What Jefferson really thought about Islam.

A wartime lexicon.
Jan. 9 2007 3:05 PM

Jefferson's Quran

What the founder really thought about Islam.

Thomas Jefferson. Click image to expand.
Thomas Jefferson

It was quite witty of Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., to short-circuit the hostility of those who criticized him for taking his oath on the Quran and to ask the Library of Congress for the loan of Thomas Jefferson's copy of that holy book. But the irony of this, which certainly made his stupid Christian fundamentalist critics look even stupider, ought to be partly at his own expense as well.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

In the first place, concern over Ellison's political and religious background has little to do with his formal adherence to Islam. In his student days and subsequently, he was a supporter of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, a racist and crackpot cult organization that is in schism with the Muslim faith and even with the Sunni orthodoxy now preached by the son of the NOI's popularizer Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan's sect explicitly describes a large part of the human species—the so-called white part—as an invention of the devil and has issued tirades against the Jews that exceed what even the most fanatical Islamists have said. Farrakhan himself has boasted of the "punishment" meted out to Malcolm X by armed gangsters of the NOI (see the brilliant documentary Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X, which catches him in the act of doing this). If Ellison now wants to use his faith to justify an appeal to pluralism and inclusiveness and diversity, he needs to repudiate the Nation of Islam, and in much more unambivalent terms than any I have yet heard from him.

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As to the invocation of Jefferson, we know that when he and James Madison first proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom (the frame and basis of the later First Amendment to the Constitution) in 1779, the preamble began, "Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free." Patrick Henry and other devout Christians attempted to substitute the words "Jesus Christ" for "Almighty God" in this opening passage and were overwhelmingly voted down. This vote was interpreted by Jefferson to mean that Virginia's representatives wanted the law "to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." Quite right, too, and so far so good, even if the term Mahomedan would not be used today, and even if Jefferson's own private sympathies were with the last named in that list.

A few years later, in 1786, the new United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion. The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today's Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Thousands of vessels were taken, and more than a million Europeans and Americans sold into slavery. The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that "the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen." This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute. That this might not be so easy was discovered by Jefferson and John Adams when they went to call on Tripoli's envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves in this way. As Jefferson later reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress:

The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.

Medieval as it is, this has a modern ring to it. Abdrahaman did not fail to add that a commission paid directly to Tripoli—and another paid to himself—would secure some temporary lenience. I believe on the evidence that it was at this moment that Jefferson decided to make war on the Muslim states of North Africa as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And, even if I am wrong, we can be sure that the dispatch of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to the Barbary shore was the first and most important act of his presidency. It took several years of bombardment before the practice of kidnap and piracy and slavery was put down, but put down it was, Quranic justification or not.

Jefferson did not demand regime change of the Barbary states, only policy change. And as far as I can find, he avoided any comment on the religious dimension of the war. But then, he avoided public comment on faith whenever possible. It was not until long after his death that we became able to read most of his scornful writings on revelation and redemption (recently cited with great clarity by Brooke Allen in her book Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers). And it was not until long after his death that The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was publishable. Sometimes known as "the Jefferson Bible" for short, this consists of the four gospels of the New Testament as redacted by our third president with (literally) a razor blade in his hand. With this blade, he excised every verse dealing with virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, and other puerile superstition, thus leaving him (and us) with a very much shorter book. In 1904 (those were the days), the Jefferson Bible was printed by order of Congress, and for many years was presented to all newly elected members of that body. Here's a tradition worth reviving: Why not ask all new members of Congress to swear on that?

And here's a tradition worth inaugurating: The Quran repeats and plagiarizes many passages of the New Testament, including some of the most fantastic and mythical ones. Is it not time to apply the razor and produce a reasonable Quran as well? What could be more inclusive? What could be a better application of Jeffersonian original intent?

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