Jefferson on Islam

TJ-Quran-195x300Over at Immanent Frame, the discussion of Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders continues.  In the latest installment, Nadia Marzouki of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

Among the scholars who have most inspired my work as a political scientist are multiple historians—whether intellectual, legal, or religious. From James Kloppenberg and Samuel Moyn, to Anver Emon and Patrick Boucheron, scholars of history have offered some of the most rigorous and original contributions to ongoing debates about democracy and religious freedom. History avoids the pitfalls that often characterize other disciplines, especially mine, including an excessive focus on the present and on refined quibbles about methods and positionality, sometimes at the expense of relevance. Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Quran is one of the most significant illustrations of the need for more history in current academic and political disputes about secularism and citizenship. Hers is not a history of the supposedly linear process of integration of American Muslims. In lieu of the traditional “from migrants to citizens” narrative, Spellberg argues that Muslims were thought of as citizens by the Founding Fathers themselves. The estrangement of Muslims from the American nation and the construction of Muslims as foreigners are products of later developments of the nineteenth century.

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of the Qur’an. His fascination with Islamic law and culture led him to defend the rights of Muslims as citizens. Sometimes derided as an “infidel” president, much like Barack Obama three centuries later, he insisted that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom should “comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” and argued that “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” Tracing the genealogy of Jefferson’s understanding of Islam, Spellberg establishes the importance of John Locke’s definition of religious freedom to Jefferson’s own thinking.

Spellberg’s work corrects the mistaken belief that the encounter between Islam and America is something recent, and instead analyzes this encounter not as a shock between two constituted bodies but as an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena. Her goal is not to pacify the history of the relations between Islam and the West, nor does she seek to deny the erratic character, often invisible and numerically limited, of the Islamic presence in Europe and America before the nineteenth century. Rather, an essential implication of Spellberg’s study is the repositioning of Islam within the interiority and intimacy of Western societies. Her book suggests that one cannot think properly about some fundamental ideals of liberal democracy and secular America independently of their relation, if only in theory, with Islam. This epistemological postulate of a constitutively networked and co-extensive relation of Islam and America opens up new perspectives of research, distinct from the traditional theodicy of the progressive acceptance of religious minorities and based on a robust understanding of political liberalism—which is often too promptly reduced to imperialism in a large part of the broad corpus of secularism studies.

Spellberg posits that the encounter between Islam and America is not the outcome of a slow teleology of integration but a point of departure that captures the foundational ambivalence of American liberal-secular democracy.

Read the entire piece here.