Jefferson, Ellison, and the Koran

Various revisions and extensions on 9 January.

This is not exactly a hot news item, but then this was never intended to be a news blog, anyway. Over the last couple of weeks there has been much talk about new Congressman Keith Ellison, an American-born convert to Islam, and some rather depressing “controversy” from elements on the right about his desire to take his oath of office on the holy book of his faith, the Koran. Then there was a further buzz over his decision to use a Koran that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. (Boker tov, Boulder, posted a nice photo.) Brilliant political counterpunch!, many seemed to say.

What I find ironic in all of this is the context of interactions Jefferson had with Islam. He, like Madison and other founders, read widely and had a vast library of legal, religious, and political volumes from around the world. Thus the very fact that he owned a Koran is not itself as remarkable as the public reaction to Ellison’s decision to use said book implies. However, Jefferson, in his professional-political life, did have encounters with a portion of the Muslim world, and there are reasons to doubt these encounters would be of the sort that Ellison intended to bring back to the surface. (Perhaps luckily for him, the US press rarely misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to give historical context.)

So, I began perusing the volumes I have that contain selections of Jefferson’s writings. I knew, somewhat vaguely, that he had been President during the Barbary Wars, but that is about it. I am certainly not going to try to summarize the Barbary Wars here. I trust the interested reader can go off searching for information.

The quick summary of what I found in a sample of Jefferson’s writings is that he was quite the hardliner during his stint as Ambassador to France when it came to debates about how the USA should deal with the “pirates” of the Barbary states (Algeria, Tripoli, and other North African polities under the loose rule of the Ottoman Empire). And, of course, as President, Jefferson ordered US forces onto the shores of Tripoli in a non-declared war (police action, limited incursion, or whatever)–America’s first overseas military adventure and first engagement with Islamic fighters.

As I alluded to above, the Barbary connection has scarcely been noted. A Google News search I did today on the word string, Jefferson Koran Barbary, returned six items, none from exactly “mainstream” sources. (By contrast, I got “about 382” by searching on Jefferson Koran.) Google’s Blog Search netted a lot more–almost all from blogs that could be characterized as quite right-wing in their outlook, and that take as the lesson here that Jefferson obtained a Koran because he wanted to understand the religious motivations of his “radical Muslim” enemy. I will not pretend to know if that is correct. I just find this an ironic and fascinating window on how different sides of the American political spectrum draw different lessons from what should never have been controversial in the first place: The decision of a Muslim elected to Congress to swear his oath in the way that he would find most personally binding. That is, after all, the purpose of the oath.

(And to conclude on a somewhat more “core” F&V theme, even more remarkable for me in all this is that there is only one Muslim in the US Congress, and none ever before this week. There are probably over five million Muslims in the USA, or very roughly 1.6% of the population.)

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