Islam and Thomas Jefferson

During the 1770s Jefferson purchased a number of Arabic texts, which might have given him the desire to learn the Arabic language and could have significantly reinforced his commitment to religious freedom.

BY Donny Syofyan, Contributor, Padang | Feature | Sun, December 01 2013, 11:41 AM JAKARTA POST

Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders could reveal the relation between Jefferson and Islam, the Koran and Muslims.

In the book, Denise A. Spellberg points out that Thomas Jefferson — an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States (1801–1809) — was not a stranger to Islam and Muslims.

Not only was he the first executive of the United States to go to war with an Islamic nation but he was also the first American leader whose political opponents defamed him with accusations of being a Muslim.

In an attempt to deal with Muslim figures, Jefferson had no problem serving and hosting functions instead of going to Muslim countries. He was known to have entertained at least one Muslim ambassador in the nation’s new capital.

In correspondence with Muslim rulers of North Africa, he would repeatedly invoke a shared belief in one God. His success in fostering relations with Muslim leaders lied in his intense study of Islam. Jefferson is probably the Founder who had the most complicated and interesting interactions with ideas about Islam, and even with Muslims.

The most interesting part of the book for readers will be the details of Jefferson’s continued interest in Islam even after he was no longer in the office. After leaving office and returning to his library at Monticello, he would reserve a special place in his collection texts for the Koran, which had shaped his understanding of the Muslim faith.

Owing to his superior perception to Islam and Muslims, he was often misunderstood by other American leaders. Jefferson had disagreed with John Adams since 1786 about the best response to piracy.

Five years later, their differences in this and other political matters had become more pronounced. When the rift became public, Islam became not only a subject for dispute but a means of personal and political insult. He was first accused of being a Muslim as a result of words he wrote in 1791 in praise of his friend Thomas Paine’s tract The Rights of Man.

Actually, Jefferson’s respect for Muslims began long before his time as one of America’s founding fathers. Earlier in 1765, while still a law student, he took notes for his cases based on laws from around the world, which is one of the reasons he bought the Koran.

Since many people at the time thought the Koran was a book of laws, he used it for that reason. At the same time, he encountered a legal precedent, an earlier British legal precedent, which said that Muslims were not perpetual
enemies in British legal thought.

Through this book, Denise A. Spellberg, an associate professor of American and Islamic History at the University of Texas in Austin, represents sacred historical evidence and the capacity and eagerness of some early Americans to learn about that faith.

Along with Jefferson, Spellberg proves that many Americans in the founding era, despite the tenacious legacy of misinformation from Europe, refused to yield to contemporary fears promoting the persecution of Muslims. They preferred to be heirs to a less prominent but important strain of European tolerance toward Muslims, one whose influence had thus far been overlooked in early American history.

In this book, readers will ascertain that Jefferson remained objective and unique in many ways. In spite of his exposure to Islam, Jefferson 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 was not right — but was able to separate his principles about Islamic religious liberty and civil rights from these inherited European prejudices about Islam.

For those keen on biographical depictions, this book is a very suitable read since it portrays Jefferson’s intellectual transformation in his endeavor to fathom Islam.

Despite his own experience as the object of anti-Islamic slurs, Jefferson also believed and repeated the stereotype of a repressive religion. Such a view did not, however, prevent his endorsement in his The Rights of Man of religious freedom for Muslims in the context of praising the 1789 French Constitution’s “universal rights of conscience”.

This book appears to have come at just the right time as Islamophobia is still spiraling out of control in the United States and is an intellectual counter to what Glenn Beck and others fail to do when they laud Thomas Jefferson as a warrior who battled Islamic extremism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.