By Omer Aziz
Thomas Jefferson was expecting a dinner guest. It was December 1805 and the nascent republic that Jefferson led was mired in a series of battles with the Barbary States of North Africa, whose pirates were intercepting vessels and imposing medieval punishments on passengers who refused to pay tribute. Jefferson’s guest this evening was Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, the envoy from Tunisia who had come to America for diplomatic meetings and whose presence had aroused the interest of locals. His robes and jewels—not to mention his Muslim faith—were entirely alien to the provincial town of Washington. Jefferson normally dined at 3:30 p.m. but he delayed the feast by several hours. “Dinner was to have been on the table precisely at sunset,” wrote John Adams in his diary, “it being the midst of Ramadan, during which the Turks fast while the sun is above the horizon.” The meal took place at the prescribed hour, and the Muslim guest was able to open his fast with the president of the United States.
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Like much else, this episode has been polarizing and subject to vicious debate, provoked by Donald Trump’s decision this year to cancel the annual Iftar dinner at the White House. The left says that the Jefferson–Mellimelli dinner was the first Iftar at the White House, which is technically true even though the host was obviously not fasting. The right argues that this was little more than a diplomatic courtesy that has been exaggerated for politically correct reasons. But the moral of this little parable, at least to this reader, is clear: The founding father who had penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, who had authored the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedoms upon which the First Amendment was modeled, a slave-holding apostle of liberty and a libertine scholar who owned a copy of the Qur’an, had no problem eating with a Muslim at the White House. The first Treaty of Tripoli, signed in 1796, had the Jeffersonian spirit embedded in Article 11, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion—as it has itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims].” Incidentally, Thomas Jefferson was also the first person in American politics to be falsely accused—“smeared”—of being a secret Muslim.