Jefferson's copy of the Koran.
Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison said he chose to swear on Jefferson’s Koran for his oath of office because it showed that “a visionary like Jefferson” believed that wisdom could be gleaned from many sources.
An interesting statement given that Jefferson's Koran aided his decision to wage war against Muslims.
Let's take a closer look at both Jefferson's Koran and his motive for attack.
Jefferson was a lifelong reader and collector of books. In 1813 he wrote to Abigail Adams of "my greatest of all amusements, reading," and informed her husband, John Adams, in 1815 that "I cannot live without books."
Monticello's Library (Book Room)
Jefferson's copy of the Koran is an English translation by George Sale. It is interesting to note that Jefferson did not own Sale's first edition published in 1734 but, rather a reprint released thirty years later, in 1764.
It's likely that Jefferson's purchase of the Koran was neither for collecting nor for literary reasons.
It was on the basis of Sale's version that Thomas Carlyle commented, "It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused Jumble, crude, incondite. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran."
Title page from a Sale translation of the Koran.
So what was Jefferson's motive for owning a Koran and attacking Muslims?
Pirates. No longer under the protection of a British treaty with the radical Muslims of the Barbary states of northern Africa, United States ships trading along the Mediterranean were subject to seizure and their passengers to being sold into slavery.
Jefferson figured that the best way to learn about the political, military, social, economic, and religious agendas of America’s enemies was to read the best textbook on all things Muslim. So he read the Koran in what for his day was a state-of-the-art translation into English directly from the Arabic. Jefferson’s copy of the Koran equipped him with everything he needed to know on how to respond to threats from the caliphates of the early 1800s.
Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat by Dennis Malone Carter
As American ambassadors to France and Britain respectively, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Tripolitan ambassador to Britain, to negotiate a peace treaty and protect the United States from the threat of Barbary piracy.
These future United States presidents questioned the ambassador as to why his government was so hostile to the new American republic even though America had done nothing to provoke any such animosity. Ambassador Adja answered them, as they reported to the Continental Congress, “that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Later, as only the third president of the United States, Jefferson had no CIA to feed intelligence data to him and to his national security advisor. Come to think of it, Jefferson had no national security officer. Knowing one's enemy was not only a vital task for the president but, a personal one.
What Jefferson gleaned from the Koran was that 18th century Americans were in danger from what we call conservative, Wahhabi-type, radical Islam. Certain Congressmen would do well to understand the same today.