The revelation that Thomas Jefferson had a Qur’an and that Islam had influenced the Founding Fathers of the United States was groundbreaking. Inspired by the findings published by Denise A. Spellberg in Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, a work that appeared in 2013, I set off to study the nearly seven thousand titles in Thomas Jefferson’s personal library in search of any traces of the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, namely, the charters of rights and freedoms that the Messenger of God had granted to the Christians of the Middle East and the world. The results of this research are remarkable. They confirm that Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and its third President, had numerous accounts of the Covenants of the Prophet in his library collection. This suggests that the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad, along with multifarious other sources, may have played a role in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights.
Islam and the Founding Fathers
When the American Constitution was ratified in 1787, the Founding Fathers decreed that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise therefore.” In 1783, George Washington (1732-1799), the first president of the United States, stated that “The bosom of America is open to receive . . . the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges… They may be Muslims, Jews, Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists” (Spellberg 5). When it came to workers, he judged people based on their character as opposed to their creed: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Muslims, Jews or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists” (Spellberg 5).
John Adams (1797-1801), the second President of the United States and the first Vice President, described the Prophet Muhammad as one of the world’s “sober inquirers of truth” alongside such figures as Confucius, Socrates, and Franklin and cited him as a model of compassion.
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the United States, owned and read a copy of the Qur’an. When it came to law, Thomas Jefferson insisted upon being universal. He opposed the use of “Jesus Christ,” and other synonyms, in bills, since it implied “a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill to those professing his religion only” (Spellberg 119-120). He specifically stated that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) was written “to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Muslim, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.” Speaking of the Constitution of 1780, Massachusetts governor, Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons, affirmed that it afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience… to Deists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
Quoting John Locke (1632-1704), Thomas Jefferson asserted that “Neither Pagan nor Muslim nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.” His ally, Richard Henry Lee, even passed a motion in Congress on June 7, 1776, in which he asserted that “True freedom embraces the Muslim and the Hindu as well as the Christian religion.”
The University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, includes a visual tribute to his commitment to religious pluralism. It features the statue of an angel carrying a tablet inscribed with the words “Religious Freedom, 1786” and which includes the names God, Allah, Jehovah, and Brahma.
Although some Americans believe that Islam has always been fundamentally at war with the West, the fact of the matter is that the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful Muslim political entity of the period, concluded a treaty with the United States that was inspired by the Covenant of the Prophet. The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Ottoman Empire, signed by President John Adams in 1797, proves this to be true. It reads:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the Laws, religion, or tranquility, of Muslims; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Muslim nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries. (Spellberg 207)
As Denise A. Spellberg summarizes, “The treaty… unequivocally asserted that America’s government was neither officially Christian nor inherently anti-Islamic” (207). The Treaty of Tripoli, signed by Thomas Jefferson in 1806, also retains and reaffirms America’s official stance toward Muslim beliefs: “The Government of the United States of America has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, and tranquility of Muslims” (Spellberg 216).
Thomas Jefferson and the Covenants of the Prophet
The Founding Fathers were familiar with Islam. They were familiar with the Qur’an. And they also appear to have been familiar with the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad that was published by Gabriel Sionita in Paris in 1630 under the name Testamentum et Pactiones was well known to people of class, education, and culture in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The Founding Fathers were familiar with Islam. They were familiar with the Qur’an. And they also appear to have been familiar with the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad that was published by Gabriel Sionita in Paris in 1630 under the name Testamentum et Pactiones was well known to people of class, education, and culture in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It was readily available in Arabic, Latin, French, German, and English. The Covenant of the Prophet that was first published by Sionita was reproduced in dozens of other books, titles that were easily accessible in both Europe and the United States. In fact, the Covenant of the Prophet had been a best-seller since the 17th century. Consequently, I set off to search the nearly seven thousand titles in Thomas Jefferson’s library catalog in search of traces of the Covenants of the Prophet. And what did I find? I found that Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Qur’an, the translation completed by George Sale (1697-1736). In other words, this Founding Father would have been familiar with the multiple passages in the Qur’an in which God promotes tolerance, pluralism, peace, justice, and coexistence, including:Let there be no violence in religion. (2:256)
Surely those who believe, all those who Judaize, and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believeth in God, and the last day, and doth that which is right, they shall have their reward with their Lord; there shall come no fear on them, neither shall they be grieved. (2:63)
We have also sent down unto thee the book of the Koran with truth, confirming that scripture which was revealed before it; and preserving the same safe from corruption. Judge therefore between them according to that which God hath revealed; and follow not their desires, by swerving from the truth which hath come unto thee. Unto every one of you have we given a law, and an open path; and if God had pleased, he had surely made you one people; but he hath thought fit to give you different laws, that he might try you in that which he hath given you respectively. Therefore, strive to excel each other in good works: Unto God shall ye all return, and then will he declare unto you that concerning which ye have disagreed. (5:48)
And if they incline unto peace, do thou also incline thereto; and put thy confidence in God, for it is He who heareth and knoweth. (8:61)
O men, verily We have created you of a male and a female; and We have distributed you into nations, and tribes, that ye might know one another. Verily the most honorable of you, in the sight of God, is the most pious of you: And God is wise and knowing. (49:13)
Peradventure God will establish friendship between yourselves and such of them as ye now hold for enemies: For God is powerful; and God is inclined to forgive, and merciful. As to those who have not born arms against you on account of religion, nor turned you out of your dwellings, God forbideth you not to deal kindly with them, and to behave justly towards them; for God loveth those who act justly. (60:7-8)
Say, O ye who have received the scripture, come to a just determination between us and you; that we worship not any except God, and associate no creature with him; and that the one of us take not the other for lords, beside God. But if they turn back, say, bear witness that we are true believers. (3:64)
Say: O unbelievers, I will not worship that which ye worship; nor will ye worship that which I worship. Neither do I worship that which ye worship; neither do ye worship that which I worship. Ye have your religion, and I my religion. (109: 1–6)
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an also contains notes from its translator. In his commentary, George Sale mentions the Treaty of Najran made between the Prophet and leaders of the Christian Najran community: al-‘Aqib, Sayyid al-Najrani, and Abu al-Haritha who was a bishop. Sale also notes on several occasions that the Prophet Muhammad protected the People of the Book in return for tribute. In other words, anyone who reads the translation of the Qur’an by George Sale is introduced to the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. As far as Sale was concerned, “Mohammed gave his Arabs the best religion he could, as well as the best laws, preferable at least, to those of the pagan lawgivers” (ii).
“Not only did Thomas Jefferson have a Qur’an which refers to the Treaty of Najran, I also found that he had complete accounts of the Covenant the Prophet. Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father, the second vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, and the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, owned a copy of the Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman or The History of the Ottoman Empire by prince Demetrius Cantemir which contains a complete account of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai and a full translation of Sultan Selim’s decree of authentication, renewal, and perpetual protection.”
Not only did Thomas Jefferson have a Qur’an which refers to the Treaty of Najran, I also found that he had complete accounts of the Covenant the Prophet. Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Father, the second vice president of the United States from 1797 to 1801, and the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809, owned a copy of the Histoire de l’Empire Ottoman or The History of the Ottoman Empire by prince Demetrius Cantemir which contains a complete account of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai and a full translation of Sultan Selim’s decree of authentication, renewal, and perpetual protection. It reads:
Among the rest were the monks inhabiting Mount Sinai. Of these something very particular is related, which, since I don’t think it is mentioned anywhere but in a fabulous treatise of a Sinaite monk, I shall here insert. They say, though fabulously, that Mahomet being, of mean birth, used to drive in his youth hired camels from place to place. In these journeys, as he one day approached Mount Sinai, the Abbot saw a cloud hovering over Mahomet’s head as he lay asleep in the open field and defending it as it were from the sunbeams. The Abbot thence conjecturing there was something more in this youth than was promised by his outward appearance, because so singular an omen, in his opinion, could only happen to the future Lord of those Regions, and therefore he went and saluted him very civilly, inviting him into his room and bidding him to take his rest quietly. When he thought he had grained his goodwill by all kind of civilities he asked him if ever he should become Sovereign of those parts what his pleasure would be concerning the monks? Mahomet answered: “He would free them as Ruhban, (Keepers of the Life or Course), dispersed though the world from all tribute, and hold them in great honor.” He gave them this promise in an Arabic writing, and confirmed it, for want of a seal, with the palm of his hand dipped in ink and impressed on the paper.
Long after, when Sultan Selim was in Egypt, the Abbot of Mount Sinai humbly came to him with Mahomet’s true or forged Instrument, which the Emperor purchased of the monks for four thousand gold crowns, with a declaration of their being free from all tribute, and a confirmation of his Chatisherif of this and their other privileges. Selim’s Charter as translated out of Arabic into Turkish I read at Adrianople, and remember it to be as follows:
“Since the monks of Mount Saini are come to our sublime Divan, and have humbly represented, that Muhammed el-Mustapha, God’s Holy Prophet, (on whom be peace and health) being heretofore by their monastery hospitably received in his travails, and according to their slender abilities adored with all kinds of honor and reverence, graciously exempted this community of Nazarean monks from their annual tribute, and in confirmation of it was pleased to give a holy writing signed with his own hand, after his example, we also out of our great clemency do ordain that the aforementioned monks be free from the yearly tribute paid by the rest, and be suffered without molestation to enjoy their churches and rites according to their obsolete law. To this end, we have graciously ordered them an authentic copy of the Instrument of God’s Holy Prophet, confirmed by our inscription. We therefore enjoin every person exercising dominion or jurisdiction throughout our whole kingdom, not to burden the said monks of the tribe of Jesus with tribute or other political contributions. And whoever shall act contrary to our Chatisherif and Mandate, know that he shall certainly be punished and chastised. Given at Cairo, etc.” (1734: 168-169; 1743: 181)
Demetrius Cantemir, a Moldavian soldier, statesman, and man of letters, once served as the legal adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. When some Muslims tried to confiscate a church at the end of the 17th century, Cantemir personally presented the original firman of Sultan Selim to vizier ‘Alī Köprülü. The high official of the Ottomans kissed it reverently and ordered that the church be protected (Runciman 191). Cantemir, a European Christian ally of the Turkish Muslims, put the Covenant of the Prophet into practice.
Thomas Jefferson also owned a copy of the Ecclesiastical History of Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1693-1755) which mentions the Covenants of the Prophet. Referencing Assemani, Mosheim notes that “Jesujabus, the sovereign pontiff of the Nestorians, concluded a treaty first with Mohammed and afterwards with Omar, and obtained many advantages for his sect” (254).
Mosheim also mentions the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai. Although he was convinced that it was a fraud, he admitted that “the Mohammedans … believed it was a genuine ordinance of their prophet, and they believe so still” (254, note 5).” (The reader should note that the accusation that the Covenants of the Prophet were fraudulent has been soundly refuted in The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World [Angelico/Sophia Perennis, 2013], and in the 3-volume anthology Islam and the People of the Book [Cambridge Scholars, 2017].)
The German Lutheran scholar also discusses the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World. As he explains, “There is likewise an extant injunction or Testament, as it is commonly called, that is, a diploma of Mohammed himself, in which he promises full security to all Christians living under his dominion; and though some learned men doubt the authenticity of this instrument, yet the Mohammedans do not call it into question” (254).
Although Mosheim doubted the authenticity of the document, he recognized that it was completely in keeping with the early actions of the Prophet Muhammad. What is more, he reported that the Muslims unanimously acknowledge it to be genuine (254, note 5). “However dubious the Testament may be,” he admits, “the subject matter of it is not doubtful. For learned men have proved by powerful arguments, that Mohammed originally would allow no injury to be offered to the Christians, and especially to the Nestorians” (254, note 5). Mosheim describes the document as follows:
This Testament is a formal compact between Mohammed, on the one part, and the Nestorians and Monophysites on the other. He promises to them his protection, and they promise to him loyalty and obedience. He promises them entire religious freedom; and they promise him support against his enemies. Mohammed might have deemed it sound policy to conclude such a treaty with these sectaries; that by their aid he might subdue the countries of Asia subject to the Greek emperors. (255, note 5)
“Thomas Jefferson equally owned a copy of Thomas Salmon’s (1679-1767) Modern History or the Present State of All Nations which also provides a detailed account of the granting of the Covenant of the Prophet to the monks of Mount Sinai. Salmon makes an important observation.”
Thomas Jefferson equally owned a copy of Thomas Salmon’s (1679-1767) Modern History or the Present State of All Nations which also provides a detailed account of the granting of the Covenant of the Prophet to the monks of Mount Sinai. Salmon makes an important observation. The account of the Ashtiname has been transmitted, not only by the Christians of the Sinai, but also by the Muslims of the Sinai. Both communities confirm the tradition in question. As he relates,
The monastery of St. Katherine’s at the foot of Sinai, the Greeks have been in possession of upwards of a thousand years, being given them by some of the Greek Emperors: the Arabs, it seems, suffered them to enjoy it peaceably till very lately, on account of the great hospitality they always met with here; though they have a tradition, that when this monastery was in its most flourishing condition, Mahomet served the monks in the quality of a camel driver, and that an eagle hovering over Mahomet’s head as he slept, the abbot foretold his future greatness, desiring he would be king to them when he should be advanced, which he promised: and afterwards, being vested with the authority of a Prince, he confirmed them in the enjoyment of their house and all the lands belonging to it, obliging his successors and disciples not to disturb them… (389)
Not only did Thomas Jefferson have a copy of the Qur’an, along with accounts of the Covenants of the Prophet, he had numerous books on Muslim history, including works that featured Turkish treaties, all of which were directly inspired by the Ashtiname, the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Monks of Mount Sinai upon which Ottoman domestic and foreign policy was inspired.
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad and US Diplomacy
When it comes to knowledge of the Covenants of the Prophet, Thomas Jefferson was not the exception. The Covenants of the Prophet were required reading for European and American diplomats in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Alexandre de Miltitz (1785-1843), the former minister of the Prussian king to the Ottoman Empire, included a copy of the Covenant of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World in his Manuel des Consuls or Consular Manual which was published in 1838 (495-499).
Likewise, Edward A. Van Dyck, a consular clerk of the United States in Cairo, Egypt, included a translation of and commentary on the Covenant of the Prophet in his Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire in 1881. In his book on diplomacy, Van Dyke presented the Covenant of the Prophet as a political model for the United States of America and the rest of the world. It was, very much, a masterpiece of diplomacy, an exemplary manifestation of tolerance, and an inspiring exposition of civil and human rights. In his words:
In the beginning of his rule, Muhammad… everywhere proclaimed the principles of toleration toward every kind of religion, and particularly toward the Christians… By this adroit policy he wished to conciliate the Christians in his favor and assure them that he did not threaten their religion. To still further guarantee to them the free exercise of their worship, and his entire toleration of it throughout his realm, he made a treaty with them. It is entitled Testamentum et pactiones initae inter Mahomeddum et Christianae fidei cultores and was printed in Latin and in Arabic at Paris in 1630. This treaty should be considered as a masterpiece of political forethought, and as a rare monument of wisdom, morality, and toleration. (85)
This report was completed in response to a resolution from the United States Senate. It was ordered to be printed, and shared with the Senate, by James A. Garfield (1831-1881), the twentieth President of the United States, on April 6, 1881. James G. Blaine (1830-1893), the Secretary of State, described the report as being “of interest and value.” He wrote that it threw much light “on the treaty rights of the United States as based on ‘the most favored nation’ treatment accorded in the existing treaty with Turkey” (1).
American officials were still discussing the Covenant of the Prophet in the early twentieth century. G. Bie Ravndal, the American Consul General at Constantinople, wrote about it in The Origin of the Capitulations and of the Consular Institution, an official publication of the US government. In the words of the author,
Reputable historians speak of a capitulation dating back to the days of Mohammed, who is said to have granted the Christians certain privileges contained in a document called the ‘Testament of Mohammed’ …In it Mohammed promises to protect the magistrates (judges) of the Christians in his provinces ‘with my foot and horse, with my auxiliaries, and with the believers that follow me…’ Miltitz, who prints the text in French translations, give the credence to the genuineness of this treaty (as do other trusted students). (12)
This report on the Covenant of the Prophet, which goes into more detail, was submitted to the US Congress and US Senate in 1921. It is reproduced in Senate Documents, volume 9, which was also published by the US government.
In 1935, during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the thirty-second president of the United States, who served from 1933 until his death in 1945, the Prophet Muhammad was honored by the Supreme Court as one of the eighteen greatest lawgivers of the world alongside Moses, Solomon, Confucius, Hammurabi, and others. “As the United States Supreme Court judges sit in their chamber,” notes Abdul Malik Mujahid, “to their right, front, and the left sides are friezes” of these luminaries, including one of the Prophet Muhammad, holding the Qur’an in his left hand and a sword in his right hand, symbolizing law and justice.
The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad and the History of Human Rights
The United Nations traces the history of human rights back to Cyrus the Great in the year 539 BC. After conquering Babylon, Cyrus “freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality” (Acciona). The UN lists the succeeding major milestones of human rights, from Cyrus to the present, as the Magna Carta of 1215, the English Bill of Rights of 1689, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789, the US Constitution and Bill of Rights of 1791, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948.
But what about the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, the Torah, the Qur’an, the Analects of Confucius, the Inca and Aztec Codes of Conduct and the Iroquois Constitution? And what about the Constitution of Medina and the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the People of the Book? Let us give credit where credit is due.
The Influence of the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad on Thomas Jefferson
When Thomas Jefferson searched for principles, he consulted ancient history, modern history, foreign history, ecclesiastical history, philosophy, morals, ethics, law of nations, religion, jurisprudence, common law, religious jurisprudence, foreign law, politics, ancient and modern, theories of government, geography, literature, poetry, fables, elegies, didactic literature, logic, and criticism.
Thomas Jefferson was an avid book collector and reader. He had, at the time, the largest personal library in the United States. He loved his library collection. However, he offered to sell it to the Library of Congress after its collection was destroyed by the British in 1814. After it was packed and shipped, he commented that “an interesting treasure is added to your city, now become the depository of unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the US, and I hope it will not be without some general effect on the literature of our country” (Library of Congress).
There are those who might claim that the fact that Thomas Jefferson had a Qur’an and accounts of the Covenants of the Prophet does not mean that he read them or was influenced by them. As our efforts to unearth additional insights into Jefferson’s thinking and sources of inspiration continue, merely rejecting the possibility of his access to these sources would be an injustice. As the Library of Congress recognizes, “books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well-being.” As he himself confessed on June 10, 1815, “I cannot live without books.”
“There are those who might claim that the fact that Thomas Jefferson had a Qur’an and accounts of the Covenants of the Prophet does not mean that he read them or was influenced by them. As our efforts to unearth additional insights into Jefferson’s thinking and sources of inspiration continue, merely rejecting the possibility of his access to these sources would be an injustice. As the Library of Congress recognizes, “books were vital to Thomas Jefferson’s education and well-being.” As he himself confessed on June 10, 1815, “I cannot live without books.””
Although the US Founding Documents were the product of multifarious sources, and form part of a historical trajectory, they contain traces of Islamic influences. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Founding Fathers discussed and debated the proper name that should be used to describe the Divinity, such as God or Jesus; however, they ultimately selected the term Creator which, consciously or unconsciously, was in keeping with the Qur’an, the first two verses, as translated by George Sale, refer to “thy Lord, who hath created all things; who hath created man.” Created/Creator appear twice at the start of the Declaration of Independence. Created/created appear twice in the first revealed verses of the Qur’an. In this are signs for men and women of understanding.
The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights enshrine the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They call for freedom of religion; freedom of speech; and freedom of onerous taxation. They provide the right to property, the right to a fair trial, the right to bear arms, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. They prohibit excessive fines along with cruel and unusual punishments. They create a Union, establish justice, tranquility, general welfare, and the blessings of liberty. They provide for political representation and democratic consultation. These rights, freedoms, and political principles are all found in the Qur’an, the Constitution of Medina, and the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad.
Where was there religious freedom in the 18th century? Who was espousing the principle of religious tolerance and pluralism? Apart from brief moments of illumination, namely, the Edict of Milan in 313, the Union of Utretch of 1579, and the Edict of Nantes of 1598, religious intolerance was the norm in much of the Western world for most of recorded history. As Denise A. Spellberg has shown, there were some positive European Christian precedents for the toleration of Muslims in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, including the writings of Michael Servetus, Sebastian Castellio, Sebastian Franck, Thomas Helwys, Roger Williams, John Locke, and Henry Stubbe (1632-1676) (41-80).
Henry Stubbe, like most scholars of time, was familiar with the Covenants of the Prophet. Although his Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism was not formally published, it was widely disseminated in manuscript form among European and American intellectuals of the time (Spellberg 68). Stubbe argues that the Prophet’s Oath to the Christians dated from immediately before the hijrah. “The Christians,” he explains, “entertained a favorable opinion of [Muhammad], resorted to him and recommended themselves to his most benign protection, and took a cartel of security from him” (130).
In Stubbe’s analysis, “The Christians, who had been so persecuted by Chosroes, and finding their condition very uncertain among the Arabians, humors or interests of the governors, were very glad of his rise and magnified his undertaking. (131-132). In sharp contrast to the Islamophobic attitude that prevailed at the time, one which presented the Prophet as an aggressor and an oppressor, Stubbe set the facts straight: “Muhammad persecuted none for religion, who believed in God and the Day of Judgment, so lest of all the Christians, who… enjoyed more of his favors than any of the other religions” (Spellberg 68).
Whether Thomas Jefferson was directly influenced by the writings and thoughts of Henry Stubbe is unclear. What seems more certain is that he absorbed the ideas of the Enlightenment movement which promoted the idea of religious tolerance. The Founding Fathers may have been inspired by Voltaire, Montesquieu and Rousseau, as well as John Locke, who called for civil rights for Jews and Muslims in his seminal Letter on Toleration; however, they also appear to have been inspired by the Prophet Muhammad. Outside of the Covenants of the Prophet, where else was religious pluralism so eloquently expressed?
The discovery that Thomas Jefferson was familiar with the Qur’an is a significant revelation, and credit is due to Denise A. Spellberg for disseminating it. As she showed in her groundbreaking book, Jefferson had both positive and negative views of Islam. Still, despite some misinformation and misgivings, he remained tolerant and inclusive. In fact, in 1784, he shared a radical idea, namely, that “Difference in religion is advantageous in religion” (Spellberg 115). According to Spellberg, Jefferson drew this idea from John Locke. While this might be true it is also true that the first person to profess such a principle was the Prophet Muhammad who said that “Difference in opinion [in religious matters], is a mercy for my community.”
Thomas Jefferson also “wrote on Muslims, Islamic theology, practice, and history in four separate series of notes in his Literary and Legal Commonplace Books” (Spellberg 93). When practicing law, he used to draw upon Islamic legal precedents (96). He also may have drawn upon the Qur’an during negotiations with ‘Abd al-Rahman, the ambassador of Tripoli (145-156), in dealings with Hammuda Bey, the ruler of Tunis, and in meetings with ambassador Suleyman Mellimelli of Tunisia (218-227).
Since his views on Islam, the Prophet, the Qur’an, and Islamic law stood in such sharp contrast to the anti-Islamic views that prevailed at the time, it comes as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson was accused of being a Muslim, a heretic, an infidel, and an atheist by his opponents (Spellberg 212-216, 271). In fact, the very fact that he was tolerant of other religions was treated as proof that he was no true Christian (213).
“Since his views on Islam, the Prophet, the Qur’an, and Islamic law stood in such sharp contrast to the anti-Islamic views that prevailed at the time, it comes as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson was accused of being a Muslim, a heretic, an infidel, and an atheist by his opponents (Spellberg 212-216, 271). In fact, the very fact that he was tolerant of other religions was treated as proof that he was no true Christian (213).”
Thomas Jefferson believed in One God, rejected organized religion, insisted that he worshipped the same God as the Muslims, and viewed Jesus as a human being who called people to belief in divine unity. As he himself said, “The religion of Jesus is founded on the Unity of God” (Spellberg 229). “No historical fact is better established,” Jefferson asserted, “than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity” (229). “Thinking men of all nations,” he proclaimed, “rallied readily to the doctrine of one only god” (229). He faulted Muslim jurists, however, for their literal adherence to the Qur’an (Spellberg 231).
Not only was Thomas Jefferson familiar with the Qur’an, he was also familiar with the Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad. That is also a revelation. Thomas Jefferson did not “steal” Islamic ideas and ideals. He appears to have been inspired by them. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights were not copied from the Qur’an and the Covenants of the Prophet. The evidence suggests, however, that they were among the ingredients that contributed to their creation.
At a time when intolerant, xenophobic, and Islamophobic extremists argue that Islam is a political ideology, as opposed to a religion, with the aim of depriving Muslims of human and civil rights, the consequences of these findings regarding Thomas Jefferson and the Covenants of the Prophet are revolutionary. They require us to reconsider the philosophical and political principles of the Founding Fathers and the role that the Qur’an and the Covenants of the Prophet played in the creation of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights, and consequently in the laying of the foundation stones of the US Republic.
John Andrew Morrow received his PhD from the University of Toronto where he studied Hispanic, Native, and Islamic Studies. He worked as a university professor for two decades. He taught for the University of Toronto, Park University, Northern State University, Eastern New Mexico University, the University of Virginia and Ivy Tech Community College. He was a research fellow at the University of Chicago, Purdue University, and Harvard University. He received an Interfaith Leadership Award from the Islamic Society of North America in 2016 and a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition by the US House of Representatives in 2017. After reaching the rank of Full Professor, he retired from academia to devote himself entirely to scholarship and service. Professor Morrow has authored a vast body of scholarly works in numerous fields. He has published hundreds of scholarly articles and dozens of academic books, including The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World (2013), which has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Islam and the People of the Book: Critical Studies on the Covenants of the Prophet, a three-volume encyclopedic work on the letters and treaties of the Prophet Muhammad.
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