Middle East

Diplomacy in Action: Lessons from Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an


With over a hundred Americans being held captive by North African criminals, American diplomats in Europe frantically arranged a meeting the Libyan state-sponsored bandits. The meeting took place not in 2017 but in 1786, and the diplomats in question were both future presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. This meeting, the continued disagreements between Jefferson and Adams, and the eventual conflict between America and Tripoli are well documented in Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Strikingly, by reviewing Spellberg’s work we find that many of the issues faced by Jefferson continue to challenge American leaders today. By looking to our third president’s leadership, diplomacy, and wisdom, today’s leaders can more aptly face the challenges facing the United States today in the Muslim world.

Image courtesy of the Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, © 2012.

During the meeting, the Tripolitan Ambassador, Abd al-Rahman, declared that the only way to cease hostilities between the two nations was for the United States to pay for a peace treaty. While they remained amicable at the time, Adams and Jefferson had very different reactions to the meeting, and different ideas on how to proceed with the issue of Barbary (North African) piracy. At the center of this disagreement was not only how to respond to the piracy, but also whether to perceive the conflict as a religious or an economic one. This question continues to vex American leaders, who are divided between falling back on Old World explanations of a clash of civilizations, or a fresh, New World perspective.

Adams for his part clearly saw the problem in terms of a civilizational struggle. In correspondence to Jefferson he declared, “The policy of Christendom has made Cowards of all their Sailors before the Standard of Mahomet.” This was, in fairness to Adams, the standard view of the time. As Spellberg rightly points out, anti-Muslim hysteria began not with the September 11th attacks but with the Ottoman siege of Vienna and other such early clashes with Muslim armies. Despite this, Adams proposed a policy of paying the tribute and avoiding conflict.

Jefferson on the other hand was better versed on the tenets of Islam, having purchased George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an in 1765. The scholarly Jefferson noted in his Qu’ran verses that pertained to war, perhaps after his encounter with the Tripolitan diplomat. While not immune from the prejudices of his time, Jefferson refused to give in to the temptation of falling back on explanations of holy war. Even in his private correspondence, he explained Tripoli’s aggression in primarily economic terms, never in religious ones. Nevertheless Jefferson, unlike Adams, saw war as the cheaper and more honorable path for the United States to resolve their disputes with the Barbary states.

Today, with troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, many Americans likewise see the struggle against terrorism as an epic struggle in civilizational terms. Meanwhile a vocal group of dissenters urge restraint and an understanding of the Muslim world’s issues through political, economic, and cultural lenses. What is ironic is that in the 1780s, facing an Islamic insurgency in North Africa, the proponents of civilizational struggle urged peace and those with a wider frame of vision demanded war. The disagreement between Adams and Jefferson challenges the modern debate to consider the full range of factors that go into conflict versus those of peace.

The disagreements between Adams and Jefferson festered into open conflict in the election of 1800 when Jefferson challenged Adams for the presidency. More so than Adams, Jefferson had been radically progressive in his belief in freedom of religion, a point to which Spellberg devotes most of her book. Whereas religious toleration had up to that point meant intra-Protestant toleration, Jefferson’s private notes on a religious freedom bill he wrote for the Virginia legislature indicate that he sought to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.” This radical interpretation of spiritual liberty, combined with his own Deist beliefs, marked him an enemy of Protestant America. Adam’s supporters went so far as to denounce him as an “infidel,” a common euphemism in those days for a Muslim.  Furthermore, it was in fact Jefferson—only the third sitting president—who was first publicly called a Muslim, although without the racial undertones of the accusations leveled at former President Obama.

When Jefferson finally won the presidency, he led the country into a quick and undeclared war with Tripoli—sending a fleet to blockade Tripoli and a squad of Marines to overthrow the Pasha. After the Marines and an army of mercenaries captured Derna, 210 years before ISIL won and lost the city, Jefferson made a swift peace with Tripoli rather than prolong the war. Having blockaded and threatened war with neighboring Tunis for aiding Tripoli, Jefferson invited a Tunisian envoy to Washington, the first Muslim diplomat in the country. Once there, Jefferson arranged for a special Ramadan dinner, discussed theology, and sent the envoy home with a new ship to replace the one America had captured during the blockade. In letters to the Bey of Tunis, Jefferson expressed a shared faith in one god and sent prayers for their friendship.

While a proponent of the war, Jefferson sought not to prolong the fight when the opportunity for peace arose. Likewise, though not wishing a broader conflict, he did not hesitate to use force to deter would be assailants. Ultimately, Jefferson enacted himself as a true diplomat, utilizing his intellectual curiosity and belief in a common humanity to reach across the world and cultures.

The issues Jefferson faced regarding America’s relationship to Islam and the Muslim World closely mirrored the challenges his predecessors would face 200 years later. Facing war with a Muslim power, he rejected calls for viewing the conflict as a clash of civilizations and spoke out for the rights of any Muslims who sought the protection of the constitution. This earned him libelous attacks from his opponents who derided him as a foreign agent. However he did not bend, winning his country an early military success and protecting her national interests while extending diplomatic ties with Muslim states and leaving the door open for future cooperation. Today’s leaders would do well to remember his unbending resistance to public pressure, his strength in battle, and his wisdom in peace.

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