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In this original and illuminating book, Denise A. Spellberg reveals a little-known but crucial dimension of the story of

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by Denise A. Spellberg

American religious freedom—a drama in which Islam played a surprising role. In 1765, eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an. This marked only the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam, and he would go on to acquire numerous books on Middle Eastern languages, history, and travel, taking extensive notes on Islam as it relates to English common law. Jefferson sought to understand Islam notwithstanding his personal disdain for the faith, a sentiment prevalent among his Protestant contemporaries in England and America. But unlike most of them, by 1776 Jefferson could imagine Muslims as future citizens of his new country.

Based on groundbreaking research, Spellberg compellingly recounts how a handful of the Founders, Jefferson foremost among them, drew upon Enlightenment ideas about the toleration of Muslims (then deemed the ultimate outsiders in Western society) to fashion out of what had been a purely speculative debate a practical foundation for governance in America. In this way, Muslims, who were not even known to exist in the colonies, became the imaginary outer limit for an unprecedented, uniquely American religious pluralism that would also encompass the actual despised minorities of Jews and Catholics. The rancorous public dispute concerning the inclusion of Muslims, for which principle Jefferson’s political foes would vilify him to the end of his life, thus became decisive in the Founders’ ultimate judgment not to establish a Protestant nation, as they might well have done.

As popular suspicions about Islam persist and the numbers of American Muslim citizenry grow into the millions, Spellberg’s revelatory understanding of this radical notion of the Founders is more urgent than ever. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an is a timely look at the ideals that existed at our country’s creation, and their fundamental implications for our present and future.

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

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