The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The complicated history of Thomas Jefferson’s Koran

And why it’s the perfect choice for Rashida Tlaib’s congressional swearing in.

Kim Ellison, wife of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), carries a copy of the Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson that her husband used for his swearing in in 2007. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

This week, like other new members of Congress, incoming Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D) will take her first oath of office. Unlike most other incoming members of Congress, however, Tlaib will be sworn in on the Koran, Islam’s holiest book. And not just any Koran, but the 1734 English translation of the work that belonged to Thomas Jefferson and now resides in the Library of Congress.

One of the country’s first two Muslim congresswomen elected, both elected in November, Tlaib said she hoped to make a critical point with the choice of tome. “It’s important to me because a lot of Americans have this kind of feeling that Islam is somehow foreign to American history,” she told the Detroit Free Press. "Muslims were there at the beginning.”

Longtime Congress watchers will recall Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), America’s first Muslim member of the body, also used Jefferson’s Koran for his 2007 swearing-in. "It demonstrates that from the very beginning of our country, we had people who were visionary, who were religiously tolerant, who believed that knowledge and wisdom could be gleaned from any number of sources, including the Koran,” Ellison told the Associated Press at the time.

These are worthy sentiments. But they are also not the whole story. That is because Jefferson’s 1734 translation of the Koran was not produced out of a special love for Islam, but rather to further Christian missionary efforts in Muslim lands. As translator George Sale wrote in his introduction to the reader, “Whatever use an impartial version of the Korân may be of in other respects, it is absolutely necessary to undeceive those who, from the ignorant or unfair translations which have appeared, have entertained too favourable an opinion of the original, and also to enable us effectually to expose the imposture.”

While Sale opposed the coerced conversion of Muslims and acknowledged virtues in Mohammed’s teachings, he was nonetheless a product of his religiously-fraught time who saw Islam as fundamentally foreign. “The Protestants alone are able to attack the Korân with success,” he wrote in his introduction, “and for them, I trust, Providence has reserved the glory of its overthrow.” Noting these very lines, one scholar cites Sale’s work as an example of religious intolerance in the republic’s early days.

In other words, Jefferson’s Koran is a more complicated artifact than the past decade or so of media coverage would have you believe. But does that mean the book is ill-suited to mark the induction of a Muslim legislator into the American government? Not at all. In fact, Jefferson’s Koran would be particularly appropriate for this occasion, not in spite of the prejudice within it, but because of it.

This is because Jefferson’s Koran embodies the twin truths we must acknowledge about America’s relationship with Muslims. On the one hand, as Tlaib rightly noted, the work’s existence shows Islam has been part of the American story from the beginning. On the other hand, as Sale’s translation reminds us, so has fear and misunderstanding of Muslims.

Indeed, long before conservative conspiracy theorists falsely accused President Barack Obama of being a secret Muslim, as though the faith itself was somehow disqualifying, an anti-Federalist writer in 1788 fretted that without a religious test in the Constitution, “we may have a Papist, a Mohamatan, a Deist, yea an Atheist at the helm of the Government.”

Our contemporary moment is no different. Just as Muslims are very much a part of America today, so is anti-Muslim prejudice. When Ellison opted to use the Koran for his oath of office in 2007, it sparked a nationwide controversy, with a member of Congress and conservative commentators inveighing against this alleged encroachment on Judeo-Christian values.

“The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Koran,” warned Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode (R) in a letter to constituents. Eleven years later, American is led by a president who is similarly open in his disdain for Muslims, ominously entertained the idea that they be added to a registry, promoted far-right propaganda against them and publicly declared, “Islam hates us.”

And yet, Americans have just elected the first two Muslim women to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Jefferson’s Koran is thus an important symbol of the delicate duality of Muslim American life — both included and excluded — and of who we Americans are and how far we have to go. By putting her hand on this specific Koran as she enters Congress to represent her fellow Americans, Tlaib would be transforming a work that saw Muslims as other into a stepping-stone toward another future.

Using a flawed facsimile of Islam’s holiest book for this purpose would not tell a simple story, but it would tell a true one — a statement of hope and progress that does not airbrush out the fears and failures. Like so many things about our imperfect past, Jefferson’s Koran cannot be changed. But through our efforts to imbue it with new meaning, it might yet be redeemed.