Thomas Jeffersons Quran: Islam and the Founders

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This just shows that religious tolerance is the bedrock of our country, and religious differences are nothing to be afraid of.

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders

It is this same sentiment that permeates Denise A. Spellberg develops a nuanced and insightful analysis of the seemingly contradicting attitudes towards Islam and Muslims displayed by Jefferson and his contemporaries as represented in historical records. The conundrums she sets out to explore are the following: Why did the founding fathers include the theoretical possibility of Muslims not only as citizens of the United States but as federal office holders including the presidency in their deliberations on the one hand, while demonstrating decidedly negative views of Islam and Muslim political adversaries overseas on the other?

Is the inclusion of Muslims as the farthest edge of political possibility more than a rhetorical tool for defining that same edge? Was Islam recognized as a legitimate religion, together with and beyond Judaism and Catholicism, in a young country that seemed to assume Protestantism as its foundation?

How the Founding Fathers Fought For the Rights of Muslims

Spellberg provides a broad historical frame for her inquiry. She starts in the early sixteenth century and spends her first two chapters on the development of European attitudes towards Islam, both negative and positive, to then reflect on how such European attitudes were carried as well as renegotiated on their passage to America. She establishes the existence of an, albeit fringe, movement for the political toleration of followers of Islam and early discussions of freedom of religious practice in New England.

Our Founding Fathers included Islam

A curious play by Voltaire about the Prophet Muhammad, written as a critique of French politics, appears on stage in the late eighteenth century in North America, performed on both sides of the Revolutionary War. The novel The Algerine Captive , by Royall Tyler, takes up the captivity experiences of Americans in North Africa, but, according to Spellberg, provides a representation of Muslims and a reading of Islam so sympathetic that the author feels pressured to apologize.

European and American Protestant thinkers argue for the separation of religion from government affairs and John Locke appears as a predecessor to Jefferson in both his interest in Islam and his ideas about toleration of religious minorities. In this way, Muslims, who were not even known to exist in the colonies, became the imaginary outer limit for an unprecedented, uniquely American religious pluralism that would also encompass the actual despised minorities of Jews and Catholics.


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Denise A. Spellberg is an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses on Islamic civilization and Islam in Europe and America. Spellberg provides valuable historical context for the struggle for religious tolerance and inclusion. In itself, her book constitutes a step toward inclusiveness in the ongoing construction of American history.


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  • By focusing on the Jeffersonian understanding of Islam, Spellberg tells a fresh story in engaging fashion and shows us that the past, while surely not perfect, still has much to teach us all these years distant. Read An Excerpt. Spellberg By Denise A.


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    • Spellberg Best Seller. Category: U.

      Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an | Religion & Politics

      History Domestic Politics Religion. Paperback —. Spellberg reveals a little-known but crucial dimension of the story of American religious freedom - a drama in which Islam played a surprising role. In , eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur'an.

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      This marked only the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam, and he would go on to acquire numerous books on Middle Eastern languages, history, and travel, taking extensive notes on Islam as it relates to English common law. Jefferson sought to understand Islam notwithstanding his personal disdain for the faith, a sentiment prevalent among his Protestant contemporaries in England and America.

      But unlike most of them, by Jefferson could imagine Muslims as future citizens of his new country. Based on groundbreaking research, Spellberg compellingly recounts how a handful of the Founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the toleration of Muslims then deemed the ultimate outsiders in Western society to fashion out of what had been a purely speculative debate a practical foundation for governance in America.

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