Commentary: Columnist's grasp on history is shaky

Almost always, I read Mona Shadia's columns with bemusement and incredulity. Her mixture of Islamic religious advocacy and sheer naïveté is mostly harmless drivel, like the rest of what is printed in the Independent.

Yet what she writes and how she writes it in her column titled "Islam's influence on the Founding Fathers" (Unveiled: A Muslim Girl in O.C., April 26) simply cannot be passed over so easily.

When I read that John Locke "got many of his ideas from Islam and was often accused of being a Muslim by others," I simply had to do what any discerning reader and, I would think, any responsible editor would do: I went to the Internet to check her sources.

It turns out that it is more than a bit of a stretch to say that "America's forefathers were influenced by Islam itself." Shadia cites Zulfiqar Ali Shah, whom she rightly says is an "Islamic scholar."

Shah's paper on "comparative religion" can be found at and is titled "Founding Father's of America's Indebtedness to Islamic Thought." Apart from the grammatical difficulties of the title, there is a long distance between Islam and "Islamic thought." Shadia implies otherwise.

Shah's paper is an interesting study. He says that Locke was "accused of being a 'Moslim' by his adversaries such as John Edwards (1637-1716)" — "accused" not because he was a Muslim nor because he believed in Islam, but because he was a "Socinian," meaning that, like a Muslim, he denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.

For Shadia to say "apparently, accusing your opponents of being Muslim is not a new thing (ahem!)" is to misunderstand and misplace the historical context of Shah's remark. Shadia would do better to understand this distinction: It is one thing to be accused falsely by one's enemies of being a Muslim, which one is not. It is another to be a Muslim, and to be accused by people hostile to Islam.

However, the personal religious beliefs of Locke are not at issue, even though Shadia implies that they are. Perhaps, as Shah says, "some of [Locke's] close friends were either Muslims or Muslim sympathizers."

Regardless of the company Locke kept, I think it more likely, and more significant, that he and others of his time drew their ideas with the wider net encouraged by the Enlightenment, the age in which they lived. At best, one could say that some Islamic thinkers influenced Locke's thinking, and his thinking in turn influenced Thomas Jefferson.

But Shadia glosses over distinctions among Islam, Islamic thought and some Islamic thinkers of a particular historical period. In doing so, she overstates her claims, misguides readers and does an injustice to the wide range of Islamic intellectualism.

Not all of Shadia's misleading statements can be traced back to Shah. Some glosses she herself is responsible for.

For example, she mentions that Locke and Jefferson each "owned a copy of the Koran." This is quite likely — but it was probably a copy that had been translated first into Latin and then into French. What this means is that the Korans they owned were desecrated, i.e., not in the sacred Arabic.

Jefferson may have respected and even honored Muslims as Shadia claims — but that does not mean he spoke their language, either literally or figuratively, nor that he (or Locke) shared their beliefs. (Let's remember that Jefferson took his own approach to the Christian scriptures, quite literally cutting and pasting them until they said what he wanted them to say.)

Then Shadia's argument takes an interesting turn. She quotes a Library of Congress article by James H. Hutson, chief of the Manuscript Division. The quotation she uses, in support of her claim that "Muslims were also part of this country from its inception," can be found verbatim in an online Free Republic article, "John Locke, Islam and the New World" (Oct. 13. 2010) by Alex Murphy: "There may have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims in the United States in 1776 — imported as slaves from areas of Africa where Islam flourished. Although there is no evidence that the Founders were aware of the religious convictions of their bondsmen, it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic."

More important, though, is the leap from the possible religion of slaves to the ideas and thinking that that religion might have generated. Both Murphy and Shadia, and quite possibly Hutson, seem to want to make that leap.

This categorical confusion gets ever more misleading as Shadia's article progresses. She asks, "So how do Islam's principles align with America's?" And she answers, "The answer is they both call for a just system that suggests democracy."

Then she goes on to say, more factually, "The Koran never specifies which kind of a government people should establish…" The truth of this resonates in every sacred text of every religion.

Sacred texts are not political treatises. Yet Shadia goes on to say that the Koran "lists certain principles and values that must be followed. These include the right to protection of life, human dignity, family, religion, education and property from harm or abuse in a system that is just to all, regardless of faith." She then names Sharia as "Islam's code of ethics, conduct and belief." And she cites "one of Islam's early leading scholars" in support of these benevolent principles.

Shadia's difficulties in supporting this view of Islam are both apparent in the wide variety of societies and political points of view now quite clearly proliferating throughout the world in the name of Islam. And the difficulties of her position are less apparent than Shadia is willing to make them — which, to be fair, is typical of apologists.

One can take Egypt as an example. Her column's tagline says she is an Egyptian American who was born and raised in Cairo. She presumably grew up under the Mubarak regime.

Since that regime's downfall, Egypt has been struggling to find its own way to the sort of democracy that Shadia thinks is so readily advocated in the Koran. In fact, good Egyptians disagree about just how much the Koran should influence the sociopolitical and juridical structure of the new Egypt — just ask the Coptic Christians, who have found many Egyptian Muslims to be far less tolerant that Shadia implies they should be.

When Shadia concludes by saying that "America's system closely resembles that of what God intended," she means in her reading of the Koran, and she means further to be placing Islam under the aegis of the kind of "American exceptionalism" that civil religionists of a hitherto mostly Christian bent have been wont to claim. So be it.

But please, don't try to argue in reverse from that point of view that either Locke or Jefferson paid more than passing attention to the enlightened, liberal Muslims of their age. Their attitudes toward religions grew out of their intellectual tolerance of ideas, not out of their personal faith or religiosity.

Half-truths, category mistakes and implications, however benevolently intended, do not pass academic muster. Neither do they contribute positively to any journalism worthy of the name.

BRAD DeFORD is a Huntington Beach resident.

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