Jefferson, Thomas and Islam
Jefferson, Thomas and Islam
- Denise A. SpellbergDenise A. SpellbergDepartment of History, University of Texas at Austin
Thomas Jefferson (b. 1743–d. 1826), author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom (1786), governor of Virginia (1779–1781), commissioner and US minister to France (1784–1789), first secretary of state (1790–1793), vice president (1797–1801), and two-term president (1801–1809), is famed in Americans history in each of these capacities. Less well known remains Jefferson’s lifelong interest in Islam and his personal contacts with its practitioners. This aspect of his public life and intellectual thought deserves to be included in standard histories of the United States as a unique window into ideas about religion and race during the nation’s founding era. A complex figure, Jefferson’s views of Islam and Muslims reflect his uniquely expansive views of religious freedom as well as his enduring engagement with issues of race and slavery.
Jefferson’s intellectual curiosity about Islam predates the founding of the United States. His early views of Muslims and their faith would be shaped first by transatlantic British scholarly publications as well as English diplomatic precedents with the Muslim kingdoms of North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Books Jefferson ordered while a colonist in Virginia established the foundation for this bibliophile’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East. His direct encounters with Muslim officials resulted from Jefferson’s diplomatic and presidential engagement with North African Muslim kingdoms.
As an American intellectual, Jefferson’s views of race and slavery ultimately intersected with his capacious, radical, but minority view that Muslims should theoretically be granted religious freedom and political equality in his new nation—at some future point. He did not invent this position but rather borrowed and extended earlier English precedents for the religious toleration of Muslims, which he applied to legal precedents in his native Virginia at the outset of American independence. However, these theories would be contradicted by his personal practice of the enslavement of Black West Africans. Among those who arrived in bondage in North America from West Africa, a significant minority were persons of Islamic heritage.
The author of the Declaration of Independence knew well that enslaved Blacks toiling in North America would never be defined as “created equal” before the law. Among the West African Muslims swept up in the slave trade from 1619 to 1808, some may have labored unrecognized for their faith on Jefferson’s plantations. Although there is no proof of this, Jefferson learned of the presence of two enslaved West African escapees, both seemingly literate in Arabic, at the end of his second term as president. His response to their predicament reveals innate contradictions at the heart of his views of Muslim religious freedom and future citizenship. Ultimately, Jefferson’s remarkably inclusive precedents for his nation’s ideals of religious pluralism, which included Muslims theoretically, would be vitiated by his competing views of race and slavery.
- Islamic Studies