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Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders

By Denise A. Spellberg

Knopf

393 pages, $27.95

By Edward Cuddihy

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Americans have been arguing bitterly over religion since before the founding of the independent nation. The Colonists came by it honestly. They arrived from Europe with a legacy of several hundred years of wars with the infidels, the Papists and fellow Christian reformers.

A few early Colonists died for their religious beliefs, or for lack of them. Others were jailed or exiled.

Then Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a decade after the nation’s founding, became the first presidential candidate – but not the last – to be falsely characterized as a Muslim.

John Quincy Adams, advocating for the re-election of his father, “exposed” Jefferson as “a Turk,” that day’s euphemism for followers of Mohammad, which in 18th century American eyes made him more unfit than a Jew, or even a Roman Catholic, to head this Protestant nation.

When the founders were not squabbling over fundamental denominational differences, they were calling on religion to bolster political arguments that had little to do with their religious beliefs.

It was as if nothing could trump the religion card; no directive, no tax, no proposed legislation.

At the ratification of the Constitution, the vast majority of Americans were Protestant. Most states practiced de facto establishment of religion. You might be barred from public office or not fully protected by the law if you weren’t affiliated with this or that Protestant denomination.

Where freedom of religion was tolerated, the implication of “toleration” was that the majority belief is superior to those being tolerated. Even official toleration was seldom extended to Papists, Jews or Turks. Sometimes Baptists and Deists made the short list of intolerables.

So it hardly was serendipitous that the founding fathers insisted the first sentence of the Bill of Rights prohibit the establishment of religion and assure religious freedom. The subject was so entwined in the fabric of the young nation that Americans never have tired of wrangling over exactly what our founders had in mind.

Author Denise Spellberg is the latest to trudge into the quagmire of religion and government in her somewhat erudite book “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.”

Spellberg, a Mideast scholar who currently teaches Islamic civilization at the University of Texas, brings her point of expertise to this old question.

Despite the book’s title, which plays into some current social controversies, the bulk of it deals not with the Quran, but with the varied and often-divisive understanding of religious freedom held by our founders.

Although references to Islam abound in Federalist period writings, Spellberg stipulates they were purely theoretical. Most Americans had never knowingly met a Muslim. For most Americans, Islam meant Barbary Coast piracy.

The average American in 1800 may have met one or two of the roughly 2,000 Jews, or may have known several of the 20,000 Catholics who lived mostly in Maryland, but a Muslim? Not likely. (The U.S. population was slightly above 5 million, of which nearly 900,000 were slaves.)

Jefferson, a professed Deist who apparently did not accept the cornerstone precept of Christianity – the divinity of Christ – is often quoted as saying: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” Therefore, he argued, it was none of government’s business.

When Jefferson included “the Turks” in his arguments for total religious freedom, Spellberg writes, he was underlining his point: All free men, not just all free Christians, as some have tried to argue today, were to be covered under the umbrella of religious freedom.

Jefferson “freely disparaged” Islam, Spellberg writes, but he fought for the civil rights of its adherents should there ever be any on this continent.

Of course, Jefferson’s eloquent writings on human rights beg the question of the duplicity of his slave ownership and his fathering of children by at least one of them. There also is a touch of irony in that some slaves of Western African origin are believed today to have been Muslim. A few, Spellberg states, even wrote and read Arabic.

Many of the founders’ writings on the relationship of government and religion remain relevant today, but it can be difficult for the reader to discern them in Spellberg’s slow, methodical development. Her style floats freely between university textbook and legal brief.

Even the story of young Adams labeling Jefferson a student of the Quran and a follower “of Mahomet” takes on a certain sterility in Spellberg’s telling. One has almost to surmise what a dastardly defamation the New Englander Adams was laying on the presidential challenger, a Southern son of the European Enlightenment, by calling him a Muslim.

Then there’s the mysterious final chapter of the book, entitled: “Why Can’t a Muslim Be President?” and its references to President Obama, Glenn Beck, Sen. John McCain, the so-called birthers and Bryan Fischer.

One only wonders if this chapter which feels so out of place is an afterthought, or if it is the reason for all the fine historical work that precedes it. Is this a work of history or an extended piece of advocacy?

Either way, it is notable that this subject which has stalked American politics for more than 200 years should be revisited by a serious student of history at a time when many are playing the religion card to justify political positions.

Spellberg’s revisit has slightly more positives than negatives going for it, but the positives are more cerebral than popular. The book will prove tough-going for readers of history who look to get into the skin rather than the mind of the title character.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.