Category Archives: Constitution

Should a Muslim occupy the White House?

Denise Spellberg notes that on July 30th, 1788 Muslims “became symbolically embroiled in the definition of what it meant to be American citizens.” Speaking in light of who might one day occupy the White House, William Lancaster, a delegate to the North Carolina convention, stated:

“But let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence. I have not the art of divination. In the course of four or five hundred years, I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that [Catholics] may occupy that chair, and [Muslims] may take it. I see nothing against it.”

Spellberg sheds further light on Lancaster’s passage:

“Lancaster asserted these future fears of a “certain” Catholic or Muslim president on July 30, 1788 as part of a day-long debate on the Constitution’s Article VI, section 3: “… no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”  His views are preserved as the final utterance in the most detailed attack on – and defense of – a uniquely American ideal of religious pluralism, one that included Muslims at the founding.”

Here is the official text from Lancaster.

What is striking about putting Islamic and American legal discourses side by side?

Are these two documents so different?

Are these two documents so different?

The question in the title is one which Asifa Quraishi deals with in her article “Interpreting the Qur’an and the Constitution: Similarities in the use of text, tradition, and reason in Islamic and America jurisprudence.” Quraishi (p. 68) writes that

many presumptions inherent in the different interpretive methods translate across cultures quite easily, as do the corresponding attacks against those using an opposing method. In other words, when it comes to ways of thinking about textual interpretation, Muslim and American jurists following a given method
often will have more in common with each other than with those of an opposite methodology in their own society. But these commonalities have gone unnoticed thus far, largely because the greater Muslim and American legal communities have themselves been talking past each other for so long.

This article is definitely worth reading. It is long and exhaustive, but if you have the time (and perhaps an interest in law and legal matters), you will certainly be rewarded in Quraishi’s piece.

How Alexander Hamilton borrowed constitutional ideas from the Ottoman Empire

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is one of the most overlooked American founding fathers, but we should certainly not forget his intellectual capabilities and activities in helping to form the framework of the American government. We should also not forget the role that Islamic governance had in creating the United States Constitution. Here we pay homage to both.

An important article by Azizah al-Hibri provides an overview of Hamilton’s political thinking and how it was borrowed from the Ottoman Empire. She writes:

“Alexander Hamilton argued for giving the federal government the right to impose taxes by referring to the example of the Ottoman empire. He noted that the sovereign of that empire had no right to impose a new tax.

As a result,

“the Ottoman sovereign permitted the governors of the provinces to impose these taxes, and then squeezed out of the governors the sums he required for his and the state’s expenses.”

Hamilton concluded,

“[who] can doubt that the happiness of the people in both countries would be promoted by competent authorities in the proper hands… ?”

It is also worth noting that al-Hibri wrote that Hamilton

“argued that, from one perspective, the Turkish sultan was in fact weak and had limited powers. Hamilton then concluded that a strong central government would protect people from oppressive local governments.”

As much as some Americans do not want to admit it, some of the United States’ most important political principles are borrowed from other civilizations, meaning that “our ideals” are not uniquely “American.” One could suggest that today’s “American ideals” were yesterday’s “Ottoman ideals.”

In a nutshell, one of al-Hibri’s major points is:

“It was important for the Founding Fathers to lay down the foundation of a system of government which would not breed apathy or result in tyranny. To this end, the example set by the Muslim states .was important, given the stature and long history of the Islamic civilization.”

The beauty in al-Hibri’s research is that Hamilton and other founding fathers understood the importance of knowledge and learning about different cultures. It is also great to know that the founding fathers were not afraid of borrowing ideas from Islamic civilizations.

Prophet Muhammad and the American founding fathers yearned for equal rights

Are these two documents so different?

Are these two documents so different?

A major similarity in the most important documents behind the creation of the United States and Islam is the safeguarding of equal rights. We can find the message of equality between these two entities by turning to their founding documents.

Islam has a strong “code of equality,” a truly unparalleled principle when compared to other Abrahamic religions such as Judaism and Christianity. In his farewell sermon, Prophet Muhammad, reiterated this code:

“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, and Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action.”

In the Qur’an, equality is also a fundamental message for Muslims. God says in the Qur’an:

“O Mankind: We created you from a male and a female; and made you into tribes and nations that you may get to know each other. and verily, most honored before God is the most virtuous.” – Qur’an English Translation [49:13]

Similarly, the United States has an equally strong “code of equality,” a unique value when compared to other countries in the world. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence states:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

In a similar way, the first amendment of the United States Constitution promotes equality by ensuring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In addition, the fifteenth amendment “[p]rohibits the denial of suffrage based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

This is just a very quick snapshot of the similarities in the founding documents of the United States and Islam, but you should clearly see the importance of equality in the aforementioned passages. Additional research is needed to locate more similarities in order to provide new bridges between two entities which are often portrayed as fundamentally incompatible.

Did the Qur’an and perhaps even the Constitution of Medina influence Jefferson when he authored the two most important documents in American history?

Did Islam influence Jefferson's writing the Declaration of Independence?

Did Islam influence Jefferson’s writing the Declaration of Independence?

This is certainly an intriguing question and one which Alexandra Meav Jerome considers in a piece for Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Jerome writes:

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution contain similar clauses on some topics. The Constitution of Medina states: “The Jews shall maintain their own religion and the Muslims theirs…The close friends of Jews are as themselves” and “those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community” in solidarity against their enemies. Finally, the conclusion of the Constitution states, “Strangers, under protection, shall be treated on the same ground as their protectors; but no stranger shall be taken under protection except with consent of his tribe…No woman shall be taken under protection without the consent of her family.” If Jefferson was familiar with the Constitution of Medina, the document may have influenced his inclusion in the Declaration of Independence of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” an almost dogmatic belief in American culture.

Now let us turn to the US Constitution for a comparison. Again Jerome notes:

The first Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of religion, was originally called the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted that the contents of the bill and that he was emphatic that the language of the bill should name precisely the groups protected, writing that “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every [emphasis mine] denomination” should be protected under the law.

Of course we cannot forget the most famous line of the Declaration of Independence, which also has the spirit of the Constitution of Medina:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It would be a stretch to suggest that the Constitution of Medina, the Qur’an and “Islamic principles” were the main motivating factors in Jefferson’s writing of some of America’s most legendary documents.

However, it is not necessarily a stretch to claim that most important documents in the Islamic tradition are quite similar to similarly crucial documents in American history.

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