Jefferson and Muslims

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SHAFAQNA – Unfortunately though Jefferson’s universal vision of religious toleration and equality did not extend to African American slaves, many of who were Muslims.

The question that whether Muslims could be citizens of Christian Commonwealth was first considered by John Locke in the 17th century England.

John Locke wrote in 1689: “Nay if we may openly speak the Truth, and as becomes one Man to another, neither Pagan, nor Mahumetan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the Civil Rights of the Commonwealth, because of his Religion”. In 1692, he wrote again, this time defending his earlier thesis: “Besides, I think you are under a mistake, which shows your pretence against admitting Jews, Mahometans, Pagans, to the civil rights of the Commonwealth is ill-grounded; for what law I pray is there in England, that they who turn to any of those religions, forfeit the civil rights of the commonwealth by doing it”. In another letter, published posthumously “Men in all religions have equally strong persuasions, and everyone must judge for himself; nor can anyone judge for another, and you last of all for the magistrate”.

These words of John Locke form the basis of the idea of religious toleration and citizenship in the western world. These ideas, the discerning reader might also recognize, find an echo in Pakistan’s founding father Jinnah’s several pronouncements not just on the rights of Non-Muslims in Pakistan, especially his 11 August speech, but also through out his career as a parliamentarian where he stood unwaveringly for religious liberty and equality.

Much before Jinnah though it was Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the US who deployed John Locke in furthering his ideas of equal rights. Thomas Jefferson went beyond John Locke and rejected the need for having a Christian Commonwealth or a state with an established Anglican Church. Thomas Jefferson rejected the idea of Christian exceptionalism. In 1777 Jefferson introduced the most important piece of legislation of his life in Virginia legislature called the Bill for establishing religious freedom. In this bill the preamble declared “that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion”. The more Christian minded amongst the legislators wanted the insertion of the words “Jesus Christ” after that clause. Thomas Jefferson writes:

“The insertion of ‘Jesus Christ’ was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindu and infidel of every denomination”.

Unfortunately though Jefferson’s universal vision of religious toleration and equality did not extend to African American slaves, many of who were Muslims. All great men are products of their time, and Jefferson was himself a slave owner. Without papering over this paradox, it is nevertheless extraordinary that in 18thcentury Jefferson was advanced enough to imagine an American future where Muslims would one day be citizens of that great country. That time did come some time late last century.

The debates that Jefferson was involved in two centuries ago are all the more relevant in today’s world, and especially in the US where a question mark has again arisen over Muslims and the question of divided loyalties. On the one hand you have the right wing in the US that insists that the country was founded on Judaeo-Christian values and on the other you have Muslim activists and resisters who rightly point to the views of Jefferson and other US founding fathers to claim that they have every right to be there. Some do go over board. One well-meaning Muslim American recently claimed that America was founded on Christian-Islamic values.

Historical evidence suggests that Jefferson’s ideas of religious toleration were the product of a healthy distrust of clerical authority and the Church, which had been fostered amongst Protestants for two centuries prior to Jefferson. Therefore the great tradition of American secularism evolved out of ecumenical Protestant thought that had come to accept a separation of Church and State. The idea that the US founding fathers based the US Constitution on the Quran might sound pleasing to American Muslims but is historically untrue. Jefferson, the great proponent of the rights of hypothetical Muslim citizens amongst the founding fathers, nevertheless had a very poor view of Islam informed by Voltaire’s mostly unfair criticism of the faith. Even though Jefferson possessed a copy of George Sale’s wonderful 1734 translation of the Quran, he nevertheless viewed Islam as a creed that was antithetical to the ideas of civil government in the Western world. The important point here is that despite thinking of Islam in these terms, Jefferson proposed equal citizenship of the state to citizens who professed Islam as their creed.

Today as the US comes face to face with the question of letting in refugees and migrants from Muslim majority countries, it would do well to revisit the memory of one of its most eloquent and articulate founding fathers.

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore and the author of the book Mr Jinnah: Myth and Reality. The views expressed here are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect that of Shafaqna’s

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