Philadelphia's Muslim community is countering the misnomer that those who practice Islam were not present at American's founding. So, while many were discussing policy during the recent Democratic National Convention, a standing-room-only crowd of United Muslim Business Association members gathered in the Council Caucus Room at City Hall.
There, the luncheon speaker was author and scholar Denise Spellberg, who discussed her book, "Thomas Jefferson's Quran." Her lecture was co-sponsored by Councilman Curtis Jones.
Spellberg challenged those who thought that only Christians were among the nation's Founding Fathers. She pointed out that Jefferson, who was reticent about sharing that he was a deist, owned a copy of the Quran and interacted with some of the first American settlers who believed in Islam.
"I came because I am really interested in this topic," said Shanbra Muhammad, owner of Sprout Catering in Delaware County. "I think it is really important to debunk some of the myths that are out there about Muslims, including that those who worshipped the Islamic way were not here at the beginning to America."
"We are Africans and we are Muslims," said Salaam Mushin. "There is hypocrisy in some of the history. That's why we benefit from having [Spellberg] here. We know that there has always been cross-pollination. We have to make sure that our story is included in the revelations."
In his remarks, Imam Abdul Aleem said that he found it ironic that one of the foremost authors and professors who has dedicated her life to tracing Islam's presence in the founding of America is Jewish. He said that this was proof that the truth can "transcend your racial and ethnic heritage" and be revealed from unlikely sources.
"We welcome a true scholar," Aleem said.
Spelling, who requested no audio or video taping of her lecture, presented a Power Point presentation that showed highlights of Jefferson's interest in and personal copy of the Quran. Her sources included news clippings from the old Virginia Gazette dating to the mid-1700s. She also showed a British map, created in London in 1734, that highlighted where sales of the Quran occurred.
Just in case anyone thinks the interfaith dialogue is something new, Spellberg discounted that. She spoke about discussions between Catholics and Muslims being held in the 1750s. Once the Protestant Reformation happened, the former Catholics who created the various Christian denominations, had discussions about issues like immigration.
"There was discussion of the civil rights of Muslims back in 1776," she noted.
Spellberg then showed handwritten letters and journal pages penned by Jefferson in which he mentioned Muslims. She cited his remarks inferred that neither Muslims nor Jews should be excluded from civil rights. One of the notes where he discussed interfaith religions dated to October 1776.
Jefferson penned other notes with similar themes in 1777. He used phrases like "our civil rights have no dependence on our religious options," according to Spellberg.
She also noted that Jefferson, the principal author behind the Declaration of Independence, used language found in Article VI of the U.S. Constitutions that "abolishes religious tests for public office." Furthermore, many of his notes laid the foundation for the First Amendment, she contended.
As one of the Founding Fathers and diplomat, Jefferson also had dialogue with Turkish and other rulers from the Muslim world. In an 1806 letter he even said that, "My prayers are that God will have you."
Spellberg further contended that this challenges the misnomers some have that Jefferson was an atheist.