KINGSTON, R.I. – March 12, 2014 – Among Thomas Jefferson’s vast library of 10,000 titles was an unusual book: a Quran that he bought in 1765, eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
That purchase sparked a lifelong interest in Islamic law and religion, argues author and historian Denise A. Spellberg in her book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.
Spellberg will talk about her findings Monday, April 7, at 4 p.m., in the Agnes G. Doody Auditorium at Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road, on the Kingston campus. The talk, celebrating the 20th anniversary of URI’s Center for the Humanities, is free and open to the public. A reception will be held there at 3 p.m., followed by the lecture and a book signing.
Jefferson ordered an English translation of the sacred Islamic text when he was a law student at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Although Europeans and Americans were somewhat hostile to Islam at the time, Jefferson’s purchase showed that he was, at the very least, curious about the religion and law of Muslims.
Critics have praised Spellberg’s book for revealing how Jefferson and the other founding fathers valued religious tolerance for not only various Protestant groups, but also for the country’s future Muslim citizens. That tolerance embodied Jefferson’s universal principle of civil rights for all Americans and progressive position on religious tolerance.
“Denise Spellberg documents in detail where, when, and how Muslims were first included in American ideals,” wrote critic and author Bernard Bailyn, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. “An exploration of the extent of the founders’ pluralism, the book is not only a notable addition to our understanding of Jefferson, but a significant comment on the world today.”
R.B. Bernstein, of the Daily Beast, calls the book a must-read in “these troubled times,” as it examines the relationship of Islam to America in the nation’s founding era.
A scholar of Islamic history, Spellberg received her bachelor’s degree from Smith College and her doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Columbia University. She is an associate professor of history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
From 1989 to 1990, she was a visiting lecturer in women’s studies and the history of religion at Harvard Divinity School.
Spellberg has won a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Carnegie Foundation Scholarship. She has also won three teaching awards: the President’s Associates Undergraduate Teaching Excellence Award in History; the Dad’s Centennial Teaching Fellowship for Excellence in Undergraduate Instruction, and the Harry Ransom Teaching Award. In September 2013, she was nominated to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers.
Spellberg’s first book, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha bint Abi Bakr, was published in 1994. In 2009, the Women’s Cultural Association of Istanbul, Turkey awarded the book its Dost (Friend) Prize in recognition of its “universal contribution to Islamic Studies.”
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders was published in 2013. It has been reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and other publications. Spellberg has also been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and WBUR’s “On Point.”
A 10-minute film about the history of URI’s Center for the Humanities will be shown before Spellberg’s talk.
“We are delighted to feature Denise Spellberg as the keynote speaker for the 20th anniversary of URI’s Center for the Humanities,” said Winnie Brownell, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The center has played a significant role in supporting the discovery and dissemination of critical and award-winning scholarship and creative work in the humanities over the past two decades.”
Pictured above: Denise A. Spellberg will discuss her book, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, on April 7, at 4 p.m., in the Agnes G. Doody Auditorium at Swan Hall, 60 Upper College Road, on the Kingston campus. The talk is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow.
Photo courtesy of Denise A. Spellberg.