Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

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Written by Sebastian Prange

Photographed by Aasil Ahmad

Saudi Aramco World

July/August 2011

Volume 62, Number 4

Facing the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. stands the Jefferson Building, the main building of the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, with holdings of more than 140 million books and other printed items. The stately building, with its neoclassical exterior, copper-plated dome and marble halls, is named after Thomas Jefferson, one of the ‘founding fathers” of the United States, principle author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence and, from 1801 to 1809, the third president of the young republic. But the name also recognizes Jefferson’s role as a founder of the Library itself. As president, he enshrined the institution in law and in 1814, after a fire set by British troops during the Anglo-American War destroyed the Library’s 3000-volume collection, he offered all or part of his own wide-ranging book collection as a replacement for the losses, commenting that “there is in fact no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.”

Among the nearly 6500 books Jefferson sold to the Library was a two-volume English translation of the Qur’an, the book Muslims recite, study and revere as the revealed wordd of God.  The presence of this Qur’an, first in Jefferson’s private library and later in the Library of Congress, prompts the questions why Jefferson purchased this book, what use he made of it, and why he included it in his young nation’s repository of knowledge.

These questions are all the more pertinent in light of assertions by some present-day commentators that Jefferson purchased his Qur’an in the 1780’s in response to conflict between the US and the “Barbary states” of North Africa – today Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. That was a conflict Jefferson followed closely- indeed, in 1786, he helped negotiate a treaty with Morocco, the United States’ first treaty with a foreign power. Then, it was relations with Algeria that were the most nettlesome, as its ruler demanded the payment of tribute in return for ending semiofficial piracy of American merchant shipping.  Jefferson staunchly opposed tribute payment. In this context, such popular accounts claim, Jefferson was studying the Qur’an to better understand these adversaries, in keeping with the adage “know thy enemy.” However, when we look more closely at the place of this copy of the Qur’an in Jefferson’s library- and in his thinking- and when we examine the context of this particular translation, we see a different story.

From his youth, Thomas Jefferson read and collected a great number of books, and a wide varity of them: The collection he eventually sold to the Library of Congress comprised 6487 volumes, ranging in subject from classical philosophy to cooking.  Like many collectors of the time, Jefferson not only cataloged his books but also marked them. It is his singular way of marking his books that makes it possible to establish that, among the millions of volumes in today’s Library of Congress, this one specific Qur’an did indeed belong to him.

In the 18th century, the production of books was still an essentially manual process.  By means of a hand press, large sheets of paper were printed on both sides with multiple pages before being folded. They were folded once to produce four pages for the folio size, twice to produce eight pages for the quarto or four time to produce the 16-page octavo.  These folded sheets, known as “gatherings,” were then sewn together along their inner edges before being attached to the binding. To ensure that the bookbinders would stichthe gatherings together in the correct sequence, each was marked with a different letter of the alphabet on what, after folding, would become that gathering’s first page.

Thus, in an octavo volume like Jefferson’s Qur’an, there is a small printed letter in the bottom right-hand corner of every 16th page.  It was Jefferson’s habit to take advantage of these preexisting marks to discreetly inscribe each of his books. On each book’s 10th gathering, in front of the printer’s mark J he wrote a letter T, and on the 20th gathering, to the printed T he added a J, thereby in each case producing his initial. This subtle yet unmistakable signature appears clearly on the two leather-bound volumes in the Library of Congress.

Jefferson’s system for organizing his library has often been described as a “blueprint of his own mind.” Jefferson kept his Qur’an in the section on religion, located between a book on the myths and gods of antiquity and a copy of the Old Testament.  It is illuminating that Jefferson did not class religious works with books on history or ethics- as might perhaps be expected- but that he regarded their proper place to be within jurisprudence.

The story of Jefferson’s purchase of the Qur’an helps to explain this classification.  Sifting through the records of the Virginia Gazette, through which Jefferson ordered many of his books, the scholar Frank Dewey discovered that jefferson bought this copy of the Qur’an around 1765, when he was still a student of law at the College William and Mary in Virginia. This quickly refutes the notion that Jefferson’s interest in Islam came in response to the Babary threat to shipping. Instead, it situate his interest in the Qur’an in the context of his legal studies- a conclusion that is consistent with his shelving of it in the section on jurisprudence.

Jefferson’s legal interest in the Qur’an was not without precedent. There is of course the entire Islamic juridical tradition of religious law (Shari’ah) based on Qur’anic exegesis, but Jefferson had an example at hand that was closer to his own tradition. The standard work on comparative law during his time was Of The Law of Nature and Nations,  written by the German scholar Samuel von Pufendorf and first published in 1672.  As Dewey shows, Jefferson studied Pufendorf’s treatise intensively and, in his own legal writtings, cited it more freguently than any other text.  Pufendorf’s book contains numerous references to Islam and to the Qur’an.  Although many of these were disparaging- typical for European works of the period- on other ocassions Pufendorf cited Qur’anic legal precedents approvingly, including the Qur’anic emphasis on promoting moral behavior, its proscription of games of chance and its admonition to make peace between warring countries. As Kevin Hayes, another eminent Jefferson scholar, writes: “Wanting to broaden his legal studies as much as possible, Jefferson found the Qur’an well worth his attention.”

In his reading of the Qur’an as a law book, Jefferson was aided by a relatively new English translation that was not only thechnically superior to earlier attempts, but also produced with a sensitivity that was not unlike Jefferson’s own emerging attitudes. Entitled The Koran; commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed, it was prepared by the Englishman George Sale andpublished in 1734 in Lodon. A second edition was printed in 1764, and it was this edition that Jefferson bought. Like Jefferson, Sale was a lawyer, although his heart lay in oriental scholarship.  In the preface to his translation, he lamented that the work “was carried on at leisure time only, and amidst the necessary avocations of a troublesome profession.” This preface also informed the reader of Sale’s motives: “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.” Like Pufendorf, Sale stressed Muhammad’s role as “lawgiver” and the Qur’an as an example of a distinct legal tradition.

This is not to say that Sale’s translation is free of the kind of prejudices against Muslims that characterize most European works on Islam of this period.  However, Sale did not stoop to the kinds of affronts that tend to fill the pages of earlier such attempts at translation. To the contrary, Sale felt himself obliged to treat “with common decency, and even to approve such particulars as seemed to me to deserve approbation.” In keeping with this commitment, Sale described the Prophet of Islam as “richly furnished with personal endowments, beautiful in person, of subtle wit, agreeable behavior, shewing liberality to the poor, courtesy to every one, fortitude against his enemies, and above all, a high reverence for the name of God.” This portrayal is markedly different from those of earlier translators, whose primary motive was to assert the superiority of Christianity.

In addition to the relative liberality of Sale’s approach, he also surpassed earlier writers in the quality of his translation. Previous English versions of the Qur’an were not based on the original Arabic, but rather on Latin or French versions, a process that layered fresh mistakes upon the errors of their sources.  Sale, by contrast, worked from the Arabic text. It was not true, as Votaire claimed in his famous Dictionnaire philosophique of 1764, that la savent Sale had acquired his Arabic skills by having lived for 25 years among Arabs; rather, Sale had learnt the language through his involvement in preparing an Arabic translation of the New Testament to be used by Syrian Christians, a project that was underwritten by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge in London.  Studying alongside Arab scholars who had come to London to assist in this work, he acquired within a few years such good command of the language that he was able to serve as a proofreader of the Arabic text.

“Translation” or  “Interpretation”?

“In this Qur’an, We have put forward all kinds of illustrations for people, so that they may take heed- an Arabic Qur’an, free from any distortion.”

That quotation from Surah 39, Verses 27-28, of the Qur’an was rendered into English by Muhammad A.S. Abdel Haleem, Professor of Islamic Studies at the School Oriental and African Studies in London.  It emphasizes a basic yet far-reaching fact about the holy book of Islam: It was received and recorded in the Arabic language.  Muslims believe that the Qur’an is inseparable from the language in which it was revealed, and for this reason, all Muslims worldwide recite it in Arabic, even though today the vast majority of Muslims are neither Arabs nor native speakers of Arabic. Many Muslims also regard the eloquence of the Qur’an as evidence of its divine provenance. A popular story recounts how, in the time of Muhammad, the most famous poet of Makkah converted to Islam after reading one of its verses, convinced that no human could ever produce a work of such beauty.

This makes any attempt to render the Qur’an into another language a daunting task, and explains why Muslims prefer to call non-Arabic versions of the Qur’an “interpretations.”  The difficulties are compounded further by the interpretive problems inherent in all translations, that is, the word-by-word demand for decisions about the intended meaning of the original and most suitable equivalent in the target language.  These issues the Qur’an itself seems to anticipate: “Some of its verses are definite in meaning- these are the conerstone of the scripture- and others are ambiguous. The perverse at heart eagerly persue the ambiguities in their attempt to make trouble and pin down specific meaning of their own: only God knows the true meaning.” (Surah 3, Verse 7, Abdel Heleem version)

Most modern-day “translators” of the Qur’an explicitly engage these issues and explain their particular approach and decisions.  While there will never be a definitive Qur’an in any language other than Arabic, these days English readers are able to choose from among a wide selection of careful “interpretations.”

It is thus not so surprising that Sale turned from translating the holy text of Christians into Arabic to rendering the holy text of  Muslims into his native English. Noting the absence of a reliable English translation, he aimed to provide a “more genuine idea of the original.” Lest his readers be unduly daunted, he justified choice of fedelity to the original by stating that “we must not expect to read a version of so extarordinary a book with the same ease and pleasure as a modern composition.”  Indeed, even though Sale’s English may appear overwrought today, there is no denying that he strove to convey some of the beauty and poetry of the original Arabic.

Sale’s aspiration to provide an accurate rendition of the Qur’an was matched by his desire also to provide his readers with a more honest introduction to Islam. This “Preliminary Discourse,” as he entitiled it, runs more than 200 pages in the edition Jefferson purchased.  Fairly presented and conscientously documented, it contains a section on Islamic civil law that repeatedly points out parallels to Jewish legal precepts in regard to marriage, devorce, inheritence, and lawful retaliation and rules of warfare.  In this substantial discussion, Sale displays the same quality of dispassionate interest comparative that later moved Jefferson.

But did reading the Qur’an influence Thomas  Jefferson? That question is difficult to answer, because the few scattered references he made to it in his writtings do not reveal his views.  Though it may have sparked in him a desire to learn the Arabic language (during the 1770’s Jefferson purchased a number of Arabic grammars), it is far more significant that it may have reinforced his commitment to religious freedom.  Two examples support this idea.

In 1777, the year after he drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was tasked with excising colonial legacies from Virginia’s legal code.  As part of this undertaking, he drafted a bill for the establishment of religious freedom, which was enacted in 1786.  In his autobiography, Jefferson recounted his strong desire that the bill should not only should extend to Christians of all denominations but should also include “within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mohometan (Muslim), the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”

This all-encompassing attitude to religious pluralism was by no means universally shared by Jefferson’s contemporaries.  As the historian Robert Allison documents, many American writters and statesman in the late 18th century made reference to Islam for less salutary aims. Armed with tendentious and often grossly distorted accounts, they portrayed Islam as embodying the very dangers of tyranny and depotism that the young republic had just overcome.  Allison argues that many American politicians who used “the Muslim world as a reference point for their own society were not concerned with historical truth or with an accurate description of Islam, but rather with this description’s political convenience.

These attitudes again came into conflict with Jefferson’s vision in 1788, when the states voted to ratify the United States Constitution.  One of the matters at issue was the provision- now Article VI, Section 3- that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.” Some Anti-Federalist singled out and opposed this ban on religious discrimination by painting a hypothetical scenerio in which a Muslim could become president. On the other side of the argument. despite their frequent opposition to Jefferson on other matters, the Federalist praised and drew on Jefferson’s vision of religious tolerance in supporting uncircumscribed rights to bothto faith and elected office for all citizens.  As the historian Denise Spellberg shows in her examination of this dispute among delegates in North Carolina, in the course of these constitutional debates ” Muslims became symbolically embroiled in what it meant to be American citizens.”

It is intriguing to think that Jefferson’s study of the Qur’an may have inoculated him- to a degree that today we can only surmise- ainst such popular prejudice about Islam, and it may have informed his conviction that Muslims, no less and no more than any other religious group, were entitled to all the legal rights his new nation could offer.  And although Jefferson was an early and vocal proponent of going to war against the Barbary states over their attacks on US shipping, he never framed his argument for doing so in religious terms, sticky firmly to a position of political principle. Far from reading the Qur’an  to better understand the mindset of his adversaries, it is likely that his earlier knowledge it confirmed his analysis that the root of the Barbary conflict were economic, not religious.

Sale’s Koran remained the best available English version of the Qur’an for another 150 years.  Today, along with the original copy of Jefferson’s Qur’an, the Library of Congress holds nearly one million printed items relating to Islam- a vast collection of knowledge for every new generation of lawmakers and citizens, with its roots in the law student’s leather-bound volumes.

“We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to freguent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or beliefs; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or effect their civil capacities'” – From the Virginia Stutue For Religious Freedom, ratified 1786; drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777.

“The style of the Koran is generally beautiful and fluent, especially where it imitates the prophetic manner, and scripture phrases.  Its is consise, and often obscure, adoredn with bold figures after eastern taste, enlivened with florid and sententious expressions, and in many places, especially where the majesty and attributes of God are described, sublime and magnificent; of which the reader cannot but observe several instances, though he must not imagine the translation comes up to the original, notwithstanding my indeavours to do it justice.” – From ” A Preliminary Discourse” by George Sale

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