The month of Ramadan marks the time when Prophet Muhammad is believed to have first received revelations from God and has been celebrated at the White House since 1996. It was Hillary Clinton who started the tradition as first lady. However, last year, the Trump White House did not host the traditional reception. Neither did the State Department under Secretary Rex Tillerson, even though the holiday has been commemorated there since 1999.
Despite the relatively recent nature of these formal celebrations, the fact is that Islam’s presence in North America dates to the founding of the nation, and even earlier, as my book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders,” demonstrates.
Islam, an American religion
Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key American Founding Fathers demonstrated a marked interest in the faith and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson.
As a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, Jefferson bought a Qur’an – 11 years before drafting the Declaration of Independence.
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.
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.