MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Newly elected Congressman Keith Ellison created a sensation last month when he announced that he planned to take the oath of office on the Quran. The Minnesota Democrat is the first Muslim elected to Congress. His decision to use the Muslim holy book in an unofficial, individual swearing-in ceremony drew criticism. In a politically savvy move, Representative-Elect Ellison has countered his critics with a plan to use a copy of the Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
To find that copy, Congressman Ellison's office called Mark Dimunation. He's the chief of the rare book and special collections division of the Library of Congress and he joins us here in the studio. Tell me about the history of this Quran.
Mr. MARK DIMUNATION (Library of Congress): The Quran that Representative Ellison is asking for is the personal copy of Thomas Jefferson. It comes from the Thomas Jefferson collection, which is housed in the Library of Congress. It was acquired by Congress to replace the Congressional Library that had burned by the British during the War of 1812, when the capital was burned in 1814.
And they acquired well over 6,000 volumes, many of which went far beyond the topics that Congress is used to, literature, arts, landscape, architecture, religious texts, and included in there was Thomas Jefferson's copy of this piece, which is a two volume work on the Quran, translation of the Quran.
NORRIS: Thomas Jefferson was quite a book collector. Do you happen to know how he acquired this Quran?
Mr. DIMUNATION: We think that he acquired it in 1765, which would make sense. This is a 1764 edition of the translation by George Sale. This would have been a period of time when he was studying law. In fact, many of his law texts refer to the Quran as an alternative view of certain legal structures. It may be that when he saw this offered, he picked it up as part of his legal studies.
NORRIS: Could you just give us a quick description of the book? What's it look like?
Mr. DIMUNATION: Sure, it has a leather spine, marbled papers and marble boards. It was rebound by the Library in 1919. We think probably because it survived the 1851 fire in the capital, which destroyed two thirds of Jefferson's original collection. So we only have one series of books that were actually purchased. This is one of the survivors.
The first translation into English directly from Arabic. It's considered really the definitive Quran. This is the Quran that historians see as shaping Western Europe's understanding of the language of the Quran.
NORRIS: So you get this call from Congressman Ellison's office requesting a copy of this book for the swearing in ceremony. What was that conversation like?
Mr. DIMUNATION: It was very specifically asking for Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Quran. They even know the number in the Jefferson collection, so they had done their research.
NORRIS: Is it unusual for you to get a call like this?
Mr. DIMUNATION: The rare book division has been asked before by presidents for certain kinds of Bibles for swearing in ceremonies. The Lincoln Bible, as it's called, which is the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used in his inauguration, I think has been used in several presidential inaugurations.
It's not very common that we get a congressional request for a swearing in text.
NORRIS: So, what happens tomorrow when the book actually leaves your hands, or, at least for a moment? Tell me about that.
Mr. DIMUNATION: Yes, and it is a moment. Because this is actually Thomas Jefferson's book and has initials in it that it belonged to him and has a long history, we are responsible for delivering it to the particular room for the ceremony, and I will stand off on the side while that's happening. And then the book will be given back to me. So we are carrying it over to the ceremony, allowing it to be used, and then taking it right back to the book vault.
NORRIS: Mark, I have this image of you walking over to the capitol with a briefcase and a sort wristcuff.
Mr. DIMUNATION: That's exactly how it works. It will be a little bit more casual than that, although I am being accompanied by somebody, given the value of the book.
NORRIS: Well, Mark Dimunation, good luck tomorrow.
Mr. DIMUNATION: Thank you very much.
NORRIS: Mark Dimunation is the chief of the rare book and special collections divison in the Library of Congress.