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Politics of Scripture

Setting The Prisoners Free

Images of imprisonment appear throughout the Psalter, where the psalmist turns to God as refuge in order to exit the pit of despair. Similar to the life of Omar Ibn Said, and the opera which tells his story, images of shelter and succor help the psalmist escape the abyss of embattlement, imprisonment, or depression, and nurture the attitudes of care, trust, and hope that crest in Psalm 146 and the Hallelujah psalms.

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD [Hallelujah]!

Psalm 146:5-10

Psalm 146, the first of the five Hallelujah psalms that bring the Psalter to its exaltant close, praises God as one who “sets the prisoners free.” Enslaved people and prisoners of war join the ranks of those who are oppressed, hungry, suffering, wandering, or alone. 

Beginning as a personal testament (“Praise the Lord, my soul”) and ending in congregational praise, the psalmist addresses the deity as a personal god, the creator of the universe, and the redeemer of Israel. The  predicament of the prisoner resonates in all of these frameworks. Sometimes the psalmist speaks as a prisoner: In Psalm 142, the speaker cries out, “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to thy name” (v. 7). In Psalm 146, the duties owed to the prisoner reflect both the historical experience of Israel, enslaved in Egypt and exiled in Babylon, and the dignity of all people made in God’s image.

Psalm 146 was on my mind when I attended the new opera Omar at LA Opera in October, 2022. Created by Rhiannon Giddens (composer/librettist) and Michael Abels (composer), Omar dramatizes the life of Omar Ibn Said, a Muslim scholar from West Africa who was sold into slavery in 1807 and wrote his autobiography in Arabic in 1831 at the behest of his white master. He also copied out the Lord’s Prayer and a different psalm, Psalm 23, in Arabic and sent his pages to white intellectuals, including Francis Scott Key. 

Omar’s writings are a testament to the presence of African Muslims in early America and to the possibility of translation and communication among diverse religious traditions, even under conditions of extreme duress. 

Psalm 146 and the opera Omar are both concerned with the search for freedom from oppression, which they pursue through the power of song and prayer. Both works shape universal spaces of belonging — a shared Creation, a porous wisdom writing, a common Hallelujah. They also affirm the integrity of  specific faith traditions, languages, and historical experiences of suffering and survival. Each work modulates between a singular autobiographical voice and the aspirations of a choral community. Finally, each work celebrates oral expression yet survives through writing, which becomes a form of devotional practice.

The opera based on Omar’s extraordinary life begins with the Muslim call to prayer and ends with a finale that draws the story of African enslavement into a broader panorama of the persecutions, struggles, and victories that have shaped the United States. It also draws on African American spirituals and Yoruba ritual to tell its story of enslavement and the long road to freedom.

In Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, Joshua Dubler and Vincent Lloyd urge contemporary prison abolitionists to draw on the rich Scriptural imagination and moral grounding of their nineteenth-century forbearers. Psalm 146 is part of that spiritual archive, which this new opera renews and pluralizes.

At the turning point of the opera, Omar is doubly unfree. Having escaped from a harsh plantation in South Carolina, he is now in a jail cell in Fayetteville, North Carolina. When he covers the walls of his cells with verses in Arabic, he attracts the attention of a Carolina politician and landowner named Jim Owen, who purchases Omar – freeing him from one state of bondage in order to transfer him to another.

Psalm 146 begins and ends with the word “hallelujah.” Literally “praise Yah,” hallelujah is often translated as “praise the Lord.” For Muslims, alhamdulillah and the shorthand hamdalah carry similar power. Hallelujah has entered languages around the globe as a jubilant burst of sounds whose open h’s and lilting l’s swell with incipient musicality.

In the opera, Omar and Owen kneel to sing hallelujah together, their divergent faiths meeting in a shared Hebrew word. Their ululation floods the hall without dissolving the fundamental violence that has yoked one man to the other.

Reviewer Charles McNulty writes that Omar “finds its strength in the simplicity of prayer.” Indeed, Omar is as much an oratorio as an opera. From the Latin orare, to pray, the oratorio was invented in the seventeenth century to create sacred music with the musical power of opera. Handel’s Messiah, with its Hallelujah chorus, is the most famous oratorio in the Western canon.

Omar’s remixing of prayers from several faith traditions edge this work towards oratorio. So does the composers’ trust in the artistry of the chorus and their willingness to venture into a space of teaching, healing, and uplift, a space shared with the Psalms.  

In the finale, over fifty singers lined the walls of the opera hall for the last burst of music. I began to weep when I realized that a pair of singers was performing just a few yards from me, their voices so powerful that the sounds trembled in my flesh. Audience and chorus had become one body — the body of the faithful, the body of those with ears to hear.

Psalm 146 is a written work designed to be sung. Omar lives through the human voice, but the opera  also celebrates the power and beauty of writing as an act of the hand and the heart.  In Act Two, the curtain opens with Omar in jail. Voluminous textiles imprinted with Omar Ibn Said’s own calligraphy drape both the singer and the stage, unfurling upwards from the prisoner’s supplicating person.

Robe, pavilion, and cloud. Wings of the dove, waves of the sea, and mountain peaks. Those soaring sheets of calligraphy reminded me of the expressive tools gifted to generations of readers by the Book of Psalms.

Images of imprisonment appear throughout the Psalter. And when they do, the psalmist often turns to God as refuge in order to exit the pit of despair.  Like the glorious swaths of writing surging upward from the bent and kneeling Omar, images of shelter and succor help the psalmist escape the abyss of embattlement, imprisonment, or depression, and nurture the attitudes of care, trust, and hope that crest in Psalm 146 and the Hallelujah psalms.

“Scripture” comes from scriptura, the act of writing. Like the psalmist, and like many prisoners before him, Omar’s act of writing, his scriptura, is a meditative practice as well as an act of protest that bears him upwards. Psalm 146: “The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down” (v. 8).

And what if the prisoners are not set free?

In Omar, the falling action of Act One — capture, middle passage, auction block — is met by the rising arc of Act Two, in which Omar’s release from jail on the wings of Arabic script sweeps him to a happier existence on the Owen plantation. 

Yet when Omar Ibn Said died in 1864, he was buried in a plantation graveyard, still the legal property of Jim Owen. In a recent interview, Saidiya Hartman pushes back against histories of slavery that are “narrated as romances of overcoming bondage.” Arguably, both Psalm 146 and Omar traffic in the kind of optimism that Hartman asks us to distrust.

The long arc of slavery, however, does not negate the work of hope shouldered by art and religion. In the same interview, Hartman comments that rituals and songs “provided a space for breath within the social death of slavery.” Psalm 146 is such a song. And so is Omar.

Indeed, like the late plays of Shakespeare, Omar’s pilgrimage from tragedy into romance and the Psalter’s cresting in five Hallelujah songs deepen rather than simplify these works’ inquiries into freedom, hope, and belonging. Increasingly fearless in its counterpointing of prayers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Yoruba traditions, Omar reimagines America’s religious history as itself a grand oratorio whose fast and slow violences hide uncounted stories yearning to be sung.

In his writings, Omar Ibn Said liked to praise God as “the Lord of actions and sayings” (Alryyes, 199). “Sayings” evoke the proverbs and maxims of wisdom literature. Wisdom literature, which includes Psalms, Proverbs, and the Song of Songs, was the genre of moral edification where Israelites, Egyptians, and Babylonians could share ethical precepts that affirm an orderly cosmos.

In his calligraphic communications, Omar treated Psalm 26 and the Lord’s Prayer as wisdom teachings that could be copied out on the same page with Muslim expressions of faith. Like a commonplace book, Omar’s works on paper allow several religions to coexist in the shared dwelling of wisdom.

Psalm 146 is a hymn, but it is also a wisdom poem or maskil. The phrase “Happy are they” (v. 5) echoes the opening of the Psalter as a whole: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). In Psalm 146, what God does for the prisoner, the stranger, the widow, and the orphan takes shape through human actions and institutions that aim towards a common good, a shared happiness.In the opera house, the plural space of wisdom beckons a mixed audience to enter Omar in a mode that is sheltered by religion but slips the grasp of any one faith. Omar is political-theological insofar as it does not reduce religion to culture or story but instead invites a spiritual charge to gather and deepen in the places where diverse scriptures reach for justice. Hallelujah.

4 thoughts on “Setting The Prisoners Free

  1. What a fascinating and moving reflection and review of the opera Omar, which “[i]ncreasingly fearless in its counterpointing of prayers from Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Yoruba traditions, … reimagines America’s religious history as itself a grand oratorio whose fast and slow violences hide uncounted stories yearning to be sung,” this time of Muslim scholar Omar Ibn Said, based on his 1831 autobiography. The Muslim element in this story of African enslavement should be informative to many who do not know of the incredibly long history (beyond Malcolm X, etc.) that dates back to the earliest days of slave trade, not to mention those caught by European pirates like the 16th c. Andalusian Moor Leo Africanus. The symbolism behind Omar’s action of copying out the Lord’s Prayer and a different psalm, Psalm 23, in Arabic and sending his pages to white intellectuals like Francis Scott Key is poignant. Key, the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner,” is, of course, a stand-in for the Founding Fathers and revolutionary soldiers who fought for freedom of the American colonies from Great Britain.

    I loved your experience of Omar as a “remixing of prayers from several faith traditions” cresting towards oratorio” and “a space of teaching, healing, and uplift.” Your description of “that last burst of music,” which “trembled in your flesh,” and seemingly turned the audience into one body of vibration, into bodies singing and sung electric, into one uni-verse, must have been a beatific experience, weaving scripture and texts into a single sutra, into one textile, interwoven cloth. Yet this astral body must translate into the political and economic body through the seemingly endless, gritty, on-the-ground activist work in a struggle for social justice that seems torturously slow for deprived individual lives. Lest we forget, you have Saidiya Hartman remind us that rituals and songs “provided a space for breath within the social death of slavery,” a way for slaves to survive one more day in their short, brutal lives in the cotton fields. Thus, it is imperative that this “spiritual charge” for justice be expanded and redoubled “through human actions and institutions,” through all means available through activism, art, education, community outreach and events “towards a common good, a shared happiness,” within our currently challenging climate of disunity and disinformation. The holy and uplifting experience of Omar is attuned to the holiday yearnings for peace and good will and resolutions for personal and collective action to do one’s part to knit one’s will to this common Good. Hallelujah, indeed!

    1. Thank you, Unhae, for this generous and insightful response. Your reminder of the travails of Leo Africanus, whose writings were a source for Shakespeare’s Othello, renders explicit the longer arc that was subtending my thoughts about “Omar” as a modern Psalter.

  2. I had never heard of Omar Ibn Said, nor of this oratorio before reading your essay. But all three suggest that different faiths tend to converge in the act of prayer, however they diverge in matters of creed and doctrine. If there are no atheists in the trenches that is because they are praying. Does God exist? Prayer does. It is built into us as part of what language does. Perhaps that is all we know on earth, yet all we need to know.

    1. Thank you so much, John, for this beautiful response. I love your observation that prayer exists, as part of language, regardless of whether God exists or not. That really speaks to my experience!

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