Recently, a self-styled “pastor” in Florida sparked a worldwide controversy by threatening to burn copies of the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. But he was far from the only member of America’s right wing to condemn Islam as a fundamentally evil religion. It is not uncommon for these religious conservatives to claim the nation’s Founding Fathers, in particular Thomas Jefferson, as supporters of their war against Islam.
Popular conservative talk show host Glenn Beck even said that Jefferson, the third president of the United States, actually waged war against “Islamic extremists,” by sending U.S. Marines to Libya in 1801.
A new book by a noted scholar of Middle Eastern studies says that the conservatives have it all backwards. Jefferson was not only not an Islamophobe, he actually studied the Qur’an and adamantly supported laws that guaranteed religious freedom for Muslims.
“That he owned a Qur’an reveals Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic religion, but it does not explain his support for the rights of Muslims,” writes Denise Spellberg, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, in her book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.
She reports in the book that Jefferson bought his copy of the Qur’an in 1765, 11 years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence that set out the principles which he and other Founding Fathers based their new nation
Jefferson’s treasured copy of the Islamic holy book still exists, kept safe in the Library of Congress.
Referencing one of his intellectual role models, the English philosopher John Locke, Jefferson declared in 1776 that “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”
“Mahamedan,” meaning a follower of the prophet Muhammed, was the common word used for Muslims in Jefferson’s time.
In his autobiography, Jefferson reiterated the point, writing that the guarantees of religious freedom that he helped wrote into American law, applied not just to Christians but was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
“Mahometan” was another spelling of “Mahamedan.”
SOURCES: Salon, The Daily Beast,History News Network