The other day I was Skyping with a colonial America class at another college. One of the students asked me what the founding fathers would have thought about Islam. I answered the question, but after I got done with the class I realized I should have also recommended Denise Spellberg’s 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.
Check out the recently announced forum at Immanent Frame on Spellberg’s book.
Here is what you can expect:
Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an was released in 2013, in the middle of Barack Obama’s second term as president of the United States. As we were reminded during the 2016 election season, both of President Obama’s campaigns for presidency were marked by accusations that he was a practicing Muslim and debates as to the legitimacy of a president with such a religious identity. Spellberg’s book was published as a timely history of the religious freedom debates during the founding of the United States, emphasizing the choice that the Founding Fathers made to create a new nation open to all religions. As Spellberg describes in her historical account, Thomas Jefferson argued for the inclusion of Muslims without knowing a Muslim individual; his theoretical sense of welcome toward them extended hospitality and legal protection to other religious minority groups at the time, including Jews and Catholics.
There are many people today who argue Islam and Christianity are locked in a civilizational war, a view that has become a rationale for a number of the Trump administration’s policies.
This argument, however, is an inaccurate and simplistic assessment of the relationship between these two faiths. Quite distinct from the apocalyptic struggle many espouse, an examination of the foundations of the Islamic faith shows respect for Christianity.
Islam is part of the same Abrahamic tradition as Christianity. Key figures within the Bible — Abraham (Ibrahim), Moses (Musa), Mary (Maryam), and Jesus (Isa) among others — are all respected prophets and figures within Islam. There is a chapter in the Quran about Mary and, within the Quran, Jesus is the only person who can perform miracles.
Within Islam, Christians and Jewish people are therefore treated as “People of the Book” whose rights and religious traditions were to be fully protected as monotheistic faiths with revelations understood to be earlier versions of the same revelation to the Prophet of Islam.
The protection that Christian communities were meant to receive under Islam was enshrined in a letter of protection from Prophet Muhammad to the Christian monks at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai in the early seventh century. This letter promised the monks that, under Islamic rule, the Christian community, as a “people of the book”, shall have the freedom to practice their religion and be protected from any unlawful interference or molestation, whether in their communities or while traveling. Distinct from a war with Christianity, Prophet Muhammad further stated, “No one shall bear arms against [Christians], but, on the contrary, the [Muslims] shall wage war for them.”
The respect that Muslims have for Jesus in particular is demonstrated by the verses of Hafez, the most famous and beloved of Muslim poets from the 14th century. In one stanza, he writes, “I am a hole in a flute that the breath of Christ moves through/Listen to this music.”
Three people were killed in California in yet another mass shooting. The culprit? A man who had a history of violence and was known for yelling out religious slogans. Shortly before the slayings, he publicly praised his god and guns on Facebook.
The shooter was Cedric Anderson; he was 53 and a former Christian pastor. On April 10 in San Bernardino, Calif., he killed his estranged wife, an 8-year-old child and then himself. He also injured another child.
Anderson had a history of violence against women: As recently as 2013 he was arrested for assault and a weapons offense. Days before the shooting, he posted on Facebook complaining that people “are not free in Christ,” and concluded, “I just pray for the[m] and keep my guns close!”
Despite his history of violence and religious fanaticism, you probably didn’t know Anderson was a Christian or a criminal. In fact, you might have thought I was speaking of Kori Ali Muhammad (whose previous namewas Cory Taylor) who has been accused of killing three people in California; this time in Fresno.
But police say that when Muhammad was arrested, he yelled “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great.”
Unlike Anderson, who reportedly was deeply religious, Muhammad reportedly did not attend any mosque, and none of the Fresno Islamic centers had heard of him. Also unlike Anderson, Muhammad was homeless (the connection between poverty and violence is well documented). But, like Anderson, Muhammad had a history of criminal violence. In fact, he was already wanted for a previous slaying.
Dozens have spoken out in support of a bookshop invaded by members of far-right group Britain First, who accused the store of selling literature that promotes Islamic Jihad to children.
Footage published by Britain First showed leader Paul Golding and deputy leader Jayda Fransen alongside ex-EDL leader Tommy Robinson storming into the store.
They confront a volunteer working at the shop and accuse him of selling extremist literature, which he forcibly denies, Birmingham Mail reports.
The son of the owner of the store, who did not wish to be named, told the Mirror the ‘invasion’ by Britain First was due to an isolated incident where a book, Bringing Up Children in Islam – which was said to encourage parents to “keep alive in the children the spirit of jihad” – had been sent to the store as a sample and appeared for sale in error.
He said the book had been picked up and put on the shelves by accident,and was not meant to be put on sale. He insisted there were no other books like this in the store.
Christians and Muslims have spoken out in support of the store in Alum Rock, Birmingham, after seeing the footage posted online by Britain First when they confronted staff.
Britain First call themselves a Christian organisation – but their actions drew the ire of the community.
Posting on Twitter, councillor Mariam Khan wrote: “Amazing Easter Sunday spent visiting Islamic bookshops on Alum Rock Rd with Christian neighbours from local Church. Our response to hate.”
And social commentator Waheed Saleem said the West Midlands Police van was visible on the road after an “unwelcome visit” by Britain First.
In all my years as a student, I have never had a prayer room in my school or on my campus. Not in grade school, high school, or in college. It wasn’t something that I noticed, because it wasn’t something I personally needed.
As a Christian in the United States, I had Sundays off from school. My winter and spring breaks usually freed me up for Christmas and Easter (plus Easter is on a Sunday, and at one point we even got Good Friday off too). And we pledged allegiance to “one nation under God” every morning. That seemed to give me free license to pray when and where I wanted.
But many Muslim students cannot take for granted what I, as a Christian, was able to take for granted.
Recently, in a letter to the Frisco Independent School District, the Texas attorney general’s office raised concerns about the constitutionality of a Muslim prayer room at Frisco’s Liberty High School, based on the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
The AG’s office is overreaching with this formal letter and question to the district: Do students of other faiths have access to the prayer room? The answer is “yes.”
So it is hard to see the letter as anything more than political hot air. But it does raise more relevant questions about how neutral public schools actually are — or should be — toward religion.
I saw the situation from a non-Christian point of view when I decided to join students from my college’s Muslim Student Association for jumah — a prayer service held on Fridays just after noon.