Jefferson’s Quran offers an example for US politicians

History is always fascinating and full of surprises., writes Rym Ghazal.

Throughout history, certain books have had a profound impact on readers. So it is interesting to speculate what impression one particular book may have had. In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the United States, bought a Quran.

“The Koran; commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed,” was printed on its front page, and was a direct translation from Arabic by George Sale, an Englishman. First published in 1734 in London, the second edition was printed in 1764, and it was this edition that Jefferson bought.

I was fascinated by this discovery for two reasons. First, I personally would love to read that translation of the Quran. Second, that Jefferson took the time to find out about Islam.

At a time when Islamophobia is growing, it is important to reflect on such examples. According to scholars, this purchase marked only the beginning of Jefferson’s lifelong interest in Islam, and he went on to collect numerous books on Middle Eastern languages, history and travel.

Some researchers say it may have sparked in him a desire to learn the Arabic language. But most importantly, it may have reinforced his commitment to religious freedom.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem any direct comment by Jefferson on the Quran specifically. But the fact that he took the time to read it speaks volumes. From what I managed to read about him, Jefferson wasn’t complimentary towards Islam.

As I read more about the American view of Arabs and Muslims back over 240 years ago, it isn’t that different from today. They were viewed as tyrants, pirates and troublemakers.

But what is profound, is that Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new country and so included them. Being a lawyer, he viewed the Quran as a legal book. He studied the rules mentioned throughout its verses.

Some scholars said that he studied Islam to “know thy enemy” as there was conflict between the US and the “Barbary states” of North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya). In 1786, he helped negotiate a treaty with Morocco, the United States’ first treaty with a foreign power. But this was 20 years after he had bought the Quran.

So regardless of the popular views of his time on Islam and its followers, Jefferson had decided that like any other religious group, Muslims were entitled to all the legal rights his new nation could offer.

One of the books that studies this is Denise A Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, published in 2013. In it, the author reminds us that stories are never that straightforward. As usual with life, and often with people looking into the future, they sometimes miss what might be just under their nose.

It is worth noting that Muslims have been in America since the 17th century, with some dating it to even earlier, as early as the 1500s. They were slaves brought in from Africa. So it is even likely that Jefferson owned some Muslim slaves.

There have been many reports on how George Washington, the first president of the US, owned Muslim slaves. A 1774 document on taxable property reveals he had two female slaves, named “Fatimer” and “Little Fatimer”.

History is always fascinating and full of surprises. Whatever the case, it is worth exploring, and even heading to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where along with the original copy of Jefferson’s Quran, there are nearly one million printed items relating to Islam.

Today’s US politicians should be encouraged to read up on Islam to help counter the misinformation that blights much of the commentary on the subject.

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau