Thomas Jefferson had a vast personal library reflecting his enormous curiosity about the world. Among his volumes: a Quran purchased in 1765 that informed his ideas about plurality and religious freedom in the founding of America.
In her book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, author Denise Spellberg draws parallels between the beliefs of the founding father and religious tolerance in the United States today.
“I think that there is anxiety about what Muslims believe, largely because people don’t understand Islam very well. I think that was also true in the 18th century,” Spellberg says. “It strikes me that Jefferson was theorizing for a future that included Muslims — not in spite of their religion, but because of it and because of his notion of universal civil rights.”
She sat down with All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss Jefferson’s Qur’an and the lasting impact of the third U.S. president’s views on religious freedom.
On how Jefferson came to have a Quran:
“He actually was a bibliophile from the beginning. He ordered this Quran in 1765, eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was a law student at the time, and he had the book shipped from England to Williamsburg, Va. … There’s an entry in the local newspaper because they were the booksellers for the time.
“Europeans, and Americans after them, in this period tended to be quite hostile toward Islam. And yet Jefferson was curious about the religion and law of Muslims, and that’s probably why he bought the Quran.”
On his views of religious freedom:
“Jefferson was unique in many ways. He criticized Islam as he did Christianity and Judaism. He talked about Islam as a religion that repressed scientific inquiry — a strange idea he got from Voltaire that wasn’t right — but … was able to separate his principles about Muslim religious liberty and civil rights from these inherited European prejudices about Islam.