The Revolving Bookstand: Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an

Eleven years before composing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an. How did this purchase influence Jefferson and what role did Islam play with other American Founding Fathers? Wm. Scott Harrop reviews Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders by Denise Spellberg in this month’s Revolving Bookstand feature.

Thomas Jefferson's Quran

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 2007, when Congressman Keith Ellison borrowed a Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson for his ceremonial oath of office, he renewed a debate as old as the American republic.  For some critics, a Muslim holding elected office constitutes a fundamental threat to American identity, an anathema to its founding values.

In Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Denise A. Spellberg, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas, counters that key America founders contemplated Islam in civic life.  In Spellberg’s judgment, an “American Muslim citizen with full civil rights” is “quintessentially evocative of our national ideals.”

Jefferson’s ownership of a Qur’an provides Spellberg with an intriguing hook for her inquiry.  Proof that Jefferson owned a copy of the Qur’an is preserved in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia.  There, the “Virginia Gazette Daybook” records that on October 5, 1765, Thomas Jefferson, then a law student at William & Mary, purchased George Sale’s venerable translation of the Qur’an.  While no direct notes from Jefferson’s reading of the Qur’an survive, Spellberg draws inferences about Jefferson’s understanding (and misimpressions) of Islam from scattered writings and his own policy views and choices made amid his encounters with Muslims.

Thomas Jeffersons Quran Islam and the Founders by Denise Spellberg

Even as Spellberg details Jefferson’s criticisms of Islam as a religion, she demonstrates that Jefferson, like James Madison and George Washington, advocated religious freedom and civic rights for Muslims, as they did for Catholics and Jews.   Going beyond Locke, Jefferson’s critical innovation was not just to “tolerate” religious dissent, but to assert the full inclusion of citizens and public servants from all faiths – or none at all. Yet just how and why Jefferson and his concurring founders arrived at this stance deserves further exploration.

Amid the decade long political fight for passage of his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson famously wrote that, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg.” Spellberg notes that despite Jefferson’s profession to be a Christian, his political foes, including John Quincy Adams, abused Jefferson’s own words to slur him as an “infidel,” a Muslim. He has certainly not been the last American president to face this charge.

During his presidency, Jefferson clashed with North African Muslim powers as Barbary corsairs attacked American merchant ships and demanded ransoms. Although Spellberg dubs Jefferson the first President of the United States to “wage war against an Islamic power,” he was also the first to make peace with them.  She assesses that Jefferson “never perceived a predominantly religious dimension to the conflict” and may have even used faith as a bridge to resolve the disputes.

Spellberg’s remarkable inquiry demonstrates that even as early America inherited Europe’s deep fears of Muslims, it also established original principles for their equal inclusion in public life.  Both timely and enlightening, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders deserves wide consideration.

harroplowresWm. Scott Harrop is a Lecturer in the University of Virginia’s Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian and Languages and Cultures.  Since early 2011, he’s been teaching courses on “Recent Revolutions in the Islamic World” — through a Jeffersonian prism.  He’s also a past Jefferson Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.

Meet Bob Self

Bob Self, Robert H. Smith Director of Restoration, has worked on furniture authentication and column restorations, roof renovations and room paintings during his time at Monticello. He has helped specify details for the Monticello Collection’s line of furniture reproductions and will be instrumental in the restoration of the second and third floors of Monticello and the reconstruction of Mulberry Row.

The Revolving Bookstand: Jefferson and Wine

Thomas Jefferson claimed, in 1818, that “in nothing have the habits of the palate more decisive influence than in our relish of wines.” His own habits had been formed over thirty years before—at the tables of Parisian philosophes and in the vineyards of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds and a Virginia vintner worked to restore Jefferson’s vineyard at Monticello. Here are his recommendations for Jefferson and wine books:

9781604733709[1]Thomas Jefferson on Wine by John Hailman
This is probably the best researched book on Jefferson and wine. Hailman told me it took him 30 years to research and write this book. I love how detailed he is in every issue and situation on the topic. Nothing is left out—he puts together all of the little details and makes them into an attractive story. This book is not only for the person who wants basic information about Jefferson and wine, but also for experts who already know the subject.


passions[1]The Wines and Travels of Thomas Jefferson by James Gabler
This detailed book tells the story of Jefferson’s travels throughout the vineyards of France, Italy, and Germany as well as his introduction of European wines. I remember when Gabler showed up at Colle (near Monticello) in 1989 looking to see the land that Mazzei had used to grow European grapes (Vitis vinifera). This book is not a difficult read, and is especially good when enjoyed with a glass wine.

Gabriele Rausse, Monticello Director of Gardens and Grounds

Gabriele Rausse, Monticello Director of Gardens and Grounds


Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds and local vitner, joined Monticello as assistant director of gardens and grounds in 1995. During his time at Monticello, he has worked to restore Thomas Jefferson’s vineyard, located just below the vegetable garden. The Northeast vineyard was replanted using several Jefferson-related European varieties, grated on hardy, pest-resistant native rootstock. The Southwest Vineyard was replanted entirely with the Sangiovese grape, a variety documented by Jefferson in 1807 and the principal ingredient of Chianti. Rausse oversees the production of wine as well as the care of the restored vineyards, which continue to serve as experimental gardens of unusual varieties of vinifera. Throughout Virginia, Rausse is known for his mark on Virginia wine and has often been called the “Father of the Virginia Wine Industry.” In October 2010, Edible Blue Ridge magazine called Rausse, “God of Wine.”

As an Italian immigrant, Rausse shares his Mediterranean knowledge of grapes and wine-making to the thriving market in Virginia. He first came to Virginia to establish Barboursville Vineyards in April 1976. Barboursville Vineyards was the first commercial vinifera winery in Virginia. By initiating the growth and development of this native Mediterranean grape, Rausse created a name for himself in the local wine community. He was drawn to other vineyards, such as Simeon (now Jefferson), Afton Mountain, and Blenheim, to help jump-start their place in the Virginia wine market.

Rausse has become one of the vital overseers in wine production and the restoration of vineyards in Virginia. He began the wine competition at the State Fair of Virginia and received Virginia Wine Person of the Year in 1996. Most recently, Rausse was awarded the 2011 Virginia Distinguished Service Award. This honor is presented to an individual for meritorious service to the council and state’s agribusiness industry.

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