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Why the Quran Was a Bestseller Among Christians in 18th Century America

January 3, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

Islam has existed in North America for hundreds of years, ever since enslaved people captured in Africa brought their religion over. In the 1700s, an English translation of the Quran (or Koran) actually became a bestseller among Protestants in England and its American colonies. One of its readers was Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s person copy of the Quran drew attention recently when Rashida Tlaib, one of the first two Muslim entering Congress in 2018, announced she’d use it during her swearing-in ceremony. It’s not the first time a member Congress has sworn in with it—Keith Ellison, the first Muslim Congressman, did so in 2007—yet its use highlights the long and complicated history of Islam in the U.S.

“The Quran gained a popular readership among Protestants both in England and in North America largely out of curiosity,” says Denise A. Spellberg, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: Islam and the Founders. “But also because people thought of the book as a book of law and a way to understand Muslims with whom they were interacting already pretty consistently, in the Ottoman Empire and in North Africa.”

When Jefferson bought his Quran as a law student in 1765, it was probably because of his interest in understanding Ottoman law. It may have also influenced his original intention for the the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to protect the right to worship for “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination,” as he wrote in his autobiography.

This professed religious tolerance was probably mostly theoretical for Jefferson. At the time, he and many other people of European descent likely weren’t aware of how far Islam extended into parts of Africa not controlled by the Ottoman Empire; which means that, ironically, they might not have realized that many enslaved people in North America held the very faith they were studying.

Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s Quran was a 1734 translation by a British lawyer named George Sale. It was the first direct translation of the Quran from Arabic to English (the only other English version was a translation of a French translation published in 1649), and would remain the definitive English translation of the Quran into the late 1800s. In his introduction, Sale wrote that the purpose of the book was …read more


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