The Barbary Wars
Nearly two hundred years before the State Department found it necessary to delve into the Qur’an, Jefferson had already done so to great effect. Jefferson again engaged with the Barbary Pirates as President between 1801 and 1805, during the first of what would become known as the Barbary Wars. Politically, this would be one of his last diplomatic engagements with Islam where he utilized his knowledge of the Qur’an for the benefit of the United States. At the conclusion of the first Barbary War, with the United States procuring its first victory on foreign shores, a temporary peace was reached and Jefferson extended an invitation to the Tunisian Ambassador in Washington to attend dinner at the White House. The invitation happened to fall in the month of Ramadan, and so dinner was rescheduled and became the White House’s first iftar. This iftar that marked the conclusion of 1805 and the treaty with at least one of the Barbary States was a symbolic conclusion to Jefferson’s documented and known use of the Qur’an and his knowledge of Islam. Surely both Jefferson and his guest could appreciate the breaking of the Ramadan fast, a reward of nourishment after a day of reflection and struggle for personal betterment.
*The Legacy of Jefferson’s Qur’an
Thomas Jefferson rarely spoke on the topic of religion and did not leave us any written record of his opinion of Islam. But, based on how he used the Qur’an politically, we can conjecture about his attitudes toward what his colleague George Washington called "the children of the Stock of Abraham."xvii He was certainly sympathetic to Islam and to those in the borderlands of the Christian West, but he was also keenly aware of the effect of scripture, whether Biblical or Quranic, on the politics, motivations, and aspirations of nations and empires. At the same time, Jefferson was perhaps influenced by the moral, humanitarian elements of the Qur’an and, as mentioned above, the Constitution of Medina, which may have accompanied his study of Islam. We may never truly know what Jefferson thought about Islam, but what we do know is that the Qur’an served not simply as an exotic book occupying the shelves of Jefferson’s Monticello or Adams’s Peacefield; on the contrary, the founding fathers knew about Islam, and they thrust themselves into the necessity of knowing. If we excavate the volumes of documents authored by Jefferson and his contemporaries in the early days of the new republic, we find moments wherein Jefferson’s Qur’an may well have even influenced the founding, shaping, and sustenance of a newly sovereign nation.*