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Did Thomas Jefferson believe that Islam was 'a halfway point between paganism and Christianity'?

June 24, 2009 10:46 AM J. Samia Mair - Baltimore Muslim Examiner



On January 4, 2007, Keith Ellison became the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress.


After the official swearing-in ceremony, he took a ceremonial oath using a Qur'an owned by Thomas Jefferson and acquired by the Library of Congress in 1815.


For many Muslims the election of Keith Ellison to the U.S. Congress was a great moment in U.S. history and his use of the Jefferson Qur'an an added bonus.


But should Muslims feel good about the fact that Jefferson owned a Qur'an?


After reading Kevin J. Hayes' article "How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an" published in the journal Early American Literature in 2004, I wonder.


I began reading Hayes' article with great enthusiasm, interested to learn more about Jefferson's connection with the Qur'an. My enthusiasm, however, steadily waned and by the end of the article, I was rather annoyed.


My enthusiasm waned because, according to Hayes, Professor of English, University of Central Oklahoma, Jefferson was not a particularly big fan of Islam. In fact, Hayes concludes that Jefferson believed that Islam was "a halfway point between paganism and Christianity."


The irony here, of course, is that Islam teaches that it is the final revelation and, among other things, does away with pagan beliefs that had crept into previously established religions.


Briefly, Hayes argues that Jefferson approached the Qur'an initially as a legal text and ultimately found fault with Islamic beliefs. One piece of evidence he uses to support his claim is the organizational scheme of Jefferson's religious books. According to Hayes, Jefferson considered carefully where to physically place his books in relation to each other and was upset when the Library of Congress cataloged them in a different order, after he sold his personal library to the government.


Jefferson apparently placed the Qur'an between books on the religious beliefs of the ancient Greeks and Romans and the Old and New Testaments. Hayes states:


The idea of progress underlies Jefferson's organization of his religious books, and the list suggests a general progression from pagan to Christian...The library catalogue...suggests that Islam, as a monotheistic religion, represented an advance over the pantheism of ancient times. The organization of the library catalogue implies that the Islamic belief system was an improvement over the pagan religions yet fell short of the belief system Christianity represented. (p. 254)


As I am not an expert on Jefferson or historical research, I cannot judge whether Professor Hayes' research is complete, his arguments sound, or his conclusions reasonable. So, perhaps, it is feasible that Jefferson did not understand the teachings of Islam and found it to have pagan elements. Hence, the waning of enthusiasm and the ensuing disappointment as I read the article.


Why the annoyance?


The annoyance stems from the gratuitous jabs at Islam that interrupt what appears to be typical scholarly discourse.


For example, Hayes makes the following statements:


Sanctioned by their government, the attacks of the Barbary pirates on American merchant vessels represent an early example of state-sponsored terrorism directed toward civilian American targets. (p. 257)


The ambassador explained that the conduct of the Barbary Coast pirates "was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged 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 Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise" (Papers 9:358). Even today, especially today, the ambassador's words have a chilling effect. (p. 257)


Add to these comments Hayes' discussion (p. 251) on George Sale's highly criticized translation of the Qur'an published in 1734.


Hayes initially states, "Reading George Sale's translation, he had the opportunity to receive a fair view of the religion." Hayes also notes that this was the first English version translated directly from Arabic, a fact that appears to be disputed. He describes Sale's translation as including "a thoroughly researched and well documented overview of Islam."


Moreover, Hayes states:


Publishing his edition of the Qur'an in a Protestant European nation during the eighteenth century, Sale, of course, could not present a fully objective view of Islam. Though he does refer to Muhammad as both an infidel and an impostor, his overall treatment of Islam is remarkably evenhanded.


Admittedly, I have not read George Sale's translation or his discussion on Islam, but I find it nearly impossible to believe that he could demean the Prophet Muhammad, may Allaah bless him and grant him peace, in this manner and give a "remarkably evenhanded" account of Islam.


In any event, Sale's translation has received widespread criticism and no English-speaking Muslim would consider it a good translation to read. Yet Hayes seems, for the most part, to be satisfied with it.


Hayes concludes his article with the following statement:


Reading the Qur'an as his formal legal training was coming to a close, Jefferson had already developed the critical ability to recognize it for what it was--and for what it was not. On his library shelves and in his mind it remained at a halfway point between paganism and Christianity. (p. 259)


Early American Literature, the journal that published Professor Hayes' article, is described as:


The journal of the Modem Language Association's American Literature Division 1, Early American Literature publishes the finest work of scholars examining American literature from its inception through the early national period, about 1830. Founded in 1965, EAL invites work treating Native American traditional expressions, colonial Ibero-American literature from North America, colonial American Francophone writings, Dutch colonial, and German American colonial literature as well as writings in English from British America and the US.


With this stated purpose in mind, it seems completely out-of-place to weave into an academic historical account of literature, inflammatory and seemingly personal beliefs about a religion. Such statements make me question the scholarship of the entire article.


For more info: Biography of Thomas Jefferson, The Meaning of the Holy Qur'an, The Message of the Qur'an, Why Islam?


Copyright 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Author :J. Samia Mair is an Examiner from Baltimore. You can see J. Samia's articles at:

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