Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

May 17th, 2017

From Jefferson to Jeffersonian battles

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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.

May 11th, 2017

From the Founders to Trump: The legalities of “Muslims”

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anWriting about the image of the “Muslim” at America’s founding, Denise Spellberg writes how debates on religious tests for office were informed by European ideas about Muslims. As Spellberg points out, the delegates debating religious tests relied on ideas about Muslims that “had been filtered through a complex web of associations both foreign and frightening, as attested by their persistent allusions to Islam as a civilization of threat.” Without irony, slave-holding delegates debating religious tests construed the “Muslim” and the “Islamic” by reference to “Ottoman despotism or the predations of the four pirate states of North Africa,” despite the likelihood that “they themselves may have lived in proximity to real Muslims of West African origin, for whom they were the oppressors.” The Founding Fathers who debated the hypothetical of a Muslim president of the United States relied on inherited images of the “Muslim” as foreign, distant, and threatening, despite the fact that Muslims worked as slaves for those same men.

This irony continues to haunt me today, as I reflect on Islam as imagined by medieval Europeans at the same time that I watch the Trump administration construe the “Muslim” and the “Islamic.” Today’s irony, though, takes on different aspects in the two executive orders that are characterized as Muslim bans, an irony with a long, distant pedigree.

May 2nd, 2017

Muslim fears and Muslim rights

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuslims played a crucial role in determining the full extent of religious liberty in the early history of the United States of America. Even though the founders did not know any actual Muslims, the figure of a Muslim represented two ideas about authority and belonging. The first idea drew upon European fears of Islamic authority. For Americans who were familiar with Enlightenment texts, Muslims, and particularly Turks, supported despotism and enslavement, and it was believed that if the United States did not stamp out monarchical tendencies, then it was in danger of replicating tyrannical systems represented by the Ottoman Empire. The second idea celebrated the promise of civic rights by including hypothetical Muslims as potential citizens and office-bearers of the United States.

Denise Spellberg’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders demonstrates that fear of Muslims may have played a role in American cultural perceptions of the world, but it was the second idea about rights of Muslims that guided the founders as they built a government based on religious liberty.

April 26th, 2017

The American tradition of tolerance and free speech

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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuch has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal. . . .

Thus, Thomas Jeffersons Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president.