My Favorite Founder & The Middle East

The NYT had a great article a few weeks ago called Jefferson and The Middle East. Here’s they key bit, which given its absence from my knowledge seems to have been conspicuously left out of American history curriculums…

The most parched terrain for American idealism has always been the Middle East, a fact Jefferson knew well. To a surprising degree, his life intersected with the peoples and cultures of Arabia. As a young man, he bought a copy of the Koran — a curious fact noted by President Obama in his Cairo speech of June 2009. Happily, the book still exists — indeed, it was called into service in 2007, when Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress, needed a book to place his hand on as he was sworn into office. (Fortunately, it was intact — one shudders to think about the firestorm if Jefferson had altered his Koran as he did his copy of the Bible, rearranging text to better suit his sense of what was credible.)

Jefferson encountered the Middle East in many other ways as well, beginning with the vicarious travels he performed as a reader. A relentless autodidact, he tried to teach himself Arabic (he acquired Arabic grammars, an Arabic Euclid, and gospels in Arabic and Latin).

In the late 1770s he drafted a bill that urged his college, William and Mary, to teach oriental languages. When he authored his bill for establishing religious freedom, he wrote that it was intended to “protect the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”


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