Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: How Islam Shaped the Founders

Thomas Jefferson’s Quran – A new book argues that to understand the debate over church and state, we need to look to the Founders’ views on Islam, writes R.B. Bernstein.

One of the nastiest aspects of modern culture wars is the controversy raging over the place of Islam and Muslims in Western society. Too many Americans say things about Islam and Muslims that would horrify and offend them if they heard such things said about Christianity or Judaism, Christians or Jews. Unfortunately, those people won’t open Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. This enlightening book might cause them to rethink what they’re saying.

Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an examines the intersection during the nation’s founding era of two contentious themes in the culture wars—the relationship of Islam to America, and the proper relationship between church and state. The story that it tells ought to be familiar to most Americans, and is familiar to historians of the nation’s founding. And yet, by using Islam as her book’s touchstone, Spellberg brings illuminating freshness to an oft-told tale.

Spellberg, associate professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, seeks to understand the role of Islam in the American struggle to protect religious liberty. She asks how Muslims and their religion fit into eighteenth-century Americans’ models of religious freedom. While conceding that many Americans in that era viewed Islam with suspicion, classifying Muslims as dangerous and unworthy of inclusion within the American experiment, she also shows that such leading figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington spurned exclusionary arguments, arguing that America should be open to Muslim citizens, office-holders, and even presidents.

Spellberg’s point is that, contrary to those today who would dismiss Islam and Muslims as essentially and irretrievably alien to the American experiment and its religious mix, key figures in the era of the nation’s founding argued that that American church-state calculus both could and should make room for Islam and for believing Muslims.