Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders
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In this original and illuminating book, Denise A. Spellberg reveals a little-known but crucial dimension of the story of American religious freedom—a drama in which Islam played a surprising role. In 1765, eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an. This marked only the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam, and he would go on to acquire numerous books on Middle Eastern languages, history, and travel, taking extensive notes on Islam as it relates to English common law. Jefferson sought to understand Islam notwithstanding his personal disdain for the faith, a sentiment prevalent among his Protestant contemporaries in England and America. But unlike most of them, by 1776 Jefferson could imagine Muslims as future citizens of his new country.
Based on groundbreaking research, Spellberg compellingly recounts how a handful of the Founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the toleration of Muslims (then deemed the ultimate outsiders in Western society) to fashion out of what had been a purely speculative debate a practical foundation for governance in America. In this way, Muslims, who were not even known to exist in the colonies, became the imaginary outer limit for an unprecedented, uniquely American religious pluralism that would also encompass the actual despised minorities of Jews and Catholics. The rancorous public dispute concerning the inclusion of Muslims, for which principle Jefferson’s political foes would vilify him to the end of his life, thus became decisive in the Founders’ ultimate judgment not to establish a Protestant nation, as they might well have done.
As popular suspicions about Islam persist and the numbers of American Muslim citizenry grow into the millions, Spellberg’s revelatory understanding of this radical notion of the Founders is more urgent than ever. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a timely look at the ideals that existed at our country’s creation, and their fundamental implications for our present and future.
arrangement he’d proposed as a diplomat in France. Nevertheless, despite the capture of a Tripolitan ship early in 1801, the blockade failed, owing in part to the intervention of other North African states.91 By 1802, Jefferson could still not secure a declaration of war from Congress, but he did win more official support for the military defense of American commerce.92 In 1803, a new force of seven American vessels began to patrol the Mediterranean.93 It included the thirty-six-gun warship
Alkoran, which he holds as the sacred oracle of heaven? These things want better confirmation. If we suppose that it is the duty of all these to support the Protestant Christian religion, as being the best religion in the world; yet how comes it to pass, that human legislatures have a right to force them so to do?57 Then Leland asked “for an instance, where Jesus Christ, the author of his religion, or the apostles, who were divinely inspired, ever gave orders to, or intimated, that the civil
African” woman whose name remains unknown. Elizabeth was the mother of Sarah (Sally) Hemings (d. 1835). Their great-grandmother’s African religion and ethnicity remain a mystery, according to Annette Gordon-Reed, Hemingses of Monticello, 47–52. 271. Wiencek, Master of the Mountain, 228; Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders, 154. Jefferson never freed Sally, although those slaves freed on his death were Hemingses, their children. 4. JEFFERSON VERSUS JOHN ADAMS: THE PROBLEM OF NORTH AFRICAN
may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews or Christian of an[y] Sect, or they may be Atheists.”8 Clearly, Muslims were part of Washington’s understanding of religious pluralism—at least in theory. But he would not have actually expected any Muslim applicants. Although we have since learned that there were in fact Muslims resident in eighteenth-century America, this book demonstrates that the Founders and their generational peers never knew it. Thus their Muslim constituency remained an imagined, future
obliged to rebut claims that were Catholics to become government officials they could make treaties with Catholic powers, resulting in the establishment of that religion. A little later he offered what would be the day’s only favorable mention of Catholicism, observing, with respect to the growth of tolerance in Europe, “In the Roman Catholic countries, principles of moderation are adopted which would have been spurned at a century or two ago.”107 His words did not prevent other Anti-Federalist