Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: Islam and the Founders
By Denise A. Spellberg,
Vintage Books, A division of Random House LLC, New York
2013, 392 Pages, Rs. 499
This book traces the history of the American nation’s principled opposition to interference in the personal domain of an individual’s faith and an unwavering resolve to keep away religion from civil affairs.
Reviewed By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
The title of the book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Quran”, may prompt some of the readers of this review to presume the book to be glorifying Islam or the Quran. But only a slight foray into its pages is enough to negate this presumption. Rather, it reflects on America’s rise as a democracy keeping religion totally out of the purview of statecraft but extending equality and respect to followers of all faiths. The larger question that gets debated is how Muslims, who are relatively new entrants into the country, might fare as citizens.
This book revolves around the central idea if a Muslim can be envisioned to hold the highest federal offices in the United States of America. If so, how would the average American look at it and what potential challenges”legal, ideological and real life”might confront him or her? The book was occasioned by America’s first Muslim member of the House of Representatives Mr. Keith Allison choosing to swear on the two-volume copy of the ‘Alcoran’, owned by the young nation’s third President Thomas Jefferson in 2007.
Jefferson was known for three (some would say they go up to ten) most memorable achievements: Writing the document of Declaration of Independence (adopted by the American Continental Congress on July 4, 1776); writing and introducing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom 1777; and founding the University of Virginia in 1819. He bought a copy of the translation of the Quran by George Sale for 12 shillings in 1765. The richly annotated copy is preserved in the Library of the Congress, which was built over the core collection of 6,700 books sold to the Library by Jefferson himself.
Not merely against Muslims, prejudices against Jews, Catholics and several other Christian denominations were deeply rooted into the psyche of many of the early European immigrants to America. Given this, it was startling that Jefferson and his enlightened colleagues not only refused to exclude Muslims but even left a Constitution that would protect the civil liberties of all imagined communities that would come to reside within the future USA. George Washington insisted that the “bosom of America” was open to receive”¦the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions, whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.”
The earliest Muslims to enter the US were black slaves from Africa, mainly from West African countries. According to Historian Michael Gomez, “Of the 4,81,000 West Africans imported into British North America” as a result of the slave trade, “nearly 255,000 came from areas influenced by Islam.” It is therefore reasonable to conclude, as Gomez has, that “Muslims arrived in North America by the thousands, if not tens of thousands.”
The first 20 African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, but by 1756, when Jefferson was 13 years old, there were 120,156 slaves in America. Jefferson himself owned 187 slaves, and throughout his life this number would rise and fall with his financial fortunes. There is no evidence that he ever met a Muslim on his Virginia plantation. This goes to prove that he was merely thinking of Muslims as an imagined community, not a real one around himself, when he was authoring the Virginia Freedom of Religion Bill.
The book highlights the histories of two slaves, Ibrahima Abdal Rahman and Omar ibn Said, who served their masters between 1788 and 1863. Ibrahima even met US President Quincy Adams. Omar even wrote his autobiography, in 1831. Though outwardly Omar embraced Christianity, he remained a Muslim and wrote his autobiography in Arabic, beginning with Bismillah. These were among the first invisible Muslim citizens of the US.
Upper Hand for Civil Rights
The Protestant movement in Europe had prepared the ground for a break away from a religiously monolithic America as most who headed for the new continent were tired of religious shackles. William Rogers (1606-1683), Henry Stube (1632-1676) and John Locke had in some or the other manner declared their opposition to the stranglehold of religion on the popular mind. Some rejected the concept of the Trinity, others wanted no interference of religion in civil affairs, and yet others were engaged in reinterpreting the postulates of faith.
Jefferson wrote: “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions”¦that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy of the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounced this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.” His Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, drafted in 1777, was proposed in Virginia in 1779 and was made state law in 1786.
Although Jefferson viewed Islam negatively (so also Judaism and Catholicism) and even wrote about it in disparaging terms, he wanted adherents of all religions to be extended equal civil rights and no one to be persecuted for his religious dogmas. He refused to consider Muslims and Christians as perpetual enemies. He considered reason as the only valid path to knowledge, and had a corresponding distrust of theologians and clergymen. He also dismissed efforts to attain uniformity in religious thought and considered efforts towards that objective a futile exercise. He rejected the idea that Catholics should be considered a threat because of their allegiance to the Pope. He even proposed public attribution of religious devotion to be a corrupting civic loyalty, a civil offence.
Jefferson even refused to see conflict with North African pirates”which led him to conclude a treaty with Tunis and Tripoli”as one between Christendom and Muslims. Even in his private letters, he never emphasized the religious differences of the opposing sides. The Treaty with Tripoli states at the very outset that the Government of the United States of America “is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” He addressed the rulers of both countries: “I pray God, very great and respected friend, to have you always in his holy keeping.”
The book provides an overview of Muslim arrival in larger numbers in recent decades in the USA and analyses recent events such as a controversy over construction of a mosque close to the site of collapsed towers of the WTC and Keith Allison’s choice of swearing in on the Jefferson’s copies of the Quran. What comes out clearly is the point that America’s commitment to the ideals of religious freedom, political equality and pluralism remains unwavering and steadfast.