Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an:

From Jefferson to Jeffersonian battles

posted by Nadia Marzouki

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anAmong the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy. Starting in the eighteenth century, Islam intervenes (albeit in a purely hypothetical form) in the debates concerning religious freedom. Spellberg shows how, in the constitutional debates of the state of North Carolina, several Federalists opposed the introduction of a religious test for candidates to public office. She cites as evidence the words of William Lancaster, a delegate to the North Carolina Convention, who on July 30, 1788, made the following declaration:

“But let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence . . . . In the course of four or five hundred years, I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.”

Dial forward to September 2015, when twenty-nine percent of Americans (and forty-three percent of Republicans) remain persuaded that President Obama is a Muslim and that Islam is a foreign body within America, and it is clear that Spellberg’s book marks a major turning point in thinking about the relations between Islam and the United States. The focus should no longer be on investigating the process that allows an alleged foreign body to be progressively absorbed or accepted by the American nation, nor about reflecting on the efforts at harmonization between two heterogeneous entities. Following the new direction opened up by Spellberg’s research means not asking how do Muslims become good Americans but asking how do Americans come to take responsibility (or not) for this original, founding hypothesis that makes a place for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims in the social contract. The past few years have brought many reasons to be concerned about the betrayal of Jefferson and Locke’s understanding of religious freedom. From the arrest in 2015 of Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim teenager from Irving, Texas who built a clock and brought it to class, to the reintroduction of indirect forms of religious tests in the January and March 2017 executive orders, attempts at excluding Muslims from the American civil contract proliferate.

But these movements of hate and exclusion have also revealed new possibilities of ecumenical alliances and resistance. Spellberg’s analysis of eighteenth-century constitutional debates around religious freedom shows that both Islam and Judaism were placed in a similar category of external religions that should be included in the civil contract (but were not yet included). The recent controversies about Islam that I examine in my book have had a similar and unpredicted effect of bringing together Islam and Judaism in the same category of illiberal, anti-modern, or anti-democratic religions. Even though attacks against Jews have been less straightforward than anti-Muslim movements, controversies about Islamic law, halal food, and FGM have often served as vehicles for arguments against beit din, kosher food, and circumcision. Ironically, the very actors who contend that American identity is based on Judeo-Christian principles often simultaneously engage in initiatives against Muslims’ religious freedom that have obvious and immediate consequence for Jews’ religious freedom.

The legislative battle to ban reference to Islamic law (subsequently relabeled as the more facially neutral “foreign law”) has triggered opposition from Jewish leaders and organizations. Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center expressed warnings about the negative consequences these prohibition laws could have on the Jewish religious tribunals known as beit din and therefore the religious freedom of American Jews. These laws, he said, “are problematic particularly from the perspective of the Orthodox community—we have a beit din system, Jews have disputes resolved according to halachah.” Many organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee, joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to alert political leaders in various states about the liberty-killing effects that the anti-Sharia legislation would have on all religions.

An unintended consequence of these anti-Muslim movements, then, has been the rapprochement of Muslim and Jewish grassroots organizations or individuals in a common struggle to defend the Jeffersonian ideal of tolerance. Progressive organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice have insisted on the importance of standing for American Muslims, beyond disagreements about Middle Eastern geopolitics. During the January Women’s March, Linda Sarsour, a prominent Palestinian-American activist and head of the Arab-American Association of New York, marched and spoke side-by-side with Rabbi Sharon Brous, whom she had met a decade earlier at Auburn Theological Seminary, despite their significant disagreements on issues such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. In February 2017, Muslims collected funds to repair the Jewish cemetery that had been degraded in Missouri.

Such civil trans-faith movements are all the more important since the reference to the Founding Fathers has been widely instrumentalized by the Tea Party movements. It continues to be distorted by various groups, including some Muslim activists who claim to be the only legitimate representatives of “moderate Islam.” Zuhdi Jasser, a former member of the USCIRF, and the leader of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy—which he created to fight political Islam—has regularly called himself a “Jeffersonian Muslim.” In 2015 he participated in the launching of the Muslim Reform Movement, whose declaration of principles includes, besides the rejection of violence and extremism, a call for “secular governance, democracy and liberty” and “the separation of church and state.”

No matter how well intended, this type of rhetoric feeds into the good Muslim/bad Muslim dichotomy that has served as an essential instrument of monitoring any type of Muslim behavior or speech deemed deviant. By contrast, ecumenical alliances born out of a project of resistance to hate speech and action in the Trump era blur these artificial and depoliticizing divides. Spellberg’s landmark book calls for a theoretical repositioning of Islam within the interiority of the American polity. These civil movements of resistance make this repositioning a concrete and inescapable reality.

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