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Jefferson Unafraid of Koran

By Wm. Scott Harrop


Keith Ellison’s recent use of Thomas Jefferson’s Koran for his ceremonial Congressional oath profoundly symbolizes America’s greatest strength – its enduring principle of freedom of religion.  Mr. Jefferson would have approved.


This week marks the 221st anniversary of the enactment of the landmark Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.  Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, this influential Statute proclaims that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge or affect their civil capacities.”

Thomas Jefferson indeed owned the Koran.  The evidence is preserved in the vaults of the University of Virginia’s rare books library.  There, the original Williamsburg Virginia Gazette Daybook clearly records that on October 5th 1765, Thomas Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of “The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed.”   

Long before his encounters with the Barbary Pirates, Jefferson had reason to be interested in the Koran.  Then a 22-year-old student preparing for his bar exams, Jefferson’s favorite legal texts included Samuel Pufendorf’s “Of the Law of Nature and Nations,” a 1672 classic that cites the Koran as precedent on a wide variety of civil and international legal issues.  Sale’s two volume translation was the best available anywhere, and Jefferson no doubt appreciated that Sale, a distinguished British solicitor, had prefaced his Koran translation with detailed comparative legal commentary.


Jefferson’s interest in the Islamic holy book led him to learning about Islam and a sustained study of the Koran’s original written language, Arabic.

241 years and 3 months after Jefferson’s purchase, the Library of Congress unveiled Jefferson’s Koran for Ellison’s swearing in ceremony.

Critics like Dennis Prager warned that if Ellison is "incapable of taking an oath on that book {the Bible}, don't serve in Congress." because to do otherwise would violate American tradition.

Another critic, Congressman Virgil Goode, inflamed matters when he wrote that, “if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran.”  On December 21st, Goode refused to apologize, avoided questions about Ellison’s right to use the Koran, and declared that he wouldn't use the "Q-Ran" for his oath taking.

Ironically, Congressman Goode’s district includes Jefferson’s beloved home at Monticello, where on his tombstone he specifically requested to be remembered for three life accomplishments: author of America’s Declaration of Independence, author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia.  That Jefferson was America’s 3rd President was notably deemed not worth mentioning.

Heedless of Jefferson, Goode remains defiant in the face of condemnations from around the nation, including by the Anti-Defamation League.  In USA Today on January 2nd, Goode intensified his calls to restrict immigration, especially by Muslims.  For America to remain a "beacon for freedom-loving persons," Goode wants to keep America "free" from those who believe differently than “we” do.

Such arguments falter on fact and principle: 

Keith Ellison is not an immigrant.  His African ancestors came here long before the American Revolution - involuntarily.  Ellison converted to Islam in College.

Ellison was not elected because he was a Muslim or because of immigrant support.   Ellison’s congressional district in Minnesota is as white (75.3%) and “Christian” as Goode’s is in Virginia; More Muslims reside in Virginia than Minnesota.

Congress members take their oaths as a group.  They then often repeat their oaths in symbolic, but constitutionally meaningless individual ceremonies, with holy books. Yet the Bible has not been the only book of choice.  Ed Koch in 1969 used the Tanakh, as have many other Jewish Congresspersons.

Even if legislators legally swore over holy books, Anglo-American common law for centuries has recognized that religious minorities may swear on holy books most important to them in civil matters. The current Congress includes 43 Jews, 15 Mormons, 2 Buddhists, 5 Christian Scientists, more than 150 Catholics,… and 1 Muslim.

US Ambassador designate the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, is a Muslim and an immigrant to America.  Would Goode object?

Most importantly, Ellison’s choice to take his symbolic oath on the Koran is fully compatible with the ever-lasting principle of religious freedom, a pillar of American democracy and way of life.

The preamble of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom asserts that “coercion” in religion is a “departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.”  Jefferson’s autobiography reveals that a proposed amendment would have inserted the word "Jesus Christ" as the specified “holy author of our religion."  According to Jefferson, however, that amendment “was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they 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."

Jefferson famously wrote in 1782 that, "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom inspired the US Constitution’s ban on religious tests for office and Bill of Rights protections of religious free exercise and against an establishment of religion. 

Late in his long life, Jefferson took great satisfaction in America standing as a beacon of religious freedom to the world.  Yet he would have flinched from attempts to impose American values abroad by aggressive force.  Jefferson would lament that the fuse to Iraq’s present sectarian inferno was lit by his beloved America.  In Jefferson’s mind, America leads the world best by example.

In an 1821 letter to Georgia Rabbi Jacob de la Motta, Jefferson reflected that America was the “first to prove to the world… that religious freedom is the most effective anodyne against religious dissension.”  Finding strength in America’s diversity, Jefferson observed that in religion, the maxim is “divided we stand, united we fall."

About the author:
Wm. Scott Harrop is a recent Jefferson Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.  Views expressed are his own. A shorter version of this essay first appeared in Virginia's The Daily Progress


... Payvand News - 1/17/07 ... --

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