Book Review: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an by Denise A. Spellberg


If the only thing you learn from this book is that the founding fathers had the wisdom to use Islam as a test case, to set the limits of tolerance in America, then that’d be sufficient. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a well-researched book, that locates the debates during the time (and before) Jefferson about Islam and its role in America and she draws out the implications of the same for our times. It shows Jefferson as a practical man, who had the vision and foresight to argue for the religious rights of (then) non-existent Muslims (free men). In this, she portrays Jefferson as a liberal hero and a visionary. In time such as these when Islam has come to denote everything that is negative, illiberal and not desirable, she shows, rather well that despite the reservations that Jefferson had about some of the practices of the religion, he thought it to be integral part of America. And this is an important reminder for all of us.

For those familiar with the Islamophobia prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, there is not much new material in this book. But she does do a good job of offering the context in which these debates occurred. Right from Dante’s inferno, which doomed the Prophet Muhammad to the bottom of Hell, to Voltaire’s play Mahomet, that fictionalized much of his life; there is a lot of material that Spellberg points to, that was used by those opposed to Islam in general and full integration of Muslim ideas in Europe in particular. This book also reminded me of Carl Ernest’s Following Muhammad, a brilliant book that charts the history of how Islam was perceived in the past and the contemporary understandings of the religion in Western societies. Similar to the treatment in Ernest’s book, Spellberg offers the challenges that Islam faces today, as it did in the earlier stages of its founding and propagation.

She points out that much of the prejudice against Islam came from Continental Europe and it was adopted by those who had not read or researched Islam much. Islam was positioned as the anti-Christ faith and was defined in direct opposition to Christianity. “Islam was thus for Christians of all denominations a weapon with which to vilify fellow believers, and it would prove effective, eventually to be appropriated for additional political and personal attacks on both sides of the Atlantic” (pg.17). While it was not all bad, and there were champions of pluralism and tolerance, they were few and far in between. She names Royall Tyler as another person who wrote a positive account of Muslim experience, allowing the subjects to speak forcefully for themselves and explain their beliefs. The Algerian Captive is an example of such work (pg.27).

In an effort to locate the debates surrounding American Muslim civil rights with our times, she points out that Jefferson was called among other things “a Mohammedan, an atheist,” pejoratively, because of his support of religious freedoms for all. This was a slur used against him, in his campaign of 1800. It is surprising that not much has changed since then and our current President, who has been called the same thing by birthers and those who deny that President Obama is an American born citizen. Further, one must remember that the debates about Islam and Muslims occurred in the context of the religious liberties that were to be given to minorities, among them Jews, Catholics and Muslims. Spellberg points out that while Catholics and Jews were real and were seen in somewhat of a negative light, Muslims were an unknown quantity. Questions of race became prominent in the context of citizenship as Jefferson and others thought of Muslims in terms of Turks and Arabs and not the Muslim slaves who were already present in the country (Pg. 168).

She also reminds readers that the suspicion that Muslims faced, because of their ‘foreign’ origins was not just limited to them. Catholics, Jews and other Protestants also faced discrimination and hatred. James Madison, like Leland, argued that “religious liberty is a right and not a favor.” It was not something the government could infringe or limit to select believers. (Pg. 241). She points out that Leland vocally championed the rights of Muslims and Catholics and Jews at a time when such inclusiveness was unusual and unpopular. And unlike Jefferson and Madison, the two famed Virginian political leaders whom he supported, Leland had himself had suffered persecution because of his faith. This persecution opened their eyes to the majoritarianism that could force the minorities into a position of weakness and suffering and this is exactly what they wanted to avoid.

As she makes her case, rather forcefully that American Muslims should be considered full and active citizens of this country and not as ‘outsiders.’ “Now, as in the 18th century, American Muslims symbolize the universality of religious inclusion and equality promised in the nation’s founding by Jefferson, Washington, Madison, Leland and others, an ideal still in the course of being fully realized more than two centuries later. Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal,” she adds. And going by the reasoning of her arguments, the fact that full legal participation and acceptance has occurred for both Jews and Catholics is a sure sign that Muslims can expect this too. Although challenges to this are evident, given the efforts by certain groups to challenge the legitimacy of this notion of plurality, the fact that it is ingrained in the American constitution is a guarantee of its success, she seems to be saying.

For those wanting to hear an interview with the author, check out this link on NPR.




[i] Full Citation: Spellberg. Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Alfred A. Knopf. NY. 2013


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