Category Archives: Quran

Representative Keith Ellison is sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran

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.

Refuting the charge that Jefferson owned the Qur’an to “understand the enemy”

Did Jefferson read the Qur'an only to understand the mindset of the Barbary Pirates?

Did Jefferson read the Qur’an only to understand the mindset of the Barbary Pirates?

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.

The meaning of the Qur’an in Jefferson’s library at Monticello

Jefferson's library at Monticello

Jefferson’s library at Monticello

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.”

What’s the true history of the Quran in America?

Jefferson's Quran

Jefferson’s Quran

Ted Widmer had some stuff to say in his article for Boston.com. He traces the history of the Quran, the Islamic holy book, through the hands of multiple founding fathers, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Widmer claims that the founding fathers were “way ahead of us” in seeking to build a country which included and respected those who cherished the Quran. “They knew something that we do not,” Widmer writes. “To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.”

Widmer first turns his attention to John Adams’ relationship to the Quran. He writes:

Why would John Adams and a cluster of farmers in the Connecticut valley have bought copies of the Koran in 1806? Surprisingly, there was a long tradition of New Englanders reading in the Islamic scripture. The legendary bluenose Cotton Mather had his faults, but a lack of curiosity about the world was not one of them. Mather paid scrupulous attention to the Ottoman Empire in his voracious reading, and cited the Koran often in passing. True, much of it was in his pinched voice — as far back as the 17th century, New England sailors were being kidnapped by North African pirates, a source of never ending vexation, and Mather denounced the pirates as “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils.” But he admired Arab and Ottoman learning, and when Turks in Constantinople and Smyrna succeeded in inoculating patients against smallpox, he led a public campaign to do the same in Boston (a campaign for which he was much vilified by those who called inoculation the “work of the Devil,” merely because of its Islamic origin). It was one of his finer moments.

And what about Thomas Jefferson?

Thomas Jefferson, especially, had a familiarity with Islam that borders on the astonishing. Like Adams, he owned a Koran, a 1764 English edition that he bought while studying law as a young man in Williamsburg, Va. Only two years ago, that Koran became the center of a controversy, when the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked if he could place his hand on it while taking his oath of office — a request that elicited tremendous screeches from the talk radio extremists. Jefferson even tried to learn Arabic, and wrote his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”

Some writers and commentators have suggested that Adams and Jefferson only owned a copy of the Quran because they wanted to “understand the enemy.” Is this a far-fetched idea considering the things Adams and Jefferson said about safeguarding religious freedom?

%d bloggers like this: