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Why Jefferson’s vision of American Islam matters today

By Denise A. Spellberg

University of Texas at Austin via the Associated Press

An estimated 3.3 million American Muslims are celebrating the month of Ramadan. It was during this month that Prophet Mohammad first received revelations from God.

The holiday has been celebrated at the White House with American Muslims since 1996, when First Lady Hillary Clinton began the tradition. However, this year, as media reports indicate, it is likely that the White House will not host the traditional reception. Neither, it seems, will the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson, even though the holiday has been commemorated there, either during Ramadan or at its end, Eid al-Fitr, since 1999.

Despite the relatively recent nature of these formal celebrations, the fact is that Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and before, as my book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders,” demonstrates.

Islam, an American religion

Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. (Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate here as free citizens until the late 19th century.) Even key American Founding Fathers demonstrated a marked interest in the faith and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson.

As a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, Jefferson bought a Qur’an — 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence.

The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.

Although Jefferson did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction to the Qur’an, he did criticize Islam as “stifling free enquiry” in his early political debates in Virginia, a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at a time he wished to separate them in his commonwealth.

Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents. Evidence exists that Jefferson had been thinking privately about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state, writing in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration”: 

“[he] says neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

The precedents Jefferson copied from Locke echo strongly in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which proclaims:

“(O)ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

The statute, drafted in 1777, which became law in 1786, inspired the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause and the First Amendment.

Jefferson’s pluralistic vision

Was Jefferson thinking about Muslims when he drafted his famed Virginia legislation? 

Indeed, we find evidence for this in the Founding Father’s 1821 autobiography, where he happily recorded that a final attempt to add the words “Jesus Christ” to the preamble of his legislation failed. And this failure led Jefferson to affirm that he had intended the application of the Statute to be “universal.”

By this he meant that religious liberty and political equality would not be exclusively Christian. For Jefferson asserted in his autobiography that his original legislative intent had been “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”