Denise A. Spellberg, a professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, headlined the annual Interdisciplinary Islamic Studies Seminar Symposium on Thursday where she discussed Thomas Jefferson’s connection with Islam.
Spellberg opened the address to an audience of 20 faculty and graduate students in the Michigan League by explaining that Jefferson knew more about Islam than most of his contemporaries. She said he went out of his way to study the faith and meet its practitioners.
“As a historian of the American founders and their interest in Islam and Muslims, and as one who teaches Islamic studies, I think the precedence of Thomas Jefferson remains important, because he once imagined Muslims here in the U.S.,” she said.
She went on to say the few scholarly books that consider Jefferson’s involvement in the Muslim world emphasize a “dominant negative paradigm.” She said such books emphasize “Muslim” and “American” are terms most often placed in binary opposition as the eternal “them” and “us.”
Spellberg’s work focuses on challenging such a dichotomy and is documented in her book “Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders.”
At the address, she discussed how the ideas of Islam influenced the United States' founders and subsequently transformed “imagined” Muslims — a group considered outsiders in the 18th century — into exemplars of the United States’ ideals of religious pluralism and civil rights.
“Thomas Jefferson in particular was a visionary — a man who planned for a nation that included Muslims as future citizens, despite sometimes simultaneously expressing negative views of Islam,” she said. “The ideal of their future presence and shared American spaces — this imagined future, while notional — contains key elements of what today might be considered an aspect of American exceptionalism.”
Such exceptionalism, she explained, refers to the precedent that anyone of any religion might reside in the United States with citizenship and equal rights — ideals that she believes are attacked under President Donald Trump’s administration.
In light of this statement, the symposium in general focused on the effect of the Trump administration on Islamic studies and was inspired by solidarity movements such as Black Lives Matter, the response to the shooting at a mosque in Quebec and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign.
IISS coordinator Saquib Ali Usman, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Michigan, said it became clear in planning the event the “era of Trump” is incredibly pertinent to Islamic studies today.
He referenced American scholar Sherman Jackson, who describes Islamic studies today as Islamic studies 2.0. Islamic studies 1.0, he said, refers to the discursive study of Islam through an academic setting, using the tools and genealogy of studies. Islamic studies 2.0 refers to putting 1.0 into real-life political situations in which an event is unfolding.
“I think Islamic studies is becoming much more tied to social realities of Muslims living in the world and in the U.S., as opposed to some ideological disconnected, disembodied study of Islamic studies,” he said.
Samiah Haque, the interim Islamic studies program coordinator, said the purpose of the symposium was to relate the work of individuals to the current political climate.
“Considering the political climate, we thought it would be a very timely seminar and really this conference is about how different people in the field of Islamic studies are relating to what’s happening right now in terms of what they’re working on,” she said.
She emphasized the interdisciplinary nature of the symposium, which includes storytelling, arts and music performances, among others. Presenters were graduate students, professors, social activists and scholars from the University and other institutions around the world.
Sara Tahir, a graduate student studying anthropology at Michigan State University, presented earlier in the day on ethical labor with regard to Muslim-American women after the election.
Tahir said she enjoyed Spellberg’s lecture and the overall opportunity to work alongside students pursuing similar studies.
“It was really interesting,” she said. “I’m so glad it was organized because I got to meet people from the University of Michigan, especially people who are people of color, and people who are working … who have a similar sort of process with respect to what is going on in the world today, globally as well. Of course, the United States is included what is happening in the United States and how we’re projecting that to the global scale.”