One of the problems with today’s academic historians is that they tend to know more and more about less and less. Coming up with an “original” thesis, dissertation or book often means honing in on a piece of obscure trivia and then analyzing it to death, page after excruciating page. Too often what might have been a stimulating article of a few thousand words is puffed and padded into a bloated book. Unfortunately, Denise Spellberg’s “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an” is a case in point. Ms. Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, has a rather conflicted perspective on her subject, sounding repeated feminist notes on American sexism, while engaging in special pleading for Islam, the most sexist by far of the world’s major religions. Thus she tells us that:
“What [Jefferson and other early] supporters of Muslim rights were proposing was extraordinary even at a purely theoretical level in the eighteenth century. American citizenship — which had embraced only free, white, male Protestants — was in effect to be abstracted from religion. Race and gender would continue as barriers, but not faith.”
This is misleading on at least two levels. To begin with, there was no significant Muslim element in the American population at the time. Talking about Muslim eligibility for citizenship was a figurative way of saying that even members of the most alien, remote religious groups, as long as they were willing to live by our laws, should not be barred from citizenship because of their faith. The Founders might just as well have been talking about Martians.
Secondly, Ms. Spellberg knowingly or unknowingly distorts early American restrictions on citizenship (“only free, white, male Protestants”). Actually, while the voting franchise was restricted, citizenship itself was open to freed men and women of color, a small but already thriving Jewish community, and newly arrived (e.g., John Barry, an Irish Catholic immigrant who was the father of the American Navy) and long-settled Catholics (as in Maryland, founded in part as a Catholic haven). Pity anyone who tried to tell Abigail Adams, Martha Washington or Dolley Madison that, because they couldn’t vote, they weren’t American citizens.
Ms. Spellberg also attaches undue importance to the fact that Thomas Jefferson’s library contained a copy of the Koran. An intellectual omnivore, Jefferson had accumulated one of the largest libraries in the country. When he sold it to the Congress to help pay off the mountainous debts he had run up living the life of a grand seigneur at Monticello, it totaled more than 6,700 volumes — and that was after its ranks had been thinned by an earlier fire. George Sales’ 18th-century translation of the Koran, the version in Jefferson’s library, was something that many cultivated readers with wide-ranging interests would have acquired at the time. It remained the classic English version for many years; in fact, about 50 years ago, as a frugal young scholar rummaging through a second-hand bookstore in Washington, D.C., I picked up a later edition of it myself.
While it is nice to know, as Ms. Spellberg informs us, that Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives, took his 2007 oath of office on Jefferson’s Koran, wasn’t that ceremony more of a tribute to American openness than any Islamic equivalent? Ms. Spellberg’s harping on anti-Muslim “hate crimes” (“Days after the 9/11 attacks, three murders prompted by hatred for Muslims occurred”) is unbalanced at best. Only three disgraceful, but isolated, vengeance killings after thousands of Americans were murdered by Muslim extremists at the World Trade Center does not make a case for American bigotry — especially compared with the unprovoked firebombings of churches and mass killings of Christian worshippers that routinely occur in Muslim countries as varied as Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan.
With Islam, as with Christianity, the devil is in the details, the way warped individuals interpret religious teachings to justify their own criminal inclinations. The Christian West went through a painful — and often bloody — reformation before it was able to evolve a secular system of laws, rights and responsibilities that strikes the always delicate balance between tyranny and anarchy, individual rights and civic responsibility. Most of the Muslim world simply has not arrived there yet. One hopes it will, and there is no reason why it cannot over time. Meanwhile, like other immigrants before them, Muslims deserve our acceptance as long as they, in turn, accept the rules of the game in a free society.
Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.