The inscription on Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone, as he stipulated, reads Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of american Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson (April 13 April 1743 – July 4, 1826) was an American Founding Father, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776), and the third President of the United States (1801–1809). He was an ardent proponent of democracy and embraced the principles of republicanism and the rights of the individual.
A champion of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was a polymath in the arts, sciences, and politics. He was a proven architect in the classical tradition, and designed his home Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia, Virginia’s state capitol and other important buildings. He was keenly interested in science, invention, architecture, religion, and philosophy, and served as president of the American Philosophical Society. Besides English, he was well versed in Latin and Greek, proficient in French, Italian, and Spanish, and studied other languages and linguistic. He founded the University of Virginia after his presidency. Although not a strong orator, Jefferson was a skilled writer and corresponded with many influential people in America and Europe.
Jefferson’s religious and spiritual beliefs were a combination of various religious and theological precepts. Around 1764, Jefferson had lost faith in “orthodox” Christianity after he had tested the New Testament for the consistency of its teachings, and found it to be severely lacking. Jefferson later wrote that he found two strains within the Bible, one that was as “diamonds” of the “purest moral teaching”,and one that was as a “dunghill” of “priest-craft and roguery”. After leaving “Christian orthodoxy” behind, he continued to refer to himself as a “Christian,” though no longer as an “orthodox Christian”.
Jefferson praised the morality of Jesus and edited a compilation of his teachings, omitting the miracles and supernatural elements of the biblical account, titling it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.This book is now most popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. He claimed that Christianity possessed, “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Jefferson was firmly anticlerical saying that in “every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty … they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes.”
Jefferson’s form of Christianity included a stern code of personal moral conduct and also drew inspiration from classical literature. While his new belief system retained some Christian principles it rejected many of the orthodox tenets of Christianity of his day and was especially hostile to the Catholic Church as he saw it operate in France. Jefferson advanced the idea of Separation of Church and State, believing that the government should not have an official religion while at the same time it should not prohibit any particular religious expression. He first expressed these thoughts in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut.
Throughout his life Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, biblical study, and morality. As a landowner he played a role in governing his local Episcopal Church; in terms of belief he subscribed to the moral philosophy of Jesus, but he did not subscribe to much of what he described as the “dung” of popular Christian theology. When he was home he attended the Episcopal church and raised his daughters in that faith. Over time, some have described Jefferson as a Deist; however, due to his belief in a God which is actively involved in the guidance of human history, the modern understanding of the word “Deism” may not entirely describe Jefferson’s system of beliefs.
In a private letter to Benjamin Rush in 1803 Jefferson explained some aspects of his own personal belief system regarding Christianity: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence…” Jefferson noted both benevolence and contradictions in Christian doctrine.
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was drafted in 1777 (however it was not first introduced into the Virginia General Assembly until 1779) by Thomas Jefferson in the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia. On January 16, 1786, the Assembly enacted the statute into the state’s law. The statute disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all religious faiths, including Catholics, Jews, Muslims as well as members of all Protestant denominations.
The statute was a notable precursor of the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
The Statute for Religious Freedom is one of only three accomplishments Jefferson instructed be put in his epitaph.
Text of the Statute:
“An Act for establishing religious Freedom.
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacities tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercion on either, as was in his Almighty power to do,
That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time;
That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;
That even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the Ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind;
That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry,
That therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injurious of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right,
That it tends only to corrupt the principles of that very Religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it;
That though indeed, these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way;
That to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own;
That it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order;
And finally, that Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:
Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, 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 affect their civil capacities. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of Legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”
Sura Al-Baqara, Ayat 256 (There Is No Compulsion In Religion)
Verse (ayah) 256 of Al-Baqara is a widely quoted verse in the Islamic scripture, the Qur’an. The verse includes the phrase that “there is no compulsion in religion.”
The version is important to the debate on conversion to Islam and apostasy from Islam, specifically whether the “compulsion” is taken to refer to conversion to or apostasy from Islam. The overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars consider that verse to be a Medinan one, when Muslims lived in their period of political ascendance, and to be non abrogated, including Ibn Qayyim, Ibn Kathir, Al-Tabari, Abi ‘Ubayd, Al-Jassas, Makki bin Abi Talib, Al-Nahhas, Al-Suyuti. According to all the theories of language elaborated by Muslim legal scholars, the Qur’anic proclamation that ‘There is no compulsion in religion. The right path has been distinguished from error’ is as absolute and universal a statement as one finds, and so under no condition should an individual be forced to accept a religion or belief against his or her will according to the Qur’an.
Ibn Kathir’s interpretation
The Qur’an commentator (Muffasir) Ibn Kathir, a Sunni, suggests that the verse implies that Muslims should not force anyone to convert to Islam since the truth of Islam is so self-evident that no one is in need of being coerced into it,
There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path. لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ (There is no compulsion in religion), meaning, “Do not force anyone to become Muslim, for Islam is plain and clear, and its proofs and evidence are plain and clear. Therefore, there is no need to force anyone to embrace Islam. Rather, whoever Allah directs to Islam, opens his heart for it and enlightens his mind, will embrace Islam with certainty. Whoever Allah blinds his heart and seals his hearing and sight, then he will not benefit from being forced to embrace Islam. It was reported that; the Ansar were the reason behind revealing this Ayah, although its indication is general in meaning. Ibn Jarir recorded that Ibn Abbas said (that before Islam), “When (an Ansar) woman would not bear children who would live, she would vow that if she gives birth to a child who remains alive, she would raise him as a Jew. When Banu An-Nadir (the Jewish tribe) were evacuated (from Al-Madinah), some of the children of the Ansar were being raised among them, and the Ansar said, `We will not abandon our children.’ Allah revealed, لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ قَد تَّبَيَّنَ الرُّشْدُ مِنَ الْغَيِّ (There is no compulsion in religion. Verily, the right path has become distinct from the wrong path). Abu Dawud and An-Nasa’i also recorded this Hadith. As for the Hadith that Imam Ahmad recorded, in which Anas said that the Messenger of Allah said to a man, أَسْلِم “Embrace Islam. The man said, “I dislike it. The Prophet said, وَإِنْ كُنْتَ كَارِهًا “Even if you dislike it. First, this is an authentic Hadith, with only three narrators between Imam Ahmad and the Prophet. However, it is not relevant to the subject under discussion, for the Prophet did not force that man to become Muslim. The Prophet merely invited this man to become Muslim, and he replied that he does not find himself eager to become Muslim. The Prophet said to the man that even though he dislikes embracing Islam, he should still embrace it, `for Allah will grant you sincerity and true intent.’
Jefferson’s political ideals were greatly influenced by some of the greatest thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment; John Lock (1632-1704), Francis Bacon (1562-1626), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727), whom he considered the three greatest men that ever lived.
The Age of Enlightenment or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason is an era from the 1620’s to the 1780’s in which cultural and intellectual forces in Western Europe emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. It was promoted by philosophies and local thinkers in urban coffee houses, salons, and Masonic lodges. It challenged the authority of institutions that were deeply rooted in society, especially the Roman Catholic church; there was much talk of ways to reform society with toleration, science and skepticism.
Jefferson was also influenced by the writings of Gibbon, hume, Robertson, Bolingbroke, Montesquieu, and Voltaire. But it was the writings of Voltaire that created an adverse opinion of Muhammad in Europe and by extension America.
It may not have been a coincident that the 3 million people strong anti-Islam, anti-terrorism protest in Paris was held on Boulevard Voltaire, named in honor of the French playwright and philosopher Voltaire. Some of the participants interviewed by BBC said Voltaire had a deep significance to them both in relation to the subject and to history. Voltaire found prophet Mohammed grotesque in character and conduct.
Mahomet (French: Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophète, literally Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet) is a five-act tragedy written in 1736 by French playwright and philosopher Voltaire. It received its debut performance in Lille on 25 April 1741.
The play is a study of religious fanaticism and self-serving manipulation based on an episode in the traditional biography of Muhammad in which he orders the murder of his critics. Voltaire described the play as “written in opposition to the founder of a false and barbarous sect”.
The story of “Mahomet” unfolds during Muhammad’s post exile siege of Mecca in 630 AD, when the opposing forces are under a short term truce called to discuss the therms and course of the war.
In the first act the audience is introduced to a fictional leader of the Meccans, Zopir, an ardent and defiant advocate of free will and liberty who rejects Mahomet. Mahomet is presented through his conversations with his second in command Omar and with his opponent Zopir and with two of Zopir’s long lost children (Seid and Palmira) whom, unbeknownst to Zopir, Mahomet had abducted and enslaved in their infancy, fifteen years earlier.
The now young and beautiful captive Palmira has become the object of Mahomet’s desires and jealousy. Having observed a growing affection between Palmira and Seid, Mahomet devises a plan to steer Seid away from her heart by indoctrinating young Seid in religious fanaticism and sending him on a suicide attack to assassinate Zopir in Mecca, an event which he hopes will rid him of both Zopir and Seid and free Palmira’s affections for his own conquest. Mahomet invokes divine authority to justify his conduct.
Seid, still respectful of Zopir’s nobility of character, hesitates at first about carrying out his assignment, but eventually his fanatical loyalty to Mahomet overtakes him and he slays Zopir. Phanor arrives and reveals to Seid and Palmira to their disbelief that Zopir was their father. Omar arrives and deceptively orders Seid arrested for Zopir’s murder despite knowing that it was Mahomet who had ordered the assassination. Mahomet decides to cover up the whole event so as to not be seen as the deceitful impostor and tyrant that he is.
Having now uncovered Mahomet’s “vile” deception Palmira renounces Mahomet’s god and commits suicide rather than to fall into the clutches of Mahomet.
Analysis and Reception
The play is a direct assault on the moral character of Muhammad. Omar is a known historical figure who became second caliph; the characters of Seid and Palmira represent Muhammad’s adopted son Zayd ibn Harithah and his wife Zaynab bint Jahsh. The play’s plot contradicts the version of the respective Surah in the Qur’an.
Pierre Milza, posits that, it may have been “the intolerance of the Catholic Church and its crimes done on behalf of the Christ” that were targeted by the philosopher, Voltaire’s own statement about it in a letter in 1742 was quite vague: “I tried to show in it into what horrible excesses fanaticism, led by an impostor, can plunge weak minds.”
It is only in another letter dated from the same year that he explains that this plot is an implicit reference to Jacques Clement, the monk who assassinated Henri III in 1589.
However, it was considered that Islam wasn’t the only focus of the plot and that his aim when writing the text was to condemn “the intolerance of the Church and the crimes that have been committed in the name of the Christ”.
Napoleon during his captivity on St Helena criticized Voltaire’s Mahomet, and said Voltaire had made him merely an impostor and a tyrant, without representing him as a “great man”:
- “Mahomet was the subject of deep criticism. ‘Voltaire,’ said the Emperor, ‘in the character and conduct of his hero, has departed both from nature and history. He has degraded Mahomet, by making him descend to the lowest intrigues. He has represented a great man, who changed the face of the world, acting like a scoundrel, worthy of the gallows. He has no less absurdly travestied the character of Omar, which he has drawn like that of a cut-throat in a melo-drama.'”
Excerpt: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an
The political aspects of Islam
The first mention of the Shura in the Qur’an comes in the 2nd Sura of Qur’an 2:233 in the matter of the collective family decision regarding weaning the child from mother’s milk. This verse encourages that both parents decide by their mutual consultation about weaning their child.
The 42nd Sura of Qur’an is named as Shura. The 38th verse of that Sura suggests that shura is praiseworthy life style of a successful believer. It also suggests that people whose matter is being decided be consulted. It says: “Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual consultation among themselves; who spend out of what We bestow on them for Sustenance” [are praised] The 159th verse of 3rd Sura orders Muhammad to consult with believers. The verse makes a direct reference to those (Muslims) who disobeyed Muhammad, indicating that ordinary, fallible Muslims should be consulted. It says: Thus it is due to mercy from God that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard hearted, they would certainly have dispersed from around you; pardon them therefore and ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them in the affair; so when you have decided, then place your trust in God; surely God loves those who trust.
The first verse only deals with family matters. The second proposed a lifestyle of people who will enter heavens and is considered the most comprehensive verse on shura. The third verse advices on how mercy, forgiveness and mutual consultation can win over people.
Muhammad made all his decisions in consultation with his followers unless it was a matter in which God has ordained something. It was common among Muhammad’s companions to ask him if a certain advice was from God or from him. If it was from Muhammad, they felt free to give their opinion. Some times Muhammad changed his opinion on the advice of his followers like his decision to defend the city of Madinah by going out of the city in Uhad instead of from within the city.
Arguments over shura began with the debate over the ruler in the Islamic world. When Muhammad died in 632 CE, a tumultuous meeting at Saqifah selected Abu Bakr as his successor. This meeting did not include some of those with a strong interest in the matter—especially Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law; people who wanted Ali to be the caliph (ruler) became known as Shia ul-Ali (party of Ali) still consider Abu Bakr an illegitimate leader of the caliphate.