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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders 1st Edition

3.8 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0307268228
ISBN-10: 0307268225
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

The English translation of the Qur’an that Thomas Jefferson purchased in 1765 made its most public appearance in 2007, when Minnesota congressman-electKeith Ellison used it for a photo-op reenactment of his taking the oath of office. Jefferson’s Qur’an is, Spellberg shows in this fresh and timely account, important not because it directly influenced Jefferson’s thought—it is not clear how much of the two-volume work he read or what he learned from it—but because its presence in Jefferson’s library reminds us of his progressive positions on religious tolerance, and the extent to which the Founding Fathers’ ideas were shaped by their ideas about Muslims, even though most of the Founders had probably never actually met a Muslim. Spellberg illustrates her thesis in part by describing the slight but significant ways in which colonial Americans came into contact with Muslims, who were thought to reflect the outer limits of a diverse American population. She scours Jefferson’s writings and draws inferences from, among other things, where in his library Jefferson shelved his Qur’an. But Jefferson’s political and diplomatic dealings, which reveal a thoughtful if complicated approach to Islam, are perhaps more revealing. And we are reminded that, in a messy election campaign against John Adams, Jefferson may have been the first presidential candidate to be maliciously accused of being a Muslim. --Brendan Driscoll


Praise for Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

“Wonderful…Spellberg provides valuable historical context for the struggle for religious tolerance and inclusion. In itself, her book constitutes a step toward inclusiveness in the ongoing construction of American history.”

—Jonathan P. Berkey, San Francisco Chronicle

Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an examines the intersection during the nation’s founding era of two contentious themes in culture wars—the relationship of Islam to America, and the proper relationship between church and state. The story that it tells ought to be familiar to most Americans, and is familiar to historians of the nation’s founding. And yet, by using Islam as her book’s touchstone, Spellberg brings illuminating freshness to an oft-told tale…Compelling, formidably documented…Spellberg’s book is essential reading in these troubled times.”

—R.B. Bernstein, The Daily Beast

“Denise Spellberg has done a great thing here by recovering the spirit and the substance of Thomas Jefferson's vision of true religious liberty. For Jefferson and many of his Founding colleagues, the shift from ‘toleration’ to ‘liberty’ marked a profound change, extending protection and, yes, sanctuary to those of any faith whatsoever, including those of no faith. By focusing on the Jeffersonian understanding of Islam, Spellberg tells a fresh story in engaging fashion and shows us that the past, while surely not perfect, still has much to teach us all these years distant.”

—Jon Meacham, winner of the Pulitzer prize and author of Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

“An impressive and timely book, explaining in detail the universalism of Jefferson’s religious toleration, his contemplation of full citizenship and equality not only for Jews and Catholics but for Muslims as well, while still accepting the traditional view of the ‘errors’ of Islam. Denise Spellberg documents in detail ‘where, when, and how Muslims were first included in American ideals.’ An exploration of the extent of the Founders’ pluralism, the book is not only a notable addition to our understanding of Jefferson but a significant comment on the world today.”

—Bernard Bailyn. Two-time winner of the Pulitzer prize and author of The Barbarous Years
“In this ground breaking book, Spellberg explores how America's founding fathers intended religious tolerance as a key American ideal not only for various Protestant groups, but also for its future Muslim citizens. As her book explores how tolerant attitudes towards Catholics, Jews, and Muslims led key early American thinkers to consider religious freedom in the widest possible terms, it offers a crucial corrective to those who today resist the nation’s inherent blueprint for religious pluralism. In tracing the transatlantic development of these ideas, Spellberg has laid critical groundwork for those interested in European and American perceptions of Islam and religious diversity at the time of the founding of the United States.”

—Ali Asani,  Professor and Director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307268225
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307268228
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #62,140 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I take issue with the previous reviewer, Shaun Kennedy, who has perpetrated erroneous charges against Spellberg's meticulous documentation, while perpetrating three factual errors of his own. If he had read the book, and there's little evidence he has, he would have seen that the pivotal quote Jefferson noted from John Locke may be found in Chapter 3, p.106, note 183. The reference is directly to the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, volume 1, p. 548. Second, to confirm that Jefferson considered Muslim civil rights, Spellberg includes an illustration of Jefferson's actual handwritten reference to Muslims from John Locke reproduced on p. 107. (The original is in the Library of Congress.) Third, Kennedy is wrong about the source of the quotation, which he says is from "The Second Treatise" instead of Spellberg's correct identification of the quotation from Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). Spellberg's analysis of why these eighteenth-century precedents about Muslims as future citizens now matter is compelling, based on real founding precedents.
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Format: Hardcover
This book might also be called "The Enlightenment, America and Islam." It's a detailed exploration of how the West viewed Islam during the Enlightenment era, culminating in the Founders' views on religious liberty. While Islam remained a distant, poorly understood belief system to the Founding Fathers, they nonetheless defended rights of conscience to include such (to them) outrageously fringe belief systems as Islam. Jefferson and Adams would be disgusted by the willful ignorance and blithe bigotry of present-day politicians and talking heads, many of whom have made shockingly offensive statements denying that Muslims should enjoy the same freedoms as the rest of us (and by that, of course, they mean "Christians"). Too bad this book wasn't around when Keith Ellison was taking the oath of office on Jefferson's personal copy of the Qur'an.
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Format: Hardcover
We are still trying to figure out the place of Islam and of Muslims in America. We shouldn’t be going through this; the Founding Fathers considered the rules for Muslims to participate in the new government. They did so even though the Muslims they were considering were hypothetical, since there was little visible Muslim presence in the new nation. The enlightening _Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders_ (Knopf) by historian Denise A. Spellberg shows how Jefferson and his fellows worked out how the nation would solve the knotty problems of religious toleration. It also shows that the admirable solution is still being imperfectly applied.

Jefferson and the founders knew about Islam but they didn’t know Muslims. This was partly due to uncaring blindness; many of the slaves brought from Africa were of course Muslims, but this would have made little impression on the founders. What they knew about Muslims was that they were vastly different. Many Americans, if they thought of the issue at all, suspected that Muslims were dangerous threats to America and to the Christian religion. This enabled those championing religious toleration in the new nation, like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, to use Muslims as a bogey, a worst-case scenario, and to show that even then, there ought to be no restrictions on either their ability to practice their religion or to participate fully as citizens. Given the historic introduction Spellberg gives, Jefferson’s views were breathtakingly radical. Jefferson himself, like many of the founders, was a deist, one who saw God at work at the inception of the universe but who denied the role of miracles, and the divinity of Jesus, within it.
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3 Comments 45 of 57 people found this helpful. Was this review helpful to you? Yes No Sending feedback...
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ever since I heard about Thomas Jefferson and his insights of Islam together with the copy of the Holy Quran that he held which is today stored for future generations to explore, this book was an eye opener written by Denise. I am looking forward to reading her future works. Congratulations to her on her hard work and effort.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I was hoping for a more balanced and objective assessment of "Islam and the Founders" as well as the current debate regarding the relationship of the American Constitution and Islamic religio-political Sharia Law. Spellberg's work does provide a lot of documentation, but it appears to be very selective and driven by her personal politics. She frequently disparages views she disagrees with by calling them "extremist," "right wing" and such epithets. She dismisses Jefferson's concerns about the Islamist Barbary pirates assaults on American ships as having virtually nothing to do with religion, but then shares words from Jefferson's letters, quoting the Tripolitan ambassador who justifies the attacks as sanctioned by the Qur'an. She seems at times to excuse, if not justify, bad Islamicist behaviors by citing bad Christianism behavior. Bad behavior is bad behavior, and is not made better by resorting to tit for tat arguments. If you want a Muslim's perspective on these issues, I would recommend Dr. Zudhi Jasser's new book, A Battle For The Soul Of Islam, which addresses his growing movement of Islamic reform that advocates the separation of mosque and state. Jasser, a practicing Muslim, gives evidence that challenges Spellberg's assumptions and conclusions. And if you want a book that might help balance out Spellberg, read the brilliantly written new book by Andrew G. Bostom titled, Sharia Versus Freedom.
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Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders
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