Source: The Conversation
By Denise A. Spellberg;Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin
After last year’s deliberate break with tradition, President Donald Trump has resumed the iftar dinner – the sundown meal during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. An estimated 3.3 million American Muslims celebrate Ramadan.
The month of Ramadan marks the time when Prophet Muhammad is believed to have first received revelations from God and has been celebrated at the White House since 1996. It was Hillary Clinton who started the tradition as first lady. However, last year, the Trump White House did not host the traditional reception. Neither did the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson, even though the holiday has been commemorated there since 1999.
Despite the relatively recent nature of these formal celebrations, the fact is that Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and even earlier, as my book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders,” demonstrates.
Islam, an American religion
Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key American Founding Fathers demonstrated a marked interest in the faith and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson.
As a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, Jefferson bought a Qur’an – 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence.
The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.
Although Jefferson did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction to the Qur’an, he did criticize Islam as “stifling free enquiry” in his early political debates in Virginia, a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at a time he wished to separate them in his commonwealth.
Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents. Evidence exists that Jefferson had been thinking privately about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state, writing in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration”:
“(He) says neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”
The precedents Jefferson copied from Locke echo strongly in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which proclaims:
“(O)ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”
The statute, drafted in 1777, became law in 1786 and inspired the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause and the First Amendment.
Jefferson’s pluralistic vision
Was Jefferson thinking about Muslims when he drafted his famed Virginia legislation?