Denise A. Spellberg is associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Thomas Jefferson”s Qur”an: Islam and the Founders. From the looks of this article, the book is likely to be a melange of half-truths, distortions, and inventions designed to portray Thomas Jefferson as a proto-multicultural dhimmi and resistance to jihad terror as “bigotry.” Here, she tries to create the quite false impression that Thomas Jefferson was accused of being a Muslim, or at very least an admirer of Islam. Reality was quite different, but that has never stopped Leftist mythologizing.
“Jefferson Was the First President Defamed for Mentioning Islam,” by Denise A. Spellberg for The Free Lance-Star, January 14:
["]Love your neighbor as yourself, and your country more than yourself,” wrote Thomas Jefferson the year before his death. Who did he include among his neighbors in the blueprint for the nation he loved so much?
Jefferson implicitly included Muslims in his patriotic rendering of the Golden Rule. Many may find this idea startling today, but explicit proof for it exists.
How ridiculous. In the first place, the Golden Rule is not “love your neighbor as yourself,” but “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, Denise A. Spellberg tries to defame the resistance to jihad terror by caricaturing it as a desire to deny Muslims the protection of the Golden Rule, echoing the hysterical claims of the “Islamophobia”-mongers, that foes of terror want to deny Muslims equality of rights before the law.
In 1776, Jefferson inscribed these pivotal words among his private notes: “(N)either Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” They were written a few months after he composed the Declaration of Independence, when he returned to Virginia to draft new laws for his state.
Here again, no “Mahometan” ought to be “excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.” “Mahometans,” like everyone else, should obey the laws of the land, with no intention or effort now or in the future to work to bring their own political system, in whole or part, to the U.S. That is all. Is that too much to ask? Apparently so, because even suggesting it will get you charges of “Islamophobia” and “hatred.”
Jefferson borrowed the precedent of “civil rights” for Muslims from the English philosopher John Locke”s 1689 tract, A Letter Concerning Toleration. Locke”s ideas about the toleration of Muslims and Jews provoked attacks: One critic condemned him for having “the faith of a Turk.” His enemies also charged, rightly, that he owned a copy of the Quran, which they termed “the Mahometan bible.”
For centuries, it had been common in Europe for one Christian to defame another with references to Islam, a practice that crossed the Atlantic. Jefferson, for his expansive views of religious liberty and political equality, would be attacked repeatedly as an “infidel,” a word that in his time meant not just an “unbeliever,” but a Muslim.
And like Locke, Jefferson owned a Quran.
When his detractors said he had “the faith of a Turk,” they meant that he denied the divinity of Christ, but Denise A. Spellberg doesn’t explain that, leaving her uninformed readers with the impression, reinforced by her explanation of the “infidel” charge, that Jefferson was being accused of being a Muslim. This sly attempt to portray Jefferson as a secret Muslim or at very least someone who was uncritically favorable toward Islam founders on the fact that Jefferson reported to Congress about his meeting with Tripoli’s envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, that when he asked the ambassador why Tripoli was extorting money and seizing slaves, he responded: “The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Jefferson did not add that the ambassador was an “extremist” who had misunderstood and hijacked the Religion of Peace.
The 22-year-old Jefferson bought his Quran in 1765, while studying law in Williamsburg, Va. The local newspaper documented his purchase of the two-volume translation by the Englishman George Sale. First published in 1734, Sale”s version was the earliest made directly from Arabic to English. It included a 200-page “Preliminary Discourse” with an overview of Islamic belief, ritual and law.
Jefferson may have been interested in the Quran as a book of law, for at the time he also ordered many English works of jurisprudence. He would have been struck by the translator”s definition of the Prophet as “the lawgiver of the Arabians.”
He “would have been struck.” Note that we have now entered the realm not of genuine historiography, but pure speculation.
Yet while Sale condemned Islam as “a false religion,” he also took care to praise the Prophet as “beautiful in his person, of a subtle wit, agreeable behavior, showing liberality to the poor, courtesy to everyone, fortitude against his enemies, and above all a high reverence for the name of God.” The translator also refused to define Islam “as propagated by the sword alone,” reminding his readers that both Jews and Christians warred in the name of their faiths.
Critics accused Sale of being too even-handed in his depiction of Islam, resulting in his Anglican missionary employers distancing themselves from his translation. Posthumously, he was condemned as “half a Muslim,” by the British historian Edward Gibbon in 1788.
Is there any evidence that Jefferson shared Sale’s views of Muhammad or Islam? No, not a shred. If there were, Spellberg would certainly have mentioned it.
Those who appeared to defend Islam, or its adherents, were harshly criticized on both sides of the Atlantic.
What did Jefferson think about the Quran and its contents? He left no notes that capture his immediate reaction, either because he never wrote them or because they did not survive the fire that destroyed his mother”s house five years later. In the blaze, Jefferson said he lost “every paper” and “almost every book.” The Quran may also have succumbed to the fire, but if it did, he most certainly bought it again, for it survives in the Library of Congress.
In the Quran, Jefferson inscribed only his initials at the bottom of one page of the first volume.
Jefferson criticized the religion in his early political debates in 1776 as “stifling free enquiry,” a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at precisely the time he wished to separate them in Virginia.
And we see again and again nowadays that Jefferson was right: Islamic supremacist groups such as Hamas-linked CAIR and Reza Aslan’s Aslan Media work energetically to stifle all criticism of Islam and all free enquiry into how Islamic jihadists use the texts and teachings of Islam to justify violence and supremacism, and what can be done about it. Nor does Islam have a concept of religion being separated from the state, as numerous Islamic apologists and spokesmen avow boastfully: they consider it a point that establishes the superiority of Islam over Christianity, and so make no secret of it.
Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents, a pattern he repeated for Judaism and Catholicism, moving beyond his hero Locke, who refused toleration to Catholics and atheists.
In Jefferson”s 1784 Notes on Virginia, he published his views on the relationship between his neighbor”s religion and the state: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Precisely so. It is only when my neighbor wants to pick my pocket (to collect the jizya) or break my leg (in jihad violence) that I begin to care about Islam. The U.S. government should be dedicated to protecting citizens from jihad activity and ensuring that no group gets special accommodation or special privileges, as Islamic supremacist groups in the U.S. are increasingly demanding for Muslims, but that everyone enjoys equal rights before the law.
With his assertion that government should never intrude into the metaphysical beliefs of its citizens, Jefferson provided unintentional, lasting ammunition for his political enemies. For many, these words proved he was not really Christian.
Maybe, not non-establishment of religion was enshrined into America’s fundamental law in the First Amendment, and wisely so. It couldn’t have been only Jefferson who favored it.
Jefferson”s legal version of the Golden Rule, combined with Locke”s views of Muslim civil rights, would echo most potently in his 1821 autobiography, in which he recalled the final fight to pass his most famous legislation, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, still in force today.
The Statute proclaims: “(O)ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Although Jefferson”s proposed legislation originally met with resistance in 1779, James Madison lobbied for its passage and, finally, achieved victory in 1786 while Jefferson was away in France.
Jefferson recorded happily in his autobiography that a final attempt to change his preamble by adding the words “Jesus Christ” 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, a belief in religious pluralism that Madison also shared.
Jefferson asserted that his original legislative intent had been “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Good. Again, everyone should have equal protection, equal rights, and equal accountability before the law.
By the time he wrote these words in 1821, Jefferson certainly appreciated the consequences of being labeled an infidel himself. In the wake of his narrow presidential victory in 1800, he confided to a close friend: “(W)hat an effort, my dear Sir, of bigotry in politics & religion we have gone through.”
Jefferson would not be the last presidential candidate to be defamed for referring to Islam, but he remains the first.
Tragically, though Jefferson championed Muslim rights, he never knew that America”s first Muslims “” slaves of West African origin “” were denied the freedoms he thought were universal. The Founder may have even owned Muslim slaves, but there is no conclusive proof. There remains no doubt, however, that Jefferson imagined Muslims as neighbors in his country”s future, a forecast that retains signal implications to this day.
Would Jefferson have approved of the victimhood posturing designed to deflect criticism, the attempts to obstruct and end counter-terror operations, the excusing of acts of jihad terror by the defamation of opposition to it as “bigotry”? Doubtful in the extreme.