Reflections on Presidents’ Day…and what our founding fathers really thought about Islam

Posted on February 21, 2011

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Today is the third Monday of February, which means it’s President’s Day, originally a celebration of George Washington’s birthday that turned into a day for all the presidents….and shopping for sales. So, usually, I don’t pay this “holiday” any mind because it’s never meant anything to me except a day off from school. And I’ve never been much of an American History buff, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Jefferson today. I don’t know why–perhaps it was the unveiling of newly found books in Thomas Jefferson’s collection that were presented on the Today Show. It got me thinking about how little I know about our presidents and their beliefs, but how one thing I knew about Thomas Jefferson was truly inspiring. No matter the arguments and buzz over what people think certain founding fathers thought about Islam, the fact remains that in their writing and in their speeches, they were at least tolerant and welcoming to citizens of other faiths.

The mural

During my four and a half years of living in Richmond, VA, whenever I glided down the cobblestone streets of Richmond’s historic Shockoe Slip, a turquoise mural painting  on the wall of a building would catch my eye. It was the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (passed in 1786), written by Thomas Jefferson in 1779, three years after he wrote The Declaration of Independence. It was this bill that spurred the First Amendment’s clause on religious freedom and the separation of church and state in our very own Constitution.

Thomas Jefferson's original draft for the Bill Establishing Religious Freedom (1779)

Remembering that mural of hope today, I happened upon this document from the Library of Congress entitled “The Founding Fathers and Islam: Library Papers Show Early Tolerance for Muslim Faith” (May 2002). A quick and short one-page article (not like most history texts!), this paper shows that the founding fathers explicitly included Islam and Muslims in their collective vision of America’s future–including the birthday boy, George Washington! They applauded the morals and ethics of Islam, wishing Islam’s moral precepts on youth rather than none at all! We’re talking not only GW and TJ, but John Locke and Richard Henry Lee as well!

And did you know that there was a petition by a group of ordinary citizens in Chesterfield County, Virginia (just a couple of minutes away from Richmond) to the State Assembly in 1785 stating, “Let Jews, Mehometans and Christians of every denomination enjoy religious liberty…thrust them not out now by establishing the Christian religion lest thereby we become our own enemys and weaken this infant state. It is mens labour in our Manufactories, their services by sea and land that aggrandize our Country and not their creeds. Chain your citizens to the state by their Interest. Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws.”

Wow! Ordinary citizens!  This is truly a groundbreaking discovery for me and truly inspirational. I am thankful that James H. Hutson, the chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress, thought enough to write this piece and open American eyes to the deep-seated history of Islam in this country. And now back in my original home of D.C., I may have to take a trip down to the Library of Congress and research more! Who knows? Perhaps a book will come out of this…you never know…

Then maybe I’ll travel to Penn Ave to have an audience with our current president–don’t blame me for dreaming big, it could happen. I’m keen on seeing how Barack Obama deals with the Muslim world, especially in light of the current turbulent and revolutionary events happening in the Middle East. I loved the speech he gave in Cairo on June 4, 2009 (referencing Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in relation to Islam), and I believe his exposure to the Muslim world (especially his upbringing in Indonesia) primes him for not only filling, but overflowing the footsteps of our founding fathers…at least in the area of religious tolerance and international affairs. Hey, just the fact that he’s Black and has a Muslim name is pretty cool to me. What will the generations to come have to say about him, I wonder?

But back to my historic voyage, I’ll finally make my way back down those same cobblestone streets where it’s all coming full circle inshAllah. My old home of Richmond, VA is now in the process of building a six-story, U-shaped building for The First Freedom Center, a nonprofit organization with the mission of advancing religious freedom, on the very site where religious freedom was first made law here in the US of A. So if you happen to find your way down the very same cobblestone streets at 14th and Cary, know that you are standing in the very location where, in 1786, the General Assembly passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom…and where I, an American who chose Islam, proudly stood 218 years later.

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