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

I hope that Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (New York: A. A. Knopf, 2013) gets picked up for a Fox News segment. Denise A. Spellberg (UT-Austin) has synthesized a large body of scholarship into a readable, teachable, and thoughtful look at the significance of Islam in the American founding era. Conservatives pounced on Spellberg during a dust-up over a novel about Muhammad’s wife a few years ago, and in this book she suggests both that the Founders were occasionally wrong and that some of them believed Islam could have its place in the American polity. So it seems possible to hope that the usual suspects will take notice. She deserves the publicity.

Jefferson bought a two-volume edition of George Sale’s English translation of the Qur’an in 1765. It would seem likely, Spellberg notes, that that book was destroyed along with nearly all of Jefferson’s early library in a fire in 1770, but if it was he bought a second copy of the same edition at some later point. The book made headlines in 2007 when Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of Congress, used it for his swearing in.

Spellberg’s book isn’t really about Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an—that artifact itself makes only brief appearances, serving as a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of Islam’s place in the Founders’ thinking. Spellberg reaches deep into the history of European discourses of religious toleration and Christian perceptions of Islam to set up a detailed account of Islam’s relevance to Revolutionary-era debates. This relevance has three aspects. First, Jefferson and other founders conjured Islam as a symbol of the sort of superstition and tyranny they opposed. Open-minded as he was, “With seven key exceptions, Jefferson never had a positive thing to say about Islam, either in public or in private,” Spellberg writes (236). Jefferson and other opponents of religious establishments compared Anglicanism, for example, to Islam, and used Islam’s supposed suppression of science and free inquiry as the preeminent example of the dangers of religious establishment (102). Islam shared this position in the founders’ imaginations with Catholicism, an aspect of this discussion which Spellberg keeps admirably in view.

On the other hand, the same people who disparaged Islam as a religion also brought Muslims into the conversation on religious toleration as the theoretical limit-case. From Roger Williams to Jefferson to John Leland, “the Turk” makes everyone’s list of those who, while wrong in their convictions, should be permitted to practice them freely. This was true, of course, precisely because Islam was considered so remote; the irony is that it wasn’t. Those arguing for toleration in the American founding era had no actual Muslims to tolerate, or so Spellberg says they believed. The young nation’s actual, substantial, population of Muslims never entered the conversation about religious toleration, because they were enslaved. A large number of slaves came from heavily-Muslim parts of Africa; the persistence of Islamic practices in slave communities is widely attested.[1] Spellberg suggests repeatedly that the people debating the theoretical toleration of Islam had no clue that they had Muslims in their midst. To their knowledge, at least, the founders’ interaction with actual Muslims was limited to foreign affairs—Jefferson’s dealings with North African piracy are discussed at length.

Spellberg’s story meanders from those pirates to biographies of two nineteen-century Muslim slaves to moments of toleration and its opposite in European tradition, but it never feels disorganized. There are occasional odd factual lapses—Cotton Mather and Anne Hutchinson are referred to as “rivals” at one point, though she died twenty years before he was born (20). The overall tone with respect to Islam is overtly defensive, which can serve to turn the actual Muslims who do appear in the story into something less than full actors; it sometimes feels as if they are there only to be misunderstood. Patiently correcting the Founders’ incorrect beliefs about Islam in her own voice limits the reader’s view of the dialogue over religious freedom in the subsequent two centuries of American history. This is felt most acutely in the Afterword, where Spellberg takes up the obvious contemporary resonances of the question of Islam in America. The recent history of anti-Muslim activity is rehearsed with the suggestion that the positive aspect of the central irony of Jefferson’s attitude toward Muslims—the part about the liberty to practice even religions he didn’t much like—has been eroded. It is easy (and necessary, obviously) to criticize Qur’an-burning pastors, but more attention to the American Muslim voices responding to bigotry (past and present) may have given a better picture of the legacy of that irony. Nevertheless, the breadth of Spellberg’s reading and the way that she deftly keeps a number of different historical threads in play at the same time is a real achievement. It will be a useful tool for teaching, in the classroom and, hopefully, in the public discourse.

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[1] See Allan D. Austin, African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 1997); Michael Gomez, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).

3 comments on “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders

  1. Denise A. Spellberg says:

    Thanks for this generous review. However, the error you note about Mather and Hutchinson appeared only in the galleys. In the actual book, the sentence on p. 20 reads “In the colony of Massachusetts Bay, the Puritan leader Cotton Mather (1663-1728) and the bannished Anne Hutchinson (d. 1643) would condemn Islam, invoking the familiar image of the Ottoman Antichrist’s head merged with that of the Pope.”

  2. Mark Johnson says:

    Powerful, the truth will set us free. I’ve secured (7) copies and will buy more. Should be a required read at all places of learning fr middle schools on up. Particularly schools of law, and law enforcement training centers. An extremely excellent read. May this book go far in bridging the gap of ignorance. And I hope we as a people will accept this truth and refuse to act like ostriches,as if this truth does not exist. It’s up too the All MIGHTY CREATOR, to secure the ultimate success of this work. And I pray millions will come to quench there thirst at this fountain of TRUTH.

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