Islam and the Founding Fathers

Zulfiqar Ali Shah. Photo by Zaufishan, Flickr.

Yesterday, while websurfing for information about Eid ul-Fitr, I happened across this intriguing article: Influence of Islamic Thought on Some Founding Fathers of America by Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah. (You know something “intriguing” is going to follow when the author affixes “Dr.” or “Ph.D.” to their byline.) Basically, Shah is arguing that Islamic thinkers contributed to the matrix of ideas from which the American experiment was born. His argument hinges on the fact that some of the Founders, as well as John Locke, were Deists or Unitarians–ergo they rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, just as Islam does.

In the process of making that case, Shah quotes from Enlightenment-era primary texts in which authors point to Islam as an analogue for Deism or Unitarianism. I found those texts genuinely interesting. I’d be curious to see someone less partisan than Shah comment on the way Enlightenment authors used Islam–or their conceptions of Islam–as a foil or analogue for their own thought. Some of the texts Shah uses appear to be critiques that draw parallels to Islam for the purpose of delegitimating Deism or Unitarianism (i.e., “Unitarians are just Mahommedans”). In Shah’s hands, these texts become proof that, look, Unitarians are getting their ideas from Muslims. Uh huh. But I am intrigued by the notion that critics of certain trends in Enlightenment thought were invoking Islam as a specter; and I would be intrigued to know to what extent some emerging liberal or deistic Christians may have been aware of Islamic teaching as a model for what Christianity could look like when stripped of the things they didn’t like–the Trinity or a divine Jesus. It would create a more “dialogic” model for the emergence of these strands of Western thought, i.e., Western thought emerging in conversation with at least an imagined Islam.

As for Shah–well, his argument is an intriguing artifact inasmuch as he attempts to stake a claim for Muslims in American democracy by inserting an Islamic strand into America’s origins story. That’s the pluralistic way of putting it. Alternatively, one could read what he’s doing as more aggressive: an effort to “Islamize” the American experiment, analogous to efforts by the evangelical right to “Christianize” the Founders. Different groups want credit for America. We all know the version of America’s founding myth that puts the Puritans at center stage. Today evangelicals hype the influence of Presbyterian minister John Wotherspoon on James Madison. I’ve seen a Catholic argument that links the Constitution to medieval Catholic thought. I have a dim recollection of reading once a claim that the architects of American federalism looked to the Iroquois as a model. Everyone wants to say that America was their guys’ idea; everyone wants to place their guys “in the beginning.” One can hardly begrudge Shah for wanting the same thing.

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