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Why did Thomas Jefferson own a copy of the Quran ?

In the 1700s, American statesman Thomas Jefferson purchased a copy of the Quran. Historical records suggest that the third President of the US bought the book as a law student while others say he studied it to better understand his Muslim enemies in North Africa.

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A copy of the Quran in English. / Ph. DR

In the 1700s, an English translation of the Quran became famous among Western readers. Protestants in England and its American colonies, including American stateman Thomas Jefferson, rushed into purchasing the sacred book.

The principal author of the Declaration of Independence owned a 1734 edition of the Quran, translated from Arabic to English by British lawyer George Sale. Jefferson’s Quran was among the 6,487 books that his library hosted, American national educational Institute Smithsonian said.

Quran, a bestseller in the USA

Several accounts emerged on why the United States’ third President owned a copy of the Quran. Several reports suggested that studying the Islamic holy book was part of Jefferson’s plans for his war against pirates in North Africa.

In a January story, the Washington Post wrote that «Jefferson’s 1734 translation of the Quran was not produced out of special love for Islam, but rather to further Christian missionary efforts in Muslim lands».

America's third President Thomas Jefferson. / Ph. DRAmerica's third President Thomas Jefferson. / Ph. DR

Indeed, the translation conducted by Sale included a long introduction that made reference to the reasons behind the work. In fact, Sale wrote in his Quran translation that his work was to help Protestants understand the book and argue against it.

«It is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favorable an opinion of the original, and also to enable us effectually to expose the imposture», wrote the British lawyer.

In addition to the ambitions of the translator, others have reported that Jefferson bought a copy of the Quran to know better about his enemies, mainly North African pirates that raided US ships in 1700s.

Jefferson, Quran and North African pirates

However, it turned out that the Founding Father, as Americans call him, had different intentions when purchasing the Quran. «Historians have attributed the third president’s ownership of the Muslim holy book to his curiosity about a variety of religious perspectives», stressed American history-based digital cable and satellite television History.

In fact, Jefferson bought his Quran copy when he was a student in his twenties. This version of the story was featured in the book «Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an : Islam and the Founders» (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Oct 1, 2013) by Denise A. Spellberg, a professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Quoted by Lead Stories, Spellberg revealed that «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».

According to the historian, as a young student who was studying law, Jefferson purchased the book to «better understand Islam’s influence on some of the world’s legal systems».

North African pirates. / Ph. DRNorth African pirates. / Ph. DR

Spellberg believes that Jefferson saw the Quran as a law book, especially as Christians were interacting with Muslims from the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. Spellberg indicated that studying the holy book had probably helped the statesman write Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a statement about both freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and state.

Quoting Jefferson’s autobiography, the historian said that the 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».

As for his war against Muslims, the author stressed that Jefferson treated Muslim leaders and their religion with respect. «His record of interaction with Muslims and Islamic powers demonstrates that he treated these leaders and their faith with respect», she said, adding that «the problem of North African raids [were] economic, not religious». Indeed, Morocco recognized the United States in 1778, signing a treaty that protected US ships.

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