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Iviews > Articles > How Thomas Jefferson read the Quran
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Audio How Thomas Jefferson read the Quran

How Thomas Jefferson read the Quran
1/27/2007 - - Article Ref: IV0701-3221
Number of comments: 8
Opinion Summary: Agree:4  Disagree:0  Neutral:4
By: Kevin J. Hayes
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Located on the north side of the Duke of Gloucester Street, the printing office of the Virginia Gazette had lured Thomas Jefferson within its doors countless times since he first came to Williamsburg to study at the College of William and Mary. Back in Williamsburg for the fall session of the General Court in 1765, Jefferson was busy reading law and helping George Wythe prepare cases for trial. His own formal legal training was coming to a close. The surviving Virginia Gazette daybooks hint that he was studying for his bar examination in early autumn, when he purchased a copy of Grounds and Rudiments of Law and Equity, a general survey that would have made an ideal study guide (Dewey 119). On another visit to the Gazette office this autumn, Jefferson purchased a copy of the Qur'an, specifically, George Sale's English translation, The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed, recently republished in a handy two-volume edition (Virginia, fol. 202).

Jefferson's purchase of the Qur'an at this time may have been inspired by his legal studies, too. The interest in natural law he developed as a student encouraged him to pursue his readings in this area as widely as possible. The standard work in the field, Frieherr von Pufendorf's Of the Law and Nature and Nations, gave readers an almost endless number of possible references to track down and thus offered Jefferson an excellent guide to further reading. Pufendorf's treatise is rife with citations to diverse sources extending well beyond legal and political tracts and including works from many different times, places, and cultures.

Though Pufendorf's work reflects a prejudice against Islam characteristic of the time in which it was written, he nonetheless cited precedent from the Qur'an in several instances. Discussing the issue of murder and revenge, for example, Pufendorf referred to a passage from the Qur'an and, furthering his argument, linked the passage to similar ones from the works of Homer and Tacitus in order to emphasize ideas they shared (324). In addition, Pufendorf found the Qur'an pertinent to a number of other important issues: adultery, laws of succession, marriage, the prohibition of gambling, the prohibition of wine, and the validity of warfare. 

Regarding this last issue, Pufendorf could not help but admit that the Qur'an contained advice pertinent to readers of all nations: "And Christians should all the more zealously undertake to compose the quarrels of others, because even the Koran ... teaches that if two Moslem nations and countries engage one another in war, the rest shall make peace between them, and compel him who committed the injury to offer satisfaction; and when this is done, bring them by fair and good means to friendship" (831). To be sure, the call for peace and cooperation Pufendorf found in the Qur'an deserves the attention he gives it. Jefferson's surviving legal papers show that he came to know Pufendorf's Of the Law of Nature and Nations thoroughly. No other work does he cite more frequently in his legal writings (Dewey 65). Pufendorf's work revealed the relevance of the Qur'an to the interpretation of the law.

Jefferson acquired his Qur'an not long after the injustice of the Stamp Act had forced him to question seriously the heritage of English constitutional law and to seek ultimate answers in the ideas of natural law and natural rights. Given the fact that he was devoting most of his time to the study of law, Jefferson could justify studying the Qur'an simultaneously because it, too, was a law book. Being, as Muslims believe, the revealed word of God, the Qur'an not only constitutes the sacred scripture of the Islamic faith, it also forms the supreme source of Islamic law. Wanting to broaden his legal studies as much as possible, Jefferson found the Qur'an well worth his attention.

Reading the Qur'an also let him continue studying the history of religion. Entries he made in his literary commonplace book about the same time he purchased Sale's Koran show that he was seeking to reconcile contradictions between history and scripture that were becoming increasingly apparent to him. His curiosity about Islam is consistent with the interest the commonplace book reflects regarding how traditional religious customs and beliefs are transmitted from one culture to another. Passages from Herodotus Jefferson copied into his book in late 1765, for instance, show him attempting to reconcile how the practice of circumcision - a Jewish custom that, according to the Old Testament, was mandated by God as a token of his covenant with the Jewish people - could be found in ancient times from Egypt to Syria (Wilson 23). 

By no means was Jefferson the only or earliest colonial Virginian to express an interest in Islam. Some African slaves, after all, were originally Muslims, though their conversion to Christianity came as a matter of course. Among members of Virginia's Anglican hegemony, others learned about Islam sometimes by reading the Qur'an or biographies of Muhammad, but more often by reading histories and travel narratives of the Near East. To take another colonial Virginia bookman for example, William Byrd II of Westover developed a curiosity about Islam, which began at least as early as 1701, the year he traveled around England with Sir John Percival.

Upon meeting English Orientalist Humphrey Prideaux on their travels, Byrd characterized him as someone who valued himself particularly for his expertise in Arabic, "by virtue of which he has conversed more with the Alcoran and the comments upon it, than some other doctors have with the Bible" (211). Prideaux's example encouraged Byrd to learn more about Islam. He acquired a copy of the Qur'an, specifically, the imperfect English translation derived from Andre Du Ryer's imperfect French version (Hayes, no. 1915). This edition made no attempt to mask its skepticism toward Islam. Its title page announced that the translation was submitted to the English-reading public "for the satisfaction of all that desire to look into the Turkish vanities." It even contained an address to those who wondered if reading the Qur'an could be hazardous to their Christian faith.

Though Byrd complimented Prideaux for his knowledge of the Qur'an, Prideaux was actually responsible for disseminating much misinformation regarding Islam and its prophet. His fullest treatment of the subject, The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet, was written mainly as a polemic against Deism. Prideaux had intended to use his in-depth knowledge of Islam to write a history of Constantinople's fall to the Muslims, but the religious indifference he witnessed in late seventeenth-century England prompted him to write a kind of cautionary tale instead. He sought to show Anglican readers that if they ignored their devotions, they ran the risk of being overcome by a religious zealot with the capacity to subjugate all nations to his will (Allison 37). As Prideaux retold the life of the prophet, Muhammad was both an impostor and a tyrant. From this point of view, the rapid spread of Islam offered an object lesson in the dangers of religious apathy. 

Taken for what it purported to be, a biography of Muhammad, Prideaux's Life of Mahomet prejudiced many Anglo-American readers against Islam. His message was read sympathetically by devout Protestants of the late seventeenth century, and the book was reprinted multiple times during the eighteenth. Thomas Bray, the indefatigable Anglican minister who arranged for numerous collections of theological works to be disseminated among Anglican clergymen and parishioners in North America, included copies of Prideaux's Life of Mahomet among the shipments of books he sent to the American colonies (Wolf 14). Recommending Prideaux, Bray cast fear into his readers' hearts: if they were not sincere in their Christian devotions, they ran the risk of being overrun by false religions and overcome by tyranny.

The writings of John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon gave the kind of inflammatory ideas Prideaux's Life of Mahomet propagated even greater currency throughout colonial America. Their collaborative works, The Independent Whig and Cato's Letters, are best known for their profound influence on the development of early American attitudes toward liberty and representative government. To make their arguments for free speech and freely elected leaders, Trenchard and Gordon specifically used Turkey and, more generally, the Muslim state as negative examples. Islam, they argued, spread from one geographical region to another through violent conquest: it spread by the sword, not the word. Oppression, they argued, was characteristic of Islamic nations. In Turkey, for instance, the tyrannical Muslim leaders oppressed their people by forbidding them to question the government or to express their opinions at all. Trenchard and Gordon asserted that printing was forbidden there, inquiry dangerous, and free speech a capital crime because all were inconsistent with Islam (Jacobson 35). 

Jefferson's early writings contain no references to either the Qur'an or Islam. In his youth, he likely held much the same opinion toward the Muslim state that Prideaux, Trenchard, and Gordon perpetuated. Jefferson was not a person to let such uninformed assumptions last for long, however. He always tried to learn as much as he could about any subject before passing judgment on it - unlike such hypocrites as those Henry Fielding spoofs through the character of the Reverend Mr. Barnabas in Joseph Andrews. In one conversation in this novel, the Reverend Mr. Adams suggests to the hypocritical Barnabas that he would prefer the company of "a virtuous good Turk" over that of "a vicious and wicked Christian." Aghast, Barnabas is anxious to end the conversation before Adams starts commending the Qu'ran. Adams, on the other hand, is curious to learn why Barnabas objects so strongly to the Qu'ran and asks him why. "I never read a syllable in any such wicked book," Barnabas responds. "I never saw it in my life, I assure you" (81). Quite unlike the Reverend Mr. Barnabas, Jefferson would read the Qu'ran for himself before he dared to raise objections to it.

Acquiring his own copy, Jefferson revealed his open-minded desire to learn more about Islam. Reading George Sale's translation, he had the opportunity to receive a fair view of the religion. Originally published in 1734, Sale's was the first English version to be translated directly from the Arabic. Not only was his translation more reliable than Andre Du Ryer's, Sale also wrote "A Preliminary Discourse," a thoroughly researched and well documented overview of Islam that ran to nearly two hundred pages in the first edition and filled the entire first volume of the second. Sale's Koran was a landmark of scholarship, and his translation would remain the standard English version into the twentieth century. 

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. "A Preliminary Discourse" elaborates the life of Muhammad and emphasizes his personal virtues. Sale also supplied detailed discussions of Islamic history, theology, and law. His scholarship and dedication to his subject allowed him to refute many of the common prejudices against Islam current in Western culture. For example, he challenged the vulgar error that Islam was spread by the sword. Muhammad, as Sale told his story, propagated Islam not by military force but by dint of eloquence.

His introductory materials to the translation prompted readers to approach the Qur'an as a law book. Sale, after all, was a member of the Inner Temple and a practicing solicitor. The dedication refers to Muhammad as "the legislator of the Arabs" who "gave his Arabs the best religion he could, as well as the best laws, preferable, at least, to those of the ancient pagan lawgivers" (sig. A1). Addressing his English readers, Sale suggested that "if the religious and civil Institutions of foreign nations are worth our knowledge, those of Mohammed, the lawgiver of the Arabians, and founder of an empire which in less than a century spread itself over a greater part of the world than the Romans were ever masters of, must needs be so" (iii). Since students of law study legal precedent from ancient Rome, they should also study precedent from a society with an even greater reach than Rome.

The sixth section of Sale's "Preliminary Discourse" contained much information pertinent to Jefferson's ongoing study of civil law. Entitled "Of the Institutions of the Koran in Civil Affairs," this section begins with a comparison between Islamic law and Jewish law: "The Mohammedan civil law is founded on the precepts and determinations of the Koran, as the civil laws of the Jews were on those of the Pentateuch" (132). The section discusses Islamic laws of marriage and divorce, inheritance, private contracts, murder, manslaughter, and theft. 

Regarding punishment for theft under Islamic law, for example, Sale wrote: "Theft is ordered to be punished by cutting off the offending part, the hand; which, at first sight, seems just enough: but the law of Justinian, forbidding a thief to be maimed, is more reasonable; because stealing being generally the effect of indigence, to cut off that limb would be to deprive him of the means of getting his livelihood in an honest manner" (140). Revising the laws of Virginia some years later, Jefferson revealed that he had thought long and hard about the suitability of punishment to crime. As he explained the ideas underlying his well-known "Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments" to his friend and mentor George Wythe when he sent him a copy of it, "An eye for an eye, and a hand for a hand will exhibit spectacles in execution whose moral effect would be questionable" (Papers 2: 230).

Sale's "Preliminary Discourse" gave Jefferson the kind of detailed information he most appreciated. Sale cited precedent from Roman civil law and supplied footnotes to other pertinent works- including Pufendorf's Of the Law of Nature and Nations. Through Sale's annotations, the Qur'an brought Jefferson back to the work that may have led him to it in the first place.

The references to the Qur'an in Jefferson's papers, though few, reveal how he understood the book in terms of religion, law, and culture. His placement of the Qur'an in the manuscript library catalogue he prepared in 1783 indicates how he understood Islam in relation to other religions. Overall, Jefferson grouped titles together into several broad subject areas, which he called chapters within the catalogue. He listed Sale's Koran in chapter 17, "Religion" (Gilreath and Wilson 58). The titles within each chapter are precisely organized, too, but Jefferson's organizational schemes differ from one chapter to the next. Though he carefully organized the titles in each chapter, he never recorded the principles he used to determine individual chapter organization. What his correspondence makes clear, however, is that he devoted enough time and thought to arranging the contents of the individual chapters to become irritated when others ignored his organization. 

After Jefferson sold his personal library to the United States government to form the basis of the Library of Congress, the librarian there published a catalogue of the books that retained Jefferson's chapter divisions yet rearranged the contents of each chapter into alphabetical order. Critiquing those responsible for preparing the catalogue, Jefferson wrote a correspondent: "The form of the catalogue has been much injured in the publication; for although they have preserved my division into chapters, they have reduced the books in each chapter to alphabetical order, instead of the chronological or analytical arrangements I had given them" (Writings 1378). The phrase, "chronological or analytical arrangements" is the only indication Jefferson provided regarding the organization of books within the individual chapters. Basically, what he was saying was that he had either organized the books chronologically, or he had devised some other logical pattern to arrange them. Some patterns are easier to discern than others.

Jefferson's organizational scheme for the religious books that constitute chapter 17 is not readily apparent. Sale's Koran comes fourth in the list. Preceding it are three works explaining religious beliefs from ancient Greek and Roman times: Sibyllina Oracula, a collection of Greek oracles edited by the French Calvinist Sebastien Chateillon; William King's Historical Account of the Heathen Gods and Heroes, the most popular classical handbook of the time; and New Pantheon: Or, Fabulous History of the Heathen Gods, Goddesses, Heroes, &c, an encyclopedic work compiled by Grub Street writer Samuel Boyse. Following the Qur'an in the list are multiple copies of the Old Testament, editions of the Bible incorporating both Old and New Testaments, and several copies of the New Testament in a number of different scholarly editions. 

At first glance, the organization generally seems chronological. The list starts with an edition of pagan oracles that had extraordinary influence in shaping the religious views of ancient times. What follows are two reference works useful for understanding the numerous gods and goddesses that constitute Greek and Roman mythology. From these beginnings, the catalogue eventually proceeds through Judaism to Christianity. The placement of the Qur'an, which, of course, was much more recent than the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, disrupts the chronology, however. Its text was purportedly revealed to Muhammad during the first third of the seventh century, memorized by his followers, and collected in book form after Muhammad's death. In terms of historical chronology, the Qur'an belonged after Jefferson's collection of New Testaments. The Qur'an made use of some of the same exemplary figures as the Hebrew Bible- Abraham, most important- and its text even contains specific references to Christians and Christianity. Alternatively, the Qur'an itself made its removal from historical chronology justifiable. The text of the Qur'an supposedly transcends matters of chronology. As the word of God, it exists outside of time.

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