Dubai: To bill Thomas Jefferson as a collector of books would be an understatement. The third president of the United States felt so strongly about expanding his world view that in 1814 he had the largest collection in the country after the Library of Congress burned down. To replenish its own collection, the Library bought Jefferson’s privately owned 6,487 volumes. And among those lugged in 10 wagons sat an English translated copy of the Quran, which unbeknownst to Jefferson would visit the Arab world two centuries later.
“He was a man of learning, someone who was very interested in the religions of the world,” said Matthew Asada, Deputy Commissioner General of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, in an interview with Gulf News. Asada’s enthusiasm on the subject is palpable, even recommending a study by Islamic history scholar Denise Spellberg for a deeper insight into Jefferson’s relationship with the religion, his travels and private library.
At a time when religious diversity was yet to bloom in the colonies, and engagement with Muslims far less, the former president’s interest in Islam strikes as unusual. Eleven years prior to penning the US Declaration of Independence, law student Jefferson aged 22 walked into the Virginia Gazette printing press and made his historical purchase.
An unusual loan for the US
On a special loan to the USA Pavilion, the 1764 edition of the Quran flew across the Atlantic in a custom-made wooden crate and temperature sensors just a week before the world fair opening on October 1.
There is little cause for wonder since the Library of Congress has never before allowed the prized copy past the US borders, let alone the Capitol Complex. Asada says it is a testament to the importance the country places on religious freedom, a belief Jefferson carried with him and transferred into the Declaration of Independence.
“We thought that [the Quran] would be great to have in our exhibition, so we explored it with the Library of Congress. Something like this of such a national treasure – it’s very rare to get it on loan at any time,” said Asada of the preparations that began taking form in the year 2020.
“It’s not just the freedom of religion that is significant to the story of America, but there’s the freedom of press, assembly and speech, which create an environment conducive to innovations and inventions.”
A three-month exhibit
Working out the details with the Library took the organisers a year and a half, and it smoothed over as well as it did thanks to the agreement with the US Department of State – the planning body behind the country’s participation in the world fair. Jefferson’s Quran is in Dubai for a limited period of three months, staying through the UAE’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in December, after which it will be returned.
The two-volume book is a visitor’s first encounter with a displayed artefact in the USA Pavilion. True to the opening exhibit ‘Freedom Creates the Future’, the Quran makes for a poignant statement at the first World Expo ever hosted in the Middle East. While one volume sits open to the title page, the other stands upright under carefully regulated lighting, temperature and humidity levels.