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Why Jefferson’s vision of American Islam matters today

Posted by on Jun. 4, 2017 at 6:39 PM
  • 7 Replies

Why Jefferson’s vision of American Islam matters today

Evidence shows Thomas Jefferson about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776

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Topics: american muslims, Islam, Quran, Ramadan, Religion, religious liberty, The Conversation, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. History,

Why Jefferson’s vision of American Islam matters today

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

An estimated 3.3 million American Muslims are celebrating the month of Ramadan. It was during this month that Prophet Mohammad first received revelations from God.

The holiday has been celebrated at the White House with American Muslims since 1996, when First Lady Hillary Clinton began the tradition. However, this year, as media reports indicate, it is likely that the White House will not host the traditional reception. Neither, it seems, will the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson, even though the holiday has been commemorated there, either during Ramadan or at its end, Eid al-Fitr, since 1999.

Despite the relatively recent nature of these formal celebrations, the fact is that Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and before, as my book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders,” demonstrates.

Islam, an American religion

The purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.

Although Jefferson did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction to the Qur’an, he did criticize Islam as “stifling free enquiry” in his early political debates in Virginia, a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at a time he wished to separate them in his commonwealth.

Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents. Evidence exists that Jefferson had been thinking privately about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state, writing in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration”:

“[he] says neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

The precedents Jefferson copied from Locke echo strongly in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which proclaims:

“(O)ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.”

The statute, drafted in 1777, which became law in 1786, inspired the Constitution’s “no religious test” clause and the First Amendment.

Jefferson’s pluralistic vision

Was Jefferson thinking about Muslims when he drafted his famed Virginia legislation?

Indeed, we find evidence for this in the Founding Father’s 1821 autobiography, where he happily recorded that a final attempt to add the words “Jesus Christ” to the preamble of his legislation failed. And this failure led Jefferson to affirm that he had intended the application of the Statute to be “universal.”

By this he meant that religious liberty and political equality would not be exclusively Christian. For Jefferson asserted in his autobiography that his original legislative intent had been “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

By defining Muslims as future citizens in the 18th century, in conjunction with a resident Jewish minority, Jefferson expanded his “universal” legislative scope to include every one of every faith.

Ideas about the nation’s religiously plural character were tested also in Jefferson’s presidential foreign policy with the Islamic powers of North Africa. President Jefferson welcomed the first Muslim ambassador, who hailed from Tunis, to the White House in 1805. Because it was Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, if not quite America’s first official celebration of Ramadan.

A White House tradition

Muslims once again provide a litmus test for the civil rights of all U.S. believers. Even though this administration seems to have chosen not to continue the American political tradition of celebrating Ramadan at the White House, it is still a moment to remember that Islam has long been practiced in America.

Its adherents remain a pivotal part of our founding history. The very presence of Muslims in America, as American citizens, remains unacknowledged by the Trump administration, both in its speech in Saudi Arabia to “the Muslim world” and the president’s minimal statement marking Ramadan this month.

The ConversationToday, Muslims are fellow citizens, and their legal rights represent an American founding ideal increasingly besieged by fear mongering, precedents at odds with the best of our ideals of universal religious freedom.

by on Jun. 4, 2017 at 6:39 PM
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Replies (1-7):
AdrianneHill
by Ruby Member on Jun. 5, 2017 at 12:33 AM
Bump
shadowmoon
by on Jun. 5, 2017 at 12:55 AM

So does this mean that if Jefferson hadn't done this, that all American born Muslims and those who converted to Islam would not be USA citizens, if not for what President Jefferson wrote?   That's interesting.

Sparkles4Lui
by Platinum Member on Jun. 5, 2017 at 1:17 AM
"Indeed, we find evidence for this in the Founding Father’s 1821 autobiography, where he happily recorded that a final attempt to add the words “Jesus Christ” to the preamble of his legislation failed. And this failure led Jefferson to affirm that he had intended the application of the Statute to be “universal.”

They tried and failed then. They may not fail this time with this administration.
JoshRachelsMAMA
by on Jun. 5, 2017 at 1:24 AM
1 mom liked this
The reason the ambassador came to the White House was to sign a peace treaty to end the Barbary Wars where we in essence kicked their collective asses on the shores of Tripoli at the Battle of Derna.
....I am only responsible for what I say,NOT for what you understand.....
avay412
by on Jun. 5, 2017 at 1:58 AM


 The very presence of Muslims in America, as American citizens, remains unacknowledged by the Trump administration, both in its speech in Saudi Arabia to “the Muslim world” and the president's minimal statement marking Ramadan this month.


comment

The Donald did not paint America as a kaleidoscopic population includes a vigorous Islamic, Christian, Buddhist & Jewish community, did you really expect him to talk about these sorts of things?

The Donald does not see any of this kaleidoscopic community in America as his base is mostly white & uneducated. He is a simple man, a man of the right who is always right. How can you expect him suddenly to recognise the Muslim community in the USA, it is not in his makeup & anyway he does not need listen to anybody .

Just consider that The Donald is in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia with some 50 Sunni leaders & The Donald comforts these leaders & he tells them that Shia Iran is the problem & the home of terror.

The sad fact s that 90% 0f the terrorists are Sunni Muslims & tend to be the more the extreme followers of the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab whose teachings were embraced by Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud during the first world war & as we know he was the first king of Saudi Arabia.

avay412
by on Jun. 5, 2017 at 2:45 AM

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), was born on a large Virginia estate run on slave labor.

His marriage to the wealthy young widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 more than doubled his property in land and slaves. In his public life, Jefferson made statements denouncing blacks as biologically inferior and claiming that a biracial American society was impossible. Despite these facts, there is much evidence to suggest–if not prove conclusively–that Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that the two had at least one and perhaps as many as six children together.

WHO WAS SALLY HEMINGS?

Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.

The only surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings emphasized her light skin, long straight hair and good looks. She had four children (according to Jefferson’s records)–Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston–several of them were so light-skinned that they later passed for white. Jefferson never officially freed Hemings, but his daughter Martha Randolph probably gave her a kind of unofficial freedom that would allow her to remain in Virginia (at the time, laws required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). According to her son Madison Hemings, Sally lived with him and his brother Eston in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.

Rumors of a relationship between the widowed Jefferson (his wife Martha died in 1782, after a difficult delivery of the couple’s third daughter) and his attractive mulatto house slave circulated in Virginia society for years: Sally’s several children looked to be fathered by a white man, and some had features resembling Jefferson’s. In 1802, a less-than-reputable journalist named James Callender published an accusation of the affair in the Richmond Recorder. Jefferson had hired Callendar to libel John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, and Callender had expected a political appointment in the bargain; when he didn’t get it, he struck back at Jefferson in print, hoping to cause a scandal and hurt Jefferson’s chances for reelection (he was unsuccessful).

The supposed “Tom and Sally” liaison hovered in the background for much of the 19th century, threatening Jefferson’s heralded reputation as one of the most idealistic of the founding fathers. In 1873, Sally’s son Madison (born in 1805) gave an interview to an Ohio newspaper claiming that Jefferson was his father as well as the father of the rest of Sally’s children.

Israel Jefferson, another former slave from Monticello, verified this claim. In 1894, James Parton’s biography of Jefferson argued the other side of the debate, repeating a long-running story within the Jefferson and Randolph families (Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph) that Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr had admitted that he himself was the father of all or most of Sally Hemings’ children.

In the second half of the 20th century, the historian Winthrop Jordan added new fuel to the fire, arguing in a 1968 book that Sally Hemings became pregnant only when Jefferson was in residence at Monticello. This fact was significant, as he was away fully two-thirds of the time.

Jordan’s work sparked a new, more critical phase of Jefferson scholarship in which sought to reconcile Jefferson’s reputation as a principled lover of democracy with his admitted racism and the negative views he expressed about African Americans (common to wealthy Virginia planters of the time).

In November 1998, new biological evidence surfaced, in the form of a DNA analysis of samples from Field Jefferson, a living descendant of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, and from Eston Hemings (born in 1808). The analysis showed a perfect match between Y-chromosomes–a match with less than one in a thousand chance of being random coincidence. The same study compared DNA between the Hemings line and descendants of Peter Carr’s family, revealing no match. Though the study established probability and not certainty (though several of Jefferson’s male relatives certainly shared that male Y-chromosome, none of them were present at Monticello nine months before each time Sally gave birth), it lent new legitimacy to Madison Hemings’ long-ago claims that Jefferson fathered Madison and his siblings.

In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation accepted the conclusion, supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had at least one and probably six offspring between 1790 and 1808. Though most historians now agree that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, debate continues over the duration of that relationship and, especially, over its nature.

Admirers of Jefferson are inclined to see his relationship with Hemings as a romantic love affair, despite his public statements about race. Those who doubt the sterling nature of Jefferson’s character, however, cast things in a much more negative light, seeing him as one more predatory white slave owner and his relationship with Hemings as proof of the hypocrisy behind his eloquent statements about freedom and equality.

PamR
by Ruby Member on Jun. 5, 2017 at 7:11 AM

I'm not sure what Jefferson's slave holding and relationship with Sally Hemmings has to do with this discussion.  He, like many of the Founding Fathers, was a slaveowner. 

Quoting avay412:

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States (1801-1809), was born on a large Virginia estate run on slave labor.

His marriage to the wealthy young widow Martha Wayles Skelton in 1772 more than doubled his property in land and slaves. In his public life, Jefferson made statements denouncing blacks as biologically inferior and claiming that a biracial American society was impossible. Despite these facts, there is much evidence to suggest–if not prove conclusively–that Jefferson had a longstanding relationship with a slave named Sally Hemings, and that the two had at least one and perhaps as many as six children together.

WHO WAS SALLY HEMINGS?

Sally Hemings (her given name was probably Sarah) was born in 1773; she was the daughter of Elizabeth (Betty) Hemings, and her father was allegedly John Wayles, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She came into Jefferson’s household as part of his inheritance from the Wayles estate in 1774, and as a child probably served as a nurse to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Mary (Maria). In 1787, Jefferson was serving as American minister to France when he sent for his daughter to join him, and 14-year-old Sally accompanied eight-year-old Mary to Paris, where she attended both Mary and Mary’s elder sister, Martha (Patsy). Sally returned with the family to their Virginia home, Monticello, in 1789, and seems to have performed the duties of a household servant and lady’s maid.

The only surviving descriptions of Sally Hemings emphasized her light skin, long straight hair and good looks. She had four children (according to Jefferson’s records)–Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston–several of them were so light-skinned that they later passed for white. Jefferson never officially freed Hemings, but his daughter Martha Randolph probably gave her a kind of unofficial freedom that would allow her to remain in Virginia (at the time, laws required freed slaves to leave the state within a year). According to her son Madison Hemings, Sally lived with him and his brother Eston in Charlottesville until her death in 1835.

Rumors of a relationship between the widowed Jefferson (his wife Martha died in 1782, after a difficult delivery of the couple’s third daughter) and his attractive mulatto house slave circulated in Virginia society for years: Sally’s several children looked to be fathered by a white man, and some had features resembling Jefferson’s. In 1802, a less-than-reputable journalist named James Callender published an accusation of the affair in the Richmond Recorder. Jefferson had hired Callendar to libel John Adams in the 1800 presidential election, and Callender had expected a political appointment in the bargain; when he didn’t get it, he struck back at Jefferson in print, hoping to cause a scandal and hurt Jefferson’s chances for reelection (he was unsuccessful).

The supposed “Tom and Sally” liaison hovered in the background for much of the 19th century, threatening Jefferson’s heralded reputation as one of the most idealistic of the founding fathers. In 1873, Sally’s son Madison (born in 1805) gave an interview to an Ohio newspaper claiming that Jefferson was his father as well as the father of the rest of Sally’s children.

Israel Jefferson, another former slave from Monticello, verified this claim. In 1894, James Parton’s biography of Jefferson argued the other side of the debate, repeating a long-running story within the Jefferson and Randolph families (Jefferson’s mother was a Randolph) that Jefferson’s nephew Peter Carr had admitted that he himself was the father of all or most of Sally Hemings’ children.

In the second half of the 20th century, the historian Winthrop Jordan added new fuel to the fire, arguing in a 1968 book that Sally Hemings became pregnant only when Jefferson was in residence at Monticello. This fact was significant, as he was away fully two-thirds of the time.

Jordan’s work sparked a new, more critical phase of Jefferson scholarship in which sought to reconcile Jefferson’s reputation as a principled lover of democracy with his admitted racism and the negative views he expressed about African Americans (common to wealthy Virginia planters of the time).

In November 1998, new biological evidence surfaced, in the form of a DNA analysis of samples from Field Jefferson, a living descendant of Jefferson’s paternal uncle, and from Eston Hemings (born in 1808). The analysis showed a perfect match between Y-chromosomes–a match with less than one in a thousand chance of being random coincidence. The same study compared DNA between the Hemings line and descendants of Peter Carr’s family, revealing no match. Though the study established probability and not certainty (though several of Jefferson’s male relatives certainly shared that male Y-chromosome, none of them were present at Monticello nine months before each time Sally gave birth), it lent new legitimacy to Madison Hemings’ long-ago claims that Jefferson fathered Madison and his siblings.

In January 2000, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation accepted the conclusion, supported by DNA evidence, that Jefferson and Sally Hemings had at least one and probably six offspring between 1790 and 1808. Though most historians now agree that Jefferson and Hemings had a sexual relationship, debate continues over the duration of that relationship and, especially, over its nature.

Admirers of Jefferson are inclined to see his relationship with Hemings as a romantic love affair, despite his public statements about race. Those who doubt the sterling nature of Jefferson’s character, however, cast things in a much more negative light, seeing him as one more predatory white slave owner and his relationship with Hemings as proof of the hypocrisy behind his eloquent statements about freedom and equality.


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