The news that Representative-elect Keith Ellison (D-MN) plans today to take an informal Congressional oath of office on a copy of the Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson might seem surreal to those who cannot imagine that the Founding Fathers had anything but a passing familiarity with the religion that so dominates political discourse in 21st century America. Ellison’s specific choice of Qur’an was meant to highlight the relationship that Islam and Muslims have had with the United States since its inception, as well as the place that Islam’s holy book had with one of the most respected leaders of early America.
Adorned with his initials, Jefferson’s Qur’an – an 1764 English translation from Arabic by George Sale – was purchased and used during his comparative legal studies, and was sold to the Library of Congress after the War of 1812. Sale, while clearly distancing himself from Islamic theology in his commentary (the translation Ellison will take his oath on calls the Prophet Muhammad a “criminal… imposing a false religion”), also states that “the praises due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him” and that Islam had no better or worse a historical record than Judaism or Christianity.
And despite public opinion about Islam at the time (which differs little from Sale’s professed negative statements), Jefferson explicitly referenced Islam in his support of Virginia’s Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786, where he praised its protections of “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and the Infidel.” Early American writings show Jefferson wasn’t alone. “It is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation,” writes James Hutson, Manuscript Division Chief for the Library of Congress, “and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.”
One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a colleague of Jefferson, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush, wrote that he would “rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles.” “If we may openly speak the truth,” wrote John Locke wrote in his influential Letter Concerning Toleration, “neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”
An important point to note is that regardless of personal opinion about the religion of Islam, neither politician nor citizen during America’s founding would countenance the exclusion of Muslims from American political or civic life. During the formation of the United States, when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were being debated at both the state and federal level, opponents of religious freedom statutes cited the fear of a Muslim being elected to office (“As there are no religious tests, pagans, deists and Mahometans might obtain office,” argued Baptist Rev. Henry Abbot during North Carolina’s debate), but thankfully the other side prevailed.
“In the course of four or five hundred years I do not know how it will work,” countered North Carolina Provincial Congress member William Lancaster. “This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that [government] chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it.”
Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com.