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The Qur’an May Have Reinforced Thomas Jefferson’s Commitment to Religous Freedom

10 August 2011 Loonwatch.com 7 Comments Email This Post Email This Post

Thomas_Jeffersons_Quran

Thomas_Jeffersons_Quran

The Qur’an May Have Reinforced Thomas Jefferson’s Commitment to Religous Freedom

There is a frequent attempt by Islam bashers to say that Thomas Jefferson’s purchase of the Qur’an was due to the dispute with Barbary Pirates in 1780. This excellent article written by Sebastian R. Prange puts that idea to rest,

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.

We also learn that Jefferson knew of Islam and the Qur’an from a work “closer to hand” titled, Of the Law of Nature and Nations by Samuel Von Pufendorf,

The standard work on comparative law during his time was Of the Law of Nature and Nations, written by the German scholar Samuel von Pufendorf and first published in 1672. As Dewey shows, Jefferson studied Pufendorf’s treatise intensively and, in his own legal writings, cited it more frequently than any other text. Pufendorf’s book contains numerous references to Islam and to the Qur’an. Although many of these were disparaging—typical for European works of the period—on other occasions Pufendorf cited Qur’anic legal precedents approvingly, including the Qur’an’s emphasis on promoting moral behavior, its proscription of games of chance and its admonition to make peace between warring countries. As Kevin Hayes, another eminent Jefferson scholar, writes: “Wanting to broaden his legal studies as much as possible, Jefferson found the Qur’an well worth his attention.”

What is most interesting is the idea that the Qur’an may have reinforced Jefferson’s commitment to religious freedom,

But did reading the Qur’an influence Thomas Jefferson? That question is difficult to answer, because the few scattered references he made to it in his writings do not reveal his views. Though it may have sparked in him a desire to learn the Arabic language (during the 1770′s Jefferson purchased a number of Arabic grammars), it is far more significant that it may have reinforced his commitment to religious freedom. Two examples support this idea.

In 1777, the year after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was tasked with excising colonial legacies from Virginia’s legal code. As part of this undertaking, he drafted a bill for the establishment of religious freedom, which was enacted in 1786. In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted his strong desire that the bill not only should extend to Christians of all denominations but should also include “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

This all-encompassing attitude to religious pluralism was by no means universally shared by Jefferson’s contemporaries. As the historian Robert Allison documents, many American writers and statesmen in the late 18th century made reference to Islam for less salutary aims. Armed with tendentious translations and often grossly distorted accounts, they portrayed Islam as embodying the very dangers of tyranny and despotism that the young republic had just overcome. Allison argues that many American politicians who used “the Muslim world as a reference point for their own society were not concerned with historical truth or with an accurate description of Islam, but rather with this description’s political convenience.”

These attitudes again came into conflict with Jefferson’s vision in 1788, when the states voted to ratify the United States Constitution. One of the matters at issue was the provision—now Article vi, Section 3—that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Some Anti-Federalists singled out and opposed this ban on religious discrimination by painting a hypothetical scenario in which a Muslim could become president. On the other side of the argument, despite their frequent opposition to Jefferson on other matters, the Federalists praised and drew on Jefferson’s vision of religious tolerance in supporting uncircumscribed rights both to faith and to elected office for all citizens. As the historian Denise Spellberg shows in her examination of this dispute among delegates in North Carolina, in the course of these constitutional debates “Muslims became symbolically embroiled in the definition of what it meant to be American citizens.”

It is intriguing to think that Jefferson’s study of the Qur’an may have inoculated him—to a degree that today we can only surmise— against such popular prejudices about Islam, and it may have informed his conviction that Muslims, no less and no more than any other religious group, were entitled to all the legal rights his new nation could offer. And although Jefferson was an early and vocal proponent of going to war against the Barbary states over their attacks on us shipping, he never framed his arguments for doing so in religious terms, sticking firmly to a position of political principle. Far from reading the Qur’an to better understand the mindset of his adversaries, it is likely that his earlier knowledge of it confirmed his analysis that the roots of the Barbary conflict were economic, not religious.

It is amazing that today many in the Tea Party and the anti-Muslim Movement who claim the mantle of patriotism are in stark opposition to founding fathers such as Jefferson. What would those who seek to curtail religious freedom for Muslims have to say about this?

They have more in common with the anti-Federalists who wished to use Muslims as a symbol to further their own political ends.

Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

by Sebastian R. Prange, photography provided by Aasil Ahmad (Saudi Aramco World)

Oacing the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. stands the Jefferson Building, the main building of the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, with holdings of more than 140 million books and other printed items. The stately building, with its neoclassical exterior, copper-plated dome and marble halls, is named after Thomas Jefferson, one of the “founding fathers” of the United States, principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and, from 1801 to 1809, the third president of the young republic. But the name also recognizes Jefferson’s role as a founder of the Library itself. As president, he enshrined the institution in law and, in 1814, after a fire set by British troops during the Anglo-American War destroyed the Library’s 3000-volume collection, he offered all or part of his own wide-ranging book collection as a replacement for the losses, commenting that “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Among the nearly 6500 books Jefferson sold to the Library was a two-volume English translation of the Qur’an, the book Muslims recite, study and revere as the revealed word of God. The presence of this Qur’an, first in Jefferson’s private library and later in the Library of Congress, prompts the questions why Jefferson purchased this book, what use he made of it, and why he included it in his young nation’s repository of knowledge.

These questions are all the more pertinent in light of assertions by some present- day commentators that Jefferson purchased his Qur’an in the 1780′s in response to conflict between the us and the “Barbary states” of North Africa—today Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. That was a conflict Jefferson followed closely— indeed, in 1786, he helped negotiate a treaty with Morocco, the United States’ first treaty with a foreign power. Then, it was relations with Algeria that were the most nettlesome, as its ruler demanded the payment of tribute in return for ending semiofficial piracy of American merchant shipping. Jefferson staunchly opposed tribute payment. In this context, such popular accounts claim, Jefferson was studying the Qur’an to better understand these adversaries, in keeping with the adage “know thy enemy.” However, when we look more closely at the place of this copy of the Qur’an in Jefferson’s library—and in his thinking— and when we examine the context of this particular translation, we see a different story.

O rom his youth, Thomas Jefferson read and collected a great number of books, and a wide variety of them: The collection he eventually sold to the Library of Congress comprised 6487 volumes, ranging in subject from classical philosophy to cooking. Like many collectors of the time, Jefferson not only cataloged his books but also marked them. It is his singular way of marking his books that makes it possible to establish that, among the millions of volumes in today’s Library of Congress, this one specific Qur’an did indeed belong to him.

The initials “T.J.” were Thomas Jefferson’s device for marking his books: On this page, the “T.” is the printer’s mark to help the binder keep each 16-page “gathering” in sequence, and the “J.” was added personally by Jefferson.

The initials “T.J.” were Thomas Jefferson’s device for marking his books: On this page, the “T.” is the printer’s mark to help the binder keep each 16-page “gathering” in sequence, and the “J.” was added personally by Jefferson.

n the 18th century, the production of books was still an essentially manual process. By means of a hand press, large sheets of paper were printed on both sides with multiple pages before being folded. They were folded once to produce four pages for the folio size, twice to produce eight pages for the quarto or four times to produce the 16-page octavo. These folded sheets, known as “gatherings,” were then sewn together along their inner edges before being attached to the binding. To ensure that the bookbinders would stitch the gatherings together in the correct sequence, each was marked with a different letter of the alphabet on what, after folding, would become that gathering’s first page.

Thus, in an octavo volume like Jefferson’s Qur’an, there is a small printed letter in the bottom right-hand corner of every 16th page. It was Jefferson’s habit to take advantage of these preexisting marks to discreetly inscribe each of his books. On each book’s 10th gathering, in front of the printer’s mark J he wrote a letter T, and on the 20th gathering, to the printed T he added a J, thereby in each case producing his initials. This subtle yet unmistakable signature appears clearly on the two leather-bound volumes in the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s system of cataloging his library sheds light on the place the Qur’an held in his thinking. Jefferson’s 44-category classification scheme was much informed by the work of Francis Bacon (1561–1626), whose professional trajectory from lawyer to statesman to philosopher roughly prefigures Jefferson’s own career. According to Bacon, the human mind comprises three faculties: memory, reason and imagination. This trinity is reflected in Jefferson’s library, which he organized into history, philosophy and fine arts. Each of these contained subcategories: philosophy, for instance, was divided into moral and mathematical; continuing along the former branch leads to the subdivision of ethics and jurisprudence, which itself was further segmented into the categories of religious, municipal and “oeconomical.”

Jefferson’s system for organizing his library has often been described as a “blueprint of his own mind.” Jefferson kept his Qur’an in the section on religion, located between a book on the myths and gods of antiquity and a copy of the Old Testament. It is illuminating to note that Jefferson did not class religious works with books on history or ethics—as might perhaps be expected—but that he regarded their proper place to be within jurisprudence.

Jefferson organized his own library, and he shelved religious books, including his English version of the Qur’an, with other works under “Jurisprudence,” which fell under “Moral Philosophy.”

Jefferson organized his own library, and he shelved religious books, including his English version of the Qur’an, with other works under “Jurisprudence,” which fell under “Moral Philosophy.”

” We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their
civil capacities.”

— From the Virginia Statute for
Religious Freedom, ratified 1786;
drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777

An inscription inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. quotes Jefferson’s 1777 statute on religious pluralism that inspired the constitutional right that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.”

An inscription inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. quotes Jefferson’s 1777 statute on religious pluralism that inspired the constitutional right that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.”

Sale’s aspiration to provide an accurate rendition of the Qur’an was matched by his desire also to provide his readers with a more honest introduction to Islam. This “Preliminary Discourse,” as he entitled it, runs to more than 200 pages in the edition Jefferson purchased. Fairly presented and conscientiously documented, it contains a section on Islamic civil law that repeatedly points out parallels to Jewish legal precepts in regard to marriage, divorce, inheritance, lawful retaliation and the rules of warfare. In this substantial discussion, Sale displays the same quality of dispassionate interest in comparative law that later moved Jefferson.

O ut did reading the Qur’an influence Thomas Jefferson? That question is difficult to answer, because the few scattered references he made to it in his writings do not reveal his views. Though it may have sparked in him a desire to learn the Arabic language (during the 1770′s Jefferson purchased a number of Arabic grammars), it is far more significant that it may have reinforced his commitment to religious freedom. Two examples support this idea.

In 1777, the year after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was tasked with excising colonial legacies from Virginia’s legal code. As part of this undertaking, he drafted a bill for the establishment of religious freedom, which was enacted in 1786. In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted his strong desire that the bill not only should extend to Christians of all denominations but should also include “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

This all-encompassing attitude to religious pluralism was by no means universally shared by Jefferson’s contemporaries. As the historian Robert Allison documents, many American writers and statesmen in the late 18th century made reference to Islam for less salutary aims. Armed with tendentious translations and often grossly distorted accounts, they portrayed Islam as embodying the very dangers of tyranny and despotism that the young republic had just overcome. Allison argues that many American politicians who used “the Muslim world as a reference point for their own society were not concerned with historical truth or with an accurate description of Islam, but rather with this description’s political convenience.”

“The style of the Korân is generally beautiful and fluent, especially where it imitates the prophetic manner, and scripture phrases. It is concise, and often obscure, adorned with bold figures after the eastern taste, enlivened with florid and sententious expressions, and in many places, especially where the majesty and attributes of God are described, sublime and magnificent; of which the reader cannot but observe several instances, though he must not imagine the translation comes up to the original, notwithstanding my endeavours to do it justice.”

“The style of the Korân is generally beautiful and fluent, especially where it imitates the prophetic manner, and scripture phrases. It is concise, and often obscure, adorned with bold figures after the eastern taste, enlivened with florid and sententious expressions, and in many places, especially where the majesty and attributes of God are described, sublime and magnificent; of which the reader cannot but observe several instances, though he must not imagine the translation comes up to the original, notwithstanding my endeavours to do it justice.”

— from “A Preliminary Discourse”
by George Sale

These attitudes again came into conflict with Jefferson’s vision in 1788, when the states voted to ratify the United States Constitution. One of the matters at issue was the provision—now Article vi, Section 3—that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Some Anti-Federalists singled out and opposed this ban on religious discrimination by painting a hypothetical scenario in which a Muslim could become president. On the other side of the argument, despite their frequent opposition to Jefferson on other matters, the Federalists praised and drew on Jefferson’s vision of religious tolerance in supporting uncircumscribed rights both to faith and to elected office for all citizens. As the historian Denise Spellberg shows in her examination of this dispute among delegates in North Carolina, in the course of these constitutional debates “Muslims became symbolically embroiled in the definition of what it meant to be American citizens.”

It is intriguing to think that Jefferson’s study of the Qur’an may have inoculated him—to a degree that today we can only surmise— ainst such popular prejudices about Islam, and it may have informed his conviction that Muslims, no less and no more than any other religious group, were entitled to all the legal rights his new nation could offer. And although Jefferson was an early and vocal proponent of going to war against the Barbary states over their attacks on us shipping, he never framed his arguments for doing so in religious terms, sticking firmly to a position of political principle. Far from reading the Qur’an to better understand the mindset of his adversaries, it is likely that his earlier knowledge of it confirmed his analysis that the roots of the Barbary conflict were economic, not religious.

Sale’s Koran remained the best available English version of the Qur’an for another 150 years. Today, along with the original copy of Jefferson’s Qur’an, the Library of Congress holds nearly one million printed items relating to Islam—a vast collection of knowledge for every new generation of lawmakers and citizens, with its roots in the law student’s leather-bound volumes.

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7 Comments »

  1. DISCLAIMER: (next 7 verses) i’m a weak reader and so as i’ve begun reading the koran 7 verses at a time, it hepls me to cut and paste them after i’ve read them because i then re-read them on this post. they may have absolutely nothing to do with this article. i welcome any input as to historical context or to whom some of the pronouns are refering.
    http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/koran/browse.html

    [2.265] And the parable of those who spend their property to seek the pleasure of Allah and for the certainty ‘of their souls is as the parable of a garden on an elevated ground, upon which heavy rain falls so it brings forth its fruit twofold but if heavy rain does not fall upon it, then light rain (is sufficient); and Allah sees what you do.
    [2.266] Does one of you like that he should have a garden of palms and vines with streams flowing beneath it; he has in it all kinds of fruits; and old age has overtaken him and he has weak offspring, when, (lo!) a whirlwind with fire in it smites it so it becomes blasted; thus Allah makes the communications clear to you, that you may reflect.
    [2.267] O you who believe! spend (benevolently) of the good things that you earn and or what We have brought forth for you out of the earth, and do not aim at what is bad that you may spend (in alms) of it, while you would not take it yourselves unless you have its price lowered, and know that Allah is Self-sufficient, Praiseworthy.
    [2.268] Shaitan threatens you with poverty and enjoins you to be niggardly, and Allah promises you forgiveness from Himself and abundance; and Allah is Ample-giving, Knowing.
    [2.269] He grants wisdom to whom He pleases, and whoever is granted wisdom, he indeed is given a great good and none but men of understanding mind.
    [2.270] And whatever alms you give or (whatever) vow you vow, surely Allah knows it; and the unjust shall have no helpers.
    [2.271] If you give alms openly, it is well, and if you hide it and give it to the poor, it is better for you; and this will do away with some of your evil deeds; and Allah is aware of what you do.

  2. Very interesting article. Thank you. Three cheers to Thomas Jefferson and his pluralistic view on freedom of religion. More evidence to counter the religious right in this nation who seek to redefine the USA as a Christian nation, which is clearly not the case.

  3. Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates

    “Let us not call this view reductionist. Jefferson would perhaps have been just as eager to send a squadron to put down any Christian piracy that was restraining commerce. But one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” (It is worth noting that the United States played no part in the Crusades, or in the Catholic reconquista of Andalusia.)”

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_urbanities-thomas_jefferson.html

  4. Freedom of religion, yes! Islam is not a religion! It is a political ideology that is meant to destroy this country built since 1776 and if Jefferson would have been here , he will do exactly what we, Americans will do , to defend this country from foreign terrorist invaders like Nazism, Communism and now Islamism!

    Islamism!

  5. I also have a Koran in my toilet. What if someone discovers it when I’m dead, will i be called a Muslim or Islam?

  6. This document should refute the myths:

    “Office of the Curator – Supreme Court of the United States”

    http://www.supremecourt.gov/about/north&southwalls.pdf

    Muhammad (c. 570 – 632) The Prophet of Islam. In solid marble.
    Along with Moses, Solomon, Confucius, Justinian, Charlemagne, King John and others…

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