Islam At America’s Beginnings


Juliane Hammer reviews Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, which uses Jefferson’s ownership of a two-volume English translation of the text as an entry point into understanding the Founders’ complicated views on Islam:

Spellberg lays out how Jefferson came to acquire a copy of the [George] Sale translation of the Qur’an, which significantly contained an introduction, written by Sale, to Muslim history and law. She juxtaposes Jefferson’s negative views of Islam with his early arguments for Muslim civil rights and presents the tension between this latter argument and the presence of West African Muslim slaves which, by virtue of their racial classification and their status as unfree members of society, would not have been included in Jefferson’s consideration of Muslims as potential citizens. Jefferson and John Adams appear as political rivals in negotiations over North African piracy—talks which Jefferson carried out in part with the Tunisian ambassador in London. Spellberg emphasizes that Jefferson wanted to define the piracy problem and the ensuing conflict with North African states in explicitly political and economic terms and avoided reference to religion at all cost.

Around 1788, in the discussions leading up to the final form of the U.S. Constitution, Muslims, or at least imagined Muslim citizens, became a point of debate in regards to the religious oaths required of political office holders. Those opposed to Protestantism as the de-facto state religion argued for the inclusion of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims as political leaders; some even pushed for full religious inclusion and political equality for religious minorities.

In an interview about the book last year, Spellberg argued that Jefferson was “theorizing for a future that included Muslims — not in spite of their religion, but because of it and because of his notion of universal civil rights”:

Jefferson was unique in many ways. He criticized Islam as he did Christianity and Judaism. He talked about Islam as a religion that repressed scientific inquiry — a strange idea he got from Voltaire that wasn’t right — but … was able to separate his principles about Muslim religious liberty and civil rights from these inherited European prejudices about Islam.

He did the same thing when arguing for the inclusion of Catholics and Jews, actually. He had not very good things to say about either Catholicism or Judaism, but he insisted that these individual practitioners should have equal civil rights. … [Jefferson] resisted the notion, for example, that Catholics were a threat to the United States because of their allegiance to the pope as a foreign power. There were many Protestants who would have disagreed with him about Catholics, and many who would have disagreed with him about Muslims.

They were the outsiders, whose inclusion represented the furthest reach of toleration and rights. So for Jefferson and others — and he was not alone in this, although it was a minority — for him to include Muslims meant to include everyone of every faith: Jews, Catholics and all others. And to exclude Muslims meant that there would be no universal principle of civil rights for all believers in America.

(Image via Wiki: “Oil painting of Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (lower right center) in mortal combat with the Tripolitan Captain.” Dennis Malone Carter’s painting is located at the Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy.)