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Ted Widmer: The True History of the Koran in America

People of the book

The true history of the Koran in America

By Ted Widmer  |  September 12, 2010

Nine years later, we are still haunted by Sept. 11, and in some ways it’s getting worse. All summer, a shrill debate over whether to build a mosque near the Ground Zero site was fueled by pundits on the right, who drummed up a chorus of invective that made it impossible to focus on the modest facts of the case. Then in the days leading up to the 11th, a church in Gainesville, Fla., sparked a firestorm — almost literally — by inviting Christians to come by on the anniversary for a ceremonial burning of the Koran. The Dove World Outreach Center — a misnomer if ever there was one — has made a cottage industry of its Islam-bashing, promoting its old-fashioned hate crusade with the most modern weapons — YouTube, podcasts, Facebook, and blogs (“Top Ten Reasons to Burn a Koran�).

Obviously, this was an act of naked self-promotion as much as a coherent statement about religion. Its instigator, the church’s pastor, Terry Jones, based his crusade on a series of mind-bending assumptions, including his belief that Muslims are always in bad moods (he asks, on camera, “Have you ever really seen a really happy Muslim?�). But for all of its cartoonish quality, and despite his cancellation under pressure Thursday, the timing of this media circus has been a disaster for US foreign policy and the troops we ask to support it. At the exact moment that we want to act as the careful steward of peace in the Middle East, minds around the world have been filled with the image of Korans in America being tossed onto pyres.

For better or worse, there is not much anybody can do about religious extremists who offend decency, yet stay within the letter of the law. The same Constitution that confirms the right to worship freely protects the right to worship badly. But September is also the anniversary of the 1787 document that framed our government, and in this season of displaced Tea Party anger, it is worth getting right with our history. There is nothing wrong with the desire to go back to the founding principles that made this nation great — but we should take the time to discover what those principles actually were.

For most Americans, the Koran remains a deeply foreign book, full of strange invocations. Few non-Muslims read it, and most of us carry assumptions about a work of scripture that we assume to be hostile, though it affirms many of the earlier traditions of Christianity and Judaism. Like all works of scripture, it is complex and sometimes contradictory, full of soothing as well as frightening passages. But for those willing to make a genuine effort, there are important areas of overlap, waiting to be found.

As usual, the Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.

No book states the case more plainly than a single volume, tucked away deep within the citadel of Copley Square — the Boston Public Library. The book known as Adams 281.1 is a copy of the Koran, from the personal collection of John Adams. There is nothing particularly ornate about this humble book, one of a collection of 2,400 that belonged to the second president. But it tells an important story, and reminds us how worldly the Founders were, and how impervious to the fanaticisms that spring up like dandelions whenever religion and politics are mixed. They, like we, lived in a complicated and often hostile global environment, dominated by religious strife, terror, and the bloodsport of competing empires. Yet better than we, they saw the world as it is, and refused the temptation to enlarge our enemies into Satanic monsters, or simply pretend they didn’t exist.

Reports of Korans in American libraries go back at least to 1683, when an early settler of Germantown, Pa., brought a German version to these shores. Despite its foreign air, Adams’s Koran had a strong New England pedigree. The first Koran published in the United States, it was printed in Springfield in 1806.

Why would John Adams and a cluster of farmers in the Connecticut valley have bought copies of the Koran in 1806? Surprisingly, there was a long tradition of New Englanders reading in the Islamic scripture. The legendary bluenose Cotton Mather had his faults, but a lack of curiosity about the world was not one of them. Mather paid scrupulous attention to the Ottoman Empire in his voracious reading, and cited the Koran often in passing. True, much of it was in his pinched voice — as far back as the 17th century, New England sailors were being kidnapped by North African pirates, a source of never ending vexation, and Mather denounced the pirates as “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils.� But he admired Arab and Ottoman learning, and when Turks in Constantinople and Smyrna succeeded in inoculating patients against smallpox, he led a public campaign to do the same in Boston (a campaign for which he was much vilified by those who called inoculation the “work of the Devil,� merely because of its Islamic origin). It was one of his finer moments.

Other early Americans denounced Islam — surprisingly, Roger Williams, whom we generally hold up as a model of tolerance, expressed the hope that “the Pope and Mahomet� would be “flung in to the Lake that burns with Fire and Brimstone.� But Rhode Island, and ultimately all of New England, proved hospitable to the strangers who came in the wake of the Puritans — notably, the small Jewish congregation that settled in Newport and built Touro Synagogue, America’s oldest. And in theory — if not often in practice (simply because there were so few) — that toleration extended to Muslims as well.

This theory was eloquently expressed around the time the Constitution was written. One of its models was the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which John Adams had helped to create, and which, in the words of one of its drafters, Theophilus Parsons, was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience� for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.�

As the Founders deliberated over what types of people would ultimately populate the strange new country they were creating, they cited Muslims as an extreme of foreign-ness whom it would be important to protect in the future. Perhaps, they daydreamed, a Muslim or a Catholic might even be president someday? Like everything, they debated it. Some disapproved, but Richard Henry Lee insisted that “true freedom embraces the Mahometan and Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.� George Washington went out of his way to praise Muslims on several occasions, and suggested that he would welcome them at Mount Vernon if they were willing to work. Benjamin Franklin argued that Muslims should be able to preach to Christians if we insisted on the right to preach to them. Near the end of his life, he impersonated a Muslim essayist, to mock American hypocrisy over slavery.

Thomas Jefferson, especially, had a familiarity with Islam that borders on the astonishing. Like Adams, he owned a Koran, a 1764 English edition that he bought while studying law as a young man in Williamsburg, Va. Only two years ago, that Koran became the center of a controversy, when the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked if he could place his hand on it while taking his oath of office — a request that elicited tremendous screeches from the talk radio extremists. Jefferson even tried to learn Arabic, and wrote his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.�

Jefferson and Adams led many of our early negotiations with the Islamic powers as the United States lurched into existence. A favorable treaty was signed with Morocco, simply because the Moroccans considered the Americans ahl-al-kitab, or “people of the book,� similar to Muslims, who likewise eschewed the idolatry of Europe’s ornate state religions. When Adams was president, a treaty with Tripoli (Libya) insisted that the United States was “not in any sense founded upon the Christian religion� and therefore has “no character of enmity against the laws, religion and tranquility of Mussulmen.�

There was another important group of Americans who read the Koran, not as a legal sourcebook, or a work of exoticism, but as something very different — a reminder of home. While evidence is fragmentary, as many as 20 percent of African-American slaves may have come from Islamic backgrounds. They kept their knowledge of the Koran alive through memory, or chanted suras, or, in rare cases, smuggled copies of the book itself. In the 1930s, when WPA workers were interviewing elderly African-Americans in Georgia’s Sea Islands, they were told of an ancestor named Bilali who spoke Arabic and owned a copy of the Koran — a remarkable fact when we remember that it was a crime for slaves to read. In the War of 1812, Bilali and his fellow Muslims helped to defend America from a British attack, inverting nearly all of our stereotypes in the process.

In 1790, as the last of the original 13 states embraced the Constitution, and the United States finally lived up to its name, George Washington visited that state — unruly Rhode Island — and its Jewish congregation at Newport. The letter he wrote to them afterwards struck the perfect note, and drained much of the antiforeign invective that was already poisoning the political atmosphere, only a year into his presidency. Addressing himself to “the children of the Stock of Abraham� (who, in theory, include Muslims as well as Jews), the president of the United States offered an expansive vision indeed:

“May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.�

For democracy to survive, it required consent; a willingness to surrender some bits of cultural identity to preserve the higher goal of a working community. Washington’s letter still offers a tantalizing prospect, especially as his successor turns from the distracting noise of Gainesville to the essential work of building peace in the Middle East, for all of the children of the Stock of Abraham.

Ted Widmer is the Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo director and librarian of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

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  • Daniel Ibn Zayd

    LOL They said the same thing about Native American tribal chiefs, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. today has their portraits all hung round, like a gallery of genocide. So what? The puke-inducing Orientalist nonsense of George Sale’s introduction is no different than today’s more, shall we say, active efforts to win “hearts and minds” in this region I now live in, and cannot be viewed out of context as much as you might want that to be the case. Give it a rest. We beg of you. I’ll pay you cash money to not post any more about Islam or Muslims or the Qur’an. Seriously. I beg you.

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  • Brian O’Malley

    Thank you for inviting your readers to consult George Sale’s introduction to his translation of the Qu’ran. Your readers will also consider the brief dedication Sale addressed to John Lord Carteret, of the Privy Council.

    In the introduction, Sale addressed the reader. Although Sales characterized the Koran as “so manifest a forgery,� he nonetheless remarked that critics of Islamic jurisprudence, “they are greatly deceived who imagine it to have been propagated by the sword alone.�

    Sale was not a Muslim and he did not accept Islam as the genuine religion or a genuine religion. Sales, however, thought highly of Muhammad. Sales remarked that however “criminal� Muhammad was for introducing a “false religion,� “the praise due to his real virtues ought not to be denied him; nor can I do otherwise than applaud the candour of the pious and Learned Spanhemius, who, though he owned him [Muhammad] to have been a wicked impostor, yet acknowledged him to have been richly furnished with natural endowments, beuaiful in his person, of subtle wit, agreeable behavior, showing liberality to the poor, courtesy to every one, fortitude against his enemies, and above all a high reverence of the name of God…a great preacher of patience, charity, mercy, beneficence, gratitude, honouring of parents and superiors, and a frequent celebrator of the divine praises.�

    In the dedication, Sale acknowledge that Islam rested under “odium” in the West, but Sale thought this ill-repute was undeserved, “as Mohammed gave his Arabs the best relgiion he could, as well as the best laws, preferable, at least, to those o fthe ancient pagan lawgivers, I confess I cannot see why he deserves not equal respect, though not with Moses or Jesus Christ, whose laws came really from heaven, yet with Minos or Numa,” legendary lawmakers of ancient Crete and Rome, respectively.

    Thank you for recommending a consultation of this introduction by Sale, which reminds the reader of John Adams’s remark that Muhammad, Socrates and Confucius pursued “sober enquiries after truth,” which, on the importance of virtue, agreed with “authorities really sacred.” See John Adams, Thoughts on Government (1776).

  • Brian O’Malley

    Daniel Ibn Zayd proposes that if the sentiments I find in several of the Founders’ writings is true, “then the racist and classist nightmare that is modern-day America wouldn’t exist.”
    On the contrary, George Washington freed all his slaves in his will, and established a fund for the elderly and for any children among them requiring assistance with learning to read and write, and apprenticing in a trade.
    This example was not followed by all the people of his generation, or by every other Southern slaveholder in the decades following Washington’s 1799 passing.
    The fact that a “nightmare” continued or emerged later, does not prove that at least some of the Founders did not try to set a better example.
    Thank you.

  • Daniel Ibn Zayd

    If what you are projecting onto these men in order to make yourself feel better about the U.S. today were true, then the racist and classist nightmare that is modern-day America wouldn’t exist. If what I am saying is true, then it explains this current state of affairs.

    You can’t have it both ways.

    Read the introduction to these Qur’an, see just how the religion was viewed back then and after that get back to me.

  • Brian O’Malley

    For America’s Founding Generation, owning a translation of the Koran was not about “owning a foreign culture.”
    Please consider John Adams’s remark (quoted in Steven Waldman, Founding Faith) that he hoped his grandchildren would have translations of Hindu scripture to study and discuss. Yes, reading the scriptures was about enrichment–cultural enrichment and moral enrichment, not something so crass as material conquest.
    Consider the observation, “It’s no different today, a rich businessman doesn’t care what religion his workers are as long as they slave away.”
    George Washington was willing to hire a Jew, Muslim or Atheist in 1784. You do not wish to assign any merit to refusal to discriminate in hiring, decades before the law required it, because you incorrectly assume the Founders assigned no merit to the craftsman.
    Consider the jobs that the Founders did open to people of all religions: Please read Article 6, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, which banned religious tests for federal office. The Supreme Court extended this ban on religious tests to state and local office in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961).

  • Brian O’Malley

    Daniel Ibn Zayd asked, “How many states had official state religions?”

    During the Founding Era, the original 13 states eliminated their religious establishments, culminating with Massachusetts in 1833. Religious tests for office remained in some states, but these were challenged even then.

  • Daniel Ibn Zayd

    The Founding Fathers were landed gentry and aristocracy, whose hostile corporate takeover (often referred to as the American Revolution) was about preserving their wealth. It’s no different today, a rich businessman doesn’t care what religion his workers are as long as they slave away. That this be confused with “democracy” or “freedom” is risible, as is the idea that there was any religious enlightenment in the U.S. during the time of the colonies. This is directly contradicted by the religious role in state government–how many Quakers were banished from Massachusetts? Put to death there? How many states had official state religions? Maryland, anyone? Federal religious “freedoms” were about the federal government not messing in the states’ affairs, period.

    Finally, the “Other” at that time was an object of study, and to think that Benjamin Franklin might have elevated a Muslim to his level is laughable–owning a Koran was about owning an alien culture–like Napoleon in Egypt, and the artifacts absconded with now decorating the Louvre. Read the introduction to the Qur’ans owned by these men: Their description of Islam much less the Prophet or those who might follow him was far from respectful. Did any slaves manage to remain Muslim? Not likely. The good congressman might want to reconsider his oath. This is nothing but the Orientalist enterprise at work, and Jefferson’s study of Islam was surely the same as current presidents referring to books on the “Arab Mind”; war is war, after all, waged then as waged now, mustakbiriin against mustaD’afiin. Finally, that Franklin did some kind of Muslim minstrel show is offensive, not something to be praised.

    Brothers need to wake up.

  • Zakariya Ali Sher

    So Halal Porker is now posting here, and once again, his comments have NOTHING to do with the article. Hardly surprising, is it? Most of his comments lately have just been copy-pasting from some evangelical website or another. A lot of it seems to echo Medieval wet dreams about a ‘united Christendom’ destroying Islam. Hate to break it to you Halal Porker, but we aren’t really insecure in our faith. In fact, I’m tempted to say that there are more Mo’mineen (TRUE Muslims) than true Christians or Jews, if only because of the difficulty of upholding our faith.

    Yes, its easy for an armchair Crusader like you who has never left the US, hell probably never been outside of your Podunk little town. You talk about us being insecure, yet your hatred and fear of Islam seems to suggest to me that you are the one who is really insecure in your faith, your culture, your basic way of life. You’ve spent your entire life as a Christian in a Christian-majority, secular country. You’ve never had your beliefs challenged. You’ve never had difficulty upholding your faith.

    But speaking as a Muslim, I will say that we do face challenges. And not just from your ignorant little Islamophobe missionaries. Have you ever tried fasting? For an entire month? That is extremely difficult, yet rewarding, and I can’t imagine many people would choose to ‘pretend to fast’ just for looks. Especially in a non-Muslim majority country like the US. Keeping prayer times, dietary restrictions and the like… all of that can be difficult. I choose to follow through as a Muslim because it is what I believe. If I didn’t why would I bother?

    This part here is especially classic…

    > The letter :I: for Islam stands for IGNORANCE,INTOLERANCE and
    > INSANITY.The letter :S: for SAVAGERY.:L: for LUST and:A;for A-MORALITY
    > and letter :M: for MUTUALITY.The Muslims are always united against the
    > KAFIRS.

    LOL… that’s not even how it works. الإسلام, al-Islam, is written in the Arabic script… technically those ‘alifs’ are long vowels and they don’t stand for ANYTHING in English. But whatever gets you through the night I guess…

  • Lilly

    Hey.. Halal Pork and Co.? Dare you to come to Portland Oregon and preach! ^_^

  • Franczeska

    Would it help to address Halal Pork in his native language? I’ll give it a try: Mr. Halal Pork, you said of Islam: “…it will eventually going to collapse” You are like will be going eventually to classes remedial grammar language English better writing for you make against Moslems, no? And also including learn you better to spell. Using of punctuations propers and sentences not being run-on helping also.

  • The Sphinx

    Only at that part? :)

  • Cynic

    and:A;for A-MORALITY

    I lol’d at this part 😀

  • http://Googlemail Halal pork

    The American establishment have tried to be impervious to religious fanatacism ,contrary to the Islamic Intolerance.It would be nice to see Christmas and Jewish festivals celebrated in Saudi Arabia which is the CITADEL of ISLAM.I don’t think the King of that country would ever invite the Christians for a Chrismas party or even allow the Holy Bibles into that country.Do you know the reason why? Because Islam is an INSECURE IDEOLOGY based on a demonic LIE.The darkness of Islam is scared of the TRUTH of the LIGHT OF CHRIST.ISLAM is like a house built on SAND rather than ROCK.It will eventually going to collapse.Light will eventually overcome the darkness of Islam.The letter :I: for Islam stands for IGNORANCE,INTOLERANCE and INSANITY.The letter :S: for SAVAGERY.:L: for LUST and:A;for A-MORALITY and letter :M: for MUTUALITY.The Muslims are always united against the KAFIRS.

  • Sir David

    Maybe it’s the end of the loon season they have migrated back to their homeland for the winter?

  • Sam Seed

    Any moment now….(Halal P…)

  • Electric Rodent

    lol, it should be read “shouldn’t this article be….”

  • Electric Rodent

    This article shouldn’t be classified as “Loon-at-Large”…
    Great article nonetheless, although I’d like to see some references to some of the facts posted. Never thought how much of an impact something from “The East” could have had on the country that (imo) epitomizes the West.

  • Abdullah

    Nice article, now for the off topic comments from the usual birds…..


  • mindy1

    Beautifully put-is it really true that Thomas Jefferson hosted a ramadan dinner as Pres? If so, how open minded of him

  • jwalker

    dude u have no koran

  • jawad

    Thanks for the link justin. Great article and great website.

  • Justin

    Good article. Good post.

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