VIEW : Our Founding Fathers included Islam — III — Denise Spellberg
Thomas Jefferson would be the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the 18th century
Even earlier in his political life — as an ambassador, secretary of state, and vice president — Thomas Jefferson had never perceived a predominantly religious dimension to the conflict with North African Muslim powers, whose pirates threatened American shipping in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. As this book demonstrates, Jefferson as president would insist to the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis that his nation harboured no anti-Islamic bias, even going so far as to express the extraordinary claim of believing in the same God as those men.
The equality of believers that Jefferson sought at home was the same one he professed abroad, in both contexts attempting to divorce religion from politics, or so it seemed. In fact, Jefferson’s limited but unique appreciation for Islam appears as a minor but active element in his presidential foreign policy with North Africa — and his most personal Deist and Unitarian beliefs. The two were quite possibly entwined, with their source Jefferson’s unsophisticated yet effective understanding of the Qur’an he owned.
Still, as a man of his time, Jefferson was not immune to negative feelings about Islam. He would even use some of the most popular anti-Islamic images inherited from Europe to drive his early political arguments about the separation of religion from government in Virginia. Yet ultimately Jefferson and others not as well-known were still able to divorce the idea of Muslim citizenship from their dislike of Islam, as they forged an “imagined political community”, inclusive beyond all precedent.
The clash between principle and prejudice that Jefferson himself overcame in the 18th and 19th centuries remains a test for the nation in the 21st century. Since the late 19th century, the United States has in fact become home to a diverse and dynamic American Muslim citizenry, but this population has never been fully welcomed. Whereas in Jefferson’s time organised prejudice against Muslims was exercised against an exclusively foreign and imaginary nonresident population, today political attacks target real, resident American Muslim citizens. Particularly in the wake of 9/11 and the so-called War on Terror, a public discourse of anti-Muslim bigotry has arisen to justify depriving American Muslim citizens of the full and equal exercise of their civil rights.
For example, recent anti-Islamic slurs used to deny the legitimacy of a presidential candidacy contained eerie echoes of founding precedents. The legal possibility of a Muslim president was first discussed with vitriol during debates involving America’s Founders. Thomas Jefferson would be the first in the history of American politics to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the 18th century. That a presidential candidate in the 21st century should have been subject to much the same false attack, still presumed as politically damning to any real American Muslim candidate’s potential for elected office, demonstrates the importance of examining how the multiple images of Islam and Muslims first entered American consciousness and how the rights of Muslims first came to be accepted as national ideals. Ultimately, the status of Muslim citizenship in America today cannot be properly appreciated without establishing the historical context of its 18th-century origins.
Muslim American rights became a theoretical reality early on, but as a practical one they have been much slower to evolve. In fact, they are being tested daily. Recently, John Esposito, a distinguished historian of Islam in contemporary America, observed, “Muslims are led to wonder: What are the limits of this Western pluralism?” Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an documents the origins of such pluralism in the United States in order to illuminate where, when, and how Muslims were first included in American ideals.
Until now, most historians have proposed that Muslims represented nothing more than the incarnated antithesis of American values. These same voices also insist that Protestant Americans always and uniformly defined both the religion of Islam and its practitioners as inherently un-American. Indeed, most historians posit that the emergence of the United States as an ideological and political phenomenon occurred in opposition to 18th-century concepts about Islam as a false religion and source of despotic government. There is certainly evidence for these assumptions in early American religious polemic, domestic politics, foreign policy, and literary sources. There are, however, also considerable observations about Islam and Muslims that cast both in a more affirmative light, including key references to Muslims as future American citizens in important founding debates about rights. These sources show that American Protestants did not monolithically view Islam as “a thoroughly foreign religion.”
This book documents the counter-assertion that Muslims, far from being definitively un-American, were deeply embedded in the concept of citizenship in the United States since the country’s inception, even if these inclusive ideas were not then accepted by the majority of Americans. While focusing on Jefferson’s views of Islam, Muslims, and the Islamic world, it also analyses the perspectives of John Adams and James Madison. Nor is it limited to these key Founders. The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.
The lives of two American Muslim slaves of West African origin, Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman and Omar ibn Said, also intersect this narrative. Both were literate in Arabic, the latter writing his autobiography in that language. They remind us of the presence of tens of thousands of Muslim slaves who had no rights, no voice, and no hope of American citizenship in the midst of these early discussions about religious and political equality for future, free practitioners of Islam.
Imagined Muslims, along with real Jews and Catholics, were the consummate outsiders in much of America’s political discourse at the founding. Jews and Catholics would struggle into the 20th century to gain in practice the equal rights assured them in theory, although even this process would not entirely eradicate prejudice against either group. Nevertheless, from among the original triad of religious outsiders in the United States, only Muslims remain the objects of a substantial civic discourse of derision and marginalisation, still being perceived in many quarters as not fully American. This book writes Muslims back into our founding narrative in the hope of clarifying the importance of critical historical precedents at a time when the idea of the Muslim as citizen is, once more, hotly contested.
Excerpted from Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by the writer
Denise A. Spellberg is an American scholar of Islamic history. She is an associate professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Spellberg holds a BA from Smith College and a PhD from Columbia University