Alcorans, and the acquisition thereof

Posted in: Research, A Summary View, Thomas Jefferson

Since I set up my Google Alert, which allows me to track when new mentions of "Thomas Jefferson" appear on the Internet, I've been amazed to see that there is almost always a tiny little wave of rhetorical consultations of TJ in reaction to each big news story.  In essence, every time something big happens, people start asking themselves and others, "What would Thomas Jefferson do/say/think about this?" and quoting his writings on the topic and talking about how he dealt with similar problems.  TJ apparently had lots to say about the recent bank crisis; he had the solution to the Somali pirate issue ("just send Stephen Decatur after them!"); and there's been all sorts of invoking of Himself's name in response to President Obama's mention of Jefferson owning a copy of the Qur'an.

I am astonished, however, to find people out there in the Internet World claiming that the "real reason" Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur'an was so he could "study his enemy."   Now, I'm no Jefferson-and-his-Qur'an expert, but, as my sister used to say, "I fail to see the logic underlying that conclusion."

This topic was of course very hot when Congressman Keith Ellison had himself sworn into office using Jefferson's copy of the Qur'an in 2006.  At the time there was all sorts of news reportage - really, all the kerfuffle seemed positively prurient - and a flurry of questions sent to us about it.  We really we didn't have much to say about it except what was in the Sowerby Catalogue.  So I decided it was time to have another look at this, and spent a merry 30 minutes discussing this with my colleague Endrina, who has been working on the Jefferson's Libraries project ever since I've known her.  Anyway, here's what we know - and do not know - about Jefferson's Qur'an:

  • Jefferson's purchase of a copy of George Sale's Alcoran is recorded in the daybooks of the Virginia Gazette on October 5, 1765, for 1 pound, 6 shillings.
  • Jefferson was studying law at this time under George Wythe in Williamsburg.
  • It is possible that this very book survived the 1770 fire at Jefferson's family estate of Shadwell and is the selfsame book now at the Library of Congress, and used by Keith Ellison.   By Jefferson's own admission, very few of his books survived the 1770 fire.  It is also possible that the book Jefferson purchased in 1765 was destroyed five years later and he later purchased another identical copy of the Qur'an; we haven't found any record of such a purchase, however, so we really can't say for certain.
  • We do not know for certain why he purchased it. No clear evidence has yet to be revealed on this subject.  There are no known letters where Jefferson explicitly discusses his purchase of a Qur'an.  His main instructor, George Wythe, is not known to have had a copy; the presence of a Qur'an in Wythe's library might suggest that Wythe considered it an important text for study and may have suggested or required that Jefferson read it as well.

The only substantial scholarly treatment of this specific topic that I'm aware of is Kevin Hayes' 2004 article in Early American Literature, "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an."  Hayes suggests that Jefferson's primary motivation in purchasing the Qur'an was his interest in it as a legal text.  This seems highly plausible to me.  What does not seem plausible is that, 21 years before he encountered a representative of an Islamic country in a professional capacity, he 1) decided that he considered Muslims his "enemy" and 2) conceived of a need to study their main religious text so as to be better equipped for conflict with them.

Comments

says

What else did people have to do in the days before electricity? Reading, reflection and debate were probably pretty common for the educated. Now we waste our time with video games and Junk TV shows. If only people actually paid attention to what their politicians were doing, things would be alot different.

says

A person of faith is not required to follow a blind faith. Many Christians read other books, including the Qur'an. Why is that a problem? Catholics use a different Bible than Protestants, is that a problem?

Come on, TJ was an intellectual. He read whatever he desired to read, and gained in knowledge in doing so.

says

[...] God on All Sides: Leadership in a Devout and Diverse America, Oxford University Press, pp. 111-112. This blog has further details: We do not know for certain why he purchased it…The only substantial [...]

says

Indeed, you raise a good point. Jefferson's intellectual curiosity + bibliophilia were certainly strong motivators...perhaps all the ones he needed.

says

The man just loved books and loved to read!! He probably would have owned Das Kapital, The Communist Manifesto, The Little Red Book, etc. too, had they been around during his time. He was curious. Why not? That's how we learn.

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