Jefferson, Islam and State
Friday, March 21, 2008
Thomas Jefferson, Islam and the State
By: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im
The above article follows my comments;
- Abdullah An-Naim is through in his research.
- Prophet Muhammad ran a secular state, as a head of the state where he
initiated and signed the Madinah treaty with Jews, Christians and others -
giving liberty to practice one's faith.
- He walked up to a Jewish procession and kissed the Torah they were carrying,
to show respect to the revered books of others.
- He offered the visiting Christians of Najran to pray in his Mosque... Had he
believed that their prayers were not divine, he would not have offered them
- Individual responsibility is the key - the description of the Day of Judgment
is that, you are on your own, neither your family members, nor the prophet will
rescue you, what rescues you is your deeds - how you treated others.
- He told his own daughter that she isn't going to get a free pass to the
blessed place because she is his daughter, she has to earn it the old fashioned
way- by doing good things to others.
- which include do unto others as you would want others to treat you.
- Share whatever you have with the hungry around you.
- Whether one is king or poor, they all stand in the same line in God's
Thomas Jefferson, Islam and the State
Posted by Julaybib Ayoub on March 21, 2008
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im
The Huffington Post, 20 March 2008
When Congressman Keith Ellison took his oath of office in January 2007 he
placed his hand on a Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson. As Congressman
Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress explained, he borrowed
Jefferson’s Qur’an from the Rare Book Section of the Library of Congress because
it showed that “a visionary like Jefferson” learned from many sources. Is it at
all surprising that the founders of the American republic would have studied
the foundational text of Islam as a major world religion of their time?
Americans leaders should do the same today.
What could our third president have learned about the state and religion from
Today it is hard for us to imagine a Muslim world where political and religious
leaders do not justify the state and their power based on Divine will. In the
Iranian elections last week, the conservative Guardian Council actually decided
who could run, arguing they needed to ensure greater obedience to true Muslim
This type of authoritarian censorship exposes the true nature of the clerics of
Guardian Council as a totalitarian clique intent on falsifying Islam and
negating the free will of all Iranians. The fundamental principle of individual
personal responsibility that can never be abdicated or delegated is one of the
recurring themes of the Qur'an.
This contradiction is inherent to the claim that Iran is an Islamic republic.
How can it be either Islamic or a republic at all when this Council of fallible
human beings pretend to ensure "the Islamicity of the State" against
the free choice of its own citizens?
As Jefferson wrote in 1802, "religion is a matter which lies solely
between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or
his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and
not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole
American people which declared that their legislature should make no law
respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
Jefferson could have been paraphrasing chapter and verse of the Qur'an, like
6:94 and 164, 7:39, 17:15, 18:35, 19:95, 35:18, and many others which all
emphatically confirm the individual personal responsibility of every Muslim for
what she or he does or fail to do. All founding scholars of Islam agree that no
act has any religious value unless done freely and without any coercion.
Just as Jefferson believed that the newly formed United States should not be a
Christian state, for Muslims the notion that the state can be Islamic is false
from a religious point of view, and has no support in 15 centuries of Islamic
history. It is true that Muslims everywhere, whether minorities or majorities,
are bound to observe Shari'a as a matter of religious obligation. Some
practices are collective in form, but always individual in substance. Any
observance of Shari'a can be best achieved when the state is neutral regarding
all religious doctrines. Enforcing a Shari'a through coercive power of the
state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law
of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims.
The notion of an Islamic state is in fact a post-colonial innovation based on a
European model of the state and a totalitarian view of law and public policy.
There is no mention whatsoever of the state in the Qur'an, and Islam does not
prescribe a form of government. Instead, the emphasis has always been on the
community of Muslims and their responsibility for conducting their own public
affairs. A true and valid return to Islamic values anywhere must allow
individuals to practice religion unfettered by religious leaders who claim to
speak in the name of the Divine. This is the clear demand of Muslims
everywhere, like all other human beings and their societies.
Jefferson's oft quoted comment regarding refreshing the tree of liberty from
time to time (he suggested every twenty years) is also fully consistent with
the imperative of renewal and rejuvenation of the faith and its relevance to
daily life which is a recurrent theme throughout Islamic history. To have any
religious value, this renewal must happen within individual Muslims and their
communities, freely and without coercion, and not through violence at home or
Every generation of citizens, whether religious or not, should renew and
reaffirm their commitment to democracy and the rule of law as essential for
human dignity and social justice everywhere. These values cannot be inherited
from preceding generations, and must be personally accepted with true
conviction if they are to be effective in practice.
I would not doubt President Jefferson's word that he was not a Muslim (and
appreciate that he did not have to deny it in his day). I am not suggesting
that he was actually influenced by the teachings of the Qur'an. What is
significant for me is the fact that his conclusions about the relationship
between religion and state are fully consistent with mine as a Muslim and as a
scholar of the Qur'an. Jefferson speaks for me and the clear majority of
Muslims around the world (as shown by the global Gallup poll published in Feb.
2008) that the only true relationship to the Divine must be of the individual
believer, unfettered by religious or political leaders who claim to speak in
the name of the Divine.
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is professor of law, Emory University, and author of
Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a (Harvard
University Press, 2008)