Charleston, South Carolina, and journeyed to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was captured and later sold to James Owens.  Said lived into his  mid-nineties and was still a slave at the time of his death in 1864.  he was buried in Bladen County, North Carolina.  Omar ibn Said was also known as Uncle Moreau and Prince Omeroh.

Although converted to Christianity on December 3, 1820, many modern scholars believed he continued to be a practicing Muslim, based on dedications to Prophet Muhammad written in his bible, and a card dated 1857 in which he wrote Surat al-Nasr, a short sura which refers to the conversion of non-muslims to Islam “in mulitudes”.  The back of this card contains another person’s hand writting in English misindentifying the sura as the Lord’s Prayer and attesting to Omar’s status as a good Christian.  Additionally, while others writting on Omar’s behalf identified him as a Christian, his own authobiography and other writtings offer more of an ambiguous position.  In the authobiography, he still offer praise to Muhammad when describing his life in his own country; his reference to “Jesus the Messiah”, in fact parallel Quranic descriptions of Jesus (who is called ‘the Messiah’ a total of 11 times in the Quran), and descriptions of Jesus as “our lord/master” employ the typical islamic honorific for prophets and is not to be confused with “Lord”; and description of Jesus as “bringing grace and truth” (a reference to John 1:14)  is equally appropriate to the conception of Jesus in Islam.

Given Omar’s circumstances of enslavement “among the  Christians” and the possibilities of lobbying for his freedom that only came with confessing Christianity,  his conversion can be argued to be made under duress. In 1991, a masjid in Fayetteville, North Carolina renamed itself Masjid Omar ibn Said in his honor.

Surat al- Nasr (divine support) is the 110th sura of the Quran with three Ayat. Al-Nasr translate into English as “The Victory”.  It is the shortest sura after Al-Asr and Al-Kawthar, only three medium lenghts ayahs.  This is believed to be the last revelation given to Prophet Muhammad and a sign to his approaching death.

English translation by Yusuf Ali:

When comes the Help of Allah, and Victory(1). And thou doest see the people enter Allah’s Religion in crowds (2) Celebrate the praise of thy Lord, and pray for His Forgivness: For He is Oft-Returning (in Grace and Mercy). (3)  


This surah praises Allah for leading numerous people to Islam. According to Tafsir ibn Kathir, this surah, like surah al-Ikhlas, is equivalent to one fourth of the entire Quran. This was the last surah to be revealed, only months before the Prophet’s death.


This short sura bring good news to Rasul Ullah Muhammad concerning the advent of victory, the Conquest, and people collective acceptance of  Islam.  It instructs him to turn toward his Lord in a devoted adoration and a humble request for His forgiveness. This sura also presents the nature and the righteousness of this Faith and its ideology and how high humanity ascends to an ideal and brilliant summit unattainable otherwise than by responding to the call of Islam.

Of the several traditions regarding the revelation of this sura, we quote that of  Imam Ahmad which goes as follows:

Aisha said that the Messenger of Allah used to repeat very freguently, towards the end of his life, “Exaltations and Praises be to Allah, whose forgiveness I ask; I repent of my sins.’ He also said, “My Lord told me I would see a sign in my nation.  He ordered me to praise Him, the Forgiving, and ask His pardon when I see this sign.  Indeed, I have. When the Victory granted by Allah and the Conquest come…(transmitted by Muslim).

Ibn Katheer said in his commentary on the Quaran:

The Conquest’, it is unanimously agreed, is a reference to the conquest of Makka.  The Arab tribes were awaiting the settlement of the conflict between the Quraish and the Muslims, before accepting Islam, saying: ‘If he, Muhammad, prevails over his people, he would indeed be a prophet.’  Consequently, when that was accomplished they accepted islam in large numbers. not two years were to pass after the conquest of Makka when the whole Arabian Peninsula was dominated by Islam, and, all thanks to Allah, every Arab tribe had declared its belief in Islam.   

Al-Bukhari in his Sahih related:

Amr ibn Salama said that when Makka was conquered, every tribe hastened to declare acceptance of Islam to Allah’s Messenger.  They were waiting for it to take place saying, leave them to themselves. He would indeed be a prophet if he prevailed over them.  

This version is the one which agrees chronologically with the beginning of the sura in the sense that its revelation was a sign of something to follow with some instructions to the Prophet, on what he should do when this event took place.

There is, nevertheless another fairly similar version in agreement with the one we have chosen and it is that of Ibn ‘Abbas which says:

Umar used to let me join the company of elders who were present at Badr, some of whom  felt uneasy and asked why I should be allowed with them when I was young. But, Umar said to them, ‘You know that he is of high standing.’  One day ‘Umar invited them all and invited me as well.  I felt that he wanted to show them who I was  so he asked them, ‘What do you make of Allah’s saying, ‘When the Victory  granted by Allah and the Conquest come’?  Some of them replied, ‘He ordered us to praise Him and seek His forgiveness when He helps us to triumph and bestows His favours on us.’ The others remained silent. Then ‘Umar asked me, ‘Do you agree with this view Ibn Abbas?  I answered in the nagative. ‘Umar asked me again. ‘What then do you say?’  It was a sign from Allah to His Messenger indicating the approach of the end of his life meaning, when the Victory from Allah and the Conquest come, your end is near, so extol the praises of your Lord and seek His forgiveness,’  ‘Umar commented, ‘I have known no more than what you have said. (transmitted by  al Bukhari).

So it is possible that the Messenger, having witnessed his Lord’s sign, realized that he had fulfilled his mission on this earth and that it was time for him to leave, which was what Ibn Abbas actually meant.

However, there is another account narrated by Al-Hafiz al Baihaqi also attributed to Ibn ‘Abbas who according to it said:

When this surah was first revealed, the Messenger of Allah called Fatimah and said, ‘My death has been announced to me.’ She was seen to start crying, then she smiled.  She explained later, ‘ I cried when he told me of his approaching death. But he said to me, ‘Be restrained, because you will be the first of my family to join me’, so I smiled.’

According to the last tradition quoted the time of the revelation of the surah is actually fixed as coming later than the sign, that is, the Conquest and the people’s collective movement into Islam.  When events took place in this fashion, Muhammad knew that his life would soon come to a close. But again the first account is more authentic and fits in more suitably with the outline of the beginning of the surah, especially as the Fatimah incident is related in a different form which gives more weight to what we have suggested.  This other form goes as follow:

Umm Salamah, the Prophet’s wife said: The Messenger of Allah called Fatimah to him sometime during the year of the Conquest and he said something to her. She cried. Then he spoke to her again and she was smiling. After he had died, I asked her about the incident and she explained ‘The Messenger of Allah told me he was soon to die, so I cried. Then he told me that I would be the next most celebrted woman in Paradise after Miriam (Mary) the daughter of Imran, so I smiled.’

This narration agrees with the general meaning of the Qur’anic text and with what Imam Ahmad related which appeares in the Sahih of Muslim – that is, there was a sign (in the surah) between Allah and His Messenger and when the Conquest was accomplished the latter knew that he was soon to meet his Lord, so he spoke with Fatimah in the manner described by Umm Salamah.

Let us now consider the actual text of the surah and the injunction it gives for all time: When the Victory granted by Allah and the Conquest come, and you see people embracing the Religion of Allah in large numbers. Then, celebrate the praises of your Lord and seek His forgiveness.  he is ever disposed to mercy.

The beginning of the first verse implicitly presents a concept of what goes on in this Universe: the events that take place in this life, and the actual role of Muhammad and his followers in the progress of Islam, and to what extent it depends on their efforts. “When the Victory granted by Allah”, denotes that it is Allah’s victory and Allah is the One who brings it about in His Own good time, in the form He decides and for the purpose He Determines. The Prophet and his companions have nothing to do with it at all, and they obtain no personal gain from it. It suffices them that He does it through them, appoints them as its guards and entrust it with them.  This is all they acquire from the victory of Allah, the Conquest and the people’s acceptance en masse of His religion.

According to this concept, the duty of the Messenger and his companions whom Allah chose and gave the privillage of being the instrument of His Victory, was to turn to Him at the climax of the victory in praises, expressing gratitude and seeking forgiveness.  Gratitude and praise are for His being so generous to have chosen them to be the standard bearers of His religion; for the mercy and favour He did to all humanity for making His religion victorious; and for the Conquest of Makka and the people’s collective acceptance of his religion.

His forgiveness is sought for the various unrevealed, defective feelings, such as vanity, which sometimes creep into one’s heart at the overwhelming moment of victory attained after a long struggle. Human beings can hardly prevent this happening and therefore Allah’s forgiveness is to be sought for it. Forgiveness also has to be sought for what might have been insinuated into one’s heart during the long and cruel struggle and for petulance resulting from the belatedness of the victory or the effects of convulsive despair, as the Quran brings out elswhere: ‘Or think you that you will enter Paradise while yet there has not come to you the like of that which came to those who died before you? Affliction and adversity befell them; they were shaken as with earthquake, till the Messenger (of Allah) and those who believed along with him said: ‘When will Allah’s help come?’ Now surely Allah’s help is near.’ (Al-Quran 2:214).

It is also necessary  to seek Allah’s forgiveness for one’s shortcomings in praising Allah and thanking Him for His favours which are perpetual and infinite. ‘And if you were to count the favours of Allah, never will you be able to number them.’ (Al-Quran 16:18).

However much one’s efforts in this respect, they are never adequate.  Another touching thought is that seeking forgiveness at the moment of triumph arouses in one’s mind the feeling of impotence and imperfection at the time when an attitude of self-esteem and conceit seems natural. All these factors guarantee that no tyranny will afflict the conquered.  The victorious is made to realized that it is Allah who has appointed him, a man who has no power of his own and is devoid of any strenght, for a pre-determined purpose; consequently the triumph and the conquest as well as the religion is all His, to Whom all things ultimately return.

This is the lofty, dignified ideal the Qur’an exhorts people to toil towards and attain, an ideal in which man’s exaltation is in neglecting his own pride and where his soul’s freedom is in his subservience to Allah.  The goal set is the total release of human souls from their egoistic shackles, their only ambitions being to attain Allah’s pleasure. Along with this release there must be exerted a striving which helps man to flourish in the world, promote human civilization and provide a rightly-guided, unblemished, constructive, just leadership devoted to Allah.

In constrast, man’s efforts to liberate himself while in the grips of egoism, shackled by his zest for worldly things, or overpowered by his cravings, turn out to be obsolutely in vain unless he sets himself free from self and lets his loyalty to Allah override everything else, particularly at the moment of triumph and the collecting of booty.

Such a standard of behavior, which Allah wants humanity to aspire towards and to attain, was the characteristic feature of the Prophets at all times.

So it was the case with Prophet Yusef (Joseph), when all he wanted was acheived and his dream came true:

And he placed his parents high on the throne of dignity and they fell down prostrate before him. He said: “Father! this is the fulfillment of my dreams of old. My Lord has made it come true. He has been gracious to me. He has released me from prison and has brought you from the desert after Satan has stirred-up strife between me and my brothers. My Lord is Gracious with all that He plans to do . He is full of Knowlege and Wisdom. (Al-Qur’an 12:101).

Thus vanished the feeling of predominace and reputation and the happiness brought by the reunion  with his family, and the picture we are left with is of that individual, Yussuf, praying to Allah to help him remain submissive to Him until he dies and to let him, out of His mercy and grace, join His righteous servants. So it was also with Prophet Suliaman (Salomon), when he saw the Queen of Sheba’s throne brought into his very reach in a flash: And when he (Suliaman) saw it set in his presence he said: “This is of the bounty of myh Lord that He may try me, whether I give thanks or remain ungrateful. He who give thanks does so for his own good, and he who is ungrateful”’ my Lord is All-Sufficient and Bountiful. (Al-Qur’an 27:40).

And so indeed it was with Muhammad all through his life.  In the moment of triumph , as the Conquest of Makkah was accomplished, he entered it on the back of his camel with his head bowed down.  He forgot the joy of victory and thankfully bowed is head seeking his Lord’s forgiveness, though he had just conquered makkah, the city whose people had openly and unashamedly persecuted and expelled him.  This also was the practice of his companions after him.

Thus, upon belief in Allah, was that great generation of humanity raised very high, reaching an unparalleledstandard of greatness, power and freedom.

Tawergha: A campaign of ethnic cleansing in Libya

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Tawergha, is, as of October 2011, a ghost town in Libya that is under administrative jurisdiction of the city of Misrata, which is 38 kilometers away.  It was the site of intense fighting during the Libyan civil war before its capture and ethnic cleasing by anti-Gaddafi forces in August 2011.

As of October 2011, the town has been largely cleared of its prewar population.  Tawergha means “the green island” in the Berber languge.  This city was famous for its palm trees which at one point were considered the true wealth in the city.  The city also produces significant amount of date fruits, including the Bersiel date, which is used as a component in ropes and other commodities.  In pre-colonial times, the work on the plantations was done by tens of thousands of black skinned slaves, making Tawergha the only town in coastal Libya with a black majority.

In the colonial period, these people were nominally emancipated from slavery, but their economic status remained very low.  In the Gaddafi-period, they were treated a lot better, receiving full education and development.  Many of its inhabitants achieved high positions in the army and civil service.

The city was also well know for its husbandry of cattle and chickens as well the consumer products produced from these animals.

During the Roman times, Tawergha gained a lot of attention due to its position and the connection that it had to the sand route that connected the city of Sirte along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Egypt.  Control of Tawergha helped the Romans cordinate control of Libya.

Tawergha lies on the road from Gaddafi’s hometown to the city of Misrata.  As a result, during the Libyan civil war, Tawergha was used as a centre of military operations against Misrata, which rose up against Gaddafi in February 2011.  When Gaddafi’s army weakened, Tawergha became the first target for Misratan brigades.  Gaddafi’s forces did not allow the population of Tawergha to flee, effectively using them as a human sheild.  On 12 August, anti-Gaddafi forces claimed to have captured Tawergha.

British journalist Andrew Gilligan visited Tawergha in September 2011 and found it virtually emptied of its inhabitants, who numbered around 30,000 before the war.  he reported that the Misrata Brigade, a semi-autonomous unit of the anti-Gaddafi National liberation Army, had engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing in response to the town’s support of Gaddafi during the siege on their city.  Many slogans he saw painted in and around Tawergha, as well as the accounts of anti-Gaddafi fighters and commanders whom he quoted, made reference to the dark pigmentation of many Tawergha citizens, with one sign referring to the Misrata Brigade as “the brigade for purging slaves (and) black  skin”‘  His report, published by The Sunday Telegraph on 11 September, quoted Ibrahim al-Halbous a brigade commander as saying, “Tawergha no longer exist, only Misrata” and another as asserting that the town’s former residents will only return “over our dead bodies”.  In February 2012, Amnesty International reported that Tawergha was empty and guarded against any returnees.  Militias from Misrata continue to hunt down and terrorize the displaced inhabitants of Tawergha across Libya.  Hundreds have been illegally arrested and tortured by militiamen in Misrata.

Prince Among Slaves

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Abdul Rahman Ibrahim ibn Sori (a.k.a. Abdul Rahman) was a prince  from West Africa who was made a slave in the United States.  After spending  40 years in slavery, he was freed in 1828 by order of President John Quincy Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay after the Sultan of Morocco requested his release.

He was born in 1762 in Timbo, West Africa, (in present day Guinea, Fouta Djallon).  He was known as the “Prince of Slaves” or “Prince.” He was a Fulbe or Fulani, (Futa) of the land of Fouta Djallon.  Ibrahim left Futa in 1774 to study in Mali at Timbuktu.  Ibrahim was leader of one of his father’s army divisions.  After winning a battle against a warring nation, he took with him a few soldiers to report back to his father, when he was ambushed, captured, and sold to slave traders in 1788 at the age of 26. He was bought by a Natchez, Mississippi cotton plantation owner, and eventually became the overseer of the plantation of Thomas Foster.  In 1794 he married Isabella, another slave of Foster’s and eventually fathered a large family: five sons and four daughters.

By using his knowledge of growing cotton in Fouta Djallon, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim rose to a position of authority on the plantation and became the de facto foreeman.  This granted him the opportunity to grow his own vegetable garden and sell at the local market.  During this time, he met an old acquaintance, Dr. John Cox.  Dr. Cox was an Irish surgeon who had served on an English ship. He was the first white man to reach Timbo after being stranded by his ship and falling ill.  Cox stayed ashore for six months and was taken in by the Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim family.  Cox appealed  to Foster to sell him “Prince” so he could return to Africa.  However, Foster would not budge, since he viewed Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim as indispensable to the Foster farm (among other reasons).  Dr. Cox continued, until his death in 1816, to seek Ibrahim’s freedom, to no avail.  After Cox died, Ibrahim continued the cause.

In 1826, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote a letter to his relatives in Africa.  A local newspaperman, Andrew Marschalk, who was originally from New York, sent a copy to Senator Thomas Reed in Washington, who forwarded it to the U.S. Consulate in Morocco.  Since Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote in Arabic, Marschalk and the U.S. government assumed that he was a Moor.  After the Sultan of Morocco Abd er-Rahmane read the letter, he asked President Adams and Secretary of State Henry Clay to release Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim.  In 1828, Thomas Foster agreed to the release of Ibrahim, without payment, with the stipulation that Ibrahim return to Africa and not live as a free man in America.

Before leaving the U.S., Ibrahim and his wife went to various states and Washington, D.C. He solicited donations, through the press, personal appearances, the American Colonization Society and politicians, to free his family back in Mississippi. Word got back to Foster, who considered  this a breach of the agreement.  Abd al-Rahman’s actions and freedom were also used against President John Quincy Adams by future president Andrew Jackson during the presidential election.

After ten months, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim and Isabella had raised only half the funds to free their children.  They made arrangements to leave America.  he went to Monrovia, Liberia with his wife.  Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim lived for four months before he contracted a fever and died at the age of 67.  He never saw Fouta Djallon or his children again.

The funds that Abd al-Rahman and Isabella raised bought the freedom pf two sons and their families.  They were reunited with Isabella in Monrovia. Thomas Foster died the same year as Abd al-Rahman.  Foster’s estate, including Abd al-Rahman’s other children and grandchildren, was divided among Foster’s heirs and scattered across Mississippi and the South.  Abd al-Rahman’s descendants still reside in Monrovia and the United States.  In 2006, Abd al-Rahman’s descendants gathered for a family reunion at Foster’s field.  Abd al-Rahman Ibrahim wrote two autobiographies. A drawing of him is displayed in the Library of Congress.

In 1977, history professor Terry Alford documented the life of Ibn Sori in Prince Among Slaves, the first full account of his life, pieced together from first-person accounts and historical documents.  In Prince Among Slaves, Alford Writes: Among Henry Clay’s documents, for the year 1829 we find the January 1 entry, “Prince Ibrahima, an Islamic prince sold into slavery 40 years ago, and freed with the stipulation that he return (in this case the word “return” makes sense) to Africa, joined the black citizens of Philadelphia as an honored guest in their New Year’s Day parade, up Lombard and Walnut, and down Chestnut and Spruce streets.

Early in 2008 PBS showed a Spark Media Incorporated and Unity Productions Foundation film directed by Andrea Kalin titled Prince Among Slaves, portraying the life of Abdul Rahman. The film had premiered in Cincinnati, Ohio, on 2007 June

Libya’s spectacular revolution has been disgraced by racism.

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The murder of black men in the aftermath of the rebellion speaks of a society deeply devided for decades by Muammar Gaddafi.

Richard Seymour, Tuesday 30 August 2011 12:10 EDT

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“This is a bad time to be a black man in libya,” reported Alex Thomson on Channel 4 on Sunday.  Elswhere, Kim Sengupta reported for the Independent on the 30 bodies lying decomposing in Tripoli. The majority of them, allegedly mercenaries for Muammar Gaddafi, were black.  They had been killed at a makeshift hospital, some on strechers, some in an ambulance.  “Libyan people don’t like people with dark skins,” a militiaman explained in reference to the arrest of black men. The basis of this is rumours, dissemenated early in the rebellion, of African mercenaries  being unleashed on the opposition. Amnesty International’s Donatella Rivera was among reserachers who examined this allegation and found no evidence for it. Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch similarly had “not identified one mercenary” among the scores of men being arrested and falsely laballed by journalist as such.

Lurking behind this is racism.  Libya is an African nation – however, the term “Africans” is used in Libya to reference the countries black minority. The Amnesty International researcher Diana Eltahawy says that the rebels taking control of Libya have tapped into “exsisting xenophobia”.  The New York Times refer to “racist overtones”, but sometimes the racism is explicit.  A rebel slogan painted in Misrata during the fighting salutes “the brigade for purging slaves, black skin”.  A consequence of this racism has been mass arrest of black men, and gruesome killings – just some of the various atrocities that  human rights organizations blame rebels for. The racialisation of this conflict do not end with hatred for “Africans”.  Graffiti by rebels frequently depicted Gaddafi as a demonic Jew.

How did it come to this? A spectacular revolution, speaking the language of democracy and showing tremendous courage in the face of brutal repression, has been disgraced.  Racism did not begin with the rebellion – Gaddafi’s regime exploited 2 million migrant workers while descriminating against them – but it has suffused the rebels’ hatred of the violently authoritarian regime they have just replaced.

An explanation for this can be found in the weaknesses of the revolt itself.  The upsurge beginning on 17 February hinged on an alliance between middle class human rights activist and the working class in eastern cities such as Benghazi.  Rather than wilting under repression, the rebellion spread to new towns and cities. Elements of the regime, seeing the writing on the wall, began to defect.  Military leaders, politicians and sections of business and academia sided with the rebels.

But the trouble was that the movement was almost emerging from nowhere.  Unlike in Egypt, where a decade of activism and labour insurgency had cultivated networks of activist and trade unionist capable of outfoxing the dictatorship, Libya was not permitted a minimal space for civil society opposition.  As a result there was no institutional structure able to express this movement, no independent trade union movement, and certainly little in the way of an organised left.  Into this space stepped those who had the greatest resources – the former regime notables, businessmen and professionals, as well as exiles. it was they who formed the National Transitional Council (NTC).

The dominance of relatively conservative elites and the absence of countervailing pressures skewed the politics of the rebellion.  We hear of the “the masses”, and “solidarity”.  But masses can be addressed on many groundss – some reactionary.  There are also many bases for solidarity – some exclusionary.  The scapegoating of black workers makes sense from the perspective of elites.  For them, Libya was not a society divided on class lines from which many of them had profited.  It was united against a usurper inhabiting an alien compound and surviving through foreign power.  Instead, the more success Gaddafi had in stabilising his regime, the more the explanation for this relied on the claim that “Gaddafi is killing us with his Africans”.

A further, unavoidable twist is the alliance with Nato.  The February revolt involved hundreds of thousands of people across Libya.  By early March the movement was in retreat, overseas special forces were entering Libya, and senior figures in the rebellion called for external intervention.  Initially isolated, they gained credibility as Gaddafi gained ground.  As a result , the initiative passed from a very large popular base to a relatively small number of armed fighters under the direction of the NTC and Nato. It was the rebel army that subsequently took the lead in persecuting black workers.

Under different conditions, perhaps, unity between the oppressed was possible.  But this would probably have required a more radical alliance, one as potentially perilous for those now grooming themselves for office as for Gaddafi.  As it is, the success of the rebels contains a tragic defeat.  The original emancipatory impulse of February 17 lies, for now, among the corpes of “Africans” in Tripoli.

Treaty of Peace and Friendship

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In December 1777, Moroccan Sultan Muhammad III also known as Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdallah included America in a list of countries to which Morrocco’s ports were open.  With that message to foreign consuls for communications to European capitals, Morrocco became the first country whose head of state publicly recognized the new United States. Relations were formalized with the Morroccan-American Treaty of Friendship negotiated by Thomas Barclay, and signed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Sidi Muhammad III. The treaty signed by Barclay and the Sultan, then Jefferson and Adams, was ratified by the Confederation Congress in July 1787.  it has withstood transalantic stresses and strains for more than 220 years, making it the keystone of the longest unbroken treaty relationship in United States history.