After the Library of Congress was burned down by the British during the war of 1812, Thomas Jefferson, then in retirement at Monticello, offered once more to be of service to his young nation. Jefferson was a voracious reader and a distinguished intellect. Along with hundreds of books that matched his varied interests was a well-worn two-volume set that he believed offered his nation a warning.
As a student of the law, Jefferson was curious about the laws of many kinds, including those that had a voice in exotic lands, or claimed to carry the word of God. When I first heard that one of our nation’s Founding fathers owned one of America’s earliest copies of the Quran, I endeavoured to do some research on it. I was curious as to why Jefferson, a man famously curious and cosmopolitan, but also sceptical of organized religion, had it in his possession.
We do know that he is the only Founding father to have a basic understanding of Arabic. And we do know that he would be the first American President to go to war with Islamic radicals.
It is clear, however, that Jefferson was, to put it mildly, suspicious of Islam. He compared the faith with Catholicism, and believed that neither had undergone a reformation. Both religions, he felt, suppressed rational thought and persecuted skeptics. When combined with the power of the state, religion would corrupt and stifle individual human rights. Islam, to Jefferson’s mind, provided a cautionary tale of what happened when a faith insisted on combining religious and political power into one.
But Jefferson was neither a bigot nor an Islamophobe. The irony of Jefferson’s observations about Islam is that they were made in service of an argument that would ensure that Muslims – along with Jews, Christians, atheists, and adherents of every other faith – would have full citizenship as Virginians, and ultimately as Americans.
Jefferson believed that everyone should have the right to worship, or not to worship, as they choose. It was, unfortunately, not a view shared by Muslims he eventually encountered.
In March, 1786, after America had won its independence, Jefferson was serving as minister to France. One of the thorniest problems he had to confront was the rising power of the Barbary States, four North African territories that sponsored marauding pirates who were increasingly confiscating thousands of dollars of American shipping and enslaving hundreds of US citizens in prisons across the Mediterranean.
In London, Jefferson and his fellow diplomat John Adams met with the ambassador from the pasha of Tripoli, a man named Abdul Rahman, to resolve the growing dispute. The war that existed between his nation and America, the ambassador explained, “was founded on the Laws of their Prophet.” The capture of US ships and people was a just and holy war, sanctioned by the Quran.
Jefferson and Adams took meticulous notes of the meeting. “It was written in their Koran,” the two Americans noted, “that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Musselman (Muslim) who should be slain in battle was sure to go Paradise.”
Jefferson needed only reference his own two-volume translation of the Quran to understand that everything in the ambassador’s explanation of the Barbary States “holy war” against America was accurate and faithful to Islam’s holy book.
The Quran’s Sura 9, verse 29, explains the Islamic duty to make war on non-Mulims:
“Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allah, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (Islam) among the people of the scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
Sura 47, verse 4 sanctions the taking of captives as spoils of war:
“So when you meet (fight Jihad in Allah’s Cause), those who disbelieve smite at their necks till when you have killed and wounded many of them, then bind a bond firmly (on them). Thereafter (is the time) either for generosity (free them without ransom), or ransom (according to what benefits Islam), until the war lays down its burden. Thus you are ordered by Allah to continue in carrying out Jihad against the disbelievers till they embrace Islam or at least come under your protection, but if it had been Allah’s Will, He Himself could certainly have punished them without you. But He lets you fight, in order to test you, some with others. But those who are killed in the Way of Allah, He will never let their deeds be lost.”
I started this story because I want you to follow the path of Thomas Jefferson, a path that starts with reading the primary sources and original texts of Islam in an effort to better understand how millions of Muslims interpret their faith.
Every day around the world, Islamist fanatics are plotting ways to kill us. They do so under the banner of a supremacist ideology that pits Islam against the rest of the world and commands the murder of those who do not willingly submit.
The ultimate irony is that, fifteen years after 9/11, we’re actually further away from understanding the threat than we were in the days following the most brutal attack in our history.
– Condensed excerpt from the introduction of the book ‘It IS about Islam” by Glenn Beck (2015).