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.
based on religious difference. In so doing he advances a defense of Deists, whom most ardent Christians of whatever denomination condemned as infidels: In the United States, the above case has but small bearings, where the number of Pagans, Jews, and Mahometans is so small; but, there are thousands of Deists, who cannot be convinced of any revelation from God to man, except that of nature; and a thousand thousand who cannot conscientiously join with any religious society, from an honest
of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib016251, image 303. 179. Fischer, “Islam and the First Amendment.” 180. “To Thomas Jefferson Smith from Thomas Jefferson,” February 21, 1825, in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: Modern Library, 1998), 655. 181. Ellison, “Choose Generosity, Not Exclusion.” In June 2012 Congressman Ellison’s loyalties were attacked by Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann and four congressional
prevailing distortions, Stubbe made several glaring mistakes of his own. He claimed, for instance, that the Prophet traveled to North Africa and Spain during his lifetime, and served in Christian armies under a powerful early convert named Abu Bakr (d. 634), whom Stubbe claimed to be his uncle, but was actually his father-in-law.192 Finally, following one of the more common Christian misrepresentations of Islamic tradition, Stubbe insisted that the Prophet “wrote” the Qur’an.193 Stubbe praised
Sort,” a title both certainly deserve in the annals of American Muslim history.221 These two lives remind us that while hypothetical Muslims inhabited the rhetoric of the Founders, in their midst there also lived flesh-and-blood Muslims who, as slaves, remained invisible and without rights. Only literacy in Arabic set both men apart from their coreligionists in the African slave population, and while that skill was enough to win Ibrahima a rare return journey from the Middle Passage, it would not
West Africa, like Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, could not have been more remote from the possibility that any Muslim could conceivably seek the presidency one day. And they remained invisible to the delegates, just as Omar’s words written in Arabic after the vote, his plaintive plea, “O, People of North Carolina,” would remain unread. Nevertheless, it was in North Carolina’s debate on religious tests that Muslims—albeit imaginary ones—stepped directly onto the American political