Thomas Jefferson, Islam and the State

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET

When Congressman Keith Ellison took his oath of office in January 2007 he placed his hand on a Qur'an once owned by Thomas Jefferson. As Congressman Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress explained, he borrowed Jefferson's Qur'an from the Rare Book Section of the Library of Congress because it showed that "a visionary like Jefferson" learned from many sources. Is it at all surprising that the founders of the American republic would have studied the foundational text of Islam as a major world religion of their time? Americans leaders should do the same today.

What could our third president have learned about the state and religion from Islamic sources?

Today it is hard for us to imagine a Muslim world where political and religious leaders do not justify the state and their power based on Divine will. In the Iranian elections last week, the conservative Guardian Council actually decided who could run, arguing they needed to ensure greater obedience to true Muslim values.

This type of authoritarian censorship exposes the true nature of the clerics of Guardian Council as a totalitarian clique intent on falsifying Islam and negating the free will of all Iranians. The fundamental principle of individual personal responsibility that can never be abdicated or delegated is one of the recurring themes of the Qur'an.

This contradiction is inherent to the claim that Iran is an Islamic republic. How can it be either Islamic or a republic at all when this Council of fallible human beings pretend to ensure "the Islamicity of the State" against the free choice of its own citizens?

As Jefferson wrote in 1802, "religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

Jefferson could have been paraphrasing chapter and verse of the Qur'an, like 6:94 and 164, 7:39, 17:15, 18:35, 19:95, 35:18, and many others which all emphatically confirm the individual personal responsibility of every Muslim for what she or he does or fail to do. All founding scholars of Islam agree that no act has any religious value unless done freely and without any coercion.

Just as Jefferson believed that the newly formed United States should not be a Christian state, for Muslims the notion that the state can be Islamic is false from a religious point of view, and has no support in 15 centuries of Islamic history. It is true that Muslims everywhere, whether minorities or majorities, are bound to observe Shari'a as a matter of religious obligation. Some practices are collective in form, but always individual in substance. Any observance of Shari'a can be best achieved when the state is neutral regarding all religious doctrines. Enforcing a Shari'a through coercive power of the state negates its religious nature, because Muslims would be observing the law of the state and not freely performing their religious obligation as Muslims.

The notion of an Islamic state is in fact a post-colonial innovation based on a European model of the state and a totalitarian view of law and public policy. There is no mention whatsoever of the state in the Qur'an, and Islam does not prescribe a form of government. Instead, the emphasis has always been on the community of Muslims and their responsibility for conducting their own public affairs. A true and valid return to Islamic values anywhere must allow individuals to practice religion unfettered by religious leaders who claim to speak in the name of the Divine. This is the clear demand of Muslims everywhere, like all other human beings and their societies.

Jefferson's oft quoted comment regarding refreshing the tree of liberty from time to time (he suggested every twenty years) is also fully consistent with the imperative of renewal and rejuvenation of the faith and its relevance to daily life which is a recurrent theme throughout Islamic history. To have any religious value, this renewal must happen within individual Muslims and their communities, freely and without coercion, and not through violence at home or abroad.

Every generation of citizens, whether religious or not, should renew and reaffirm their commitment to democracy and the rule of law as essential for human dignity and social justice everywhere. These values cannot be inherited from preceding generations, and must be personally accepted with true conviction if they are to be effective in practice.

I would not doubt President Jefferson's word that he was not a Muslim (and appreciate that he did not have to deny it in his day). I am not suggesting that he was actually influenced by the teachings of the Qur'an. What is significant for me is the fact that his conclusions about the relationship between religion and state are fully consistent with mine as a Muslim and as a scholar of the Qur'an. Jefferson speaks for me and the clear majority of Muslims around the world (as shown by the global Gallup poll published in Feb. 2008) that the only true relationship to the Divine must be of the individual believer, unfettered by religious or political leaders who claim to speak in the name of the Divine.

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im is professor of law, Emory University, and author of Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari'a (Harvard University Press, 2008)