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Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders

Anthony Santoro

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1In April 2011, armed with “nothing more than the requisite library card and the relevant call number” (viii), Denise Spellberg perused Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, the two-volume Qur’an that Jefferson owned and which may have been the second Qur’an he had purchased, assuming that the first was lost in his famous 1770 library fire. This was the volume on which newly elected Representative Keith Ellison (MN-5), the first Muslim congressman in U.S. history, took his symbolic oath of office. The outrage sparked by Ellison’s action overshadowed the material object itself—Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an—and prompted Spellberg, professor of history and Middle East Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, to reflect on the question of whether and how the founding era had understood the theoretical possibility of a Muslim elected to high national office, and what we could learn from our own history. This is the conceit that runs through Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, an impressively researched and engagingly presented, if meandering, history that is less a history of one particular book—though it is that, in one sense—and more an intellectual history of recurrent questions that we can see as materialized in that book: the proper relationship between church and state, and the perceived relationship between Islam and America.

2Spellberg begins her narrative in the sixteenth century, when European engagement with Islam took a more serious turn and gradually assumed a transatlantic character. Departing only slightly from the medieval Catholic conception of Muhammad as the forerunner of the Antichrist, “by 1600… European authors had generated roughly six thousand titles on the feared but fascinating subject of the Ottoman Turks” (16). A number of these sensationalistic works used Islam as the rhetorical antithesis of Christianity, as in Humphrey Prideaux’s works using Islam to attack Socinianism and Deism. The rhetoric in the colonies followed suit, with something of a twist: Where Roger Williams disparaged George Fox and the Quakers via Muhammad and Islam, he indicated that both Quakers and Muslims would be welcome in Rhode Island.

3More than just pointed metaphors for religious “deviants,” Muhammad and Islam stood in for particular political figures as well. Spellberg extensively covers Voltaire’s play, Le Fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, which Voltaire wrote as a vehicle for condemning religious intolerance in France but which was insufficiently clever to elude censors. Revived in England as Mahomet the Impostor, the play served as anti-French and anti-Catholic propaganda in the middle of the eighteenth century, before being purposed on both sides of the American Revolution in the 1780s—first as a British condemnation of the revolution, then as an American critique of English tyranny.

4Chapter two moves from Islam as the vehicle for critique to the beginnings of European conceptions of toleration for Muslims. Two of the authors quoted in the chapter’s epigraphs, Thomas Helwys and John Locke, figure prominently in this turn, as do other continental figures like Domenico Scandella (Menocchio) and Sebastian Franck, both of whom went beyond toleration to advocate for equality for Muslims. Helwys’s approach takes on particular relevance in this chapter, specifically his “two tablets” approach to religion and governance. For Helwys, the first tablet—the first five commandments of the Decalogue—were properly the purview of conscience, while the second properly the purview of the state. Both Roger Williams and Locke followed in Helwys’s intellectual footsteps, albeit indirectly, the latter to the point of accepting an editorial inclusion of “civil rights” language into his later letters concerning toleration (76) and, courtesy of his defenses of Muslims and Socinians, being vilified by his opponents as both.

5Spellberg then turns her attention to Jefferson’s era and career. Jefferson purchased his (first) Qur’an when he was a law student, and it is fitting that Sale’s translation contained an introduction declaring the need to be acquainted with “‘the various laws and constitutions of civilized nations, especially those who flourish in our own time’” (91). As Spellberg presents it, Jefferson found the Qur’an most useful precisely for its legalistic content, including drawing on it as precedent in a contentious divorce case and in looking to it to help his negotiations with Tripoli and the other North African states (chapter 4). At the same time, as Spellberg details, calling an opponent a Muslim, or insinuating that they were, was deeply offensive and one of the reasons for the rupture on Jefferson’s friendship with John Adams.

6The book is perhaps strongest when Spellberg turns away from Jefferson and to the constitutional debates in North Carolina and the disestablishment debates in Massachusetts. The portrayal of James Iredell’s efforts on behalf of the Constitution united Locke’s toleration with Jefferson’s freedom to rhetorically remove any outer limit of the Constitution’s conception of religious freedom. In Massachusetts, John Leland later followed a similar tack, cribbing from Jefferson to advocate for equality for Jews, Catholics, Baptists, Deists, and Muslims, declaring that the political rights of these groups were the grounds on which national ideals would be tested and proven. Leland, Spellberg says, nevertheless remained a man of his time, one who misunderstood the Muslims on whose behalf he argued. This is where the title is most apt—the book deals with Jefferson’s Qur’an not as a material object or even as the object of meticulous study, but as a bricolage, cobbled together from various sources, from Sale’s translation but also from Cato’s Letters; from his diplomacy with Abd al-Rahman but also from Voltaire. Notably, when Spellberg asks whether Jefferson learned from Sale’s translation, the answer is consistently no, making the bricolage of influences more vital.  

7This leads to one problematic element of the book: its essentialization of Islam. Throughout, Spellberg calls attention to misunderstandings, distortions, and outright fabrications in the way Islam was perceived in this period. In so doing, however, she as frequently conjures up an unarticulated, monolithic “true” Islam against which the “false” variants are measured. The most obvious instance is in her brief engagement with Shari’a law (293-296) as minority communities might wish to practice it. Spellberg is quite right to admonish us against rushing headlong into nightmarish depictions of an internal “Other” seeking to establish a new legal order, but then reductively dismisses the import of the hypothetical community’s actions. In so doing, she brushes away two centuries of case law and conflict over exactly the practices that she declares are categorically unproblematic—marriage and divorce, for example—mountains of historical evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. One need not be an alarmist to wish that this point had been more critically made, had been historicized, and had been argued with reference to other religious minorities that have fought for the right to live as they feel obligated to, with varying degrees of success.

8Such elements contrast sharply with this otherwise intriguing intellectual history of “the Alcoran,” as well as with the Afterward, which acknowledges that “no American Muslim monolith exists: American Muslims represent the most ethnically, racially, and theologically diverse Islamic community in the world” (278). Spellberg also credits the Center for Security Policy with a moment of clarity when it acknowledged that “there may not be a single ‘true’ Islam practiced by over one billion Muslims worldwide” (294). Both are good points; both are undercut somewhat by the essentialization of Islam in the book. Moreover, in the Introduction, Spellberg declares, “At a time when most Americans were uninformed, misinformed, or simply afraid of Islam, Thomas Jefferson imagined Muslims as future citizens of his new nation” (3). It is difficult to overlook the contemporary commentary embedded in this statement, and the essentialization of Islam here may hinder rather than abet the kind of engagement that Spellberg advocates.

9There are also several factual errors in the book, most notably references to “the American Founders, Protestants all” (4) and to efforts to lobby “President George Washington” in 1786 (152). That said, the book subtly but effectively engages with the misplaced conception that interest equals affiliation or advocacy, a problem present in religious studies, public discourse, and politics alike. Part of this comes from the deceptively uncritical way with which Spellberg presents the tension between the ideal and the real. Never letting the reader forget that the founders, Jefferson included, were far more willing to think about Muslims as citizens and officeholders theoretically, and would have balked at some of the logical conclusions to which their rhetoric would lead, seems at first blush like a simple, somewhat superficial opposition that draws the basic contours without troubling the waters further by engaging in a detailed analysis. Indeed, there are moments when Spellberg’s engagement with the founders, particularly Jefferson and Washington, is underdeveloped and under-nuanced, and other moments where the rhetoric/action binary is little more than a vehicle for doubling down on the “Muslim as most exotic Other/metaphor for Catholics, Jews, Deists” motif that Spellberg credibly always keeps in sight.

10This is a possible reading, but I think that there is more going on here, thus my characterization of it as “deceptively uncritical.” Rather than do the critical work for us, Spellberg’s book is framed in such a way as to demand that we do that work for ourselves, and answer anew the question of whether toleration is the limits of our conceptions, or whether we remain interested in religious freedom as a constitutional and public good, and how far we’re willing to go on its behalf. The message of the book is essentially Jeffersonian, that is, that society benefits most when majorities and minorities alike are both protected and necessarily somewhat sequestered. The continual assessment of rights and obligations; of conceptions of equality before the law; and of the protection of belief, practice, and law from each other remains one of the vital questions of our era. That this book only incompletely bears this out is confirmation both of the challenge and of the importance of doing so. Incomplete though the success here is, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a worthy contribution to the historiography of these debates and the debates themselves.

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Bibliographical reference

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. Pp. 416. ISBN: 978-0307268228

Electronic reference

Anthony Santoro, « Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2014-3, document 6, Online since 18 September 2014, connection on 18 December 2018. URL :

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About the author

Anthony Santoro

Post-Doctoral Fellow at Heidelberg University, Heidelberg Center for American Studies.

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This text is under a Creative Commons license : Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Generic

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