Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

America and the Muslims



Rob Hardy


We are still trying to figure out the place of Islam and of Muslims in America. We shouldn't be going through this; the Founding Fathers considered the rules for Muslims to participate in the new government. They did so even though the Muslims they were considering were hypothetical, since there was little visible Muslim presence in the new nation. The enlightening Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders (Knopf) by historian Denise A. Spellberg shows how Jefferson and his fellows worked out how the nation would solve the knotty problems of religious toleration. It also shows that the admirable solution is still being imperfectly applied. 




Jefferson and the founders knew about Islam but they didn't know Muslims. This was partly due to uncaring blindness; many of the slaves brought from Africa were of course Muslims, but this would have made little impression on the founders. What they knew about Muslims was that they were vastly different. Many Americans, if they thought of the issue at all, suspected that Muslims were dangerous threats to America and to the Christian religion. This enabled those championing religious toleration in the new nation, like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, to use Muslims as a bogey, a worst-case scenario, and to show that even then, there ought to be no restrictions on either their ability to practice their religion or to participate fully as citizens. 




It was Jefferson who thought the most deeply about these issues. Spellberg examines some of the history of the radical idea of religious freedom, including Roger Williams, a devout Baptist who insisted on everyone's right to freedom of conscience in religious matters within his Rhode Island colony. Especially she considers Jefferson's source, John Locke. Locke put forth his ideas in 1689, a time when Europeans fretted over the Ottoman Empire and pirates as well as the possibly satanic nature of Islam. Locke, however, wrote that Muslims should be officially tolerated as citizens; he included them along with Jews and Protestants who were not part of the Church of England. He had some qualms about including Catholics; the great fear was that Catholics had not a religious devotion but an almost nationalist devotion to a powerful organization headed by the Pope. Locke also drew the line at including atheists. Jefferson went further; Jefferson thought that Muslims, Catholics, Jews, atheists, and all other religious beliefs ought to be not just tolerated but ought to have all the rights any other citizens had. Jefferson imagined that government and society would be not Protestant and not even Christian, but that it simply would make no difference what a person's beliefs were, as all would be full citizens with equal civil rights. Given the historic introduction Spellberg gives, Jefferson's views were breathtakingly radical. 




Jefferson himself, like many of the founders, was a deist, one who saw God at work at the inception of the universe but who denied the role of miracles, and the divinity of Jesus, within it. He drew inspiration from the Bible and knew it well, but he proposed that the government had no role in the religious salvation of its citizens which he knew to be an inherently personal matter of conscience. It isn't surprising that he would have known less about the Qur'an. He indeed had a copy, bibliophile as he was. He ordered it from England in 1765 as a law student, just part of his insatiable curiosity about language, religion, and laws of other lands. When his copy burned in a library fire, he got another. He never alluded to his study of the book as influencing his ideas of religious toleration; he also had not knowingly met any Muslims when he came up with those ideas. Spellberg speculates, from names of slaves on Washington's plantation, that Jefferson may well have had Muslim slaves, too. It is ironic: "The founding father of Muslim rights in America, Jefferson had legislated theoretical equality for a population he presumed to be foreign, never recognizing those already present in his country." There was to be civic acceptance of differences in faith; race (and gender) would have to catch up many years later. 




Jefferson knew what a huge step he was taking, and he was proud of it; on his tombstone he put exactly three things he wanted to be remembered for: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and passing the Statute of Religious Freedom in Virginia in 1786. The statute, which was a model for the treatment of the issue in the Constitution, was hard for some of the Protestant legislators to swallow, for it made no acknowledgement of Jesus. Nonetheless, it disestablished governmental support for the Church of England and it guaranteed religious liberty to all, including non-Christians. During the ratification controversy over the US Constitution a year later, even before the Bill of Rights was passed, the main document held a ban on any religious tests for holding federal office. The opponents against this provision fulminated that if it were included, "a Jew, Turk, or infidel" might become president. Though Spellberg's book is mostly about acceptance of practitioners of Islam, Jefferson and the other legislators of the time were thinking also of these other religions, and about Catholics. Both those in favor of equality and inclusion and those in favor of maintaining mainstream Protestants as the only potential officeholders used Muslims as the chief example or counter-example. 




While forcing his fellow founders to consider the possibility of Muslims as citizens or as elected officials, and having at times to deal militarily with Muslim pirates, Jefferson had little personal interaction with any Muslims. One of the rare times was when he received a Tunisian ambassador to the White House. Sidi Suleyman Mellimelli showed up in 1805 for negotiations about the US actions against Tripoli. There were various misunderstandings and culture clashes in the visit. It is not clear that Mellimelli expected or appreciated the rooms for him and his entourage in a Washington hotel, or the Italian band hired to play for him, but he did request female companionship for the night. Spellberg writes, "It was Secretary Madison who would procure for the ambassador one 'Georgia a Greek,' billing the Department of State with the droll notation, 'Appropriations to foreign intercourse,' as required by 'very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.'" The appropriation had to have Jefferson's approval. 




Spellberg winds up her illuminating book to show that Jefferson's enlightened view that anyone's religious opinions should have no effect on citizenship or service has yet to be accepted by all our citizens. Jefferson, with his unorthodox religious ideas, was derided as being a Muslim himself during a vicious political campaign. President Obama has also been accused of being a Muslim (although it must be said that the accusations come from the same quarters that refuse to accept his birth certificate). The right reply to such accusations is simply, "So what?" The president, thanks to the constitutional debates over two hundred years ago, can take any religion he wants. Sarah Palin promoting her recent book denouncing the delusional "war on Christmas" says that only moral, religious people can understand or abide by the Constitution, ignoring that it is specifically written without religious qualifiers. When Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, was sworn in in 2007, he did so with his hand on the very Qur'an from Jefferson's library, which made some Christians furious. There is a requirement that there be an oath of allegiance to the Constitution, but anyone can lay a hand on any book desired while taking that oath. One columnist wrote that if you can't take an oath on a Bible, you should not serve in Congress; other citizens phoned or e-mailed death threats. It is improbable that such people will read Spellberg's history, but it is fun to imagine them doing so and admitting: America has no official religion, no religious requirement for its citizens, and none for its officials. Here is the amazing story of how that came to be.



back to top






Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email