November 2, 2014 / by admin / American History / No Comments

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0307388395

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


In this original and illuminating book, Denise A. Spellberg reveals a little-known but crucial dimension of the story of American religious freedom—a drama in which Islam played a surprising role. In 1765, eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an. This marked only the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam, and he would go on to acquire numerous books on Middle Eastern languages, history, and travel, taking extensive notes on Islam as it relates to English common law. Jefferson sought to understand Islam notwithstanding his personal disdain for the faith, a sentiment prevalent among his Protestant contemporaries in England and America. But unlike most of them, by 1776 Jefferson could imagine Muslims as future citizens of his new country.

Based on groundbreaking research, Spellberg compellingly recounts how a handful of the Founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the toleration of Muslims (then deemed the ultimate outsiders in Western society) to fashion out of what had been a purely speculative debate a practical foundation for governance in America. In this way, Muslims, who were not even known to exist in the colonies, became the imaginary outer limit for an unprecedented, uniquely American religious pluralism that would also encompass the actual despised minorities of Jews and Catholics. The rancorous public dispute concerning the inclusion of Muslims, for which principle Jefferson’s political foes would vilify him to the end of his life, thus became decisive in the Founders’ ultimate judgment not to establish a Protestant nation, as they might well have done.

As popular suspicions about Islam persist and the numbers of American Muslim citizenry grow into the millions, Spellberg’s revelatory understanding of this radical notion of the Founders is more urgent than ever. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a timely look at the ideals that existed at our country’s creation, and their fundamental implications for our present and future.

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Unlike other contemporaries, however, he did propagate the misconception in defense of Islamic believers against a Christian regime. In the same spirit he indicted all governments that presumed to dictate religion, from the first Christian emperor, Constantine, whom he charged with persecuting pagans and heretics; to the pope, who “exalts himself above all who are called gods (i.e., kings and rulers,) and where no Protestant heretic is allowed the liberty of a citizen”; to the Ottoman Empire,

The first play about Islam performed in America was written by François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire (1694–1778). Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, ostensibly about Islam’s founding era, was first staged in Paris in 1742, two years before an English-language production in London. By 1776, a revival of the play had become a hit on the London stage. During the Revolutionary War, Mahomet would be performed on both sides, first by the British troops in 1780, and for American and French

religion. And if we consider rightly, we shall find it to consist wholly in the subject that I am discussing: It is not the diversity of opinions, which cannot be avoided, but the refusal of toleration to people of diverse opinions, which could have been granted, that has produced most of the disputes and wars that have arisen in the Christian world on account of religion.227 Characteristically, Jefferson condenses this sentiment and questions the “genius” of Christianity that Locke so

and Morocco.99 These assertions, in brief, summed up the view from Tripoli: The Mediterranean was their lake; to sail it freely required a diplomatic agreement and a financial arrangement such as North African powers had demanded for centuries from European countries. It was simply business as usual. The declaration of war was not merely an invitation to sue for peace, but implicitly to pay for it as well. And there was a specific hierarchy of treaty-making to be concluded: Tripoli first (of

the ambassador. Abd al-Rahman “rejoiced” to see the envoy’s congressional commission to make treaties with Tripoli as well as Morocco, Algiers, and Tunis, saying he would undertake to negotiate terms for both Tunis and Tripoli. He would “also write in favor of any person who might be sent or go with him in person, to assist in the completion of peace with all the States of Barbary,” which Adams added “was more than he had ever before said to any ambassador or minister in Europe.”115 When Adams

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