STORY UPDATED: check for updates below.
Did Thomas Jefferson own a copy of the Quran (or Koran) to better know his enemy, as he "led the charge" in a United States' war on Islam? No, that's not true: Jefferson obtained his copy of Islam's Quran as a law student in 1765, which was 20 years before he began addressing the problem of North African Muslim raids on U.S. shipping. Historical records and Jefferson's own words reflect that he treated Muslim leaders and their faith with respect, and he saw the North African raids as economic, not religious.
The claim that Jefferson was reading up on his enemy -- rather than just seeking knowledge of world laws and history as a student -- has spread on social media in the months since Rep. Rashida Tlaib considered using Jefferson's copy when she was sworn into congress in January 2019. Tlaib ultimately decided to use her on. One recent example is a post (archived here) shared on April 16, 2019 under the title "The real reason Thomas Jefferson owned a copy of the Quran". It opened:
A 232 Year History of our fight against Islam & why it is no longer taught
in our public schools...
When Thomas Jefferson saw there was no negotiating with Muslims, he formed
what is now the Marines (sea going soldiers). These Marines were attached to
U. S. Merchant vessels. When the Muslims attacked U.S. merchant vessels they
were repulsed by armed soldiers, but there is more.
The Marines followed the Muslims back to their villages and killed every
man, woman, and child in the village.
This is what social media users saw:
The historically-inaccurate post claims that America's founding fathers, led by Jefferson, fought against Islam from the start of the nation.
This is very interesting and a must read piece of our history. It points out
where we may be heading.
Most Americans are unaware of the fact that over two hundred years ago the
United States had declared war on Islam, and Thomas Jefferson led the
The post claims Jefferson -- who served as the first secretary of state for President George Washington, and as the nation's second vice president with President John Adams and then as the third American president -- saw Islam as a major threat to the United States.
His greatest fear was that someday this brand of Islam would return and pose
an even greater threat to the United States.
Interestingly, this post includes the cover image of a book titled Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders, written by Denise A. Spellberg, a professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. This seemed to imply that Spellberg's research supported the post, but Lead Stories learned differently when we contacted the professor. She called it "Facebook garbage:"
Jefferson's views of Islam, though mixed, encompassed the idea that Muslims would one day reside with equal civil rights in the United States. He said so explicitly when describing the intent of his famed Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became law in 1786. Jefferson bought his Qur'an as a student of religion and law, decades before he considered any conflict with Muslims in North Africa. His record of interaction with Muslims and Islamic powers demonstrates that he treated these leaders and their faith with respect, defining the problem of North African raids as economic, not religious.
Spellberg provided Lead Stories with a point-by-point debunking of the post, with direct quotes from Jefferson and footnotes for those who want to read more about it in her book.
Jefferson, as author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, referred to its inclusion of Muslims explicitly in his 1821 autobiography, stating that his legislation "meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 119.
Spellberg explained why the premise of the post -- that Jefferson obtained the Quran to read up on his enemies -- is false.
Thomas Jefferson bought his Qur'an in 1765, 11 years before he wrote The Declaration of Independence (1776), and 20 years before he considered the problem of North African Muslim raids on U.S. shipping. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, pp. 81-82.
Jefferson was in his 20s and a law student at the time he purchased the Qur'an. He probably perceived the Qur'an as a book of law, as most Christians had since first encountering the Islamic sacred text. Throughout his life, Jefferson acquired numerous texts on Islamic languages, history and religion. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 84
Spellberg gives context to the Muslim attacks on U.S. shipping.
Barbary "pirates" were called that by their enemies. In fact, in Europe and North Africa, one person's "pirate" was another's "privateer." The difference? A privateer raided enemy shipping and seized hostages with government backing. This model had included both North African Muslims and European Christians since the 16th century. Muslims in North Africa took to raiding European shipping in the 15th century when the Spanish invaded their lands and destroyed their economic exports to Europe. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, pp. 131-132
"The newly independent United States was not the most lucrative and therefore not the primary target of Islamic piracy." Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 131
Not all North African countries participated in these raids against U.S. Shipping. Morocco became the second country, after France, to recognize the United States in 1778. A peace treaty was signed between Morocco and the U.S. in 1787. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p.133.
The post references negotiations that Jefferson and John Adams conducted in 1786 with Tripoli's ambassador to Great Britain in which the ambassador demanded payments to stop the ship hijackings. Spellberg gives the real history.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams did meet in London with an ambassador from Tripoli in 1786. While the Muslim ambassador demanded money for a peace treaty, plus a 10% commission for himself (the standard rate for all nations), Jefferson did not see the problem with North African raids as religious; rather, he recorded the meeting by including a revealing orthographical change, rendering "laws of the prophet," as "laws of the profit." Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 149
If the Muslim ambassador had wanted to, he might have cited multiple portions of the Qur'an which supported making peace with one's enemies when they wished to end conflicts (Q 2:190, Q 2:216, 8:61). But this would have undermined the fiscal point of this lucrative economic proposition. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 148
The peace treaty with Tripoli signed by President Adams in 1797 and ratified by the U.S. senate included a declaration that the U.S. was not officially Christian or inherently anti-Islamic, Spellberg wrote. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 207. This is a direct quote from that treaty:
As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, - as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Mussulemn, - and as the said States have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nations, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
The Facebook post addresses Jefferson's undeclared Barbary War and the inclusion of the line "To the shores of Tripoli" in the U.S Marine Corps Hymn as evidence of Jefferson's hatred for Muslims. "Islam, and what its Barbary followers justified doing in the name of their prophet and their god, disturbed Jefferson quite deeply," the post said.
Prof. Spellberg noted, though, that Jefferson treated Muslim ambassadors with respect, wrote to them about their mutual "friendship," and ended the conflict with a treaty that denied any American governmental "enmity" directed toward the faith of Islam.
In 1805, President Jefferson entertained the ambassador from Tunis, the first Muslim envoy to visit the White House. Because it was Ramadan, Jefferson moved the time of the state dinner from "half after three" to "precisely at sunset" so the Tunisian ambassador could attend. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, pp. 220-221.
In Jefferson's correspondence with the ruler Tunis in 1805, he ended his letter: "with these [gifts] my prayers, that God will have you, great and good friend, in his holy keeping." Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 226
By this time, Jefferson had privately embraced Unitarianism, which like Islam, emphasized the oneness of God. President Jefferson's private religious beliefs, therefore, had much in common with Islam. Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 227.
And as a final thought about how Thomas Jefferson did not have a longstanding hatred and fear of a threat to the United States by Muslims, Spellberg noted:
Jefferson's final treaty of peace with Tripoli in 1806 insisted: "As the Government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the Laws, Religion or Tranquility of Mussulmens." Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an, p. 216
Jefferson's Quran is an english translation published in 1734 and it is now in the Library of Congress.
Another good read on why Jefferson owned a Quran can be found here at Smithsonian.org.
2019-05-15T14:35:38Z 2019-05-15T14:35:38ZRep. Tlaib ultimately decided to use her own Quran, and not Jefferson's for her wearing in. Also, Spellberg is a full professor, not an associate.