Obama, Jefferson and the fascinating history of Founding Fathers defending Muslim rights


Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Jefferson memorial in Washington DC

Washington Post: This post has been updated with President Obama’s comments. The Fix originally wrote about Thomas Jefferson and Muslims in December.

Muslims are at the center of a roiling debate over religious freedom in the United States. But they’ve actually been a part of that heated conversation from the very beginning of the nation’s founding.


Thomas Jefferson, lithographed and published by H. Robinson, N.Y., created between 1840 and 1851. (Library of Congress)

“Islam has always been a part of America,” President Obama said during his first visit to a U.S. mosque Wednesday.

Indeed, a number of the Founding Fathers explicitly mentioned Muslims — along with other believers outside the prevailing Protestant mainstream — as they outlined the parameters of religious freedom and equal protection.

“When enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions,” Obama said Wednesday at the Islamic Society of Baltimore. “Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans, and Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom that he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — ‘the Jew and the gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.'”

Muslims, who were also alluded to in those years as “Turks,” did live in this country at the time, Obama said. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslim, but much of the citizenry at the time didn’t acknowledge that Muslims existed in America, according to several historians.

So unlike Jews and Catholics, Muslims were discussed in the hypothetical — and often with negative opinions, including those held by Jefferson — to show “how far tolerance and equal civil rights extends,” said Denise Spellberg, author of “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.”

“In the formation of the American ideal and principles of what we consider to be exceptional American values, Muslims were, at the beginning, the litmus test for whether the reach of American constitutional principles would include every believer, every kind, or not,” Spellberg said in an interview.


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