Jefferson did not, despite Spellberg’s claim, demonstrate a “marked interest” in the faith. As a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, he bought a Qur’an, just as he bought many books on many subjects, ultimately leaving a library of 6,487 books. There is no evidence that Jefferson ever read his Qur’an. There are no notes he left about its contents, no marginalia written by Jefferson, no subsequent reference anywhere to his having read any part of the Qur’an. Spellberg surely knows that. But she is determined to endow that Qur’an purchase with significance. She claims that “the purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation’s early, robust view of religious pluralism.”
What “historical connection” was there between the “American and Islamic worlds” that she so casually alludes to, hoping we will not think too deeply about the claim? The main “connection” in our earliest days as a nation was that of warfare waged against us by the Muslim privateers — the “Barbary Pirates,” as they were known — who attacked Christian shipping in the Mediterranean, including the ships of the young Republic. It was during his negotiations in London in 1786 over these attacks with the envoy from Tripoli, and in subsequent dealings with the Barbary Pirates, that Jefferson received his greatest lesson about Islam.
Although Jefferson did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction to the Qur’an, he did criticize Islam as “stifling free enquiry” in his early political debates in Virginia, a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at a time he wished to separate them in his commonwealth.