- Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders by Denise A. Spellberg
Thomas Jefferson, Islam, Qur'an, Muslims, Religious freedom, Barbary states, North Africa
In January 2007, Keith Ellison was sworn in as the representative of Minnesota’s 5th congressional district. Representative Ellison’s swearing-in attracted considerable attention because he chose to take his oath of office using an English translation of the Qur’an that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. In so doing Ellison made history as the nation’s first Muslim congressman, while acknowledging that the United States has had a long, if oft-neglected, history of engagement with Islam. Ellison’s oath linked Islam with the founding of the American republic and was a lesson for those who claim that the origins of the United States were exclusively Christian. [End Page 498]
Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an begins with Congressman Ellison’s swearing-in. Spellberg, a specialist in Islamic history, believes that the antipathy aroused by Ellison might have been avoided “if only more Americans had known their founding history better, a past that had prepared an eventual place for Congressman Ellison, not in spite of his religion, but because of it” (x). Spellberg seeks to recover the history of Islam in early America. Like Congressman Ellison, she draws our attention to Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an in order to legitimate the claims of Muslims in contemporary American political life. The result is a book that looks in two directions: to the eighteenth century (and earlier) to recover the history of early American engagement with Islam; and to the present to defend the presence of American Muslims in the public square of political debate.
Spellberg begins by examining early modern European stereotypes and perceptions of Islam that were exported to the American colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She skillfully delineates the negative association of Islam with “Turkish” luxury and tyranny as well as more positive perceptions and the early efforts to extend religious toleration to Muslims in Europe. She shows that Islam was routinely associated with Catholicism as well as dissident Protestant sects in opposition to established churches in northern and western Europe. In the debate over religious toleration she shows that Muslims were sometimes included alongside Catholics and dissenters. She suggests that the extension of toleration, in principle, to Muslims, became one standard by which religious liberty could be measured. Of course, there were relatively few Muslims in western Europe and fewer still in colonial North America, so toleration largely remained an abstraction. (Spellberg notes that most Americans were ignorant that there were Muslim West African slaves in their midst.)
Having established the place of Islam in the cultural and intellectual milieu of colonial America, Spellberg turns her attention to Jefferson in particular and the founders in general. She analyses the edition of the Qur’an that Jefferson purchased and examines the relatively scant references to Islam in Jefferson’s writings. She argues that Jefferson subscribed to the general anti-Islamic views prevalent in early America. He associated Islam with tyranny and ignorance. Notwithstanding his negative view of Islam, however, Jefferson believed that Muslims should be accorded complete religious liberty under the terms of Virginia’s Statute [End Page 499] for Religious Freedom, which he drafted in 1777. Spellberg then examines Jefferson’s efforts to confront the challenge posed by the Barbary States of North Africa, both as a diplomat during the 1780s and as president fifteen years later.
Spellberg’s treatment of the Barbary question is especially valuable for the nuance and sophistication it brings to the North African perspective in the dispute. She argues, correctly in my view, that Jefferson did not view the prolonged conflict with the Barbary States in religious terms. Rather, for Jefferson the dispute was about trade. She makes much of the differences between Jefferson and John Adams about the best way to handle the Barbary problem. According to Spellberg, Adams, who saw the conflict in religious...