Issue 99 / May - June 2014
Thomas Jefferson occupies a special space among the Founding Fathers as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States. Denise Spellberg, a scholar of Islamic history and civilization, introduces Jefferson from a different perspective, underlying the critical role he played in the establishment of religious freedom and recognition of religious pluralism as a pillar of the American ideal. Spellberg's book, Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, brings into focus how Jefferson impacted the course of American history in a way that is still relevant to the current debates about religious freedom - and especially about the place of Muslims in America.
Jefferson, a deist himself, appears in the book uniquely positioned among the Founding Fathers, with his unyielding advocacy of equal rights for all beliefs, including Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and pagans, all of which were despised by the Protestant groups that dominated the young American society at the time. Spellberg traces the origins of his fervor for religious pluralism and his demand for tolerating Muslims and other beliefs to the liberal European thinkers like Locke. A detailed history of European debates on religious freedom and tolerance helps the reader to understand that the current tension in Europe about the rights and place of Muslims in the continent also has ties going back several centuries. We see that hostility against Islam, often based on an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the religion of Islam and Islamic history, was very visible in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was an exception in those times to paint a relatively objective picture of Muslims and their beliefs. Interestingly, those figures who did that or advocated some form of tolerance for Muslims ended up being labeled as Muslims, which at that time in the Christian world meant being labeled an infidel. Jefferson got his share of this, too: he was called a Muslim or infidel when he advocated for the equality of all religions, including Islam.
Jefferson's defense of religious freedom and equality is better understood when it is seen in the light of his own view of Islam and Islamic history. He was not different from his contemporaries in this aspect. His purchase of a translation of the Qur'an for his library shows his interest to learn more about the religion, partly caused by his involvement as the US Ambassador to Paris during negotiations with the North African tribes for American hostages. His brief study of Islam didn't help eliminate his negative perception of Islam. It was an image continuously perpetuated by the surrounding climate of hostility against Islam which was, by and large, an imitation of European attitudes. Nevertheless, his opposition to any type of religious coercion in the hands of the government and his attachment to the ideal of national and religious equality was strong enough to include Muslims as acceptable and legitimate members of American society.
Spellberg finds no historical record showing that Jefferson or his contemporaries officially acknowledged the presence of Muslims in America at the time, even though there were many, at least among the slaves brought from Africa, and perhaps some among Jefferson's own slaves. In a sense, the talk about religious pluralism in the early years of American government often referred to Muslims (often called Turks, due to the Ottomans) as imaginary members of the society, focusing on what would happen if they were there. For most Americans of Jefferson's time, there was little or no difference between Muslims and pagans.
It is clear that the notion of religious freedom as championed by Jefferson and others in these conditions required a certain level of unwavering commitment to equality. These years produced a strong foundation upon which today's Muslims in America, with other religious groups, came to enjoy their equal rights. Under constitutional protection, rights were granted without a demand from real Muslims - and people of all faiths, or no faith at all.
Overall, Spellberg's book is an important read on the history of European and American perceptions of Islam and religious freedom. Its well crafted story of the process by which religious equality came to be a foundational element of the American ideal is of immense value to any student of American history.