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Jun 29, 2017

Islam, Tolerance, and Thomas Jefferson

Reiger begins a series discussing the Founders’ approach to Islam and religious freedom.

It might come as a surprise to most readers that the first American presidential candidate accused of being a Muslim was not Barack Obama.  In fact, the first such accusation occurred over 200 years prior to Obama announcing his candidacy, during the election of 1800, where supporters of then-President John Adams accused his opponent Thomas Jefferson of secretly being a Muslim.  Jefferson, after all, was ambiguous about his own religious beliefs, rejecting clericalism and organized religion, owned a Quran, and had previously stated that a Muslim, with rights ensured to him by the Constitution, could indeed become the President of the United States.

In the wake of President Trump’s executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries and his earlier calls for a blanket Muslim ban, debate has raged about religious freedom in America and the degree to which Muslims are protected under the First Amendment.  Those on the far right often contend that Islam is incompatible with democracy and “Western civilization”.  Muslims, they argue, will undermine democratic institutions, seeking to establish Sharia law.

This series of articles will trace the development of religious freedom in the colonies and its eventual enshrinement in the Constitution, as well as examine contemporary attitudes towards Islam and its role in debates regarding the extent to which religious freedom would be ensured. The Founding Fathers talked about Islam quite a bit, and it was almost always negative.  Even with stories of Islamic terrorism dominating news feeds for the last couple decades, the average American of 1800 had a much dimmer view of Islam than the average American of 2017.  It was precisely because Islam was so universally mistrusted in early America that it served as an ideal rhetorical device in debating the extent of religious freedom in the new republic.  Should religious freedom extend to all religions or only to different Protestant sects?  Only Christians?  Should non-Protestants be allowed to hold office?  Would it be possible that a Muslim could openly practice his religion, vote, and even be elected to office? 

The first thing that should be noted about early Americans’ views of Islam is that most Americans knew hardly anything about Islam at all.  Having their roots in Protestant Europe, most colonists inherited its prejudices.  Jews, Catholics, and Muslims were often singled out as unsavory groups.  All three groups were present in the colonies, however unlike Jews and Catholics who willingly immigrated to the New World, America’s earliest Muslims were overwhelmingly African slaves.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, wars between Islamic kingdoms in the West African interior were common, and many soldiers were taken captive by conquering kings and their armies.  With the arrival of European traders in the region, many of these kings found a lucrative opportunity in selling their captives into chattel slavery, establishing the Atlantic slave trade.  While most slaves came from coastal regions, where Islam was less common and most people observed local animist beliefs, a significant portion came from the heavily Muslim interior.1

For the most part, slaveowners took little notice of the religiosity of their slaves.  Those who did, however, found Muslim slaves preferable to their non-Muslim counterparts.  Devout Muslims did not drink,2 were self-reliant, and displayed a stronger work ethic than non-Muslim slaves.  For these reasons, some slaveowners singled out Muslim slaves for overseers and trusted them with more responsibilities.3  Among the slaves themselves, Muslims slaves took great care to distinguish themselves from the “pagan” beliefs of other slaves.  Many Muslim slaves, especially those who were literate, often wielded great social influence in early Southern plantations.4

However, by the time of the American Revolution, the practice of Islam among slaves had largely broken down.  Even in the early colonies, there were very few literate slaves and even fewer who had access to a Quran, complicating the passage of religious beliefs to their descendants.  Religious syncretism was common in West African civilization, and in the absence of organized religion on plantations, Muslim beliefs melded with traditional animist ones.  This process was even further complicated by the introduction of Christianity, as many Protestant ministers, particularly during the Great Awakening, sought to convert slaves.5

Disappointingly, in the Founders’ debates over citizenship and religious freedom, the religiosity of slaves was not even considered.  While most Founders permitted themselves an understanding that there was a disconnect between the principles of their new nation and the institution of slavery, political and economic realities prevented them from confronting the issue. Rather, the Founders preserved the institution in Article V of the Constitution, a decision that would have an enormous impact in the early history of the United States.  Since the rights enshrined in the new Constitution would not apply to slaves, debating the religious liberty of the few remaining Muslim slaves was unnecessary.  Instead, that conversation would revolve around Jews and Catholics, religious minorities but free men, and hypothetical Muslims, often referred to in the parlance of the day as Mahometans6 and Turks.7

Most colonists got their views of Islam not through America’s earliest Muslims, but through European attitudes toward Islam.  Since Islam’s inception in the 7th century, there was a fundamental rift between the new religion and Christianity.  Muslims, viewing their religion as the final, perfect version of God’s revelation, allowed for a semi-tolerance of Christianity and Judaism as “people of the book”, as they were imperfect revelations that had come before.8  For Christians on the other hand, Islam was openly heretical.  It is no mistake that in Dante’s Inferno, Muhammad occupies the eighth circle of Hell along with the other “schismatics”.

The view of Islam common among the Founders, including Thomas Jefferson, came from two main sources: the Protestant Reformation and, oddly enough, Cato’s Letters.  During the Reformation, Islam featured heavily as a rhetorical tool in which it could be compared unfavorably with Catholicism, and carried with it a strong identification with the Antichrist.  Martin Luther once claimed that, “The person of the Antichrist is at the same time the Pope and the Turk,” the latter referencing the Ottoman sultan, whom he incorrectly believed functioned as Islam’s “pope”.9  John Calvin referred to the Pope and Muhammad as the “two horns of the Antichrist”.10  Catholics would adopt this tactic too, equating atrocities committed by Protestants during the Wars of Reformation with similar acts committed by Muslims.  As the majority of America’s early settlers came from Protestant Europe, they brought with them a strong distrust of both Islam and Catholicism that would persist until the time of the Revolution.

However, among the scholars and statesmen of the Enlightenment, there was another source of mistrust towards Muslims arising out of the Radical Whig movement.  The Radical Whigs’ advocacy of republicanism and denunciation of tyranny had a profound impact on the Founders.  In their portrayal of a tyrannical state, however, the Radical Whigs found their favorite example in the Ottoman Empire.  Lacking republican institutions of limits to his rule, the Ottoman sultan wielded arbitrary power.  The Radical Whigs portrayed the Ottoman Empire as a land of suffering, where the people were deprived of liberty and subject to the whims of their despotic sultan, a warning against absolutism.11

Cato’s Letters, written by the Radical Whigs Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, contain numerous references to the Ottoman Empire as a near perfect tyranny, focusing on the many cruelties and abuses of the sultan.12  Gordon and Trenchard, like Luther and Calvin two centuries earlier, used Catholic and Muslim imagery to reinforce their message for their Protestant audience, saying that, “In most Parts of the World, Truth is a capital Crime; and the Pope and Mahomet, the Alcoran and the Mass-book … are sufficient convince and govern all true Catholicks and Mussulmen.”13

While Gordon and Trenchard’s critiques of Catholic and Muslim societies in Cato’s Letters  may seem political in nature, at this point in European history, religion and politics were inseparable.  The concept of separation of church and state, which would eventually arise out of the Enlightenment, was a novel idea held by very few.  The rift between Catholicism and Protestantism had led to centuries of warfare among the polities of Europe.  It is no small coincidence that among America’s earliest settlers were religious refugees fleeing persecution, be it the Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Catholics in Maryland, or the Ulster Presbyterians throughout the colonial backcountry.

The Ottoman sultan, despite wielding no religious authority himself, legitimized his power through the ulama, the Muslim religious elite responsible for the administration of Islamic law.  Religious legitimization of the Ottoman sultan had a notable parallel in Europe, where throughout the Middle Ages, European kings legitimized themselves through the “divine right of kings”, which held that the right of a monarch to rule was ordained by God.  Fresh in the minds of Gordon and Trenchard’s readers would be the absolutist Catholic Bourbon dynasty in France, which like the Ottoman sultans, legitimized its power through religion despite not wielding any religious authority.  Thus, in the American colonies, Catholicism and Islam represented not only a moral threat to Protestant culture, but for many men of the Enlightenment, a political threat as well.  Catholics and Muslims would bring with them absolute monarchy and religious subservience, undermining the principles of liberty and reason that they so cherished.

For these reasons, Islam, along with Judaism and Catholicism, was widely seen as a political and a moral threat among the generation of colonists who would found the United States of America.  Jews and Catholics, merely by their presence in the colonies, were able to offset some of the prejudice against them, although there were still many (widely unenforced) laws that made the practice of their religion illegal, as well as laws that prevented them from rising to positions of political power.  The absence of free Muslims in the colonies, however, prevented any softening of popular hostility toward Islam.  As such, Muslims were the perfect hypothetical for debates on the Constitution and the values of the new American nation.

But out of the Enlightenment came another radically new concept - that of religious toleration.  Beginning with John Locke, Enlightenment philosophers began to question the denial of civil rights to citizens who did not conform to government’s official religion.  As the idea spread, so did arguments as to its scope.  Should only different Protestant sects be tolerated or should tolerance apply to all Christians?  Should it apply even to non-Christians?  Furthermore, beyond toleration, should religious minorities be granted citizenship, including the right to hold political office?  Could Muslims become American citizens?


  1. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri, A History of Islam in America: From the New World to the New World Order (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 60.
  2. Although slaves were technically prohibited from consuming alcohol via various slave codes, the codes were very loosely followed and consumption of alcohol on plantations was largely dependent on the particular slaveowner.  Some slaveowners allowed their slaves to drink on holidays, while others had no restrictions.  Slaves would sometimes make their own cheap version of alcohol, a practice that was generally permitted. (Christina Regelski, “‘A glass of wine … is always ready’: Beverages on Virginia plantations, 1730-1799,” Madison Historical Review 10 (2013).)
  3. GhaneaBassiri, 62.
  4. GhaneaBassiri, 23.
  5. Witnessing the reality of slavery firsthand, many of these ministers became early proponents of abolition.
  6. Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Quran: Islam and the Founders (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), 26.  The term “Mahometan” comes from “Mahomet”, a common European spelling of “Muhammad”.  This is partially due to a mistaken belief that Muslims worshipped Muhammad himself, rather than regarding him as a prophet.
  7. GhaneaBassiri, 9.
  8. Under Sharia law, Jews and Christians were allowed to practice their own religions provided they agree to a dhimma contract, requiring they pay an additional tax in exchange for residency (jizya).  Interestingly enough, ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISIS would be reviving the dhimma contract for Jews and Christians in their “caliphate”.  However, in their hatred of religious minorities, ISIS has found some theologically inventive ways to get around this particular hangup.
  9. Spellberg, 15.
  10. Ibid, 16.
  11. Ibid, 164.
  12. Cato’s Letters are also the namesake of the Cato Institute.
  13. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters, Or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and Other Important Subjects, Volume 2 (London: J. Walthoe, T. and T. Longman, 1755), 115-116.

This is part of a series