WASHINGTON – When Rashida Tlaib stands on Thursday for her ceremonial swearing-in as the first Palestinian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, it will be with her hand on a copy of the Koran and wearing a traditional Palestinian thobe, or dress, made by her mother.
It won’t be just any Koran: She will use Thomas Jefferson’s personal copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Koran into English, a two-volume work that resides in the Library of Congress.
“It’s important to me because a lot of Americans have this kind of feeling that Islam is somehow foreign to American history,” said Tlaib, who also will become, with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim women sworn into the U.S. House. “Muslims were there at the beginning. … Some of our founding fathers knew more about Islam than some members of Congress now.”
She won’t be surprised, however, if her using the Koran raises hackles for some people who believe she shouldn’t be allowed to do so. Twelve years ago, when U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., used the same Koran for his swearing-in as Congress’ first Muslim member, some commentators argued that only a Bible was suitable for the purpose.
Already, conservative pastor and radio commentator E.W. Jackson has complained following Tlaib’s and Omar’s elections that, “The floor of Congress is now going to look like an Islamic republic” and argued that the U.S. is a “Judeo-Christian country.”
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Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat who was elected to the seat formerly held by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, said she’s unfazed by comments such as Jackson’s and expects that the objections will extend well beyond her being sworn into office the first week of January, even though she says she’s far more concerned with economic and environmental help for her constituents than pushing any religious agenda.
“My mere existence, that I’m even of Muslim faith, is going to be a problem for them with or without me swearing in on any Koran.”
No book, of any kind, is needed for a member’s swearing-in
Contrary to some beliefs, there is no requirement that new members of Congress be sworn in on the Bible or any other book. In fact, when they are officially sworn in, no book at all is used, though each member can hold one – any one – if they wish.
As the New York Times once put it, one could use “a comic book, a lesser Shakespeare play or nothing at all” for the function.
That official swearing-in happens at the beginning of every new Congress, around noon on Jan. 3, shortly after the election of the House speaker, who then asks the members to rise together, raise their right hands and take the oath of office, required by the Constitution
After that, however, new U.S. House members generally attend individual – and ceremonial – swearings-in inside the speaker’s office. Flanked by family and friends, the new member stands with the speaker for a photo, often placing one hand on the Bible and raising his or her other hand – though again, no book is mandated, no book is required.
It’s at this ceremonial swearing-in that Tlaib will use Jefferson’s Koran.
Jefferson’s Koran dates to his days in law school
That Koran – otherwise known in Sale’s work as the Alcoran of Mohammed – is an edition that represents the first English translation of the text in North America and one that Jefferson purchased as a law student at the College of William & Mary in 1765.
And while there are no existing examples of Jefferson citing this Koran, it’s thought that he bought it at a time when it might have been useful to his studies under noted law professor George Wythe, said Chris Warren, with the Rare Book & Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress.
“He probably purchased it because he was studying law and to get a better understanding on Islam’s influence on the legal systems of the world,” Warren said. “Jefferson wasn’t only thinking about and studying western law … a lot of those (early American) tenets come from places like the Bible and the Koran and the Old Testament.”
He noted that Jefferson wrote Virginia’s Statute on Religious Freedom – and intended it to apply to Muslims, Hindus and Jews as well as Christians – and that a large number of slaves brought into the U.S. were Muslim, – which could also have piqued the interest of Jefferson, who was a slave owner.
“Islamic people have been in this country as long as everybody else, one way or another,” added Warren.
She’s making a large point about diversity by using the Koran
So far, there has been little indication of protests or overt denunciations of Tlaib’s using Jefferson’s Koran. For instance, an email to conservative radio show host Dennis Prager — who, during the fight over Ellison’s use of the Koran, wrote an article decrying it — went unanswered when asking about Tlaib’s intentions.
That’s not to say it might not be coming, however, as the time for Tlaib’s swearing-in — which she plans to attend in a traditional Palestinian dress, known as a thobe, made by her mother — gets closer. Tlaib has already been challenging tradition by trying to arrange a visit to the West Bank for members of Congress to draw attention to conditions there.
What is a thobe?: Rashida Tlaib will wear traditional Palestinian dress to swearing-in
New members are typically invited on a trip to the Middle East by a pro-Israel group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.
Twelve years ago, the criticism was thick, however. Prager wrote an article saying Ellison – who was born in Detroit and is about to become the new attorney general in Minnesota – should be stopped from using the Koran, saying it “undermines American civilization.”
Former U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., sent a letter to his own constituents criticizing Ellison and saying, “I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America.”
But the swearing-in went without a hitch.
As for Tlaib – a former state representative, lawyer and civic activist – her using the Koran is not intended to make a religious point, but a legal one.
“I believe in secular government (and) my swearing in on the Koran is about me showing that the American people are made up of diverse backgrounds and we all have love of justice and freedom,” she said. “My faith has centered me. The prophet Mohammed was always talking about freedom and justice.”
Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.
Editor’s note: This story is updated to note that Keith Ellison will be attorney general of Minnesota.