Thomas Jefferson and Islam

One of the most interesting books I've read this year  has been Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders. I would have been drawn to it anyway because of my love of history, but I was especially intrigued by the book's subject because I'm in charge of the library's programming series Muslim Journeys.   Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an is a fascinating look at one of the most astonishing episodes in American history: the establishment of America as a secular state, one where there were no religious requirements for citizenship or public office.  It was an idea so unusual for the time it was almost incomprehensible to many. Some people have trouble grasping it now. But fortunately some of the most prominent Americans of the time, such as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and Washington, were able to embrace the idea and make it law When Thomas Jefferson was a law student in the 1760s he purchased an English jefferson_qurantranslation of the Qur'an. He had a universalist outlook and thought it perfectly reasonable for a lawyer arguing a court case to cite customs of other cultures or the teachings of other religions as well as English case law (I have to wonder, however, how well citing the Qur'an would have gone over with an eighteenth-century Virginia jury).  The purchase of this book was the beginning of an intellectual journey that led to Jefferson's support of  complete religious freedom, and acceptance of the idea of Muslims as full citizens of the new republic. It was a politically dangerous idea, particularly since to most Americans of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Muslim meant "pirate" (just as to many Americans now Muslim means "terrorist"). American merchant ships that sailed the Mediterranean were often captured by pirates from North Africa and held for ransom. Many European nations paid money to North African governments to guarantee their ships safe passage, prompting no less than John Adams to remark, "The policy of Christendom has been to make Cowards of all their Sailors before the Standard of Mahomet." Jefferson, however, refused to equate Islam with piracy: to him this was clearly about money and force. As president he sent warships to North Africa rather than pay bribes. But he was also the first U.S. president to receive a Muslim diplomat at the White House. As you can imagine, the latter did not go over well with many in this country. Many Americans already disapproved of Jefferson for his unorthodox religious beliefs.* When he was first elected president, a rumor spread among the pious ladies of New England that Jefferson would send soldiers to confiscate their Bibles. He was also the first American president believed to be a closet Muslim (sorry, Obama). Thomas Jefferson's Qu'ran is a fascinating, if at times meandering book. It includes accounts of the 1786 campaign to disestablish the Episcopal Church as Virginia's official religion and of the fierce (and kooky) debates in North Carolina over ratifying the Constitution (some people in NC were horrified at the lack of religious qualifications for public office; some were particularly terrified at the prospect of a Catholic president, and the idea that an American Catholic could become pope and then be elected president). I wish the author had delved a little further (if it's possible, given the source material) to explain more clearly how men like Madison and Washington, as well as Jefferson, came to embrace the notion of a secular state.  Nevertheless, this is a groundbreaking work of history that's profoundly relevant to contemporary America.   *He believed in a god but not in the divinity of Christ.

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