Interview: Denise Spellberg, Author Of 'Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an' Author Denise Spellberg's book draws parallels between the beliefs of the founding father and religious tolerance in the United States today.
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The Surprising Story Of 'Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an'

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The Surprising Story Of 'Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an'

The Surprising Story Of 'Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an'

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Thomas Jefferson had a vast personal library, reflecting his enormous curiosity about the world. Among his volumes, a Quran, which informed his foundational ideas about plurality in America. Joining me is Denise Spellberg, associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, and author of the new book, "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an." Thanks for joining me.

DENISE SPELLBERG: Thank you, Arun. Glad to be here.

RATH: So how did Jefferson come to have a copy of the Quran? Was it hard to come across, back at that time?

SPELLBERG: Well, he actually was a bibliophile from the beginning. And he ordered this Quran in 1765, 11 years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He was a law student at the time, and he had the book shipped from England to Williamsburg, Va.

RATH: And it's something that's actually, really interesting to see. You can actually see - on the Library of Congress website, you can see Jefferson's copy of the Quran.

SPELLBERG: Yeah, absolutely, his two-volume copy that he bought for 16 shillings. There's an entry in the local newspaper - because they were the booksellers for the time. So that's how we know the year. In fact, he bought it in October of 1765.

RATH: So can you talk about, how did the - how did Muslim philosophy fit or clash with the dominant ideals that were percolating, and that informed the founding of America?

SPELLBERG: Well, you know, Europeans - and Americans after them - in this period tended to be quite hostile toward Islam. And yet Jefferson was curious about the religion and law of Muslims. And that's probably why he bought the Quran.

RATH: Now, one of the things that you write about is that we - more of a sort of internal thoughts about Islam, or a mystery - but we do know about how he thought about Islam, in terms of a pluralistic society. And he clashed with John Adams about that, yes?

SPELLBERG: Yes. I mean, Jefferson was unique in many ways. He criticized Islam - as he did Christianity and Judaism. He talked about Islam as a religion that repressed scientific inquiry, a strange idea he got from Voltaire that wasn't right. But Jefferson, unlike Adams, was able to separate his principles about Muslim religious liberty and civil rights from these inherited European prejudices about Islam.

He did the same thing when arguing for the inclusion of Catholics and Jews, actually. He had not very good things to say about either Catholicism or Judaism, but he insisted that these individual practitioners should have equal civil rights.

RATH: And something that fascinated me is that there were people at the time making the argument which we've been hearing a lot in the last 12 years; that Islam is just incompatible with democracy, that they just don't - they can't work together.

SPELLBERG: Well, Jefferson never felt that way. And he never felt that way because he believed at the time and resisted the notion, for example, that Catholics were a threat to the United States because of their allegiance to the pope as a foreign power. There were many Protestants who would have disagreed with him about Catholics, and many who would have disagreed with him about Muslims. They were the outsiders whose inclusion represented the furthest reach of toleration and rights. So for Jefferson and others - and he was not alone in this, although it was a minority - for him to include Muslims meant to include everyone of every faith: Jews, Catholics and all others. And to exclude Muslims meant that there would be no universal principle of civil rights for all believers in America.

RATH: So was this all theoretical, or was there any kind of Muslim population in America in the 1770s?

SPELLBERG: Jefferson and Washington and others were theorizing about a future American population when, ironically and tragically, they never knew that real Muslims were already in America. But they were slaves brought from West Africa against their will. We don't know how many were the first American Muslims. We think in - they're - they numbered in the thousands or tens of thousands. And it's not impossible that Jefferson actually owned Muslim slaves from Africa, but there's no direct evidence of it.

That's not the case for George Washington, his neighbor in Virginia. Washington - among his taxable items, someone on his plantation listed the names of Fatimer and Little Fatimer. And despite being spelled with an E-R at the end, this is clearly the name of the prophet's daughter Fatima. So there were Muslim women working on Washington's plantation at the same time he was inviting people of all faiths to a protected religious liberty and rights in the United States.

RATH: Can you see any echoes of the way that Jefferson wrestled with the Quran in our democracy today?

SPELLBERG: I think that there is anxiety about what Muslims believe, largely because people don't understand Islam very well. And I think that was also true in the 18th century. It strikes me that Jefferson was theorizing for a future that included Muslims, not in spite of their religion but because of it, because of his notion of universal civil rights. With American Muslims today numbering in the millions as citizens, and Islam the nation's fastest-growing faith, I think it's time to challenge the wrong and historically inaccurate idea that Muslims are somehow not fully American. They have been for a long time. And I think that that's where Jefferson would be today in this debate about Islam and Muslim citizenship in this country.

RATH: Denise Spellberg's new book is "Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an." Very interesting stuff, Denise. Thank you so much.

SPELLBERG: Thank you, Arun.

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