Many writers and commentators suggest that Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an not to understand Islamic law and doctrine, but instead to “understand the enemy,” or the “Muslim” Barbary Pirates, who at one point tormented Jefferson in his political career. But is any of this true? Did Jefferson read the Qur’an only to understand the “evil Muslim mindset?”
Sebastian R. Prange would say that he did not:
The story of Jefferson’s purchase of the Qur’an helps to explain this classification. Sifting through the records of the Virginia Gazette, through which Jefferson ordered many of his books, the scholar Frank Dewey discovered that Jefferson bought this copy of the Qur’an around 1765, when he was still a student of law at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. This quickly refutes the notion that Jefferson’s interest in Islam came in response to the Barbary threat to shipping. Instead, it situates his interest in the Qur’an in the context of his legal studies—a conclusion that is consistent with his shelving of it in the section on jurisprudence.
Prange and Ahmad make a pretty simple point, but it is an important one. Jefferson was thinking about Islam and the meaning of the Qur’an long before he had to deal with the Barbary Pirates. Therefore it is inaccurate to suggest he read it only to understand their mindset.
You can read Prange and Ahmad’s article here.
Tagged: 1765, Aasil Ahmad, American identity, Islam, Islam and Founding Fathers, Islamic law and doctrine, Jefferson and Barbary Pirates, Jefferson and Koran, Jefferson Quran, Muslims, Sebastian R. Prange, Virginia Gazette