Sunday, February 22, 2015

Was Jefferson a "Closet Muslim?"

That is what his political opponents accused him of being when he ran for President in 1800.  Jefferson was accused of many other things as well, including miscegenation, in what was a highly contested election that saw him and Aaron Burr evenly split in electoral votes, which Burr could have challenged in Congress but chose not to.

Jefferson's Qu'ran has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent years, notably when Keith Ellison chose to take his oath of office on the Qu'ran in 2007.  Of course many evangelicals were curious why Jefferson had a Qu'ran, so their resident historian, David Barton, came up with the specious claim that he bought one in the 1780s in an effort to better understand his enemy in the conflicts taking place off the Barbary Coast.  Barton has since been forced to amend his comments.

Jefferson had purchased a Qu'ran back in 1765, the same year he passed his bar exam.  He was apparently curious if there was room for tolerance of Muslims in an emerging Democratic society, which John Locke had advocated in Great Britain.  Denise Spellberg tackled the subject in her recent book, Thomas Jefferson's Qu'ran.  Ms. Spellberg is an associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas.

She got into a bit of hot water a few years ago, when she actively pushed for Random House to not publish a racy romance novel entitled The Jewel of Medina.  Abbas Milani covers the subject in his review of Spellberg's book.  She had published a book on A'isha Bint Abi Bakr, and asked to write a review since A'isha was the subject of the novel.  Spellberg considered the romance a "deliberate misinterpretation of history," and alerted members of the Muslim community to the book.  As a result, Random House took a pass, but Beaufort Books picked it up the title and the novel became a brief flash point, with none other than Salman Rushdie defending its publication and castigating Spellberg for her attempts at censorship.

Milani argues that Jefferson wouldn't have bothered with a book like The Jewel of Medina, as he made no effort to stop the publication of books that offended his sensibility.  After all, Deism was seen in an equally bad light by most Protestants who firmly believed in the Holy Trinity.  The net result is that Spellberg called more attention to this "bad romance" than it deserved, with Sherry Jones relishing the attention the book received.

But, that's all water on the bridge.  Spellberg has recovered from that incident and has now tackled the subject of Islam in early America.  Jefferson's Qu'ran is more a jumping off point for a study of the religious attitudes at the time and how the Founding Fathers responded to these attitudes.  Apparently, Jefferson and Washington discussed whether Muslims had a place in American society.  Spellberg notes with irony that they were blithely unaware of the number of Muslims they had as slaves, including one slave Fatimer, which Spellberg felt was obviously derived from Fatima.

The book has piqued my curiosity.  If others are interested we can make Thomas Jefferson's Qu'ran the subject of our long dormant reading group.  Any takers?


  1. I own a copy of the Quran as well as a few books on Islam. That doesn’t make me a Muslim.

    Jefferson was a true renaissance man with a curiosity for the world of thought and diverse ideas. It should come as no shock that his library included a copy of the Quran. His Deism and well known anti-clerical sentiments incurred the ire of the clergy of his day. He was a man whose intellectual disposition was to think for himself on all matters, religious or secular.


  2. I also have a copy of the Koran and use it to refute the idiotic ideas of so many bigoted Islamophobes during online debates.