Curricular Resources


The content from the syllabus for ENGL 331H - American Literature, 1830-1860 follows. The course, American Canon and Arabic Slave Writings, was taught by Professor Jeffrey Einboden in spring 2012.

Course Description

Exploring the literary foundations of early America, ENGL 331 has traditionally surveyed the nation’s most iconic authors. During Spring 2012, our course evolves and expands, highlighting a pivotal, yet largely unrecognized, element of U.S. Literature: personal writings by African slaves of Muslim descent, composed during their captivity in America, and authored in Arabic. 

Supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching Development Fellowship, ENGL 331H will be unique in aligning canonical writers (Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe), with Muslim Slave authors (Ibrahim ‘Abd ar-Rahman, ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, Ben 'Ali). Discovering the cross-cultural, multi-lingual, and inter-religious contours of America’s first decades, our course will also be distinctive in paying close attention to manuscripts and archives, privileging informal sources such as journals, correspondence and marginalia.


  • Final Project: 40%
  • Final Exam: 35% 
  • Class Participation & Conduct; Response Writing: 25%


Week 1

  • Introduction: Uniting States, Opposing Canons
  • Alhambra, America, Arabic
  • Washington Irving, "Rip Van Winkle"

Week 2     

  • Alhambra, America, Arabic
  • Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra   

Week 3

  • Alhambra, America, Arabic
  • Washington Irving, Mahomet and his Successors
  • "Arabic Notebook" (NYPL; Manuscript and Archives Division)

Week 4

  • Arabic Slave Writings: Introduction   
  • Ibrahim 'Abd ar-Rahman, "The Lord's Prayer"
  • ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, Autobiography

Week 5

  • Arabic Slave Writings
  • ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, Autobiography
  • ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, "Taylor-Key Letter"

Week 6

  • Arabic Slave Writings
  • ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, Marginalia (Davidson College)
  • “Letter to John Taylor” (Spartanburg MS; Website)

Week 7

  • Arabic Slave Writings
  • ‘Umar ibn Sayyid, “Letter to John Taylor” (Spartanburg MS; Website)
  • Ben 'Ali, Diary

Week 8

  • Arabic Slave Writings
  • Ibrahim 'Abd ar-Rahman, Autobiography
  • Conferences

Week 9

  • Spring Recess  

Week 10

  • Oriental Romantic
  • Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”; “Ligeia”
  • Edgar Allan Poe, “Tamerlane”; “Al Aaraaf”; “Israfel”

Week 11

  • Transcendentalism & Sufism
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet"

Week 12

  • Transcendentalism & Sufism
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Saadi”; “Bacchus”
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Persian Poetry”

Week 13

  • Transcendentalism & Sufism
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Translations” 

Week 14

  • Arabic Slave Writings, Revised

Week 15

  • Conferences
  • Presentations

Week 16

  • Presentations  
  • Exam Review & Projects Due


Assignment #1 – “The Lord’s Prayer”(?)

Study page 75 of Allan D. Austin’s African Muslims in Antebellum America (1997) – a manuscript containing “The Lord’s Prayer” as transcribed by Ibrāhīm ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān.

i) First, read the English handwriting that comprises the bottom half of this manuscript, and which describes the “foregoing” Arabic as a “copy of The Lord’s Prayer”.  

ii) Second, consult my translation of the Arabic (handout).

  • How do we account for the clear discrepancies between the English description and the actual Arabic text? 
  • How do these discrepancies shape our understanding of the situation, character and authorial intent of Ibrāhīm ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān in 1828, and his relationship with the American recipient of this “copy of The Lord’s Prayer”?  
  • Are there multiple, and differing, ways of conceiving how this page’s Arabic text fits, and/or contradicts, its English description?
  • What are the artistic merits, or literary strategies, implied by the actual Arabic text that Ibrāhīm ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān records in this manuscript?
  • Why does he choose to reproduce these specific quotations and conventions in his writing?

Assignment #2 – Ibn Sayyid’s Autobiography

As you read Ala Alryyes’ translation of Ibn Sayyid’s Autobiography (2011; pgs. 47-79) consider the  following, broad questions:

  • Closely read, and re-read, the extended quotation from the Qur’ān that introduces the Autobiography (pgs. 50-57). Why does Ibn Sayyid decide to open in this way? How does this quotation situate his life story? Why does Ibn Sayyid choose this specific selection from the Qur’ān? (you may wish to agree or disagree, for instance, with Note 2 on pg. 51).
  • What literary touches survive in this English translation of Ibn Sayyid’s Autobiography? Estimate the Autobiography’s style, voice, narrative strategies, character portraits, poetic sensibility, use of metaphor, ambiguity, irony.
  • How would you describe the structure of the Autobiography
  • How is our reading of the Autobiography affected by not knowing the identity of its named addressee (i.e. “Sheikh Hunter” [pg. 59])?
  • Identify at least one targeted passage from the Autobiography that you find compelling due to its literary qualities, and which merits additional discussion in class.    

Assignment #3 – Ibn Sayyid’s Autobiography (Reconsidered)

Review Ala Alryyes’ translation of Ibn Sayyid’s Autobiography (2011; pgs. 47-79) in light of our February 9 discussion.

  • How is our reading of the Autobiography altered by having the original Arabic text available to us on its facing pages? What are we able to surmise about the Autobiography as we review Ibn Sayyid’s handwriting, symbols and page layout? 

After reviewing Ala Alryyes’ 2011 translation of the Autobiography, read the 19th-century translation produced by Isaac Bird (pgs. 87-92).

  • How do these renditions differ? Identify broad issues of difference (diction, syntax, structure), as well as specific passages that exemplify these differences.
  • Do these disparities lead to alternate readings of the Autobiography, or alternate portraits of Ibn Sayyid? Are we able to discern which translation is more “faithful”?

Assignment #4 – Ibn Sayyid’s Taylor-Key Letter

Before reading the English translation of Ibn Sayyid’s Arabic Letter (i.e. pages 198-201), study the manuscript as it is reproduced on pages 196-197.

  • What significance is available to us in this document simply from its appearance (i.e. before reading its actual text)? Identify aspects of this letter’s page layout and design that seem strange or significant. 

After reading the English translation (i.e. pages 198-201), consider:

  • Does Ibn Sayyid’s letter exhibit a thematic focus? Does it appeal to motifs that endow it with coherency? Is there narrative progression, or rhetorical development, in the letter?
  • How does this letter anticipate literary strategies, or textual challenges, that pervade the 1831 Autobiography?
  • As apparent from the critical notes on pages 198-201, Ibn Sayyid’s letter is punctuated with quotations, many of them from the Qur’ān. How does the letter utilize quotations to advance its aims? Do the quotations that are chosen reflect Ibn Sayyid’s own biography?  How do they help clarify his own positions and perspectives? How may these traditional and conventional quotations be read as specific to Ibn Sayyid himself? Choose at least three quotations as examples for close scrutiny.
  • This 1819 letter represents the first, extant piece of Ibn Sayyid writing. How may we understand this letter as a fitting opening to the Ibn Sayyid corpus? 

Assignment #5 – Ibn Sayyid’s Marginalia

Go to and click on the Davidson Marginalia tab – a webpage that features inscriptions which Ibn Sayyid wrote in the margins of his Arabic Bible. 

Read my brief introduction to these Marginalia, and study Examples 1 through 5. 

  • Why do you think Ibn Sayyid decides to write in his copy of the Bible? What is he attempting to accomplish in performing these distinct acts of inscription?
  • What does Ibn Sayyid choose to inscribe in this printed text? Identify the different kinds of marginalia found in the five examples, and discuss their possible purposes.
  • Who is Ibn Sayyid writing for? Does our consideration of “audience” or “readership” impact our understanding of the marginalia?
  • Consider Example #5, which represents the final surviving page of ‘Umar’s Bible, concluding both the Book of Revelation, and the Arabic Bible as a whole. Is it significant that ‘Umar adds these final words to the Bible? Consult an English translation of the conclusion to the Book of Revelation (e.g. Revelation 22:12-21). Does this conclusion to Revelation alter or complicate our understanding of ‘Umar’s final marginalia?

Assignment #6 – Ibn Sayyid’s “Letter to John Taylor”

Go to and click on the Spartanburg Manuscript tab – a webpage that features an unpublished Arabic letter authored by ‘Umar ibn Sayyid.    

Read my brief introduction to this “Letter”; study its manuscript pages (i.e. Page Right, Page Left); and read my English translation of these two pages. 

As you study the “Letter”, consider the following:

  • This “Letter to John Taylor” recalls several other Ibn Sayyid writings, incorporating a number of scriptural quotations. However, what is different about the quotations featured in this letter? How do they work together? 
  • Attempt to identify key-words in the “Letter” – i.e. words or phrases that seem to give the letter cohesion. Is there narrative progress from the beginning of the letter to its conclusion? Are there themes or motifs that hold the entire piece together? 
  • Study the letter’s Arabic manuscript pages (Page Right and Page Left). What signs or symbols are evident here that provide some hint as to Ibn Sayyid’s authorial intent or process? How do you interpret the large geometric drawings on the bottom half of Page Left? Why does Ibn Sayyid include these?  

Assignment #7 – ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān’s Autobiography

Read pages 80-82 of Allan D. Austin’s African Muslims in Antebellum America (1997), containing the Autobiography of Ibrāhīm ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān.

After reading these pages, consider:

  • As Austin notes in his introduction on page 80, “ar-Rahman [wrote] an autobiography in Arabic [...] but it has not yet been found”. Instead, we only have an English translation, i.e. “Abduhl Ar-Rahman’s History” (pages 80-81). What problems are posed for us by inability to access the Arabic original? 
  • In reading “Abduhl Ar-Rahman’s History”, whose voice do we hear? Does this English text sound like it authentically reflects ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān’s own identity, or do we suspect that is has been significantly influenced by Ralph Gurley, who produced this transcription? Is there anything problematic in this English translation?  

Assignment #8 – William A. Caruthers' The Kentuckian in New-York

Read Chapter XII of The Kentuckian in New-York – an 1834 novel by the Virginian writer, William A. Caruthers, recounting the “adventures” of “three southerns”. Chapter XII comprises a letter from Beverley Randolph to Victor Chevillere, detailing Randolph’s travels through Georgia and South Carolina.

After reading the entire chapter carefully, consider the following:

  • Describe your reactions in coming to pages 146-147. 
  • What effect do we imagine this portion of Arabic would have had on American readers in 1834?
  • Why do we imagine Caruthers included this “facsimile” in his novel?
  • How does this Arabic text, and its English translation, seem in light of our reading of the Arabic Slave Writings by historical figures such as Ibn Sayyid and ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān?  
  • How does Randolph describe “Charno”? How does Charno’s act of writing come about? Why “could [Randolph] not directly get to sleep” after his encounter with Charno?


Jeffrey Einboden
Reavis Hall 329
Back to top