04 January 2007

Keith Ellison Exhibits the Wisdom of a Librarian (CS)

Lefty bloggers are pretty impressed with Keith Ellison's cheeky move in not only swearing in on the Koran, but Thomas Jefferson's very own copy of it. They figure that should stick it to complaining conservatives. Though, I don't see how it helps that Ellison is swearing in on a controversial holy book used as justification by enemies of our state worldwide and then chooses a copy once owned by a radical insurgent who fought against one of our greatest allies.

Joking aside, it's actually a more complicated matter than just saying, "Well Thomas Jefferson owned a copy, so there!" It's important to see how Thomas Jefferson read and understood the Koran. It didn't take long for for conservatives to dredge up the historical reference of Jefferson's trip to Tripoli and the Muslim al-jihad fil-bahr (holy war at sea) there, justified through the Koran, that Jefferson had to put an end to.

Those who have looked into it would say that Jefferson acquired the Koran primarily for the purposes of studying law* (There is, after all, a depiction of Mohammad on a frieze in the Supreme Court, part of a series of prominent law makers in history. What, didn't you know?). Dan Riehl calls this academic speculation, but the academic speculation makes a lot more sense than his own. Kiehl's argument (and those you'll see from most commentators on the Right) lacks any sort of extensive research. But he'll have you believe that he perfectly understands the context of a singular comment made by Jefferson (his relay to Congress of the Barbary pirates use of the Koran as justification) and that it can be applied to the man's life entirely. This is what one would call a lack of historical nuance.**

Also, as someone who works very closely with the library profession, I think there is something to be said for how Jefferson chose to catalog his books. How an academic chooses to arrange his personal library says a lot about how he categorizes the world in his own mind and Jefferson was certainly very particular about the arrangement of his books. So if one were to go back in time and visit Jefferson at Monticello, where would one look on the shelf to find the Koran? Within the works on religion, right next to the Old Testament, the Bible, and books on Roman and Greek mythologies. This would support the common argument of Jefferson's deism and implies the same sort of understanding one would find in his 1777 draft of a Bill for Religious Freedom. All of it adds up to give us an idea of Jefferson's liberal character. We know Jefferson was a smart, strong, resolved, and academic individual who understood how texts could function in different ways within society. One would think that in the case of Tripoli, Jefferson saw that he wasn't at war with Islam, but with pirates who attempted to justify themselves through a religious text.

Ellison indeed made a wise move by choosing to swear in on a Koran that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson, but I'm hoping more went into his decision than simply choosing along the lines of founding father/hero worship. If Ellison realized some of the historical, political, and cultural nuances involved in making such a decision, we would actually be well served to have more men like him in Congress.

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*Those without accounts at Project Muse might not be able to access that article, but if you go searching for it, it's How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur'an
**
Similarly, I wouldn't be surprised if some right wingers start referring to Jefferson's slave owning, borderline vilifying Jefferson trying to get to Ellison, completely misunderstanding the historical period Jefferson was from, the culture and part of the country in which he lived, and Jefferson's wishes for an eventual end to slavery.

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7 Comments:

Blogger Samantha said...

Didn't Christopher Hitchens tell you exactly what to think of Thomas Jefferson?

Or was he too drunk?

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