Read Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders Online

Authors: Denise A. Spellberg

Tags: #History, #United States, #General, #Political Science, #Civil Rights, #Religion, #Islam

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders

BOOK: Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders
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Copyright © 2013 by Denise A. Spellberg

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to The Johns Hopkins University Press for permission to reprint an excerpt from
The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller
by Carlo Ginzburg, translated by John and Anne C. Tedeschi. Copyright © 1980 by The Johns Hopkins University Press and Routledge Kegan Paul Ltd. Reprinted by permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-385-35053-2

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Spellberg, D. A. (Denise A.)
  Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an : Islam and the founders / Denise A. Spellberg. — First Edition.
      pages cm
  Includes bibliographical references and index.
978-0-307-26822-8 (hardcover) 1. Jefferson, Thomas, 1743–1826—Political and social views. 2. Jefferson, Thomas, 1743–1826—Religion. 3. Muslims—Civil rights—United States—History—18th century. 4. Islam and politics—United States. 5. Freedom of religion—United States—History—18th century. 6. Constitutional history—United States. I. Title.
  E332.2.S65 2013
  973.46092—dc23                                                                          2013010153

Cover images: (top)
Thomas Jefferson
by James Sharples (detail) © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library; (bottom) Jefferson’s copy of the Qur’an, George Sales, trans. (detail), Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.
Cover design by Joe Montgomery


In memory of those who arrived first:

Sebastiana Campochiaro Pavone and Antonio Pavone


Dvira Goldman Spellberg and Zvi Hersch Spellberg

And for all my students, with hope

Preface and Acknowledgments

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

—Leviticus 19:33–34 (New JPS Translation)

in 2011, I requested Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an from the Rare Book Room in the Library of Congress. Outside, tulips blazed in bright patches of red around the Capitol building. The flowers reminded me of their origins in the Ottoman Empire. The sultan had first sent them as diplomatic gifts to European rulers in the sixteenth century, and by the mid-seventeenth, the trade in the bulbs of these plants had reached a frenzied pitch in the Netherlands.
Jefferson would add them to his garden at Monticello in 1806.
And so it was that, through contact with Muslims long ago, this stunning flower had eventually reached North America, where it now reigns as a sign of spring.

Summoned with nothing more than the requisite library card and the relevant call number, the two volumes of Jefferson’s Qur’an arrived unceremoniously at my desk in less than ten minutes. I sat amazed. A national treasure was mine to peruse. As a historian and a citizen, I’d thought for years about what Jefferson’s Qur’an might have meant. Now, suddenly, I could touch the brown leather bindings, and hear the slight crackle of the yellowing pages as I turned them. The volumes were far too delicate, I thought, to be touched by
. I could not help but recall that eight months earlier in Florida an addled pastor of a
nearly nonexistent congregation had held press conferences promising to burn multiple Qur’ans in protest against a proposed mosque in New York City. (He had made his threat good days before in March 2011, with disastrous consequences in Afghanistan.)
The Florida minister believed he was exercising his First Amendment right to express how execrable he thought Islam was. Inadvertently, he revealed how little he knew about the historical importance of the Qur’an to Protestants in both Europe and America. For them, it had been more common since the seventeenth century to translate the sacred text for Christian readers than to consign it to the flames.

For me, the pages of Jefferson’s Qur’an represented sacred historical evidence, not of the truth of Islam, but of the capacity and eagerness of some early Americans to learn about that faith. As a professor of Islamic history, I wanted to know what early Americans knew about Islam and how they’d learned about the religion and its history. To my surprise, I found that many Americans in the founding era, despite the tenacious legacy of misinformation from Europe, refused to yield to contemporary fears promoting the persecution of Muslims. They preferred to be heirs to a less prominent but important strain of European tolerance toward Muslims, one whose influence had thus far been overlooked in early American history.

Jefferson’s two-volume English translation of the Qur’an had grabbed the national spotlight in January 2007, when Keith Ellison, the country’s first Muslim congressman, chose to swear his private oath of office on the Founder’s sacred text. At the time, I thought that the outrage expressed by some toward Congressman Ellison’s election and private swearing-in on the Qur’an might have been averted if only more Americans had known their own founding history better, a past that had prepared an eventual place for Congressman Ellison, not in spite of his religion, but because of it.

The idea of the Muslim as citizen and federal officeholder is not new to the United States. It was first considered in the eighteenth century. Yet today some claim that even the concept of a Muslim citizen in elected office is threatening to the nation’s identity. I argue the opposite in this book: The concept of the American Muslim as citizen is quintessentially evocative of our national ideals. Indeed, the inclusion of Muslims as future citizens in early national political debates demonstrates a decided resistance to the idea of what some would still imagine America to be: a Christian nation.

This book about the American past began accidentally for me as a specialist in Islamic history. Initially, I’d wondered why a French play, ostensibly about the Prophet Muhammad, had been performed in Baltimore during the Revolutionary War. To make sense of this more than a decade ago, I had the privilege of attending the ideal summer school: Professor Bernard Bailyn’s International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World at Harvard University. I took to paddling in this new Atlantic pond and found that the experience had prompted a sea change in my academic research, which I incorrectly assumed would be temporary.

By 2005, at the Atlantic Seminar’s tenth-anniversary conference, I had found a new document about Muslims in early American political debates. Again, I was fortunate to be invited to present this research to fellow students of Atlantic history. Professor Bailyn’s thoughtful, enthusiastic response to my ideas about Thomas Jefferson and his views of Muslim rights was rooted in his deeper knowledge of these constitutional sources. His interest in these ideas convinced me that what people thought about Muslims as citizens in 1788 should be included in the study of the Constitution. Did more data about Muslims as potential citizens in the founding era exist? Over the next seven years, I learned the breadth of that affirmative answer.

By the time Congressman Ellison was elected and swore his private oath of office on Jefferson’s Qur’an in 2007, I thought as a historian that I might have something to contribute, beyond the fact of Jefferson’s mere ownership of the Islamic sacred text. I wanted to know why Jefferson and others had included Muslims in the nation’s nascent ideals. At this juncture, Professor Bailyn introduced me to Jane Garrett, his kindly, patient editor at Knopf.
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an
was born as a book project—with the blessing of an editor who was actually keen on the project. My deep gratitude to Jane endures, despite the sad fact that I failed to finish the final draft before her retirement. My profound thanks go to George Andreou for his insightful editing of the final stage of this manuscript and to Juhea Kim, his assistant.

Many eyes, hands, and brains more agile than my own supported this book’s evolution and improvement. I remain humbled that Professor Bailyn, ever busy, took the time over the last few years to read two long, early, and rambling draft chapters about Jefferson and, finally, what I believed to be the last draft of the manuscript. His comments I treasure. Many saved me from obvious idiocies. If any remain, they are
my own fault, not his or those of the many colleagues and friends who also sought to help me.

Over the years, I have been blessed by the insight of many scholars and friends. First among these is Robert M. Haddad, the professor who first inspired my interest in Islamic history as an undergraduate. Since those days long ago, his wisdom and kindness have endured, for which I remain eternally grateful. Anver Emon, always enthusiastic and energetic, believed in this project from the first. He commented on almost every word of this text, pointing out errors in logic, gaps in argument, and problems with my representation of the Islamic past. Once my gifted graduate student, he took time from his duties as an eminent professor of Islamic law to support his former instructor.

At the University of Texas at Austin, my colleague Neil Kamil, expert in the Atlantic history of religion and violence, introduced me to a pivotal source, a catalog that revealed how Jefferson had ordered the books in his vast library. More than that, Neil’s own important work,
Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Huguenots’ New World, 1517–1751
, underscored the significance of a sixteenth-century Italian miller named Menocchio. Beyond his own key reading of this figure, Neil’s deft analysis of an unusually tolerant group of Dutch protestors in seventeenth-century Long Island also opened new possibilities for thinking about early modern religious pluralism. In addition to suggesting these research directions, Neil kindly also read all the chapters of the book.

Linda Ferreira-Buckley, a specialist in rhetoric and patience, carefully untangled arguments throughout, particularly in the introduction and conclusion. Janet Davis, expert in American studies and transnational histories, read most of the book’s chapters, despite her exhausting schedule. My colleague Syed Akbar Hyder, ever generous, also contributed a valued critique of the conclusion. I am also grateful to the historian A. Azfar Moin for his acuity and humor in smoothing out many rough spots.

BOOK: Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders
12.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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