Well after the end of his political life, Thomas Jefferson took a straight razor to his Bible and gashed out everything he found disagreeable to his reason or to his morals. Little survived the crucible of his skepticism: where the Bible contained 31,102 verses under the canonical system, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth contains fewer than 1,000 verses, and many of those verses themselves are further redacted. The final product contained no miracles, neither the savagery and superstition of the Old Testament nor the millenarian madness of Paul, none of the God said this, God did that that interfered with Jefferson’s personal deistic philosophy.
Even the very existence of Thomas Jefferson’s personal Bible was not widely-known during his lifetime. Likely he feared the political fallout that would result, even though the text was assembled after his presidency and after the ascendancy of a successor generation for his own political party. He may have felt that his legacy, and the future prospects of his political allies, would not survive the revelation that Jefferson thought he could fix, or at least streamline, the word of God. After all, what American politician, aspiring or otherwise, in his or her right mind would make public their own, personal, diced-up New and Improved Testament? But then, perhaps we are lucky that all that we in the West face for criticizing prevailing contemporary myths is an uphill election fight. More on that in a moment.
My first encounters with Islam were in the context of Christian apologetics; born into a Christian household, I was extremely devout throughout my youth and was born again as a teenager. I became steeped in the works of men ranging in intellectual seriousness from Ken Ham and Lee Strobel to William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga, the latter of whom became the subject of my undergraduate philosophy thesis. Like so many other Christians the more I became exposed to the intellectual foundations of my faith the weaker that faith became, and by my early 20s I was and remain an atheist. I replaced Ham, Strobel, Craig and Plantinga with Robert Price, PZ Myers, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, the former two of whom I even brought to speak at my undergraduate alma mater on behalf of the local little chapter of the Secular Student Alliance that I founded.
Like many others in the West, atheist or otherwise, I had little serious knowledge of Islam. I knew the name Muhammed, and something about seventy-two virgins, and that there was a thing called Sunni and a thing called Shi’a and a thing called the Qur’an (though I probably spelled it Koran). I essentially knew enough about Islam to squeak by eighth-grade social studies and not much more. But, having already been so thoroughly immersed in Christian apologetics from an early age I quickly became bored with secular critiques of Christianity, and Islam came as almost a natural successor to my curiosity. I added Ibn Warraq, Salman Rushdie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali to my pantheon, and finally sat down to go through the Qur’an itself.
One cannot simply read a work like the Qur’an like any other book for two main reasons. First, its effects have far transcended the text in a way that only two or three other books in all of our history have: about one human in four believes that it is the perfect thesis on morality, cosmic truth, and humanity’s purpose and eternal future. A work that has meant so much to human history and culture frankly deserves better, even though I believe most of it to be nonsense and most of the remainder to be profoundly immoral.
Secondly, like most foundational religious texts, it is profoundly boring. If “badly written” is not the right phrase, it should at least be called “not targeted to the mass-market paperback audience.” The Qur’an is extremely repetitive, its chapters (suras) are assembled not in any chronological or otherwise orderly fashion but are instead arranged from longest to shortest for reasons totally unknown to even its most serious historians and commentators. Some of its stories, many of which are of totally unknown provenance, are so esoteric and weird that they strike me as long-lost Aesop’s Fables told only in Wonderland. Unlike the Bible, the Qur’an at least has stylistic consistency since it is the product of a single voice and not many, and consequently this single voice had to employ certain memory devices and similar idioms and turns of phrase to facilitate its frequent oral recitation and so the Qur’an is agonizingly repetitive. To simply sit down and read it in a single go is to quickly descend into glazed scanning.
So, in order to force myself to really work with the text and to understand it, I steeled myself to write The Jefferson Qur’an alongside my reading of the native text, rather than just read the Qur’an in isolation. It quickly became apparent to me that the text did not adequately speak for itself and so, over the course of about a year, I read the Qur’an, as well as three of its major commentaries, and many other supplemental works, some by Muslims and some not, in order to better understand its cultural, historical, and theological context. I ultimately relied on four different translations read in parallel and three different Quranic commentaries to whittle down the 6,200 some-odd verses of the Qur’an to the narrow volume I intend to produce here.
Here I will walk you through the text of the Qur’an and my own thoughts on it, with such commentary as my meager understanding can provide, and explain my process behind each of the many redactions I have made to the text. I hope that, with your assistance, feedback, and criticism, we together will together arrive at that one pure product that survives the crucible of free inquiry: the truth.