Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders
By Denise A. Spellberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
On January 3, 2007, Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, took his symbolic oath of office with his hand on a two-volume English translation (by George Sale) of the Qur’an. It was no ordinary copy of the Qur’an but rather the one owned by Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers and third president of the United States. Ellison had planned to take the oath with a Qur’an and was alerted to the existence of this particular one in a letter from a constituent. When he announced his decision, controversy erupted. In response, Ellison told the Associated Press that the fact that Jefferson owned a Qur’an “demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Quran.” He added, “A visionary like Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a different belief system. This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of.”
It is this same sentiment that permeates Denise A. Spellberg’s new book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. In it, Spellberg offers a meticulously researched and incredibly detailed account not only of how Jefferson came to acquire a copy of the Qur’an in English but also of the broader historical circumstances of his political career and the role of religion in the period of the founding fathers. Spellberg develops a nuanced and insightful analysis of the seemingly contradicting attitudes towards Islam and Muslims displayed by Jefferson and his contemporaries as represented in historical records. The conundrums she sets out to explore are the following: Why did the founding fathers include the theoretical possibility of Muslims not only as citizens of the United States but as federal office holders (including the presidency) in their deliberations on the one hand, while demonstrating decidedly negative views of Islam (and Muslim political adversaries overseas) on the other? Is the inclusion of Muslims as the farthest edge of political possibility more than a rhetorical tool for defining that same edge? Was Islam recognized as a legitimate religion, together with and beyond Judaism and Catholicism, in a young country that seemed to assume Protestantism as its foundation? What could Jefferson’s musings about Islam and his ownership of a Qur’an tell us about the negotiation of religion(s) in the realm of American politics?
Spellberg provides a broad historical frame for her inquiry. She starts in the early sixteenth century and spends her first two chapters on the development of European attitudes towards Islam, both negative and positive, to then reflect on how such European attitudes were carried as well as renegotiated on their passage to America. She establishes the existence of an, albeit fringe, movement for the political toleration of followers of Islam and early discussions of freedom of religious practice in New England. A curious play by Voltaire about the Prophet Muhammad, written as a critique of French politics, appears on stage in the late eighteenth century in North America, performed on both sides of the Revolutionary War. The 1797 novel The Algerine Captive, by Royall Tyler, takes up the captivity experiences of Americans in North Africa, but, according to Spellberg, provides a representation of Muslims and a reading of Islam so sympathetic that the author feels pressured to apologize. European and American Protestant thinkers argue for the separation of religion from government affairs and John Locke appears as a predecessor to Jefferson in both his interest in Islam and his ideas about toleration of religious minorities. Spellberg demonstrates the longer history of debates about secularism and religion on the one hand, and the toleration of Muslims in Europe, transported and rethought in America on the other.
The central chapters of the book follow a more or less chronological structure and trace Jefferson’s political career from 1765 to 1823. Spellberg lays out how Jefferson came to acquire a copy of the 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. Those in favor of Protestant privilege warned of the dangers of non-Protestant infiltration and the resulting changes in the character of the United States. Spellberg’s chapter “Could a Muslim be President?” ends with the somewhat curious inclusion of the stories of two prominent African Muslim slaves, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima (or Ibrahima Abd al-Rahman, d. 1829) and Omar ibn Said (d. 1863). Spellberg presents them as a reminder of the presence of “real” Muslims in America, invisible and without rights, at the very same time that Jefferson and the founding fathers were discussing the hypothetical presence of American Muslims and their potential claims to political office. The last of four chapters on Jefferson discuss his continued, mostly negative references to Islam, and their connection to the ongoing conflict with Tripoli, as well as the ways in which Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslim despotism become points of reference in American political discourse, namely insults hurled at political opponents. Spellberg asserts that “Jefferson’s position on Muslim rights and potential for citizenship remained consistent from his days as a law student in the 1760s until the end of his life.”
The book contains an afterword that points to the continued significance of the questions at hand. Spellberg takes up the contemporary relevance of Muslim citizenship and political office and offers a cursory contemporary history, which includes: recent attacks on Muslim civil rights after 9/11, hate crimes against Muslims, insistent claims that Barack Obama is a Muslim, as well as the debate over Rep. Ellison’s swearing-in ceremony, and the controversy over the Park51 mosque and community center project in New York City. The list Spellberg offers closely resembles one posted on the ACLU website, which defends the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. The ACLU goes on to state: “We must always—especially in times of controversy—vigilantly uphold our core values. When we violate one group’s freedom, everyone’s liberty is at stake. And the ACLU will continue to defend the civil rights of everyone in our country.” Spellberg ends her book with a similar plea: “Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal ideal of civil rights promised all believers at the country’s founding.”
Spellberg’s book demonstrates the depth as well as breadth of the research task she performed since 2005 when she first developed an interest in Jefferson’s Qur’an. The book contains meticulous footnotes and a wide array of primary and secondary sources and Spellberg does not shy away from alternative readings and conclusions of archival sources where she disagrees with existing scholarship. As a fellow Islamic studies scholar, though one who has focused on contemporary Muslim communities in the United States for some time, I admire Spellberg’s foray into unfamiliar territory (she self-identifies in the introduction as a “specialist in Islamic history”) and appreciate her willingness to connect her field of interest, Islam, with American constitutional history. Her training as an Islamicist makes it all the more surprising that one of my major concerns with her book is her repeated and insistent essentialization of Islam. Time and again, she juxtaposes correct understandings of Islam—which lack nuance and tend toward the idea that there is a recognizable and distinct entity called Islam—with incorrect or false understandings displayed by Jefferson and others. It becomes the most glaring (and disturbing) when Spellberg discusses Jefferson’s encounter with Abd al-Rahman, the Tripolitan ambassador to London. Abd al-Rahman is quoted referencing the Qur’an to support Tripoli’s expectation that the U.S. would pay in return for protection from pirate attacks, arguing that Islamic law required such treatment of others from Muslims. In the following pages, Spellberg, rather than reflecting on why the ambassador deemed it appropriate to use references to the Qur’an and Islamic law as political arguments, lays out a framework for jihad and peace in Islam that appears universal and even suggests which other Qur’anic passages the ambassador could and should have referred to instead. The same essentialism is also at work in the indiscriminate use of the word “Islamic” in many places where “Muslim” would be more appropriate and indicative of a nuanced discussion of normative claims and analytical statements.
My second “e” of concern (after essentialism) is exceptionalism: Spellberg focuses on Islam as the very edge of religious inclusion which raises both concern about what that might mean for Hindus, Buddhists, and others as citizens and holders of political office. It also omits the many ways in which the debates about Muslims and Islam were interconnected with and indeed interdependent on debates about Jews as well as Catholics. To be sure, there are glimpses of those debates and the book is focused on Islam, but this focus makes it necessary to reach elsewhere for the parallel (and different stories) of Jews, Catholics, and others as part of the American polity.
My last “e” is concern about Spellberg’s rather uncritical enthusiasm for the founding fathers and founding principles of the United States. The underlying argument for the book is the assumption, reflected in Ellison’s statement above as well, that all the United States needs is a good and solid look at its own history in order to be the best it can be. The political and totally naturalized liberalism at work here certainly makes the book appealing to a broader political spectrum, and indeed, at times it reads like a plea to those who want to exclude Muslims from civil rights and citizenship, but it severely limits the possibility for political critique. If all we can ask and struggle for is to go back to the founding ideals, then we are limiting the possibility of change and stifle the range of critical expansions in many directions. Bearing this in mind, this reviewer, perhaps too optimistically, hopes that the book can do its part to move those who need it most.
Juliane Hammer is associate professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.