Source: Oxford Islamic Studies
Whether or not Jefferson was also familiar with the Constitution of Medina—the document dictated by Muhammad to govern relations among the diverse Muslim and Jewish tribes in Medina—is unknown. As legislative documents, there are similarities between the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Qur’an. Some of the contents of the Constitution of Medina, particularly in the inclusion of the unification and protection of a people regardless of creed under the government, equal rights, and protection of religious groups, are articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. Did the contents of the Qur’an and perhaps even the Constitution of Medina influence Jefferson when he authored the two most important documents in American history?
The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution contain similar clauses on some topics. The Constitution of Medina states: “The Jews shall maintain their own religion and the Muslims theirs…The close friends of Jews are as themselves” and “those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community” in solidarity against their enemies. Finally, the conclusion of the Constitution states, “Strangers, under protection, shall be treated on the same ground as their protectors; but no stranger shall be taken under protection except with consent of his tribe…No woman shall be taken under protection without the consent of her family.” ix If Jefferson was familiar with the Constitution of Medina, the document may have influenced his inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” an almost dogmatic belief in American culture.x
Reflections of the Constitution of Medina and the Qur’an can also be discerned from the U.S. Constitution. The first Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, was originally called the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted that the contents of the bill and that he was emphatic that the language of the bill should name precisely the groups protected, writing that “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every [emphasis mine] denomination” should be protected under the law.xi Despite not knowing what Jefferson’s familiarity may have been with the Constitution of Medina, we can still see the influence of certain elements of its teaching within the Qur’an, in particular Surah 2:62: “Verily! Those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and do righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.”xii The interpretation of this verse is traditionally that those who are members of the Abrahamic family of faiths are protected from both spiritual and social persecution. Did Jefferson find inspiration in this surah? Perhaps.
In 1788, when the states voted to ratify the Constitution, the issue of non-Christian identification was part of the debate. In particular, a lively debate was conducted over Article VI, Section 3 which states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”xiii A similar clause appears in the Constitution of Medina, where loyalty to the state is not tested by religious affiliation but by demonstrated loyalty and that demonstration guarantees the protection of the tribe or state. In North Carolina, delegates debated the amendment deploying the hypothetical situation of a Muslim president.xiv
Whether or not Jefferson was influenced by the Constitution of Medina or his study of the Qur’an in authoring either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, we may never know. But we can conjecture that his understanding of Islam and other world religions, compounded with his remarkable education at the College of William and Mary, which was informed intellectually by the Enlightenment, shaped his crafting of American national pride.