Review: Jefferson's Fugitive Muslims

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University.

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Daniel N. Gullotta, "Review: Jefferson's Fugitive Muslims," Journal of Southern Religion (23) (2021):

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Jeffrey Einboden. Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of Enslaved Africans, Their Arabic Letters, and an American President. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 352 pp. 978-0190844479.

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Articles and monographs about the sage of Monticello cover every imaginable topic from his time as president and political philosophy, his complicated views on slavery, and his relationship with Sally Hemmings, to his procurement of a stuffed American moose and his passion for wine. Given the remarkable efforts by Princeton University Press to collect and digitize all of Thomas Jefferson’s writings as well as the work of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies to take Jefferson scholarship into new disciplinary realms, it often seems unlikely that new discoveries await. But Jeffrey Einboden has, in fact, unearthed heretofore undiscovered Arabic writings that found their way into the hands of Thomas Jefferson.  The letters came from two enslaved African Muslims in rural Kentucky, who appealed to the then-president for their freedom.

The bulk of the book focuses on these mysterious Arabic missives and Einboden’s meticulous attempts to trace their origin. Along the way, Einboden also highlights other early American encounters with the Islamic world and describes how the early republic’s literature imaged and portrayed Muslims.  Some of these stories include Jefferson’s 1784 interactions as American Ambassador to France with Tripoli’s emissary 'Abd ar-Raḥmān Aga, as well President Jefferson’s wars with the Islamic Barbary pirates. Other examples include Washington Irving’s popular satire that used Muslim characters and also the autobiography of Omar ibn Said that captured the Americans’ imagination. Many of the stories Einboden presents reveal misunderstanding and miscommunication, often stemming from language barriers and cultural prejudices as well as an oriental fascination with Muslims and the Islamic world.

There is much to be celebrated about Einboden’s most recent work, especially in his discovery of what is currently the earliest known Arabic writings in America and his efforts to include Muslims in the story of the young United States. But he neglects to frame the life and experience of these slaves within the wider context of enslaved Muslim life in the early republic. He offers little about how Muslim slaves expressed their faith under the brutality of American slavery and how Islam survived under the pressures to convert to Christianity. Likewise, for readers unfamiliar with Muslim tradition, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives will present a very steep learning curve, as it assumes a depth of knowledge and familiarity with Islam. For example, even though much of the story centers on Osman’s reproduction of two of the Qur’an’s shortest surahs, readers will wait in vain for an explanation of what a surah is and the important role memorizing surahs played in the religious life of devout Muslims. Because of these issues, Einboden’s work is best consumed in conservation with and after consulting Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur'an: Islam and the Founders (2013) and Sylviane A. Diouf’s classic Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (1998). Nonetheless, Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives is certainly an engrossing read, the product of painstaking detective work, and full of insight.

Einboden’s work owes much to his background in Arabic and his translation skills. Who knows what other untranslated documents might await unearthing and translation? In various endnotes Einboden identifies other Arabic documents he has discovered across early American collections, suggesting that much work remains for scholars. While Einboden has highlighted Arabic texts, what other non-English texts need deciphering and what possibilities might they hold? Einboden’s Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives is a valuable contribution to the field of Muslim American history and a thought-provoking study that will hopefully be integrated in how future historians study Thomas Jefferson’s life and legacy.