Thomas Jefferson‘s visit to the Virginia Gazette office in 1765 is an important one. It was here that he purchased a copy of the Qur’an, specifically, George Sale‘s English translation, “The Koran, Commonly Called the Alocoran of Mohmmed.” Kevin J. Hayes of the University of Central Oklahoma explains this purchase and more about Jefferson’s thoughts in the article How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an.
According to Hayes, “Jefferson’s purchase of the Qur’an at this time may have been inspired by his legal studies, too. The interest in natural law he developed as a student encouraged him to pursue his readings in this area as widely as possible” (p. 247). However, Jefferson’s interest in the Qur’an was also likely a result of his interest in the study of religion, including Islam. As Hayes notes,
Entries he made in his literary commonplace book about the same time he purchased Sale’s Koran show that he was seeking to reconcile contradictions between history and scripture that were becoming increasingly apparent to him. His curiosity about Islam is consistent with the interest the commonplace book reflects regarding how traditional religious customs and beliefs are transmitted from one culture to another (p. 248).
Jefferson was lucky to get his hands on Sale’s version of the Qur’an. Hayes states that reading Sale’s translation gave the open-minded and curious Jefferson “the opportunity to receive a fair view of the religion,” as many other versions of the Qur’an were rife with outright bigotry (p. 251). For example, Sale challenged the popular myth that Islam spread solely by the sword and not through the exemplary character of the Prophet Muhammad.
Hayes also examines the importance of where Jefferson placed the Qur’an in his famous library at his Monticello residence:
His placement of the Qur’an in the manuscript library catalogue he prepared in 1783 indicates how he understood Islam in relation to other religions. Overall, Jefferson grouped titles together into several broad subject areas, which he called chapters within the catalogue. He listed Sale’s Koran in chapter 17, “Religion” (Gilreath and Wilson 58). The titles within each chapter are precisely organized, too,’ but Jefferson’s organizational schemes differ from one chapter to the next. Though he carefully organized the titles in each chapter, he never recorded the principles he used to determine individual Thomas Jefferson… What his correspondence makes clear, however, is that he devoted enough time and thought to arranging the contents of the individual chapters to become irritated when others ignored his organization (p. 252).
Here is another passage from Hayes which is important to understand Jefferson’s thinking about the Qur’an:
The library catalogue, on the other hand, suggests that Islam, as a monotheistic religion, represented an advance over the pantheism of ancient times. The organization of the library catalogue implies that the Islamic belief system was an improvement over the pagan religions yet fell short of the belief system Christianity represented.
Hayes also problematizes Jefferson’s thoughts about Islam and the Qur’an in a “chilling” reference from a 1786 report to John Jay. Alongside John Adams, Jefferson was commissioned
by the United States government to meet and possibly arrange a treaty with Abdrahaman, envoy of the sultan of Tripoli. Algiers, Morocco, Tunis, and Tripoli constituted the Barbary Coast, a land whose pirates had been terrorizing American merchant vessels and taking American merchant sailors prisoner and holding them for ransom. The Muslim states of the Barbary Coast endorsed the practice of piracy-provided it was carried out against infidels in the name of Islam (Kitzen i) (p. 256)
Jefferson later met the Tripolin ambassador:
The ambassador explained that the conduct of the Barbary Coast pirates “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise” (Papers 9: 358). Even today, especially today, the ambassador’s words have a chilling effect (p. 257).
As Hayes suggests, after meeting the Tripolin ambassador, “Jefferson recognized that he needed to know more, a great deal more, and he began reading deeply on the subject” (p. 257). According to Hayes, Jefferson also “developed a deep interest in learning Arabic” (p. 257):
He acquired sonme basic Arabic grammars including Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae, by Thomas Erpensius, and Simplification des Langues Orientales, the Arabic grammar prepared by his friend and correspondent, C.-F. Volney. He also obtained a copy of Heinrich Sike’s edition of the infancy gospel with the text in Arabic and Latin on opposite pages (p. 258).
In quick summary, the life of Jefferson in relation to Islam and the Qur’an is, according to Hayes, one of tolerance and pluralism. For Hayes, Jefferson was “a champion of religious freedom” who was “willing to let fellow Americans practice whatever religion they chose, Islam included” (p. 259). However, Hayes also mentions that even until his death, Jefferson felt that the Qur’an was “alien to him,” perhaps for his criticism of its claim to infallibility. Hayes claims that to Jefferson’s mind, “no written text could claim such absolute authority as Islam attributed to the Qur’an” (p. 259).
Hayes concludes his article by stating that the placement of the Qur’an in Jefferson’s library shows that the book in his mind “remained at a halfway point between paganism and Christianity.”
Tagged: Barbary Coast, Barbary Pirates, Barbary Wars, Founding Fathers, George Sale, God, Islam, Jefferson, Jefferson library, Kevin J. Hayes, Monotheism, Monticello, Natural law, Prophet Muhammad, Quran, Religion, Thomas Jefferson, Tripoli, United States