Historical Images: President Thomas Jefferson’s Copy of the Qur’an

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A WEEKLY/BI-WEEKLY FEATURE PRESENTeD BY SIMERGPHOTOS

Compiled By Malik Merchant, Editor
(material sources listed at the end of the article)

On Sunday November 25, 2012, Simergphotos began a weekly (or bi-weekly) publication of historical illustrations that underline an artistic, ethical, moral, religious or scientific theme.This second piece introduces readers to a rare copy of the Qur’an which was purchased by Thomas Jefferson, and shows his insight and vision for religious freedom and worship, a right in America which was reiterated by President Barack Obama in remarks he made at the White House during this year’s month of Ramadhan.

Jefferson's Koran at the Library of Congress. George Sale, trans. (1697–1736). The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed, Translated into English Immediately from the Original Arabic; . . . 2 vols. London, 1764. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress. (S. 1457) (27.00.00)

The inside title page of the Qur’an owned by 3rd US President Thomas Jefferson. It appears that Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an in 1765 from the office of the Virginia Gazette. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in his law studies at the College of William and Mary, so it is likely that he purchased the book as an example of Arabic law as his textbooks suggested. Jefferson cataloged the book in his section on “Religion,” where it shared the shelves with early Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States from 1801-1809, was born in 1743 in Virginia. Jefferson studied at the College of William and Mary, and then studied law. At 33, between June 11 and June 28, 1776, he drafted the Declaration of Independence, America’s most cherished symbol of liberty and Jefferson’s most enduring moment. In 1777, he Drafted a Bill for Religious Freedom which stated:

…that our civil rights have no dependance 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 injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right.

Colossal Faces of Four American Presidents including Thomas Jefferson, second from left.

The Rushmore National Memorial, one of America’s most enduring patriotic symbols, is a massive carving of the colossal faces of US Presidents (l to r) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln representing the first 150 years of American history. Photo: Malik Merchant. ©

Two hundred and thirty-five years later, the 44th US President, Barack Obama, articulated Jefferson’s vision in his annual Ramadhan Iftar dinner at the White House. In his August 10, 2012 remarks to Muslim ambassadors and other dignitaries, he said:

“Of all the freedoms we cherish as Americans, of all the rights that we hold sacred, foremost among them is freedom of religion, the right to worship as we choose. It’s enshrined in the First Amendment of our Constitution — the law of the land, always and forever. It beats in our heart — in the soul of the people who know that our liberty and our equality is endowed by our Creator. And it runs through the history of this house, a place where Americans of many faiths can come together and celebrate their holiest of days — and that includes Ramadan.”

Remarks continued below photo….

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President Barack Obama delivers remarks during the Iftar Dinner in the State Dining Room of the White House, August 10, 2012 (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

“Thomas Jefferson once held a sunset dinner here with an envoy from Tunisia — perhaps the first Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago. And some of you, as you arrived tonight, may have seen our special display, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Congress — the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And that’s a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam — like so many faiths — is part of our national story“…..President Obama, August 10, 2012

But not a great deal had been written or spoken about the rare set of the Qur’an owned by the 3rd US President until Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to US Congress, announced in December 2006 that he would take the oath of office upon it on January 4, 2007. He came under attack and the story was then reported in the media across the USA. Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts in their piece for the Christian Science Monitor, commented as follows on the controversy:

“Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he’d take his oath of office on the Koran — especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

“Yet the holy book at tomorrow’s ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We’ve learned that the new congressman — in a savvy bit of political symbolism — will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.”

Congressman Ellison's oath on the Qur'an owned by Thomas Jefferson

Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) photographed with his wife Kim and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). Ellison and Pelosi placed their hands on a copy of the Koran at the Library of Congress which belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Photo credit: Michaela McNichol, Library of Congress

KEllisonkoran2 Oath on the Qur'an
A close-up photo of Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison placing his hand on the two-volume set of the Qur’an which was owned by Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation’s third President. Ellison, the first Muslim ever elected to the US Congress, took his oath of office on January 4, 2007.

The Qur’an on which Ellison put his hand was a two-volume second edition translation published in London in 1764, and is commonly called  The Alcoran of Mohammed. President Jefferson had sold the set to the Library of Congress in 1815 along with nearly 6,500 other titles to replace the Congressional Library that had been destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 181. The set was rebound by the Library in 1918and resides in the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Date posted: Sunday December 2, 2012.

For previous week’s illustration, please click Historical Images: The American Declaration of Independence Illustrated.

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Concurrent with this piece on the Qur’an, Simergphotos’ companion literary website, Simerg, has published an excellent article America’s Founding Fathers and Islam, by James Hutson, who is the Chief of Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress. Hutson’s piece draws upon the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other primary documents to discuss the relationship of Islam to the new nation.

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Material for the Thomas Jefferson Qur’an was prepared from the following articles:

Library of Congress – Jefferson’s Copy of the Koran - here you will be able to share the image with others via a postcard option.
Christian Science Monitor –  Keith Ellison and the Quran
Saudi Aramco World – Thomas Jefferson QuranThis informative article seeks to provide answers on why Jefferson purchased the Qur’an, what use he made of it, and why he included it in his young nation’s repository of knowledge.
Monticello – Quran Think Progress – Ellison and Jefferson

About the The Library of Congress (LOC): The world’s largest library has holdings of more than 140 millions books and other printed items. Its main building is named after Thomas Jefferson, who played a founding role for the Library. When he became the third US President, he enshrined this new institution in law. The LOC continues to collect internationally, on all subjects, and in more than 470 languages which in itself is a reflection of Jefferson’s universal approach to collecting. Please visit the library website at www.loc.gov.

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Profile of Malik Merchant at Contributors.

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