Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an
Muslim Congressman Took Oath of Office on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.
Keith Ellison finds book symbolic of U.S. founding fathers’ religious tolerance
Incoming Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison became the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress January 4, 2007. swearing his oath of office on a copy of the Quran that belonged to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. “Look at that. That’s something else,” Ellison, D-Minn., said as officials from the Library of Congress showed him the two-volume Quran, which was published in London in 1764.
Ellison took the ceremonial oath with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at his side. So many of Ellison’s family members attended the ceremony that it was done in two takes.
Ellison had already planned to be sworn in using a Quran, rather than a Bible. He learned recently about Jefferson’s Quran, with its multicolored cover and brown leather binding, and arranged to borrow it.
In a recent interview, Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said the choice of Jefferson’s Quran was significant because it “dates religious tolerance back to the time of our founding fathers.”
“Jefferson was … one of the more profound thinkers of the time, who recognized even then that there was nothing to fear, and in fact there was strength in recognizing religious tolerance,” he said.
Although the Library of Congress is right across the street from the Capitol, library officials took extra precautions in delivering the Quran for the ceremony. To protect it from the elements, they placed the Quran in a rectangular box and handled it with a green felt wrapper once inside the Capitol.
Instead of using surface streets, they walked it over via a series of winding, underground tunnels – a trip that took more than 15 minutes. Guards then ran the book through security machines at the Capitol.
The Quran was acquired in 1815 as part of a more than 6,400-volume collection that Jefferson sold for $24,000 to replace the congressional library that had been burned by British troops the year before, in the War of 1812. Jefferson, the nation’s third president, was a collector of books in all topics and languages.
The book’s leather binding was added in 1919. Inside, it reads, “The Koran”, Jefferson marked his ownership by writing the letter “J” next to the letter “T” that was already at the bottom of pages, according to Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress’ rare book and special collections division.
Ellison, the first black member of Congress from Minnesota, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college. He said earlier this week that he chose to use this Quran because it showed that a visionary like Jefferson believed that wisdom could be gleaned from many sources.
Some critics have argued that only a Bible should be used for the swearing-in. Last month, Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., warned that unless immigration is tightened, “many more Muslims” will be elected and follow Ellison’s lead.
Ellison approached Goode on the House floor Thursday, introducing himself and offering to meet for coffee. According to Ellison, Goode said he’d be interested in doing that. The subject of Goode’s comments didn’t come up, Ellison said.
“Look, we’re trying to build bridges,” Ellison said. “We’re trying to help bring about understanding. We don’t want issues of misunderstanding and division to exist if they don’t have to.”
Jefferson’s 6,000-volume personal library was the largest in North America at the turn of the 19th century. He obtained his English translation of the Quran in 1765 as he was finishing his law studies at the College of William and Mary. The translation by British historian and solicitor George Sale first was published in 1734. The Quran, along with the rest of Jefferson’s books, became the basis of the Library of Congress after British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the old congressional collection in the War of 1812.
While Jefferson is best known for writing the Declaration of Independence, he also penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as a basis for the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
In the Virginia statute, he wrote, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” He went on to say that denying a person the ability to hold an office of trust or declaring him unworthy of public confidence based on his religious beliefs was a violation of natural rights.
The document demanded “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.”
It is believed that Jefferson was inspired by the teaching of the Quran, prohibiting compulsion in religion and forcing religious doctrines. Also the foundation for “all men are created Equal” and “men are born free” are some of the indications for the Quran as a source for guidance “no compulsion in religion” Quran 2:256.
The Qur’an is “definitely an important historical document in our national history and demonstrates that Jefferson was a broad visionary thinker who not only possessed a Qur’an, but read it,” Ellison said in an interview with the Free Press. “It would have been something that contributed to his own thinking.” Ellison also said that Jefferson’s Qur’an “shows that from the earliest times of this republic, the Qur’an was in the consciousness of people who brought about democracy.”
The statute was one of Jefferson’s proudest achievements. He instructed that his tombstone should not refer to him as president of the United States but should remember him only as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia.