Jefferson Iftar Claim Creates Controversy

From a recent speech by Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough:

Thank you, Imam Magid, for your very kind introduction and welcome. I know that President Obama was very grateful that you led the prayer at last summer’s Iftar dinner at the White House–which, as the President noted, is a tradition stretching back more than two centuries to when Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar at the White House…

Obama’s comments were as follows:

The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.

Both comments have infuriated conservatives, who have suddenly affected to dislike the practice of history being spun for political convenience.

Here’s the main primary source, John Quincy Adams’ diary entry for 9 December 1805:

I dined at the President’s, in company with the Tunisian Ambassador and his two secretaries. By the invitation, dinner was to have been on the table precisely at sunset — it being in the midst of  Ramadan, during which the Turks fast while the sun is above  the horizon. He did not arrive until half an hour after sunset, and, immediately after greeting the President and the company, proposed to retire and smoke his pipe. The President requested him to smoke it there, which he accordingly did, taking at the same time snuff deeply scented with otto of roses. We then went to dinner, where he freely partook of the dishes on the table without enquiring into the cookery. Mrs. Randolph the President’s daughter, and her daughter, were the only ladies there, and immediately after they returned to the drawing-room after dinner the ambassador followed them to smoke his pipe again. His secretaries remained after him just long enough to take each a glass of wine, which they did not venture to do in his presence.

Obama’s version is a bit of a stretch, but reasonable: the ambassador (Sidi Soliman Mellimelni, or Mellimelli) would have regarded the meal as his Iftar, and his American hosts had understood and accomodated his religious requirements. On the other hand, though, alcohol was served to other guests. The notion that the incident formed the beginning of a “tradition” can’t be taken seriously, though.

Back in 2009, I noted the claim that Jefferson owned a Koran “it so that he could know his enemy, so he could confront them, know them, kill them.” This blog had a nice debunking:

We do not know for certain why he purchased it… The only substantial scholarly treatment of this specific topic that I’m aware of is Kevin Hayes’ 2004 article in Early American Literature, “How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an.”  Hayes suggests that Jefferson’s primary motivation in purchasing the Qur’an was his interest in it as a legal text.  This seems highly plausible to me.  What does not seem plausible is that, 21 years before he encountered a representative of an Islamic country in a professional capacity, he 1) decided that he considered Muslims his “enemy” and 2) conceived of a need to study their main religious text so as to be better equipped for conflict with them.