By Kirk Davis Swinehart
Divining a man’s beliefs from the books in his library is a perilous business. And when that man happens to be Thomas Jefferson, it’s like trying to staple vinaigrette to the ceiling. The third president, an omnivorous bibliophile, owned perhaps as many as 10,000 titles. He also was a reticent man of infinite contradictions, as well as a cunning politician. Could any one of this Delphic founder’s many books account for his most enduring contributions to liberal democracy? The answer, it seems, is yes.
In “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an,” her fascinating if somewhat meandering new book, Denise A. Spellberg traces the partial origins of American religious toleration to a single day in 1765 when Jefferson, then studying law at the College of William and Mary, acquired an English translation of Islam’s sacred text. He never claimed that the Quran shaped his political orientation. Yet Spellberg, an associate professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin, makes a persuasive case for its centrality. To oversimplify: What began as an academic interest in Islamic law and religion yielded a fascination with Islamic culture, which disposed him to include Muslims in his expansive vision of American citizenship. [Read more…]