The intriguing story of Thomas Jefferson and his reading of the holy book of Islam.
Spellberg (History and Middle Eastern Studies/Univ. of Texas; Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of Aisha bint Abi Bakr, 1994, etc.) is straightforward about Jefferson’s numerous contradictions of thought throughout his political career. On one hand, the cosmopolitan bibliophile purchased George Sale’s translation of the Quran more than a decade before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, examining it carefully as he formulated his thoughts on religious freedom in the new nation. On the other hand, Jefferson “remained rather tenaciously a man of his times,” carrying the biases of his day about Muslims (and slaves). In this fascinating and timely study, Spellberg exposes the early American views about Muslims. While the early Americans inherited many biases from Europe, others intimately acquainted with religious persecution, like Roger Williams, embraced a view of “liberty of conscience” that logically had to tolerate the views of all religions—Jews, Catholics and Muslims alike. Jefferson, whose great Enlightenment hero was John Locke, drew on Locke’s seminal A Letter Concerning Toleration as he refined his ideas about toleration for non-Anglican Protestants in the Virginia Commonwealth. Judiciously, he urged for religious toleration of dissenters to keep them from fomenting “seditious conspiracies.” Spellberg reveals Jefferson’s tortuous thought processes regarding religious freedom, as he could not envision how the “universal” legislation regarding liberty of conscience could extend to the West African slaves, who happened to be the only Muslims in America at the time. The victim of a presidential smear campaign, Jefferson recognized personally the danger in hurtful rhetoric about the “infidel.”
Meticulous research and a well-structured text combine in this important study of the early American political leaders and their convictions regarding religious and social tolerance.