May 3, 2016

Book Review: Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders

My Rating:  5 Stars
Goodread's Average Rating:  3.78 Stars

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders 

FYI
Here's how I use the five star rating feature on Goodreads:


1 star = I seriously disliked this book.  I may not have even finished it.

2 stars = Eh. This book left me feeling rather ambivalent and I'm not even sure why I read it.

3 stars = While I may not have liked everything about this book, I still found a good deal of pleasure in reading it.  I might even recommend it to a friend or family member if I think they'd enjoy it.

4 stars = Sure, there may be a few things that I found problematic, but there's so much I loved about this book that it just didn't matter!  It's characters were interesting, the plot was sound, and/or it offered me a welcome escape from reality.  I am already thinking about who else should read this book and how I can convince them of it.  It's also being added to the keeper shelf.

5 stars = I love this book.  It's heading directly to the keeper shelf and likely will not be loaned out because I am a stingy book hoarder. It will also become well-worn from numerous re-reads.

Basically, the stars are reflective of my emotional response to a text. 

Why did Thomas Jeffer's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders get five stars?

This wasn't a fun and easy read.  It offered little in terms of entertainment, although I must admit my interested was piqued during the bits surrounding the Barbary pirates.  That could be a Pavlovian response, though, created by years of romanticizing pirates. Of course, I know the pirates showcased in historical romance novels and on the big screen shared little in common with those that plagued merchant ships during Jefferson's lifetime and Spellberg's work helped me to put aside my romantic notions and focus on some less-than-glamorous facts. Furthermore, she challenged me to press beyond what I assumed I knew about Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries.  She asked me to consider America's founding years in the milieu of world religions and politics that extended beyond our break with Britain.

As someone who appreciates history and what it can teach mankind, I already knew a great deal about the religious persecution our forefathers and -mothers were escaping as they set out to colonize America.  I knew our country was shaped just as much by the desire of its citizenry to follow their own religious leanings as it was to avoid paying an unfair tax and being beholden to a distant king. What I hadn't really stopped to consider until I read Spellberg's work was how the world's religious landscape beyond Christianity influenced some of our most celebrated founders.  I certainly never considered Islam's role.

Spellberg's work has re-framed my understanding of the debate surrounding our country's most influential political documents, namely the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  I better understand the two opposing forces, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, that battled with words and sentiments to create a nation they could envision succeeding in the distant future.  I understand now, in a way that I did not previously fully grasp, how a segment of our founding citizenry feared and reviled Catholics more than they did Jews, Pagans, and Muslims.  (Think about that for minute!  The mind boggles!)  Likewise, I understand the opposition to any type of religious oppression made men like Jefferson put aside their personal prejudices to uphold the notion of complete and total religious autonomy free of any sort of government influence.

I learned.  A lot.  That, in combination with an relatively pleasing writing style, earned this book a five star rating.

But how do I know what I learned isn't more left-leaning propaganda?  

While I have no way of knowing this for sure, I think it's a safe bet that Spellberg put a lot of time and effort into exploring this critical piece of America's founding history.  I say it's a safe bet because Spellberg is quick to provide her source material, of which there is a great deal.  There is a rather extensive index and supplementary note section to be found at the end of the work.  By providing information on how and where this gathered evidence can be found, she invites the reader to explore the evidence themselves and draw their own conclusions.

I must admit I didn't follow the evidence, but some what I read in Spellberg's work I had read elsewhere and knew the National Archives housed some of the very letters and treaties that were discussed.  I also did a quick search for any negative academic reviews. While Goodreads provides me with the opinion of other readers, some of who are very intelligent and amazingly articulate, having been a part of academia for so long I knew the most damning contradictory opinions would be found among her peers.  Other historians, especially those interested in religious studies or early American history, seemed the most logical voices to be raised in protest if she had misrepresented Jefferson or his contemporaries.  I found nothing of note, certainly nothing that undermined her premise or conclusion.

So, yes, I believe her when she suggests that Jefferson did not initiate military involvement with the Barbary states because the pirates were Muslim.  The evidence presented seems to support her contention that Jefferson engaged the pirates because they were interfering with America's economy. If the merchants fell prey to the pirates, trade was interrupted.  If ransoms were paid for captured sailors or if America agreed to pay for protection from the rulers of the African countries involved, money was still being hemorrhaged by a fledgling country that could little afford the financial hit. Military action seemed the most logical way to protect America's economic interest.

Further, I also believe that Jefferson was a critical voice in the fight for freedom of religion and that he meant to be wholly inclusive of all religions.

I've highlighted so many passages in this book, I fear I will never be able to find the exact quote I am looking for when and if I ever feel the need to do so.