The Revolving Bookstand: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an
Eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an. How did this purchase influence Jefferson and what role did Islam play with other American Founding Fathers? Wm. Scott Harrop reviews Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders by Denise Spellberg in this month’s Revolving Bookstand feature.
In 2007, when Congressman Keith Ellison borrowed a Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson for his ceremonial oath of office, he renewed a debate as old as the American republic. For some critics, a Muslim holding elected office constitutes a fundamental threat to American identity, an anathema to its founding values.
In Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders, Denise A. Spellberg, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas, counters that key America founders contemplated Islam in civic life. In Spellberg’s judgment, an “American Muslim citizen with full civil rights” is “quintessentially evocative of our national ideals.”
Jefferson’s ownership of a Qur’an provides Spellberg with an intriguing hook for her inquiry. Proof that Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an is preserved in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. There, the “Virginia Gazette Daybook” records that on October 5, 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at William & Mary, purchased George Sale’s venerable translation of the Qur’an. While no direct notes from Jefferson’s reading of the Qur’an survive, Spellberg draws inferences about Jefferson’s understanding (and misimpressions) of Islam from scattered writings and his own policy views and choices made amid his encounters with Muslims.
Even as Spellberg details Jefferson’s criticisms of Islam as a religion, she demonstrates that Jefferson, like James Madison and George Washington, advocated religious freedom and civic rights for Muslims, as they did for Catholics and Jews. Going beyond Locke, Jefferson’s critical innovation was not just to “tolerate” religious dissent, but to assert the full inclusion of citizens and public servants from all faiths – or none at all. Yet just how and why Jefferson and his concurring founders arrived at this stance deserves further exploration.
Amid the decade long political fight for passage of his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson famously wrote that, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” Spellberg notes that despite Jefferson’s profession to be a Christian, his political foes, including John Quincy Adams, abused Jefferson’s own words to slur him as an “infidel,” a Muslim. He has certainly not been the last American president to face this charge.
During his presidency, Jefferson clashed with North African Muslim powers as Barbary corsairs attacked American merchant ships and demanded ransoms. Although Spellberg dubs Jefferson the first President of the United States to “wage war against an Islamic power,” he was also the first to make peace with them. She assesses that Jefferson “never perceived a predominantly religious dimension to the conflict” and may have even used faith as a bridge to resolve the disputes.
Spellberg’s remarkable inquiry demonstrates that even as early America inherited Europe’s deep fears of Muslims, it also established original principles for their equal inclusion in public life. Both timely and enlightening, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders deserves wide consideration.
Wm. Scott Harrop is a Lecturer in the University of Virginia’s Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian and Languages and Cultures. Since early 2011, he’s been teaching courses on “Recent Revolutions in the Islamic World” — through a Jeffersonian prism. He’s also a past Jefferson Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.