Congressman Takes Oath of Office on Thomas Jefferson's Quran
Keith Ellison finds book symbolic of U.S. founding fathers' religious tolerance
Washington -- Incoming Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison became the first Muslim member of the U.S. Congress January 4, swearing his oath of office on a copy of the Quran that belonged to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
In an interview with USINFO, Ellison spokesman Rick Jauert said the choice of Jefferson's Quran was significant because it "dates religious tolerance back to the time of our founding fathers".
"Jefferson was one of the more profound thinkers of the time, who recognized even then that there was nothing to fear, and in fact there was strength in recognizing religious tolerance," he said.
[photo below: The Quran once owned by Thomas Jefferson and used by Representative Keith Ellison during his swearing-in ceremony (© AP Images)]
Jefferson's 6,000-volume personal library was the largest in North America at the turn of the 19th century. He obtained his English translation of the Quran in 1765 as he was finishing his law studies at the College of William and Mary. The translation by British historian and solicitor George Sale first was published in 1734. The Quran, along with the rest of Jefferson's books, became the basis of the Library of Congress after British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, destroying the old congressional collection in the War of 1812. (See related article.)
The Library of Congress' division of rare books and special collections made the Quran available to Ellison for the ceremony. It has made similar rare books available for inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies in the past.
While Jefferson is best known for writing the Declaration of Independence, he also penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which served as a basis for the religion clauses in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights. (See related article.)
In the Virginia statute, he wrote, "[O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry." He went on to say that denying a person the ability to hold an office of trust or declaring him unworthy of public confidence based on his religious beliefs was a violation of natural rights.
The document demanded "that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."
The statute was one of Jefferson's proudest achievements. He instructed that his tombstone should not refer to him as president of the United States but should remember him only as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the founder of the University of Virginia.
(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)