Thomas Jefferson’s “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” based on the Maqasid al Sharia (Goals of Sharia).

As I have begun working on the creation of a Central Islamic Finance Council for the United States Islamic finance industry, some of my professional colleagues have been critical, sending me messages including the following:

“My initial reaction is that this is not a good fit for us. We are not in the midst of an environment in which Islamic finance would be a draw for us.”

“I note that the goal is to establish a world without interest, and you must realize that not everyone is going to buy into that ideal or value proposition.”

I chose to include these responses in this article because from all the feedback I received, responses mainly fell into two categories: “Initial reactions not good,” and “not our ideals or values.” Educating individuals beyond their “initial reactions” will happen with time, and I agree with Abdulkader Thomas of Shape Knowledge Services that the Islamic Finance industry should focus on its core market — the Muslim community, and that by word of mouth other individuals including non-Muslims will learn about the quality and benefits of Islamic finance products.[1] Regarding individuals who believe that Islamic finance ideals and values are somehow “not shared” or opposite to “western values,” this is misguided and in my opinion a misunderstanding of history as well as principles that guide both cultures. What American would oppose a world without Riba (interest, especially compounding interest), or oppose the ethical transparency required in Islamic finance transactions? This article is the first of several to show that the ideals and value propositions of Islamic finance are beneficial. To analyze the ideals and values of Americans, I propose as the starting point The Declaration of Independence, written by American founder and Constitutional framer Thomas Jefferson.

History scholars disagree on the origin and inspiration for Thomas Jefferson’s famous preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” [2]

Many believe his source was John Locke, and that the original draft read, “Life, Liberty, and Property” because this phrase appears in the Declaration of Colonial Rights, a resolution of the First Continental Congress. Scholars of American Presidents have acknowledged that Jefferson’s Quran was on his desk more than it was on his shelf, and that he was frequently reading it and studying it. But making the connection between Maqasid Al Sharia (goals of Sharia) and this phrase in the Declaration of Independence is an academic jump that scholars don’t want to make.

Let’s take a look at these goals that the Sharia seeks to preserve, and how Jefferson’s proposed independent Government sought to protect these same rights:

Religion/Faith

An important component of the American Colonies and the later United States Government was the Separation of Church and State, meaning that no religious leader would make governing decisions for the citizenry. No religious leader has political authority over American citizens — not collectively, and not individually; no religious institution will be recognized as the “State Church.” This ensures in principle and also in practice for the most part, thanks to the Supreme Court and vigilant attorneys, that all religions and respective adherents to a faith are protected. Thomas Jefferson, an attorney himself, took up the challenge to convince other founders of the United States of America to establish a nation inclusive of all faith traditions.

The first and most important goal of what Sharia seeks to protect is Religion, because without it there would be no direction or purpose. In 1765, Jefferson bought a Quran, which according to Professor Denise Spellberg (University of Texas, Austin) was just the beginning of his lifelong interest in Islam that would later include making notes comparing and contrasting Islam to the English common law. [3] Jefferson’s countrymen, both English and American, were predominantly Protestant Christians, but in 1776 Jefferson and a handful of the founders of the U.S. (including John Adams and Benjamin Franklin) considered Muslims as future citizens of the new country because they wanted to create a system of governance that would allow religious pluralism; their motive being that if the imaginary outer limit included Muslims, then the already present and despised minorities of Jews and Catholics would be successfully incorporated as well.[4] Jefferson’s political foes vilified him to the end of his life, but Jefferson prevailed and a Protestant nation was not established. When Jefferson asked his friend and colleague Joel Barlow to draft the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, the treaty clearly stated this establishment principle in Article 11:

“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims),-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” [5]

Scholar Alexandra Méav Jerome, in her essay The Jefferson Quran, highlights the extant to which Jefferson wanted to make it very clear that all faith traditions would be protected in America.[6] As an example, Article VI, Section 3 of the United States Constitution states that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” [7] She believes that not only was the Quran an influence on Jefferson, but that the Prophet Muhammad’s Constitution of Medina influenced him, as some of the contents of the Medina Constitution are articulated in both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution .[8]

Life

Every human being enjoys a position of honor, established by God, simply because he or she is human, as Allah says in the Qur’an, “And We have certainly honored the Children of Adam.” [9] In a well-known Hadith, Muhammad is quoted as saying, “All people are equal, like the teeth of a comb. There is no claim of merit of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of white over a black person, or of a male over a female. Only God-fearing people merit a preference with God.”[10] No one has the right to deny anyone else their basic and natural rights. Or, as Jefferson wrote to King George III, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”[11]

American law seeks to protect an individual’s rights and privacy through due process and rule of law, meaning that we govern ourselves through laws we collectively establish, and will not forfeit governing powers to a single person or family. As Jefferson explains it, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Some of the complaints to King George III in the Declaration of Independence included, “He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers; He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” Jefferson concludes the declaration to King George III with this supplication (dua) for Divine assistance: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor.” Once again, a reminder that all lives have honor from God, as opposed to a mortal king demanding honor and respect from his rebellious colonists.

Lineage/Progeny

The Declaration of Independence is almost entirely silent on issues of the right to marry, and the liberty to have children. In general, the tone of the colonists’ letter to King George III is highly offensive, showing that the Americans didn’t respect the Monarchy or the family of the monarchy, but considering themselves and all men on the planet to be equals. Throughout the document, King George III is called a Tyrant and a Prince whose character makes him an unfit ruler.

Because Jefferson had practiced law, he was familiar with marital rights and inheritance laws and ultimately a Federal Government was formed that left such domestic law domain to the separate independent states to legislate. Each state enacted laws detailing rules of inheritance and intestate inheritance, meaning what occurs if a person dies without a will. In all cases, only if the deceased had no children or no surviving parents or siblings would property be forfeited to the state.

Intellect

Intellectual liberty was the hallmark of America’s foundation. Copyright laws protected inventors, innovators, and publishers. The ability to own the work product and the resulting wealth, as opposed to the fruits of one’s labor all going to a king, was important to the American colonists. Would Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and other inventors have worked as hard as they did, if they didn’t have the intellectual property rights to their published discoveries and inventions?

But was Jefferson thinking about preserving intellect and intellectual liberty, a goal of Sharia, when drafting the Declaration of Independence? In her publication The Surprising Origins and Meaning of the “Pursuit of Happiness,” Carol V. Hamilton, Ph.D. (Berkeley) highlights an essay written by John Locke in 1690 titled Concerning Human Understanding. In that essay, Locke writes, “The necessity of pursuing happiness is the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness…we are, by the necessity of preferring and pursuing true happiness as our greatest good, obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.” Dr. Hamilton writes that Jefferson’s understanding of happiness, which was certainly influenced by his reading of John Locke, was “not merely sensual or hedonistic, but engages the intellect,” and is “bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice.” In other words, Jefferson’s “pursuit of happiness” is not personal, to the exclusion of all others while pursing one’s one pleasures, but is instead civic and societal, an intellectual virtue that allows individuals to discriminate between worthwhile pursuits, and providing a foundation of true liberty.

But do we know if Jefferson’s intentions regarding liberty were the Maqasid al Sharia? The only human who had the ability to say what the American founders’ intentions were (at times without any evidence whatsoever) was Supreme Court Justice and Constitutional Originalist Antonin Scalia. Because Justice Scalia is no longer alive, consider the following — because of his interest in the Quran and the Arabic language, Thomas Jefferson actively promoted, and eventually it was created, the Oriental Languages department at his Alma Mater, the College of William and Mary.[12] Consider also that the first Iftar (break the fast) meal in the White House occurred in 1805 when Jefferson’s meeting with a Tunisian envoy occurred during Ramadan, and Jefferson changed the meal time not only as a diplomatic gesture, but because he was familiar and comfortable with Islam.[13]

Property/Wealth

Owning one’s one property, being able to transfer that property, and not being unfairly taxed on one’s earnings and property were the foundations of the American Dream. Immigrants flocked to America because they could earn a livelihood and keep it. Jefferson is frequently criticized for owning slaves, which in his lifetime was common and was viewed as property. His colleague, and first President of the United States, George Washington also owned slaves. Emphasis however should be given to what Jefferson and Washington did while holding political office and at the end of their lives — Washington taught his slaves how to read or learn a trade, with the goal of setting them free, which he did in his will; Jefferson, while acting as the third President of the United States, in 1807 signed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, abolishing the international slave trade into the United States.[14]

Jefferson’s efforts to stop economic harassment and exploitation, such as taking action against the Northern African Barbary pirate slave trade/kidnapping for ransom schemes, and taking action against the international slave trade, is very significant because these actions were not influenced by his reading of John Locke. Locke himself was a major investor in the English slave trade through the Royal African Company and the Bahama Adventurers’ company, and his political philosophy rejected any interference with property rights, including slave ownership. Scholars have not satisfactorily explained how Jefferson could be a fan of John Locke, while taking actions against the political and economic philosophies of Locke. The common excuse and explanation that these “Jefferson Scholars” provide is that he lived a contradiction. Have they considered that perhaps Jefferson’s ideology for what rights were worth preserving, and in what priority, were based on someone other than Locke, perhaps the Prophet Muhammad? The Prophet Muhammad, like Jefferson, was born in a society filled with slavery but he personally freed 63 slaves, and promoted the financial acquisition of slaves in order to set them free. In contrast, John Locke’s theory of natural rights permits a justification of slavery.[15] Is it too hard to consider that Jefferson recognized the similarity of slavery in his society to Muhammad’s society, and utilized similar tactics to end slavery?

Summary

When Jefferson wrote that Governments are instituted to protect “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” he used these terms because they were loaded terms, and he and the founders of the United States of America understood these terms to mean Life as ordered by God (i.e. submitting to the nature of the universe and not the unnatural decisions of a king), Intellectual Liberty, and the Pursuit of having a family, a livelihood, and the right to pass on that livelihood and its benefits to one’s own progeny. The United States Declaration of Independence and the Maqasid Al Sharia seek to protect and preserve the same rights, and Americans who think otherwise are ignorant of their nation’s foundation, the Sharia, or both.

[1] See video on YouTube, “Hard Talk with Dawud Abdus-Saboor, Haroon Latif, and Abdulkader Thomas” at link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTnw0-joRdQ

[2] United States Declaration of Independence, link: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs

[3] Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, by Denise Spellberg, First Vintage Books, 2013.

[4] Spellberg.

[5] Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, link: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/bar1796t.asp

[6] The Jefferson Quran, by Alexandra Méav Jerome, Oxford Islamic Studies Online, link: http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/Public/focus/essay1009_jefferson.html

[7] United States Constitution, Article VI Section 3, link: http://constitutionus.com/

[8] Jerome, The Jefferson Quran, referencing equal rights and protection of religious groups under the government regardless of creed.

[9] Qur’an Surah Al Isra, 17:70, link: https://quran.com/17

[10] https://www.al-islam.org/living-right-way-ayatullah-jawad-tehraani/fundamental-equality-humanity

[11] United States Declaration of Independence

[12] http://www.wm.edu/as/modernlanguages/about/index.php

[13] White House Iftar Dinner, link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House_Iftar_dinner

[14] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/sl004.asp

[15] “Three Approaches to Locke and the Slave Trade,” by Wayne Glausser, printed in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 51, №2 (Apr. — Jun., 1990), pp. 199–216.