Thomas Jefferson and the Quran; How the Book Became a Best Seller

HomeU.S. HistoryThomas Jefferson and the Quran; How the Book Became a Best Seller

Islam was introduced to North America when slaves from Africa brought their religion with them. It took quite a lot of time before the first English translation of the Quran was introduced to the public back in the 1700s. It actually became a bestseller at the time, and it was particularly popular among Protestants, both back in England and in the American colonies. One of the first readers of the English Quran was also Thomas Jefferson.

He owned his own copy of the Quran, and that particular copy crew attention early this year, when Rashida Tlaib announced that she would swear on it during the swearing-in ceremony held for the newly elected Congress. Even though she is one of the first two Muslim women to ever be elected in the Congress, she was not the first person to swear-in on the Quran. The first Muslim Congressman to do so was Keith Ellison back in 2007. However, even though it seems like a normal thing to do for someone who is a Muslim, it was quite frowned upon due to the history of Islam in the U.S.

As Denise A. Spellberg, who is a history professor at the University of Texas wrote in Thomas Jefferson’s Qu’ran: Islam and the Founders: “The Quran gained a popular readership among Protestants both in England and in North America largely out of curiosity, but also because people thought of the book as a book of law and a way to understand Muslims with whom they were interacting already pretty consistently, in the Ottoman Empire and in North Africa.”

Thomas Jefferson bought his copy of Quran back in 1765 when he was still a law student. It is speculated that he wanted to learn more about the Ottoman law, rather than buying the holy book to learn more about Islam itself. However, it probably influenced his original intention for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. Just as he wrote in his autobiography, the original intention was to protect the right to worship any religion, or as he wrote: “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” 

Thomas Jefferson and the Quran How the Book Became a Best Seller

His religious tolerance was mostly theoretical. He did not as really respect all the religions, but he wanted to be seen as an open person on paper at least. He and many others were not aware at the time, that Islam was not only part of the Ottoman Empire, and they were not aware that some of the people that were being shipped to America as slaves were Muslims too. Interestingly enough, they were studying the faith of their slaves and did not know it.

As stated before, Jefferson owned the first direct translation of the Quran from Arabic to English. His version was a translation made by George Sale back in 1734. Before that time, only a French translation was done, and that was back in 1649. The translation from Gorge Sale, who was a British lawyer, would remain the definitive English translation up until the 1800s. He wrote, in the introduction, that the reason behind the translation is so that Protestants can understand the Quran, and are able to argue against it.

He wrote:  “Whatever use an impartial version of the Korân may be of in other respects,” he wrote, “it is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favorable an opinion of the original, and also to enable us effectually to expose the imposture.”

Of course, Sale had plans on converting the Muslim population of Africa and the Middle East to Protestantism, and the English translation of the Quran would serve that purpose very well. However, it was not until the late 19th century, according to Spellberg, that the Protestants started traveling to the aforementioned places, to begin their missionary journey. 

Thomas Jefferson and the Quran How the Book Became a Best Seller

As she stated: “It’s true that George Sale, who did the first translation directly from Arabic to English, was sponsored by an Anglican missionary society,” adding “The version that Thomas Jefferson bought was really a bestseller”—even with Sale’s 200-page introduction.” This just goes to show that the Christians actually understood the value of learning about Islam more than Protestants did, and they did not take it as a missionary tool, but as a learning tool.

Tlaib and Ellison swearing-in on Quran is, therefore, something everyone should respect, given the history of the Quran in the U.S. As Spellberg said: “By using Jefferson’s Quran, they’re affirming the fact that Islam has a long history in the United States, and is, in fact, an American religion.”

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