Whenever there is the swearing-in of a Muslim on Jefferson's Qur'an, or whenever there is an Iftar Dinner held at the White House, Denise Spellberg uses the occasion to trot out the same article she's been republishing for the last five years, as here or here, the one entitled "Jefferson's Quran" or "Jefferson's Iftar Dinner," or "Why Jefferson's Vision Of American Islam Matters Today." She is dutifully interviewed on television, where she claims that the fact that Jefferson once bought a Qur'an shows that "Islam has been part of American history for a long time." No one thinks to ask her: If Jefferson had bought a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, would that show that Hinduism had always been "part of America's story"?
Here's the latest iteration by Spellberg of the same article, with only a handful of words changed to connect it to what's currently in the news at the time of writing — from Keith Ellison's swearing-in to President Trump's failure to hold an Iftar Dinner in 2017, to Rashida Tlaib's recent swearing-in, like Keith Ellison's before her, that was announced to be on Jefferson's Qur'an, but turned out to on her own copy.
Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. (Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate here as free citizens until the late 19th century.) Even key American Founding Fathers demonstrated a marked interest in the faith and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson.
This claim that 15-30 percent of slaves in America were Muslims, a claim now so often repeated that it has become unquestioned "common knowledge," defies belief. How is it that the slave owners themselves failed to notice all these Muslims among their slaves? And why did the other, non-Muslim slaves, not report to their masters on the existence of these Muslims? Why did this subject come up only in the last few decades, coinciding with the attempts to claim that "Muslims have always been part of America's story"? This does not mean there were no Muslim slaves; we do have records of about 10-20 slaves who appear to have been Muslims. But to leap from this number — one one-thousandth of 1% of the total number of slaves — to the claim that "15-30%"of the slaves were Muslim" — is absurd.
"Even key American Founding Fathers demonstrated a marked interest in the faith and its practitioners," she claims. No, they did not. Neither Washington, nor John Adams, nor Madison, nor Alexander Hamilton, nor John Jay, nor Benjamin Franklin. And what little they did write about Islam was always negative. As for John Adams, his owning a Qur'an did not signify an endorsement of Islam. On July 16, 1814, in a letter to Jefferson, John Adams described the Muslim prophet Muhammad as one of those (he listed others as well) who could rightly be considered a "military fanatic," one who "denies that laws were made for him; he arrogates everything to himself by force of arms." Adams is nowhere on record as praising any aspect of Islam, nor even "advocating" its toleration. The only president who ever exhibited a "marked interest" in Islam, the only one known to have actually read the Qur'an, was John Quincy Adams, the son of a Founding Father and the most learned of our presidents. J. Q. Adams did study Islam, and wrote about it at great and horrified length. He grasped its essence perfectly:
The precept of the koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.
Spellberg describes Jefferson as "advocating for the rights of the practitioners of the [Muslim] faith." This implies special pleading on his part for Islam. What Jefferson actually did was "advocate" for the principle of religious freedom in general, and famously quoted a line from John Locke's 1698 A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration: "neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion." What Spellberg does not mention is that Locke himself, from whose writings Jefferson derived his own views on religious toleration, later exempted from such toleration those believers who exhibited certain unacceptable features. He expressly excluded, according to his own criteria, four kinds of believers. First, those whose religious opinions are contrary to "those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society"; second, believers in a religion that "teaches expressly and openly, that men are not obliged to keep their promise"; third, those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion...and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long, until they find themselves strong enough to [seize the government]"; fourth, "all those who see themselves as having allegiance to another civil authority." Specifically, Locke gives the example of the Muslim who lives among Christians and would have difficulty submitting to the government of a "Christian nation" when he comes from a Muslim country where the civil magistrate was also the religious authority. Locke notes that such a person would have serious difficulty serving as a soldier in his adopted nation (cf. the 2009 Fort Hood shooting spree by Nidal Hassan,who shouted "Allahu akbar" as he opened fire, killing 13 and wounding 32).
Islam meets not just one, but all four of Locke's criteria for being exempt from "toleration." Did Jefferson see Locke's list of criteria for exempting a faith from toleration? We don't know. But his attitude toward Islam, whatever he thought about tolerating it, remained consistently negative. Contrary to the impression Spellberg hopes to give, by sleight of word, Jefferson never found anything good to say about Islam.
Jefferson's first encounter with real Muslims came when he, along with John Adams, met with the Tripolitanian envoy Sidi Haji Abdrahaman in London in 1786. They asked the envoy "concerning the ground of the pretensions to make war upon nations who had done them no injury" to deserve being attacked, and the ambassador replied, as Jefferson reported:
It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.
And later, Jefferson reported to Secretary of State John Jay and to Congress at greater length:
The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
These reports did not come from someone who thought well of Islam. The more dealings Jefferson had with the representatives of the Barbary states, the more he grasped the aggressive nature of Islam, as first set out to him by that Tripolitanian envoy: the centrality of Jihad (even if Jefferson did not use that word), holy war waged as by right against non-Muslims, the inculcation of permanent hostility toward non-Muslims, and the heavenly reward for Muslims slain in battle against the Infidels.