Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders
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.
number of Jews expelled is estimated between 150,000 and 400,000 by Henry Kamen, “The Mediterranean and the Expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492,” Past and Present 119 (May 1988): 30. 47. Bainton, Hunted Heretic, 5–16. 48. Ibid., 16; Wilbur, History of Unitarianism, 1:61. 49. Wilbur, History of Unitarianism, 1:52; Garcia, Islam and the English Enlightenment, 161, 278 n. 9. 50. Wilbur, History of Unitarianism, 1:71; Garcia, Islam and the English Enlightenment, 161. 51. Zagorin, Toleration, 99;
62–89. 234. Zagorin, Toleration, 251–52, 255. 235. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), x. 236. Zagorin, Toleration, 259. Locke met Philip von Limborch (d. 1712), a follower of Arminius (d. 1609), and member of a group known in Holland as the Remonstrants. They embraced the idea of universal grace, avoided the persecution of all others, and felt it their duty to follow their own consciences “and to leave others to the judgment of God.” Russell, “Philosophus,” 249. In Rotterdam, Locke
Hamburger’s position, Leland ultimately chose a “Church-State position that exceeds that of Thomas Jefferson’s, erecting such a high wall of separation that it ignores religion’s and especially Christianity’s vital role in the preservation of America’s liberties.” See Huff, “How High the ‘Wall’?,” 5. Huff designates Leland’s position an error. I contend that it was Leland’s absolute separation, following Jefferson, that allowed him to envision a religiously plural and politically equal
Christian ruler’s authority in civil if not religious matters. Here in essence is exactly what Locke would demand as a precondition for Muslim citizenship and elevation from resident alien status: “But those whose Doctrine is peaceable, and whose Manners are pure and blameless, ought to be on equal Terms with their Fellow-Subjects.”257 Locke’s concern about the divided allegiance of Muslims in England is perhaps a reflection of his more immediate anxieties about Catholics, whom he distrusted for
in 1787.59 But two years earlier Jefferson confided in a private letter his bitterness at the prospect. He wrote that the sultan “is ready to receive us into the number of his tributaries,” a state of subjection he deemed unworthy of “a free people,” and likely to weaken the country’s standing not only in the eyes of “pyrates” but also “the nations of Europe.”60 In August 1785, Jefferson cast the problem succinctly, in both pecuniary and principled terms: “You will probably find the tribute to