“I had never heard the story.” Brother Tariq remarked, “…had no idea about the early African American Muslims.” Tariq Suliman (aka Derrick Beard), once an avid collector of African American art and artifacts, is the owner of one of the rare manuscripts of the former enslaved person, Omar ibn Said. However, prior to his acquisition of the manuscript, like many other Americans, Brother Tariq had neither known this specific story nor the stories of other Muslim slaves who had lived during this era of American history.
Omar ibn Said was an African-born Muslim scholar who was enslaved in the early 1800s in North Carolina. He was one of several known Muslims who were captured and enslaved in North America during the transatlantic slave trade. What distinguishes Omar ibn Said, in addition to his mere existence, is what he left behind for our benefit in his manuscripts, his scholarship and education in matters of religion, and his knowledge of the Arabic language.
“I was primarily interested in African American history….I received a post card announcing the sale of the manuscript.” Tariq Suliman purchased the manuscript at the annual African Americana Swann auction in 1997. At that time, Brother Tariq had a reputation as a popular buyer and reseller of African American art. Although he was unaware of the document’s complete history, upon hearing a description of the piece he instantly understood its intrinsic value beyond its monetary worth.
As the manuscript’s caretaker, Brother Tariq has become an expert in the life of Omar ibn Said. He has organized and participated in several symposia where the manuscript was a feature. Participants have included the ‘who’s who’ scholars of African, African American, and Islamic history/society including: Michael Gomez, Henry Louis Gates, AmirAl- Islam, Sylviane Diouf, Yvonne Haddad, Akdahr Ahmed, and others at institutions and organizations such as Harvard University, the Library of Congress and the United Nations. Today, the manuscript remains popular within and beyond the United States.
One may ask, how exactly an individual citizen and collector came to acquire this unique piece of American, Muslim and world history? He started off modestly and on the entrepreneurial end of collecting. “I collected some Muhammad Speaks and Bilalian News because I used to sell them. I was really interested in collecting money. I wanted to be a millionaire by 30.” His inclination toward African American history and Islam was spurred mainly from his upbringing. “I had a lot mentors and teachers….I grew up in a very Afrocentric environment.” Pan-Africanism and Islam were readily discussed and engaged with, particularly the material culture.
In the late ’80s, Brother Tariq’s art trading business really began to take form. “A Haitian brother had me come to New York for a business deal selling Haitian art. I fell in love with it….It was strictly business. I was interested in buying and selling. Then I started to seek out material. I wanted anything ‘Negro’, because when I said I wanted African American art, I would keep getting African art…. People didn’t make the distinction. When I used [the word] Negro the phones started jumping off the hook.”
When he arrived at the Swann Gallery in New York in 1997, Brother Tariq expected to find representatives from Harvard or Princeton prepared to toss out millions for the document. The manuscript had resurfaced in the public domain after decades of passing through the hands of independent collectors and their children. Instead he found himself bidding against a single person, perhaps a collector like himself, for this rare piece. At a bid of $22,000, the manuscript was his. Unlike the hundreds of pieces he had bought and sold over the years, this piece he kept.
Through years of study and investigation, Suliman has gained a deep appreciation for the piece, not only with regard to what it symbolizes within American and Muslim history, but for the messages contained within it and meanings that can be drawn from it.
“It was written for the future. Omar wrote a manuscript about co-existence—being a Muslim in a non-Muslim environment. Of course he was against oppression; as a Muslim we all are….He never called them [slaveowners] ‘Master.’ He started [the manuscript] with Al-Mulk and acknowledged that only ‘God is my Master’. [Note: Al-Mulk is the 67th sura (i.e., chapter) of the Holy Qur’an. It can be translated “The Sovereignty.”]
Brother Tariq relates that Omar also talked of interfaith matters, the Bible and Torah. “He was still grateful despite being oppressed. You have to be thankful for what Allah has given you. He [Omar] was thankful that they gave him a home, and treated him well, and food, etc.… his message covers the West…this message of tolerance, coexistence, Abrahamic cohesion, and how to have gratitude in an oppressive state [of being]… whether it’s a relationship, or job or an oppressive boss….He shows this love in the manuscript, and that is a story that needs to be shared with the world.”
Brother Tariq seriously considers how best to share this story with the world and who its next caretaker could be. “I could keep it in my family and pass it down, but whoever [has it] has to preserve [it]. It has to have a greater good and exposure in the world community. It can’t be destroyed in a fire or flood, or [sit] in back of a library somewhere…‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ I have to look at what is the greater good, specifically related to the ummah [the universal Muslim community].”
Suliman also considers the intention that ibn Said himself may have had when creating the manuscript. “Omar is writing this in Arabic, when no one around him can speak or read Arabic. Obviously he is writing to a Muslim audience. It was written for a Muslim audience so it should be shared with Muslims…. But he also says, ‘O people of America.’ ”
Though there are many factors to consider when choosing the next home for the manuscript, there are some facts that Brother Tariq is certain of. “…it [the manuscript] is beyond me, and beyond my physical capabilities. I can’t do what a government can do, or what Mecca[ns] can do; it can’t compare. Eventually it will probably go to a museum. They preserve the culture. You can’t destroy that; it’s human history.”
The future of the manuscript is still uncertain, but in the meantime it continues to be shared in forums and with people around the world—from the Arabian Gulf to the corners of Harlem. Tariq Suliman remains determined to share the story and message of Omar ibn Said.
Samira Abdul-Karim is a consultant in organizational change, a facilitator and advocate for social justice. She leads workshops and writes articles on intercultural communication, diversity, inclusion, cultural competence and group dynamics. African American history and culture are among her many interests. Currently Samira is pursuing a Master’s degree in Social-Organizational Psychology at Columbia University.