I understand your puzzlement in reading my title. Why would I link the illustrious (principal) author of the US Declaration of Independence and its third president with 38-year-old Indian Muslim immigrant Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core?

The answer is that Jefferson consciously paved the way for Muslims to be citizens of the country he helped to found, just as much as Catholics and Jews – a very controversial idea at the time. And Eboo Patel, hand picked by President Barack Obama to join his inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships, is a highly effective mobilizer of young people of all faiths for community service across the US. He may also be the most eloquent advocate for religious pluralism as a fundamental American value.

Before I turn to Jefferson, let me say that this blog grew out of the third public library discussion in the series “Muslim Journeys: American Stories” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association. I had posted a blog on the first book we discussed, explaining more about this series in September (“The First American Muslim Celebrity” ). This time it was Eboo Patel’s book, an autobiography and the story of the Interfaith Youth Core, Acts of Faith: The Struggle for the Soul of a Generation (Beacon Press, 2007).

 

About “Jefferson’s Qur’an”

It so happened that one of the books our library chose to display for this series of discussions was just published, Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. Spellberg, who teaches history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, tells in an interview (in one of the largest pan-Arab newspapers, Al-Sharq al-Awsat, published in London) how she accidently ran into an advertisement for a play in Baltimore, Mohamet the Impostor in 1782. Intrigued by the fact that Islam seemed to be much more known and discussed in early America than she had previously thought, she also wondered whether there might not be other more favorable views about Muslims and Islam.

Two years later, she found evidence of that view, which, though limited, was being presented forcefully by some rather articulate and powerful people, including some politicians and lawyers in North Carolina. There were also founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

A good eleven years before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson, still in law school, purchased a 2-volume copy of the Qur’an – which resurfaced in public view, by the way, when Representative Keith Ellison swore allegiance in 2007 with his hand on this Qur’an. We know from future events that Jefferson most likely consulted this Qur’an several times in his life.

But the most likely reason for his purchase was his keen interest in the works of English philosopher of the previous century, John Locke, and a few other intellectuals of the time who believed that Muslims should, along with people of other faiths, enjoy civil rights in the Commonwealth. Here’s how Spellberg puts it in her Introduction (see this long excerpt):

 

Because of these European precedents, Muslims also became a part of American debates about religion and the limits of citizenship. As they set about creating a new government in the United States, the American Founders, Protestants all, frequently referred to the adherents of Islam as they contemplated the proper scope of religious freedom and individual rights among the nation’s present and potential inhabitants. The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity. And if the latter, whether political equality—the full rights of citizenship, including access to the highest office—should extend to non-Protestants. The mention, then, of Muslims as potential citizens of the United States forced the Protestant majority to imagine the parameters of their new society beyond toleration. It obliged them to interrogate the nature of religious freedom.”

 

Years after he drafted the Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786) and later as president, after he had fought a war against the Muslim ruler of Tripoli, he stated that the bill intended to include Muslims. As ambassador in London (1786) and later as president, Jefferson negotiated with two Muslim ambassadors. On the second occasion, in Washington, DC, Jefferson delayed the state dinner from the afternoon to after sunset because of the Ramadan fast.

We know too that Jefferson made use of his knowledge of Islam in a letter he wrote to the two leaders of Tunis and Tripoli with whom he was at war at the time (for more on this, see my blog, "Barbary Pirates and a US Treaty"). In one of them he chose to close with a benediction, asking God to “preserve your life, and have you under the safeguard of his holy keeping.” This obvious reference to the God of monotheism, likely meant to tone down hostilities, is all the more interesting, given that Jefferson himself was more of a Unitarian and deist than a Christian.

The data Spellberg uncovers about Jefferson and his attitude to religious freedom and Muslims in particular – all of this sounds very familiar today. Jefferson was the first American president “to suffer the false charge of being a Muslim, an accusation considered the ultimate Protestant slur in the eighteenth century.” Barack Obama was the second.

It’s true that Muslims were brought into the debate about religious freedom almost as a theoretical foil, since Jefferson did not seem to know that thousands of American slaves were actually Muslims. It was more of a trope to offer full citizenship to Catholics and Jews. Still, unlike President John Adams, Jefferson did not see the checkered US relationship with the Barbary Muslim states as anything to do with religion. If anything, religion for him might be a tool for improving those relations.

My last point has to do with today’s conservative discourse making much about Islam being foreign to American history and values. Islam was vigorously debated during the founders’ generation. I quote again from Spellberg’s Introduction:

 

The cast of those who took part in the contest concerning the rights of Muslims, imagined and real, is not confined to famous political elites but includes Presbyterian and Baptist protestors against Virginia’s religious establishment; the Anglican lawyers James Iredell and Samuel Johnston in North Carolina, who argued for the rights of Muslims in their state’s constitutional ratifying convention; and John Leland, an evangelical Baptist preacher and ally of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia, who agitated in Connecticut and Massachusetts in support of Muslim equality, the Constitution, the First Amendment, and the end of established religion at the state level.”

 

Eboo Patel and American religious pluralism

Recall Spellberg’s quip: “The founding generation debated whether the United States should be exclusively Protestant or a religiously plural polity.” Eboo Patel exemplifies – admirably, and with great energy and charisma – this ideal of the United States as “a religiously plural society.”

His book, Acts of Faith, tells a compelling story of a young immigrant born in Mumbai, India, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago trying hard, like every other teenager around him, to fit in. Drifting at first – he and his brother were “more focused on being goofballs than getting good grades” – his life changed when a middle school science teacher challenged him to earn his way into the Challenge science class. And he did! From then on Patel embarked on an academic path that eventually sent him to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship.

I’ll highlight only a few details of his life – I really do want you to read this book! – touching on two themes that impacted his life mission of stirring up interfaith youth activism.

The first is about how his successive girl friends mirrored and shaped his own religious journey. In high school it was Lisa, the bright Mormon girl with whom he would spend hours discussing highbrow literary works. Then they were off to college, Lisa to Brigham Young University and Patel to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. Lisa, realizing that Eboo was not going to convert to Mormonism, wrote a farewell letter. Eboo, sobbing now, realizes that in fact he too had already moved on. College life was filling his lungs with fresh air, of which he wanted so much more!

That is where he meets the Jewish student Sarah. That relationship lasts much longer and generates many more shared experiences – even doing a summer road trip across the US. Sarah however, increasingly drawn to her Jewish roots, decides to do a year of study in Jerusalem, where Eboo comes for a visit. Perhaps it was inevitable, but in the end Sarah tells Eboo it’s best they part ways. Through many tears once again, Eboo tells her she’s lucky to have found a religious community to which she can wholeheartedly belong.

True, Patel’s family had raised him in the ways of Ismaili Shia Islam. Shia Muslims are only about 15% of all Muslims and maybe 10% of those (about 10 million) call themselves Ismailis, looking to the Harvard-educated and philanthropist extraordinaire Aga Khan as their spiritual leader (“Imam” in the Shia sense). As a boy Eboo’s mother taught him the special prayers that Ismailis recite once in the morning and twice in the evening. But both parents were highly successful professionals whose religion in practice was little more than being good people in society. If anything, it was his Indian grandmother who most influenced his faith, insisting from the start he marry an Ismaili (listen to his TED Talk about the female influences on his life).

Eboo Patel in college was still searching for spiritual meaning anywhere and everywhere. Even at Oxford, he fell in love with a beautiful Hindu woman. Still, he was beginning to yearn for his own path. The turning point happened when he and his Jewish friend Kevin, who until then was trying hard to be a Buddhist, meet the Dalai Lama in India, thanks to the intervention of a Chicago Catholic monk, Brother Wayne. By this time, the idea of an interfaith youth alliance for community service was beginning to take shape and the Dalai Lama embraced it immediately – especially the service aspect. But just as significantly, the Dalai Lama stressed how crucial it was, if such a project was to succeed, for them to be better grounded in their respective Jewish and Muslim identities. He urged them to hold on firmly to their own faith while saluting the best in the faith of others.

The second theme I wanted to highlight about Patel’s journey has to do with the word “service.” Perhaps even more influential than the women he loved along the way, were his own experiences in community service. His parents had involved him early on in the YMCA and Patel had immersed himself in soup kitchens and in tutoring disadvantaged children throughout high school.

Then in college he discovered the Catholic Workers houses, the movement Doris Day had launched. And even later when settling in a poor neighborhood of Chicago to teach in an alternative school for drop outs, he lived for many months at the St. Francis Catholic Worker House. A year later he was basking in the success of a weekly potluck dinner he had started and that was now drawing about a hundred young adults, all engaged in some form of community service. But most of them were very secular, and it dawned on him that the tradition of service to the less fortunate he learned from his parents as part and parcel of their Ismaili Muslim faith really did need a spiritual component.

It was thanks to a convergence of factors involving Brother Wayne and another mentor committed to interreligious dialog that Interfaith Youth Core was born. In a way, it was a happy marriage between the bohemian and generous spirit of the non-religious twenty-somethings who flocked to those potluck dinners and the growing interfaith movement that he and Kevin discovered through Brother Wayne – people sharing their religious faith with one another, but focused on common service.

Speaking of marriage, you’re probably wondering about Eboo Patel's love life. Soon after the launching of the IFYC, he finally listened to his friend Kevin’s advice and looked up this Indian-American civil rights attorney friend of his. And good thing he did. It was love at first sight! She too was from the Gujarat state of India, a Sunni Muslim who nonetheless came to appreciate (but not embrace) Eboo’s Ismaili faith. A few months before the wedding, Eboo had come full circle. His grandmother in Mumbai welcomed her grandson’s fiancée with open arms, greeting her in the Sunni way, “As-Salaamu alaykum!” Even in his own marriage, he would model pluralism.

 

Theological pluralism and civic religious pluralism

One of the most respected voices in promoting “a religiously plural society” in America today is Prof. Diana Eck who heads the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. Since 1991 Eck and her teams across the country have conducted research on how people of different faiths are coming together in America’s cities to make them better places. Think about it. This kind of advocacy is promoting a level of interfaith understanding of which Jefferson and his ilk could only dream. That is exciting. And many individuals and organizations are creatively and courageously moving the bar of interreligious dialog higher, despite all the hatred and bigotry that still captures much of the discourse in this country.

Eboo Patel’s intuition is unique among these voices. “Reach the youth in their teens and give them positive experiences of serving alongside teens of other faiths,” he urges. As IFYC has shown, these are life-changing experiences for them, which will only multiply as they grow older and train their own children.

There is one more aspect of Patel’s work I want to close with. In the beginning, he found it difficult trying to coax religious leaders to sent their youth to the IFYC. They were all reticent for the same reason: “our youth barely know their own faith tradition – won’t they get confused in sharing with kids of other traditions? Worse yet, won’t they be tempted to convert to other faiths?”

Patel developed the following points to explain the IFYC:

 

1. Young people are already immersed in their schools and neighborhoods in a religiously plural society. The challenge is: how can they maintain their own religious identity?

2. The IFYC is committed to strengthen those identities (helping them to become better Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims, etc.).

3. “The truth is, our religious traditions have competing theological truth claims, and we simply have to accept those” (p. 166). There is no use arguing, for instance, about what “salvation” is, or who is “saved.” Religions are definitely not the same.

4. The IFYC’s approach is “shared values – service learning.” Starting with the values different communities of faith hold in common, like friendship, loyalty, compassion, mercy, and hospitality, the leaders encourage kids to think about how their tradition teaches those values. And usually a story comes up.

5. To sum up, writes Patel, “the only route to collective survival really, is to identify what is common between religions but to create the space where each can articulate its distinct path to that place. I think of it as affirming particularity and achieving pluralism” (p. 167).

 

So in effect, there are two kinds of pluralisms. Theological pluralism is a theological view stating that differences between religions are only surface deep, but that in the end they all come out in the same place. Put differently, they are all different paths up to the same mountaintop.

Patel disagrees, as do I (and as does Stephen Prothero in the book I use in my Comparative Religion class, God is not One). Each religion answers different questions relative to the human condition. And when the questions are similar, the answers differ.

By contrast, civic religious pluralism is simply a formula that recognizes that in all the global cities of our day (and especially in the west), people of many faiths live side by side. In order to diffuse tensions and avoid potentially disastrous conflicts, these diverse communities must find ways to interact meaningfully and respectfully. They must be willing to listen and learn from one another, and commit to build on common values so as to work for the common good of all.

John Locke in 17th-century England and many of the 18th-century American founders already realized that civil rights – including freedom of conscience and religion – by definition must apply to all citizens, no matter what their religion. Class and race did not yet figure in their calculus, as their reliance on slavery sadly testified. Yet theirs was a conviction about human dignity that was to grow, widen and mature beyond the stain of colonialism and the barbarity of two World Wars. In fact, are still trying to work out the implications of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

Eboo Patel stands firmly in this legacy, strategically choosing to focus on the younger generation of Americans. Religious pluralism is indeed an “American” value – a profoundly civic virtue. It is also our best hope for a more peaceful and just world for all its peoples. Though we may define “God” in different ways, we are all called to be his trustees on the planet we share. May we all live up to this sacred trust, starting with the most vulnerable in our own neighborhoods.