Thomas Jefferson – Islam and the State

Category: Americas, Articles, Faith, Politics, Society | Topic: interfaith, iran, thomas jefferson | Views: 9,234

When Congressman Keith Ellison took his oath of office in January 2007 he placed his hand on a Qur’an once owned by Thomas Jefferson. As Congressman Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress explained, he borrowed Jefferson’s Qur’an from the Rare Book Section of the Library of Congress because it showed that “a visionary like Jefferson” learned from many sources. Is it at all surprising that the founders of the American republic would have studied the foundational text of Islam as a major world religion of their time? American leaders should do the same today. 

What could our third president have learned about the state and religion from Islamic sources?

Today it is hard for us to imagine a Muslim world where political and religious leaders do not justify the state and their power based on Divine will. In the Iranian elections last week, the conservative Guardian Council actually decided who could run, arguing they needed to ensure greater obedience to true Muslim values.

This type of authoritarian censorship exposes the true nature of the clerics of Guardian Council as a totalitarian clique intent on falsifying Islam and negating the free will of all Iranians. The fundamental principle of individual personal responsibility that can never be abdicated or delegated is one of the recurring themes of the Qur’an. 

This contradiction is inherent to the claim that Iran is an Islamic republic. How can it be either Islamic or a republic at all when this Council of fallible human beings pretend to ensure “the Islamic-ness of the State” against the free choice of its own citizens? 

As Jefferson wrote in 1802,”religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” 

Jefferson could have been paraphrasing chapter and verse of the Qur’an, like 6:94 and 164, 7:39, 17:15, 18:35, 19:95, 35:18, and many others which all emphatically confirm the individual personal responsibility of every Muslim for what she or he does or fail to do. All founding scholars of Islam agree that no act has any religious value unless done freely and without any coercion. 

Just as Jefferson believed that the newly formed United States should not be a Christian state, for Muslims the notion that the state can be Islamic is false from a religious point of view, and has no support in 15 centuries of Islamic history. It is true that Muslims everywhere, whether minorities or majorities, are bound to observe Shari’a as a matter of religious obligation. Some practices are collective in form, but always individual in substance. Any observance of Shari’a can be best achieved when the state is neutral regarding all religious doctrines. Enforcing a Shari’a through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims.

The notion of an Islamic state is in fact a post-colonial innovation based on a European model of the state and a totalitarian view of law and public policy. There is no mention whatsoever of the state in the Qur’an, and Islam does not prescribe a form of government. Instead, the emphasis has always been on the community of Muslims and their responsibility for conducting their own public affairs. A true and valid return to Islamic values anywhere must allow individuals to practice religion unfettered by religious leaders who claim to speak in the name of the Divine. This is the clear demand of Muslims everywhere, like all other human beings and their societies. 

Jefferson’s oft quoted comment regarding refreshing the tree of liberty from time to time (he suggested every twenty years) is also fully consistent with the imperative of renewal and rejuvenation of the faith and its relevance to daily life which is a recurrent theme throughout Islamic history. To have any religious value, this renewal must happen within individual Muslims and their communities, freely and without coercion, and not through violence at home or abroad.

Every generation of citizens, whether religious or not, should renew and reaffirm their commitment to democracy and the rule of law as essential for human dignity and social justice everywhere. These values cannot be inherited from preceding generations, and must be personally accepted with true conviction if they are to be effective in practice. 

I would not doubt President Jefferson’s word that he was not a Muslim (and appreciate that he did not have to deny it in his day). I am not suggesting that he was actually influenced by the teachings of the Qur’an. What is significant for me is the fact that his conclusions about the relationship between religion and state are fully consistent with mine as a Muslim and as a scholar of the Qur’an. Jefferson speaks for me and the clear majority of Muslims around the world (as shown by the global Gallup poll published in Feb. 2008) that the only true relationship to the Divine must be of the individual believer, unfettered by religious or political leaders who claim to speak in the name of the Divine. 

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is professor of law, Emory University, and author of Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari’a (Harvard University Press, 2008)



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  1. Your article makes an interesting reading.However,i quite disagree with you about your comment on Iran.The leaders are trying to protect the revolution which the west,nay America is trying to destroy by using DEMOCRACY to do so.After all,Iranians overwhelmingly voted for the ‘hardliners’ to lead them

  2. well writen the prophet Muhammand(p.b.u)once said to seek knowledged so as a young muslim I do just that we no that there should be no compulsion in religion i say this you two people who commented on your post one with islam and one against islam both truley misinformed i guess ingnorents is bliss Thomas Jefferson is not the first American leader to read the bible some of our laws come from islamic text and we should be mindful of speech somtimes the way you talk turn people away from the greastest deen ever

  3. There must be a dialogue between these two great cultures. The West has a lot to learn from a culture that has not forgotten that spiritual values matter in public life. The East has a lot to learn about valuing individual conscience and the freedoms that spring from that source. This article provides yet more evidence that this dialogue is at least beginning.

  4. Jefferson studied the Koran for no other reason than to know his enemy. Hopefully we will soon be back to the shores of Tripoli.

  5. Thomas Jefferson owned a QURAN???????

    Hmmm!!! Then What the heck DID he learned from it?

    HE OWNED SLAVES, hence that makes him a GREAT INFIDEL.

    STOP GLORIFY AMERICAN PRESIDENTS. THEY ARE ALL INFIDELS AND TERRORISTS. JUST B/C AMERICANs say their presidents are great…do NOT make their presidents great..


    What was TJ’s achievements??? A little contribution to constitution that allows fornication and all kinds of infidellic behavior.

    No one should brag me about freedom speech nonsense…stoned in US constituuion and TJ may have played role in it.

    I OPEN my mouth regardless of whether it is protected by the constitution or not. You should do the same.

    NEVER BE A COWARD. BECAUSE COWARDS DIE TWICE…ONE TIME LONG BEFORE their natural death and once due to worldly causes such as consuming too much “CIVILIZED FLUID”, aka booze/scotch…in the name of fun/good time…during happy hours…

  6. This is a comment I submitted earlier for br. Mustafa, not br. Mustapha, but it somehow got missed by Islamicity.

    Salam and JazakAllah br. Mustafa! Thanks for reminding us that Mulslims have to live by the highest standards. We have to avoid harsh/hurtful language to anyone who may disagree with us, Muslims or not. I may have been guilty of this in my earlier post. I apologize if I have hurt anyone unjustly.

    But this apology is for the harshness in my language, but not for the comments themselves, and it does not nullify the fact that this article is full of unjust/erroneous comments about the Quran.

    Also, I disagree with the rest of your comment.

    “..posters here claiming themselves to be the best and most knowledgeable of Muslims,..” – Everyone posts comments based on what they know to be the truth. This does not mean that they are being arrogant or claiming self-righteousness. If something is wrong, then it is our responsibility to counter it.

    “..for a man who is a scholar and has his own interpretations of the Quran..” – Scholars are not infallible, and definitely not this scholar. And no Muslim can have their own interpretation of the Quran if that interpretation goes against the clearly stated laws in the Quran and the Sunnah of our Prophet(pbuh).

    “As soon as you become so sure of yourself that you have the right answer, I think you are already wrong, no matter what that answer is” – Not always my brother! Two and two always add up to four. That is, truth is truth. And if I am sure of it backed by facts, how does that make me wrong? When the Quran and Sunnah is misrepresented, then it is my duty to oppose that.

    “I have to say I am very disappointed in the hate spewing from my fellow Muslims on this site.” – Very generalized statement based on a single article and a tiny subset of comments made here in Islamicity. Muslims show a lot of courtesy to even the most hateful comments made by our non-Muslim friends.

  7. Salam Alaikum,

    The Holy Quran has the answer to all of our questions. It along with the Hadith, gives us the proper code of conduct. As an African-American, I was just amazed whenever I read this article about Thomas Jefferson, of all people. He probably read the Quran but he sure didn’t live by it. He fathered how many African slave children? How many did he set free? This man was an adultertist and we are going by his

    example. Please give me a break. Some of us need to take an American history course before we start looking at some of these folks as heroes.

    Salam Alaikum,

    Fatimah Muhammad

  8. A comment for Mr. Steve,

    Don’t worry about Islam. It does not depend upon Muslims for its survival – it draws its strength from The Creator.

    Also, throughout history, every community, whether based on religious or political views, condemned its own kind for deviation. Catholics persecuted Protestants; communists were persecuted under the democratic system of the West; the rich persecuted the poor! Recently, those who opposed the Iraq war were dubbed as unpatriotic and were persecuted in America. Don’t be arrogant as to claim sole ownership of civility.

    That being said, harsh languages should be avoided by us Muslims since it goes against the etiquettes dictated by Islam. But that does not mean that unjustified/erroneous claims like the author of this article makes about the Quran won’t be opposed by Muslims.

    Take care!

  9. Salam Charles,

    I don’t understand how your sad situation fits here in the context of this article. This article talks about the validity of an Islamic State, not about Muslims behaviors. I don’t know the basis of your agreement with this article based on the actions of a particular Muslim.

    That being said, if what you say is true, than it is truly unfortunate that a Muslim, specially a scholar, would steep so low! Then again, we are going downhill all over the world. We are reluctant to follow Islam, hence the rampant injustice is Muslim communities.

    It also sheds some light on the need for an Islamic state. Under a true Islamic state, you would have been better of, and this situation would have been avoided.

    One thing though, it appears that you also think that Islamic state is not needed, only a person’s good will is needed. History has proved time and again that we humans are not infallible. We make mistakes, we commit sins – and most of our mistakes/sins curtail another person’s basic rights. Therefore, a government is necessary to implement the laws. Islam is no different in this regard. It needs a true Islamic state to implement its laws to safeguard everyone’s rights.

  10. It is unfortunate some who claim to be muslims can’t accept their mistakes with humility. If A.A.Ana-im deemed his article was personal, he should have kept it to himself.As long as there is life on earth any misrepresentation of Islam will be rebuffed even if the apologists are averse to it.No human can be prevented from personal thoughts as a Muslim or not, but whatever a Muslim thinks, intends or acts on are to be subjected to the Quran and sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (SAW). If those ideas don’t measure up to Sharia standards, no matter how you dress it, it will be rejected in Islam.

  11. Salam and JazakAllah Br. Mustafa,

    You have reminded me that Muslims must live by the highest standards and not be harsh in their disagreements with another human being, Muslim or not. I apologize since I may have been guilty of using harsh language myself in my last few posts on this article. I apologize if I have hurt anyone unjustly by harsh comments! I will be more watchful of my posts in the future so that I don’t get carried away:)

    I, however, disagree with the rest of your comments.

    “..claiming themselves to be the best and most knowledgeable of Muslims,..” – Some of us may have been harsh, but that does not mean anyone was being arrogant or claimed to be most knowledgeable. Everyone posts comments here based on what they know to be true, there is nothing wrong with that. If someone was posting comments that were bunch of gibberish, and not backed by Islamic laws laid down in Quran and further fortified by Sunnah of our Prophet(pbuh), your claim would have been a valid one. But that is not the case. If it was, you or someone else would have refuted the comments that disagreed with the article.

    “..harsh language for a man who is a scholar and has his own interpretations of the Quran” – A scholar is not infallible. And a scholar can’t have his own interpretation of the Quran that goes against the laws of the Quran that are well-defined or that goes against Sunnah. The author of this article definitely is guilty of that. If an extremist scholar wrote this article, you probably would have said something else.

    “As soon as you become so sure of yourself that you have the right answer, I think you are already wrong, no matter what that answer is” – My brother, no one here disagreed with this article simply because they thought they were right! They posted comments based on their knowledge of Islam, which completely refutes author’s claims.

    What you are saying is that even when I am sure of the clear truth, I am wrong? Not everything is subje

  12. absolutely nonsense!!this guy even doesn’t know the basics of Islamic Shariah…he is an ‘expert’Quran never say anything about goverment!!!what a finding???its very pity islamicity publish such a rubbish article…tel this guy to read the Quran…may Allah show him the riggt path

  13. As a Westerner living and working in a Muslim country I am greatly encouraged that at least some scholars in the Muslim world are able to think reasonably about the divide between the Christian West and the Muslim East and are beginning to examine where Islam has been and where it is going. I applaud Professor An-naim for his insight into this significant issue. However, as encouraging as it is to read this voice of reason in the current storm of posturing and propaganda, it is equally distressing to read the hateful and hurtful comments that are posted in response. Is there any hope for a faith that so violently condemns its own for daring to think?

  14. My family was recently defrauded of our property by a Muslim Iman in Port Huron Michigan. Professionally, this individual who is a Pakistani medical doctor is considered by society to be affluent, educated and respectable.

    On the fourth day of Ramadan during the month of fasting,(one of the pillars of Islam), he conviscated my property and had all my family’s possessions thrown on the street by the local sheriff. The following Friday he was back in the Masjid preaching and quoting from the Quran and the life of prophet Mohammed without any remorse.

    Based on my belief in Islam and the contents of the Holy Quran, I trusted that man and had signed over my property to him for safe keeping.

    My family consist of my wife and six children; five of whom were under the age of fourten years, when this trajic incident took place. We have been totally bankrupted as a result of his actions.

    There is an old saying, that action speaks louder than words. The act of taking and oat whether with President Jefferson’s Quran or a Bible owned by a prisoner on death row is only significant; if that person believes and intends to uphold the tenants contained within that document. Justice tempered by mercy in all our affairs,with love and understanding for our fellow man whether social, economic or political.

    In closing, the teachings of all religions sanctioned by Almighty God and promulgated by all his prophets, since Abraham and Isaac has sought to convey to mankind the simple yet powerful message,(always strive to uphold good,and equally strive to avoid evil).

    I sincerely hope you will find a place of reason within your heart to convey my true story without prejudice, so that some good may be done by God’s grace.

    p.s fell free to contact me at any time.


  15. Here is the error: All laws are coercive and must be and are inconsistent with divinity. However, Sharia is more so consistent with the Quran. I obey the US’s laws because it governs all of us and not because it is consistent with the Bible! The prof. is off the mark!

    Any observance of Shari’a can be best achieved when the state is neutral regarding all religious doctrines. Enforcing a Shari’a through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims.

  16. I don not agree with the article fully either. But I have to say I am more shocked by the arrogance of the posters here claiming themselves to be the best and most knowledgeable of Muslims, using extremely harsh language for a man who is a scholar and has his own interpretations of the Quran, as do we all. As soon as you become so sure of yourself that you have the right answer, I think you are already wrong, no matter what that answer is. In this time, we as Muslims need to be open to new ideas and try to incorporate the best of what the world has to offer. The Quran is a basis, it does NOT contain every answer to every situation. I have to say I am very disappointed in the hate spewing from my fellow Muslims on this site.

  17. Salam,

    I am not angry or upset with Islamicity for publishing such a pile of garbage. I am actually happy with Islamicity for this and the fact that Islamicity publishes even the most hateful of remarks about Islam/Muslims/Muhammad(pbuh).

    It serves several purposes –

    1) It shows our tolerance to those who disagrees or even hates us our way of life, challenging popular beliefs that we are intolerant.

    2) It makes us aware of enemies within.

    3) It also makes us aware of such Muslims as may have erroneous thought patterns out of sincere lack of knowledge so that they can be corrected.

    4) It helps us prove misconceptions about Islam.

    If any Muslims follow/agree these erroneous articles even after they have been refuted by comments posted by other Muslims, then it is safe to say that they were meant to go astray; Islamicity is not responsible for their actions or thoughts.

    May Allah guide us all, and Allah knows best.

    Allah Hafez!

  18. The US think tanks e.g. RAND layout the methodology to divide & Rule Islam. Unfortunately it uses Trojan Horses. Another tactic is to create parochial nation state Islams along the Soviet style. Also a tactic is to create new Islams on the peripheries away from the core especially in the Western diaspora which is to be used as an ideal for the Ummah as Kemalist Turkey once was. There will always be self haters worried about materialism but too scared to openly abandon Islam so a “modern Islam” is created eg Qadianis. TheUS Muslim Margaret Marcus Maryam Jameelah exposes these futile plots & the nature of capricious moral RELATIVISM. Anything that changes constantly has no PERMANENT value & is not transcendental.

  19. Abdullah Ahmed An-naim is TOTALLY WRONG and he should re-examine his aqeedah if he claims to be a Muslim. Alhamdulillah there will always be Muslims aware of such erroneous articles and PROVE IT WRONG REGARDLESS OF WHATEVER TITLES OF IT’S AUTHOR. If Islam is so individualistic in nature,HE NEEDS NOT PUBLISH THIS ERRONEOUS ARTICLE, why publish this erroneous article in the Islamic media then? A.A.An-naim should ask himself the real purpose of this article and who he’s working for. We will all stand before Allah (swt) wiliingly or not to account for our thoughts, deeds and actions. So A.A.An-naim, if you love yourself, repent to Allah and refrain from such erroneous discourses.

  20. I am surprised Islamicity is allowing this article. The writer has gone insane. Basically he is saying forget Islam and follow Democracy.

    Allahu Akbar

  21. Either the author follows brother Ghamdi, or this is just his personal feeble attempt to Westernize Islam. Either way, he is wrong! The article is full of bogus arguments, I am not afraid to say.

    Does Quran need to spell out “Islamic State”? No it does not! Many of its laws are depended upon implementation at the collective level. Who will establish prayer? Who will collect Zakat? Who will mete out punishments to thieves? What Islam/Quran is the author talking about?

    I sense a danger here for the author – one can very easily assume that the author holds Thomas Jafferson in awe, wants to implement his(TJ’s) theories to Islam. I myself have a lot of respect for the founding fathers of our country. But they are in no way vanguards or scholars of Islam. So, is it safe to assume that the author has more reverence for TJ than our Prophet(pbuh) or his prominant shahabas like Abu Bakr, Umer, Uthman, Ali(rad)? Than the author has no understanding of Islam or he is one of those West-pleasers.

    What planet has he been living in? There is no example of Islamic State in the last 15 centuries? What do you call the rule of Abu Bakr, Umer, Uthman, and Ali (rad)? Islamic laws were implemented by them throughout the Islamic Empire.

    Don’t call yourself a Scholar of the Quran! You can feel proud of yourself just because your views are similar to that of TJ’s. But don’t portray yourself as the representative of other Muslims.

    The importance of a personal relationship with god is undeniable. But a collective form of governing body is essential for a Muslim community. If we could depend upon the idea of inherent infallibility of humans, we would not need any jail houses; we would not need any law enforcement bodies.

    Watch yourself before you fall into the never-ending despair of Hell! Seems like you want the rampant freedom to do whatever you want, which more often curtails freedom of others unlike Islam!

    Allah, guide us! You know best!

  22. How could Ahmed An-Na’im declare such a fallacious statement as the following, and still be taken seriously as an academic?: “…for Muslims the notion that the state can be Islamic is false from a religious point of view, and has no support in 15 centuries of Islamic history.” Excuse me brother, but have you ever heard of the Khilafah? The first three generations of Islamic history blossomed under such a form of government. It was our Golden Age. An-Na’im writes from a very Western point of view, hinting that we Muslims should be in favor of a very un-Islamic form of government: capitalist democracy. When one focuses on the revealed Truth of Islam, one will find that being Muslim IS NOT a private matter, it is very much public in the sense that the Ummah is binded by a set of moral and social laws which connect them to Allah, NOT to capitalist democracy (the golden idol of the modern age). Shari’a must be instituted on the political level in order to have a truly Muslim society. If An-Na’im did his research, he would find that Jefferson had many negative things to say about religion as well. Hardly a role-model for Muslims to look up to. Instead, brothers and sisters, let us follow the example of the Prophet (PBUH).

  23. The article concludes;

    “Jefferson speaks for me and the clear majority of Muslims around the world (as shown by the global Gallup poll published in Feb. 2008) that the only true relationship to the Divine must be of the individual believer, unfettered by religious or political leaders who claim to speak in the name of the Divine.”

    Certainly not this muslim brother! And ‘m sure you and your kind are in the greater minority not the majority as you (oh the gallop which gallo(u)p by the way?) surmised. How can Jefferson speaks for you while Allah says …la tattakhizul yahuda wannasara awlia.. He also says tattakhhizul ‘aduwwi wa aduwwakum awlia.. And again ..wa in tawaaluhum fa inna hu minhum.. No this is a big error brother Abdullah.

    You’ve muddle a number of issues together in the article and therefore arrived at a bad conclusion. Yes the Iranians could not certainly be said to have an Islamic republic cos of their gulu (exaggeration) in the deen and Allah (SWT) clearly says taglu fi dinikum ( not exaggerate in you religion) You cannot follow any human in toto orther than the beloved prophet Muhammad (SAW) neither can you overpraised him as they did their imams. So in general any society that tries to make laws different from the ahkam in the Quran and Sunna to govern themselves could not by any reason be said to be Islamic. But does this imply establishing an Islamic society is impossibility or that it had never existed before? No. What can we say about the government of the greatest of humans the prophet Muhammad (SAW), or that of the khulafaur-rashidun that followed subsequently? Certainly nobody in his right sense will infer that it was’nt an Islamic society and government that the Prophet and his rightly guided companions caliphs presided over. And we are obligated to follow the footsteps of these greats as role models by none other than Allah (SWT) Himself in several of His verses in the Quran.

  24. Mister An-Na’im; with all due respect, I have to conclude that you are a very confused man, as well as extremely ignorant about Islam in general. Your self-described ‘scholar of the Qur’an’ only reflects your egotism and arrogance, and a less than mediocre wordsmith. Better and smarter writers and so called ‘experts on Islam’ have failed to deviate even the most novice among us.

    Islamicity is wasting its visitors time, and involuntarily help deviate and confuse its Muslim readers by publishing this kind of rubbish. No wonder, my visitation to this website changed from daily to monthly.