Beginner's Heart

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an ~ photo by Aasil Ahmad

History has fallen out of fashion. Real history, I mean. The kind that requires reading more than one source. The kind of research that my students hate. Vectoring sources, looking things up in more than one place, viewing all sources skeptically. That kind of history…:)

And yet people are always saying, “The Founding Fathers did X.” Or, “The Constitution says Y.”  We  want our own opinions and beliefs somehow affirmed by the very forces we question: authorities, the government, science and religion :).

But I confess to a warm rush of affection when I saw the cover of a magazine I receive bi-monthly. It’s a souvenir of my years spent living in Saudi Arabia, Saudi Aramco World, and this month’s cover features Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

Another digression. I never expected to become an advocate for Islam, Muslims, or even diversity. I grew up thinking everyone valued variety — like trying new things to eat, or learning a new song, or reading a new book. It took years of hard evidence to the contrary to convince me that there are people who fear the unknown, hate the stranger, and will work long & hard to make sure difference is at best not encountered, and at worst destroyed :(.

But here I am, years later, trying hard to show the world how much I’ve learned from other belief systems, from people very different than I am, from parts of history and the world as unfamiliar to me as the Periodic Table :).

You may not have known that Thomas Jefferson had a Qur’an (spelled ‘Koran’ on his edition). And you may not have heard of his unusual Bible, which cuts to the heart of the teachings of Jesus, eliding any question of divinity, resurrection, or anything else that might interfere with the actual words, as he saw it, of Jesus. Jefferson was, by today’s standards, hopelessly Enlightenment :). I like to think of him as fallibly enlightened. He saw the human condition as perfectable; he was at heart an optimist. It’s one of his most endearing qualities, to me.

And he was a seeker, as many of us are, looking wherever there was light. I wish that attitude were more common in the Capitol today :). With all his warts (and he had plenty), I believe Jefferson would be willing to talk about things, and learn from others. Not that common a stance today ~

"Jefferson...shelved religious books, including his English version of the Qur'an, with other works under "Jurisprudence," which fell under "Moral Philosophy.""

Instead, we work to re-shape what makes us uncomfortable. Refuse, as some of my students in a class once did, to read those things that don’t agree with our own beliefs. And that’s a shame. I wonder how much the Declaration of Independence, the  Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, for instance, would have lost had Jefferson not been familiar with the Qur’an, or Benjamin Franklin with the confederation of the six Iroquois tribes

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to learn from the past. It can open windows into new worlds. But you have to be willing to turn that first page. Like Jefferson :).

It’s a lesson I need to remember, as I try to open up this beginner’s heart. Listen to the different voices, respect the different cultures, look for commonalities and not differences. Meeting the world in its good intentions ~

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