Modern academic “scholarship” is similar to kudzu, that uncontrollable weed or vine that can grow from a single planting and eventually entwine every trunk and branch within its reach, and link from shrub and hedge to form a canopy over even a forest that will deny other plants sunlight and rain. Wild kudzu suffocates and kills. Much like big government. Much like statism.
There has been an ongoing campaign over the decades to find feet of clay in Thomas Jefferson, in order to discredit and obviate his position on freedom (e.g., the whole Sally Hemings and Jefferson “affair,” the subject of books and movies), or, failing that, to appropriate him and his reputation for un-Jeffersonian purposes. The ivy-grown towers of modern academe are really bastions of kudzu. One must ascend the dying trees with a machete and hack down the canopy, and then descend again to uproot the killer weed. Vipers like cane snakes and rattlers hide in the dense scholarly foliage, and even black widows and brown recluses, ready to strike at anyone careless enough to step on or disturb them. However, academic kudzu can be further contained and eliminated with the herbicide of reason.
But, imagine Rudolph Evans’s magnificent statue of Jefferson in the Jefferson Memorial smothered in kudzu. That’s what academia has been doing to his life and reputation.
Earlier this month, a very odd and alarming book fell from the dense foliage, Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: The Founders and Islam.* It purports to prove, or at least give the public the impression, that Jefferson smiled benevolently upon Islam, that Islam played a role in the formation of his political philosophy, that the wisdom to be found in the Koran somehow found its way into the Declaration of Independence.
This is as bizarre a thesis as one which would claim that Mao’s Little Red Book, Marx’s Das Kapital, and Hitler’s Mein Kampf somehow contributed to the corpus of literature upholding individual rights, laissez faire capitalism, and limited government, and that in Mao’s, Hitler’s and Marx’s books can be can be found the principles which moved Jefferson to compose the Declaration and the Founders to create the Constitution of the United States.
When I recently spotted the cover of Spellberg’s book in a bookstore, the author’s name tickled my memory. Then I remembered: Denise Spellberg was in the center of a controversy in 2008 about a novel, The Jewel of Medina, whose publication in this country was cancelled because she recommended to the publisher, Random House, that it not be published lest it offend Muslims and cause more riots and demonstrations, riots and tumult such as followed the publication of the Danish Mohammad cartoons. (The novel, whose literary merits or lack of them are not discussed here, was eventually published by Beaufort Books.) She recommended, in effect, that Random House self-censor itself by refraining from publishing a book which Muslims might find offensive. It was “soft-core pornography, and “ugly” and “stupid” and was bound to become a “national security issue.”
I had already twice written in 2008 about Spellberg and her role in that disgraceful episode of cowardice and dhimmitude, in The Sensitivity Syndrome and The Sensitivity Syndrome II. I did not expect to revisit her career in 2013.
In 2008, Spellberg, an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas-Austin, where she teaches courses on Islamic civilization and Islam in Europe and America,
[h]aving been sent an advance copy [or galley proofs] of The Jewel of Medina by Random House, in hopes of her writing a jacket blurb endorsing the novel, Spellberg’s first action after reading it was to call a Muslim and guest lecturer in Spellberg’s classes, Shahed Amanullah, to warn him about the book because, she said, according to the WSJ article, the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history” and that she found the novel “incredibly offensive.” Amanullah subsequently emailed other Muslims about the book, even though he had not read it and was taking her word for it.
The next day Spellberg called Random House/Knopf editor Jane Garrett with dire warnings about the consequences of publishing the book, calling its scheduled publication a “declaration of war,” a “national security issue,” and claiming that the novel was “far more controversial than [Salman Rushdie’s] The Satanic Verses and the Danish cartoons.”
How anyone could imagine that Jones’ novel could have been any of those things is only a clue to the inflated importance Spellberg must place on her role in “building bridges,” multiculturalist “bridges” which she would not want to see burned in defense of someone else’s freedom of speech. (And this is one example of how multiculturalism is anti-Western and a destroyer.)
Denise Spellberg is a “feminist” and a leftist, and, as with other leftists, has allied herself with Islam because Islam is copasetic with the left’s totalitarian mindset, in which all misogynic elements of the creed/ideology are forgiven. She has appeared at seminars and conferences over the years with known academic shills for Islam in this country (e.g., John Esposito of Georgetown University, the director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding). She also wrote Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr, published by Columbia University Press in 1996.
A Washington Post editorial, “Random Error,” of August 22nd, 2008, castigated both Random House and speech-interventionist Spellberg:
“LIBERTY LIES in the hearts of men and women,” the great federal judge Learned Hand once wrote. “When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court, can save it.” And he was right: Free societies survive not only because of good government; they also survive because citizens assert their rights, even when government, or a mob, may object. Alas, the spirit of liberty needs reinforcement at one distinguished American book publisher. Random House has canceled publication of “The Jewel of Medina,” American writer Sherry Jones’s romance novel about the prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha. The publisher says it feared a repeat of the death threats from Iran that greeted Salman Rushdie’s book “The Satanic Verses” — or riots such as those that broke out in the Muslim world after a Danish publication printed cartoons of Muhammad.
Lorraine Adams, in her New York Times story about the capitulation of Random House to Spellberg’s Halloween-like trick on the publisher (“Thinly Veiled,” December 12th 2008), quoted a stung Spellberg from an August 2008 Wall Street Journal article by Asra Nomani (link unavailable unless you pay for it):
The most authoritative contemporary English-language account of A’isha — “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of A’isha Bint Abi Bakr” [by Spellberg] — is not listed as one of Jones’s sources. But its author, Denise Spellberg, played a role in Random House’s decision to abandon the book. According to a Wall Street Journal op-ed essay last August, “You Still Can’t Write About Muhammad,” Spellberg received an advance copy, usually sent to solicit a blurb, and responded instead with a warning that Jones’s novel could incite violence from Muslim extremists. An associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas, Austin, Spellberg also emphasized that she supported freedom of expression. “I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,’ ” she told the [Wall Street Journal] essay’s author, Asra Q. Nomani. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”
One wants so ask her: Well, darling, which do you really support? Freedom of speech, or self-censorship in the name of violence deterrence and not offending Muslims who weren’t likely to read Jones’s book anyway? You seem to have shouted “Fire!” in a theater when there was no fire. Is your standing in academia so poor that you felt compelled to manufacture a crisis, and instill terror in a publisher, in order to draw attention to yourself?
Interestingly, one jacket blurb on Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was written by Ali Asani, professor and director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University and is also on the board of directors of Esposito’s “princely” Georgetown Center. Both entities were founded with Saudi money.
Spellberg’s new book is replete with “maybe’s” and “perhaps’s” and “it is not known that Jefferson thought this or that, but…’s” and similar unsubstantiated conjectural statements and qualifiers about Jefferson and the Koran. That is, it is a volume of bilious “scholarly” gas that seeks to sanction Islam by inferring and insinuating, without a scrap of hard evidence, that Jefferson was friendly to Islam. Which he certainly wasn’t.
Conjectural statements and “imaginings” are the stuff of fiction, fantasy, and “alternate” histories in the way of Harry Turtledove. But those, in a nutshell, are what comprise Spellberg’s book. It is a collection of such statements posing as “scholarship,” the numerous notes and impressive bibliography to the contrary notwithstanding. They are intended to pass as evidence, couched in the language of fact, that Islam was a very special interest of Jefferson’s, and even on the minds of other Founders, so much so that they went out of their way to ensure that Islam was included in any legislation that guaranteed religious freedom.
Let us take a look at a few instances. They can represent others throughout her book.
In the Introduction of Spellberg’s book, “Imagining the Muslim as Citizen at the Founding of the United States,” she quotes Jefferson quoting English political philosopher John Locke Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).
[He] said “neither Pagan nor Mahamedan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.”
—Thomas Jefferson, quoting John Locke, 1776
As one Amazon reader points out, the pivotal quotation Jefferson noted from John Locke may be found in Chapter 3, p.106, note 183. The reference is directly to the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1, p. 548. To prove that Jefferson considered Muslim civil rights, Spellberg includes an illustration of Jefferson’s actual handwritten reference to Muslims from John Locke reproduced on p. 107.
It passes for Spellberg’s trumpeted insinuation that Jefferson was obsessed with Islam. It is the core premise of her book. Her book is top-heavy with insinuations. But Jefferson’s reference to Locke in no way supports the contention that Jefferson was an early Islamophile looking out for the civil rights of Muslims, and also anticipating the “Islamophobia” that would exist in the 21st century. She goes on with her “imaginings,” writing about Jefferson and other Founders:
They did so, however, not for the sake of actual Muslims, because none were known at the time to live in America. Instead, Jefferson and others defended Muslim rights for the sake of “imagined Muslims,” the promotion of whose theoretical citizenship would prove the true universality of American rights. Indeed, this defense of imagined Muslims would also create political room to consider the rights of other despised minorities whose numbers in America, though small, were quite real, namely Jews and Catholics. Although it was Muslims who embodied the ideal of inclusion, Jews and Catholics were often linked to them in early American debates, as Jefferson and others fought for the rights of all non-Protestants.
Later in her book she contradicts herself by claiming that possibly – just possibly – some of the African slaves brought to North America may have been Muslims, and that perhaps George Washington knew that some of his slaves were Muslims.
In another instance, under the subtitle, “The First American Muslims: Race, Slavery, and the Limits of Jefferson’s ‘Universal’ Legislation,” Spellberg subtly upbraids Jefferson and qualifies her esteem for his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (p. 115). She notes that
While his bill would retain enormous importance for future American Muslim citizens in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries, his universal vision never included the first American Muslims, who in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were West African slaves transported to North America against their will. Considered by Jefferson to be property rather than citizens, a view his hero [John] Locke endorsed, these Muslims of African descent enjoyed no freedoms of any kind. (p. 120)
Jefferson, like other slave-owning Founders, was in the mercantilist colonial period locked into the role of slavery and even indentured servitude by British and colonial laws, whether or not he approved of the institution. Other than by a last will and testament (and this occurred after the U.S. has secured its independence), in Virginia at least, a slave-owner could manumit or free a single slave solely by having a bill introduced into the colonial legislature, where it may or may not have been debated, and, if passed, it was sent to the Governor’s Council, where it stood the same risk. Then it depended on the veto or signature of the royally appointed Governor. Slaves could not be freed en masse. Quakers could buy a slave and free him, but such a former slave had to carry a paper on his person proving he was a freedman. And he would likely migrate to the north.
Anyway, to return to the issue of slaves and their religion, Spellberg goes on:
There were certainly more Muslim slaves in eighteenth-century America than Jews, and possibly more than the twenty-five thousand Catholics in the United States at its inception. How many Muslim slaves? Their numbers while significant remain difficult to specify exactly. The historian Michael Gomez observed that “53 percent of all those imported to North America” were taken from four areas of West Africa in which “Islam was of varying consequence.” Of the estimated 481,000 West Africans “imported into British North America…nearly 255,000 came from areas influenced by Islam.” (p. 121)
I was not familiar with Michael Gomez. I looked up Spellberg’s citation, and saw that she got her figures from Gomez’s book, Black Crescent: The Experience and Legacy of African Muslims in the Americas. Then I looked up Gomez, and was startled to learn that he is a professor of history, ensconced in the Middle East and Islamic Studies department at New York University. What is his special interest? Professor Gomez
…continues with the study of the African diaspora by looking at the ways in which African Muslims negotiated their bondage and freedom throughout the Americas, but in a way that allows for significant integration of Islamic Africa. Primarily a cultural and social historian of both Africa and its diaspora, Gomez is currently in the writing stages of a book on the history of early and medieval West Africa, with a focus on imperial Songhay. Upon its completion, he plans to write a comprehensive study of the African diaspora, within which he will address all attendant arguments and debates. Throughout, he will remain connected to the Arabic manuscript project underway in Mali, arguably one of the most important endeavors to develop in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
I looked up his other titles. His work falls under the aegis of Louis Farrakhan’s racist and super-bigoted Nation of Islam. I suppose his oeuvre justifies the label “Black Studies.” See here, here, here, and here, and draw your own conclusions. Could Spellberg not find a more reputable source for her numbers than a writer vested in a collectivist racist victimhood identity?
On that same page, Spellberg writes:
In contrast, at Mount Vernon plantation, where Jefferson’s Virginian neighbor George Washington owned more than three hundred slaves, at least two and possibly four names register a distinct Islamic identity. These include a mother and daughter, named ‘Fatimer’ and ‘Little Fatimer,’ after the Prophet’s daughter….
This does not prove that the mother and daughter were wrested from their Islamic homeland. It was the common practice among slave-brokers or sellers and also slave-holders to name their slaves for their own convenience.
And Jefferson and Washington were hardly “neighbors.” The distance between Monticello and Mount Vernon is about 105 miles, as the crow flies, or a two-hour drive. In their time, it might have taken two-to-three days to travel from one plantation to the other, barring bad weather and bad roads.
Spellberg devotes time to the negotiations between John Adams, Jefferson, and the ambassador from Tripoli, Abd al-Rahman, to reach a settlement concerning Muslim pirates and the status of American seamen captured by those pirates and put to work as slaves. Here she had a chance to highlight the treatment of Jews in Western and Islamic nations:
Jews were a significant group in North Africa [they might have been then; today they are a nearly extinct group on that continent], especially after their expulsion from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496. Estimates suggest that almost two hundred thousand settled in Ottoman territories, encouraged by Muslim sultans. In contrast to their medieval and early modern persecution throughout most of Catholic and Protestant Europe, Jews in Islamic lands were defined as People of the Book according to the Qur’an, and allowed to practice their faith, often rising to positions of influence at Muslim courts, whether in medicine, commerce, or diplomacy….(p. 142)
This, of course, has nothing to do with Jefferson. And the catch, not noted by Spellberg, is that whenever Jews did rise to positions of prominence in Islamic régimes, it was a status conditional on their knowing their place and not presuming to see themselves as equals of any Muslim. That rule also applied to Christians.
The Tripoli ambassador gave Adams and Jefferson an education in the workings of the Koran and of the term jihad. From the Papers of Thomas Jefferson, she quotes:
“Tripoli’s bellicosity toward the United States, he allowed, was founded on the Laws of the 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.” (p. 147)
Spellberg notes that
In fact, all of the ambassador’s references to the Qur’an were accurate, including the precedents for preemptive war against People of the Book, meaning Christians and Jews (Qur’an 9:29); the taking of captives (Qur’an 47:4); and the heavenly rewards for slain Muslim warriors (Qur’an 2:154). (pp. 146-147)
She then discusses the term jihad:
Variants of the word “jihad” occur in thirty-six verses of the Qur’an, covering various forms of religious exertion, but there are only ten explicitly on warfare. Traditionally, jihad is not considered in reference to warfare and killing, the justification of which was limited to righting wrongs or self-defense. (p. 147)
However, the term “jihad” can be interpreted any way a Muslim cleric of jihadi wishes to interpret it. To Hamas, to Hezbollah, to the Muslim Brotherhood, to any number of “extremist” Islamic gangs, “righting a wrong” means waging continuous warfare against Israel (which “wrongly occupies” Palestine, a nation that never existed), and against Jews and infidels everywhere. And if jihadist clerics and “warriors” (aka terrorists) wish to adopt the mantra of “self-defense,” they can claim that Islam is under attack and they are resisting or fighting back.
Spellberg has a sister feminist and sister Islamophile at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, Alexandra Méav Jerome. Jerome posted her 2012 paper, “The Jefferson Qur’an,” on the Oxford Islamic Studies Online site. It, too, is full of speculation passing for scholarship that would be the envy of Mr. Puff, of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic play, The Critic. Mr. Puff instructed his auditors with his armory of fraudulent flummery and disingenuous dissimulations: the puff collusive, the puff oblique, the puff by implication, the puff direct, the puff preliminary, and the puff collateral. Both Spellberg and Jerome make generous use of that whole war chest. Footnotes and the like fill the spaces like distracting kudzu.
She ends it with more “we may never know’s” and “may well have’s” and “imaginings” of her own (Italics are mine):
Thomas Jefferson rarely spoke on the topic of religion and did not leave us any written record of his opinion of Islam. But, based on how he used the Qur’an politically, we can conjecture about his attitudes toward what his colleague George Washington called “the children of the Stock of Abraham.” He was certainly sympathetic to Islam and to those in the borderlands of the Christian West, but he was also keenly aware of the effect of scripture, whether Biblical or Qu’ranic, on the politics, motivations, and aspirations of nations and empires. At the same time, Jefferson was perhaps influenced by the moral, humanitarian elements of the Qur’an and, as mentioned above, the Constitution of Medina, which may have accompanied his study of Islam. We may never truly know what Jefferson thought about Islam, but what we do know is that the Qur’an served not simply as an exotic book occupying the shelves of Jefferson’s Monticello….
If we excavate the volumes of documents authored by Jefferson and his contemporaries in the early days of the new republic, we find moments wherein Jefferson’s Qur’an may well have even influenced the founding, shaping, and sustenance of a newly sovereign nation.
And then there’s the contradiction in that closing paragraph: Jefferson “did not leave us any written record of his opinion of Islam” vs. “He was certainly sympathetic to Islam.” Well, how does Jerome know that he was, if Jefferson left no record? Go figure.
As for Spellberg, to reprise, she sputtered in rebuttal to the Wall Street Journal critique of her actions: “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft-core pornography.”
But apparently she has no problem with ascribing to Thomas Jefferson and the Founders an over-concern about the civil rights of Muslims, and fabricating an elaborate, footnote-laden narrative about how Islam contributed to the creation of the republic.
The truth is that Jefferson’s inclusion of Muslims as deserving of civil rights protection, together with Jews, Hindus, and dissenting sects of Christianity, was wholly incidental. He did not think Muslims deserved any special attention. At least, there apparently is no record that he thought so. So there is no reason to “imagine” that Jefferson bit his nails raw over the treatment and future “perceptions” of Islam and Muslims, which is the impression one gets in Spellberg’s book. According to her and Jerome’s own notes (once one has brushed aside the kudzu), Jefferson paid Islam and Muslims no more attention than he paid to the flora and fauna of Virginia. In fact, far, far less attention.
Both Spellberg and Jerome highlight the fact that Jefferson held the first iftar in the White House in 1805. But that was a matter of discretion and diplomacy on Jefferson’s part. It was not an act of submission (Islam) nor even necessarily an act of “respect.”
Forgive me while I indulge in a bit of “imagining” myself. Picture Jefferson confounded by the record of Islam as we know it today. How was he going to reconcile the violent verses in the Koran, which abrogated the “peaceful” ones? How was he going to account for the estimated 1.5 million Europeans abducted from Western coastal towns by Muslim raiders and who disappeared into the maw of Islamic slavery from the 16th through the 19th centuries, never mind all those America seamen?
What conclusions would he reach once he grasped that Islam is at root a totalitarian ideology strutting about in the vestments of religion, and demanding that Western nations accommodate Islam Sharia law at the price of subverting and suborning Western jurisprudence and freedom of speech? How would he explain Syria, and Egypt, and Libya, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and Kenya, and all the murders, beheadings, stonings, amputations, massacres, rapes, honor killings, female genital mutilations, the marriages of pubescent girls, and destruction committed in Allah’s name, not only in the Mideast, but in Europe, as well?
How would he view Mohammad the “prophet” when he learned that his actual existence is in dispute, and that anyway, if he did exist, he was an illiterate, rapacious, murdering brigand and warlord given to “hearing” voices, and hardly the sagacious “lawgiver” on a par with Solon? What would he think when he read contemporary accounts of Mohammad’s conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, accounts that portrayed him as a kind of Al Capone of his time?
Perhaps a fairer “imagining” would be to put Spellberg and Jerome in Jefferson’s shoes, without the benefit of the camouflage of scholarly kudzu.
*Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, by Denise A. Spellberg. New York: Knopf, 2013. 416 pp.