Jefferson’s White House iftar in 1805

Published June 23, 2017
President George W Bush speaks to guests during an iftar dinner at the White House on Oct 17, 2005. He hosted iftar every year of his two terms in office — including shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when anger towards Muslim Americans was spiking.
President George W Bush speaks to guests during an iftar dinner at the White House on Oct 17, 2005. He hosted iftar every year of his two terms in office — including shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when anger towards Muslim Americans was spiking.

IN the early days of December 1805, a handful of prominent politicians received formal invitations to join President Thomas Jefferson for a White House dinner.

Such entreaties were not uncommon: Jefferson frequently hosted lawmakers for political working dinners at the White House, almost always commencing them about 3:30 in the afternoon, shortly after the House or Senate had adjourned for the day.

But this gathering, scheduled for Dec 9, would be slightly different. “Dinner will be on the table precisely at sunset” — the invitations read. “The favour of an answer is asked.”

The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the United States, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before, in the midst of the ongoing US conflict with what were then known as the Barbary States. And the reason for the dinner’s later-than-usual start was Mellimelli’s observance of Ramazan, a holy month for Muslims in which observers fast between dawn and dusk. Only after sunset do Muslims break their fast with a meal, referred to as an iftar.

Jefferson’s decision to change the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramazan has been seized on by both sides in the 21st-century debate over Islam more than 200 years later. Historians have cited the meal as the first time an iftar took place in the White House. Meanwhile, critics on the far right have taken issue with the characterisation of Jefferson’s Dec 9, 1805, dinner as an iftar.

Whatever Jefferson could have foreseen for the young country’s future, it appears the modern-day White House tradition of marking Ramazan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration may be coming to an end. There has so far been no word from President Donald Trump’s administration on whether the White House intends to host such an event this year. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reportedly already said the State Department will break with recent tradition and not host a Ramazan reception, as it has done nearly annually for two decades. White House officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ramazan, which falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, started on May 27 this year and will end on Saturday. Several former White House staff members said they would usually begin planning an iftar “months in advance” and don’t think the Trump White House could pull something off before the end of Ramazan.

‘Overdue occasion’

If there were any questions about whether Jefferson was aware of Mellimelli’s religious practices, the memoirs of John Quincy Adams put those to rest, according to the Papers of Thomas Jefferson at Princeton University. “I dined at the President’s, in company with the Tunisian Ambassador and his two secretaries,” Adams, at the time a senator from Massachusetts, wrote in his diary on Dec 9, 1805. “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. 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.”

Compared with other, more thoroughly documented events that have taken place at the White House over the centuries, the details from the dinner are scarce. But what Jefferson could not have known is that changing the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramazan would turn that dinner into a point of contention in America’s culture wars more than 200 years later.

It was not until 1996 that the modern-day White House tradition of celebrating Ramazan with a reception or meal started. That February, first lady Hillary Clinton hosted about 150 people for a reception for Eidul Fitr. The person Clinton credited for teaching her about Islam? Teenage daughter Chelsea, who had the year before studied Islamic history in school, according to reports that year cited by Muslim Voices. Clinton described the reception as a “historic and overdue occasion”, a precedent for Muslim religious celebrations at the White House, the Associated Press reported then.

The tradition continued under President George W. Bush, who hosted an iftar dinner every year of his two terms in office — including shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when anger towards Muslim Americans was spiking. At the 2001 dinner, in mid-November, Bush emphasised that America was fighting against terrorism, not Islam, according to The Washington Post’s coverage then.

But it was under President Barack Obama that the annual White House iftar dinner began to cause a bigger stir — in part because the president resurrected the story of Jefferson’s 1805 dinner with Mellimelli.

“Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been a part of America,” Obama said in his remarks at the 2010 White House iftar. “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.”

Far-right blogs seized upon Obama’s comments, insisting that Jefferson had not hosted an iftar, but rather had simply moved the time back as a courtesy. “He didn’t change the menu, he didn’t change anything else,” one blog declared, before calling Obama “disgusting” and accusing him of rewriting history to cast Islam in a favourable light.

‘Childish semantic game’

One of the biggest problems with those arguments, historians say, is that they ignore Jefferson’s reputation as someone who was a staunch defender of religious freedom, whatever his opinions were of the religion in question. Nearly 30 years before the 1805 dinner, Jefferson had drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he considered among his life’s finest works. Jefferson described initial resistance to the proposed bill, as well as the significance of its passage in 1786, in his autobiography:

“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally past; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

That Jefferson would push back the time of a dinner by several hours is an indication for his respect for religious freedom, said Scott Harrop, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures at the University of Virginia.

Those who insist Jefferson did not host an iftar are also missing the very simple definition of what an iftar is, historians and former White House staff members say. Much as one doesn’t need a roasted turkey or eggnog to celebrate Christmas, there does not need to be a certain menu in place to make an iftar dinner.

John Ragosta, a historian and author of Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed, agreed, saying that people trying to claim Jefferson’s 1805 dinner was not an iftar were playing a “rather childish semantic game”. “Here is an ambassador, an honoured guest. The dinner is specifically scheduled after sundown to accommodate him,” Ragosta said. “Yeah, it sounds to me like an iftar dinner.”

—By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2017

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