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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an

In October 1765, the Virginia Gazette, the local newspaper in Williamsburg, Virginia – which also served as the only bookseller in what was a British colony at the time – sold to Thomas Jefferson a two-volume set of the Qur'an. Back then, it was titled The Alcoran of Mohammed. George Sale had translated it in 1734 from Arabic to English, and law professors of that time considered the Qur'an a book of the law, as well as religion. At the time of purchase, Jefferson was 22 years old and had studied law for three years. He openly acquired other classics as well, but his acquisition of the Qur'an was to gain an insight into Islamic law. To Westerners, the Qur'an represented the law of the Ottoman Empire, a conglomeration of countries and territories governing over 25 million people, thus making it worthy of study. As a matter of course, Jefferson viewed both the Qur'an and the Old Testament as repositories of religious law. Jefferson did study the Qur'an, but it did not contribute much to his private practice of law or his public practice of legislating.

Islamic Law has many inputs that affect its existence, and just learning one source is like the parable about the elephant and the blind men:

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: 'We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.' So, they sought it out, and when they found it, they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said: 'This being is like a thick snake.' For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar, like a tree trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, 'is a wall.' Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth, and like a spear.

From the parable, we can gather that one's subjective experience can be real. Such knowledge is limited as it fails to account for other truths or a totality of facts. What Jefferson learned about Islamic law from the Qur'an was accurate, but it provided only a tiny window into functioning Islamic jurisprudence. Jefferson was unaware of sunna, hadith, consensus, or analogy. Jefferson, as well as the Western world at that time, thought that the Qur'an was all that there was to Islamic law.

Jefferson's Quran was placed in the national spotlight in January 2007 when Keith Ellison, the United States' first Muslim congressman, chose to swear his private oath of office on it instead of the customary Bible. Again, in January 2019, Rashida Tlaib, a new Muslim congresswoman, used Jefferson's Quran to repeat what Ellison had initiated. To date, there have been four Muslims elected to Congress, but only two have used Jefferson's Quran as their swearing-in book. While Jefferson is a patriot to emulate, it is questionable they knew of Jefferson's real feelings about Islam.

Newly elected members of Congress must take an oath of loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. Newly elected members of Congress do not place their hands on any book during the official swearing-in ceremonies when they raise their right hand to take the oath of office in January. They stand in front of the Speaker's podium altogether, raise their right hands, and pledge a commitment in which they swear to uphold the Constitution. Members, individually, may choose to carry a sacred text. After the official swearing-in, Ellison, and later Tlaib, used Jefferson's Quran borrowed from the Library of Congress for a photo-op.

McClatchy, a news organization, posted an article about Tlaib's swearing-in. Their report notes that George Sale translated Jefferson's Qur'an in a manner "that sheds a less-than-favorable light on Islam." Early English translations willfully distorted vital aspects of the Quran, with the political aim of representing Islam as a heresy and the Prophet as an imposter. Sale's immediate goal was to remind his Christian readers that Islam was a false religion, and he intended his work to help convert Muslims to Protestantism.

Finally, Jefferson himself subscribed to the anti-Islamic views that were common in the colonies at that time. As a Deist, Jefferson found that his opinions about the Trinity and the humanness of Jesus were parallel in Islam. Still, Jefferson subscribed to the anti-Islamic views of most of his contemporaries. His exposure to Islamic piracy in the Mediterranean Sea during his Presidency and the Islamic pursuit of bribes, tribute, and slaves caused him to question their legitimacy as a religion. During the last few years of his life, his feelings about the Qur'an and the Prophet did not wane, and he wrote about them in disparaging terms.

More on this topic can be found in the soon-to-be-published manuscript, Muslim Mechanics.

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