By KIRK DAVIS SWINEHART -- New York Times
THOMAS JEFFERSON’S QUR’AN
Islam and the Founders
By Denise A. Spellberg
Illustrated. 392 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $27.95.
Divining a man’s beliefs from the books in his library is a perilous business. And when that man happens to be Thomas Jefferson, it’s like trying to staple vinaigrette to the ceiling. The third president, an omnivorous bibliophile, owned perhaps as many as 10,000 titles. He also was a reticent man of infinite contradictions, as well as a cunning politician. Could any one of this Delphic founder’s many books account for his most enduring contributions to liberal democracy? The answer, it seems, is yes.
In “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an,” her fascinating if somewhat meandering new book, Denise A. Spellberg traces the partial origins of American religious toleration to a single day in 1765 when Jefferson, then studying law at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of Islam’s sacred text. He never claimed that the Quran shaped his political orientation. Yet Spellberg, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, makes a persuasive case for its centrality. To oversimplify: What began as an academic interest in Islamic law and religion yielded a fascination with Islamic culture, which disposed him to include Muslims in his expansive vision of American citizenship.
The book charts the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in 16th-century Europe and migration to America a century later. Much of the popular animus toward Islam, she explains, originated in northern Europeans’ fear of the Ottoman Empire (to say nothing of Barbary pirates trolling the Mediterranean for captives). But not everyone took a pejorative view of the faith or its adherents. John Locke, for one, preached toleration and “civic equality” for England’s Muslim population in the late 1680s, as part of his daring argument for guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of Jews, Roman Catholics and nonconformist Protestants.
Spellberg specifies Locke as Jefferson’s inspiration and, in the book’s finest pages, sketches a genealogy of his proudest accomplishments, especially the 1786 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which anticipated the First Amendment separating church and state. In a vexing plea for relevance, Spellberg strains to make “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” foremost a book for our troubled post-9/11 world. But her real achievement is in casting a coterie of founders — pre-eminently Jefferson, Madison and Washington — in the unlikely role of radicals in their tolerance of Islam.
This is revelatory stuff. But you would hardly know it: As if reluctant to render her subjects too sympathetic, Spellberg counters instances of their rousing liberality with deflating evidence to the contrary. We are told again and again, for example, that Jefferson and company championed Muslim rights, but only hypothetically, as an extreme test case. Moreover, they lacked “any inherent appreciation for Islam as a religion.” Such qualifying asides rob the book of its power. To be fair, Spellberg tries throughout to chart a middle course between celebration and critique. Sometimes she succeeds. But, often as not, she alerts us to long-familiar incongruities, only to stop short of engaging them.
To wit: At Mount Vernon, Washington “signaled openness to Muslim laborers in 1784.” Like Jefferson, he “advocated Muslim rights.” Yet both men may conceivably have owned slaves with Muslim roots. And unlike John Adams (who didn’t own slaves), Jefferson refused to be persuaded of any connection between white captives taken by Barbary pirates and black chattel slavery. Spellberg is right: “What to us today seems hypocritical did not trouble Jefferson, or indeed most Americans of his day.” Missing from these pages is any deeper sense of why Jefferson and his exceptional contemporaries felt and believed as they did.
Alas, scholarly books about big ideas rarely take full measure of those who generate them. Someone better acquainted with Jefferson’s and Washington’s interior lives might have navigated their inconsistencies with greater finesse. Still, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” breaks fresh ground and should, with any luck, inspire further elaboration.
Kirk Davis Swinehart is writing a book about Sir William Johnson, Britain’s diplomat to the American Indians in the 18th century.