06 October 2013

Thomas Jefferson and Islam

From a fascinating column at Salon:
At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation. His engagement with the faith began with the purchase of a Qur’an eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s Qur’an survives still in the Library of Congress, serving as a symbol of his and early America’s complex relationship with Islam and its adherents...

That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims. Jefferson first read about Muslim “civil rights” in the work of one of his intellectual heroes: the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke. Locke had advocated the toleration of Muslims—and Jews—following in the footsteps of a few others in Europe who had considered the matter for more than a century before him...

As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality—the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office—should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom: the issue of a “religious test” in the Constitution, like the ones that would exist at the state level into the nineteenth century; the question of “an establishment of religion,” potentially of Protestant Christianity; and the meaning and extent of a separation of religion from government...

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 one. But the fact that both Washington and Jefferson attached to it such symbolic significance is not accidental...
The citations above are excerpted from a recently-published book: “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” by Denise A. Spellberg.  I've requested the book and hope to review it some time in the future - sounds interesting.


  1. As a counter to the above, see "What Jefferson really thought about Islam", by the late Christopher Hitchens >>

  2. Don't read too much into Jefferson's ownership of a Qur'an. It was only one of thousands of books he owned. Jefferson didn't single out the "Mahometan" for any special treatment. He wanted them to enjoy the same rights as anyone else.

    But check out Jefferson's blog! Several times each week, he posts briefly on a variety of topics, including freedom of religion.

    Recent posts include: (Note the 4th one down.)
    - Do you want fries with that?
    - Can an honest man be a dishonest politician?
    - What do maple trees have to do with slavery?
    - Did Jefferson oppose Islam?
    - Rebellion, liberty, blood & manure!
    - Luxury, drinking & whores! Oh my!

    Read the blog at http://ThomasJeffersonLeadership.com/blog/

  3. The founding fathers considered certain rights to be fundamental, some of these rights were lessened to the status of constitutional rights. Simply because not all constitutional rights are fundamental rights. Constitutional rights like bible quotes were further cheapened as an overused rhetorical Appeal to Authority (a logical fallacy).
    Law and even the constitution is not scripture, but rather a jumping off point. Hence it's wrong to treat the author as a prophet.

    The Separation of church and state, like racial(tribal) segregation or gender separated schooling doesn't alleviate tensions but tends to increase them. Secularity may have been a necessity of that time, but it served to protect religions more than it protected the state. Due to the separation fundamentalist groups hold no stake in government and hence are set upon the erosion and destruction of its influence (deregulation, privatization). While the government bodies are somewhat obstructed to direct religious zeal and make use of community participation as a resource.

  4. As a followup, I did check the book out from the library. It is an impressively detailed, scholarly work that covers the whole history of Islam/Christianity in Europe and colonial America. But it's TMI for the time I have available.


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