Thomas Jefferson in Arabic

I am excited to announce that the Global Americana Institute has, in partnership with Dar al-Saqi of Beirut brought out a volume of selected writings of Thomas Jefferson in Arabic. It was elegantly translated by Professors Mounira Soliman and Walid Hamamsy of Cairo University and is entitled in Arabic the equivalent of Revolutionary Democracy: How America became the Republic of Liberty.

It has a powerful, brief introduction by prominent Arab intellectual Hazem Saghieh, an editor of al-Hayat newspaper, which expresses admiration for Jefferson’s political thought while not attempting to paper over his personal foibles. Saghieh notes that post-World War II Arab thought has been strangely unengaged with liberal democratic ideas, especially in their American incarnation, but that that is a shame since figures such as Jefferson have much to offer. Of course, elite Arab families know English and travel to the United States, and don’t need this translation. But below that five percent at the top of society with regard to wealth and education, there is now a vast literate Arab middle class numbering in the hundreds of millions, who could not deal with Jefferson’s antique English but could read this translation. At least some of them will be interested in doing so.



I am hopeful that the book will find an eager reception in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries yearning for democracy in the Arab world, and in a way, it could not have come out at a better time. Jefferson could be good for them to think with, a colleague from across the centuries and the Atlantic.

We are enormously grateful to kind donors who made this project possible, including Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Saunders Director of the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, the Center itself, and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, as well as SNL Financial LC with offices around the globe including Islamabad, Pakistan and Ahmedabad, India, as well as many individual donors who gave through Paypal or credit card.

The book is already being reviewed, and received a favorable notice in the leftist newspaper al-Safir. The reviewer said, “It is beautiful for Lebanese and Arabs to be able to read passages from the texts composed by one of the founders of the United States of America and one of the authors of the Declaration of Independence. It is beautiful for Lebanese and Arabs to be able to read content that will provoke critical discussion, composed by Thomas Jefferson through various stages of his life and career, because texts such as these … are open to the concerns of politics, economy and public culture . . .” It also complimented the translators for their contribution to creating grounds for such inter-communication of Enlightenment ideas in contemporary Arabic.

It has taken much longer to accomplish this major project than I would have liked. But it took time to find willing and able translators, for them to work through difficult eighteenth-century English in an engaging, contemporary Arabic style, and then to find a publisher with good production values and good distribution. We had great good fortune, since there is none better than Dar al-Saqi in these regards. Now that we have such a great partner, we can go forward at a better clip– though in this undertaking, quality is more important than quantity. By the way, Al-Saqi also has a London office that publishes great books about the Middle East in English.

I was inspired to pursue this project by the September 11 attacks and their aftermath, moments of a ‘clash of civilizations,’ or at least a clash of some narrow forces within each civilization. I thought we needed some bridges. It pained me to read the gross mischaracterizations of the United States and its values that were common in the Arabic press and blogosphere. I had long been aware, and annoyed by, the relative paucity of Americana in Arabic bookstores. I carried out exhaustive bibliographical searches and while there are lots of obscure journal and newspaper articles of previous decades, what you can get your hands on in an actual bookstore or at a book fair today is quite limited. The US State Department has a translation program in Amman, Jordan and in Cairo, Egypt, which does excellent work, but there is room for more such endeavors and the list of what is translated is so short that there isn’t much danger of overlap.

Please consider donating to the Global Americana Institute, which is a tax-exempt, 501(c)3 charity, at its web site, which has a credit card form and an address for sending checks. Donations will allow us to translate more works (including a biography of Martin Luther King), as well as to help with distribution of the volumes and mounting workshops for professors who might teach them. Arabic-knowing university professors and students at Western universities should please urge libraries to order it.


Journalists sometimes ask me if there isn’t something Orientalist or imperialist about translating Americana into Arabic. It is a fair question, but it seems to me not a very useful one. First of all, I started studying Arabic when I was 19, and I have spent my life with the great Arabophone authors, from al-Ghazali to Naguib Mahfouz, from Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi to Nawal Saadawi. I myself translated three books from Arabic into English by Lebanese poet and novelist Kahlil Gibran. I am grateful for what they have given me and how they have enriched me, and I don’t consider myself colonized by them. Intellectual interchange is not a zero-sum game, as medieval Muslim intellectuals delighted in pointing out. The Qur’an itself says, 49:13 (al-Hujurat), “We created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you might know one another.” And the Prophet Muhammad is said to have commanded, “Seek knowledge, even unto China.” In the glory days of classical Islam, there was a translation movement seeking to put Greek philosophy and Sanskrit astronomy into Arabic, not a sullen fundamentalist fear of intellectual interchange.

Second, translation of the great works of Western literature has been central to the Arab renaissance and modern Arab culture. I wrote my MA thesis on Rifa`ah al-Tahtawi, who translated loads from 19th-century French. Early Egyptian nationalist Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid translated John Stuart Mill. Pioneering Egyptian novelist Taha Hussein translated Shakespeare. Arabophone literature interacted mainly with the colonial metropoles of France and Britain, and the distant United States was seldom an object of interest for them. With the rise of Arab nationalism and Muslim fundamentalism from the 1950s forward, Washington was often seen as being on the wrong side of history by Arab authors, and that sentiment discouraged translation, especially of political thought.

But the United States has been a major force in the world for many decades, and it is frankly bizarre that it is so little represented in Arabic translation. I don’t fool myself that such books will be best-sellers, but I do hope that interested Arabophone intellectuals will benefit from them and interact with them, and gain a fuller appreciation of the depth and texture of the United States, beyond just political maneuvering and Hollywood.

Posted in Uncategorized | 46 Responses | Print |

46 Responses

  1. Does it include Jefferson’s thoughts on the indigenous population, that he & the Republic displaced,i.e murdered/ethnically cleansed in order to usurp their lands and resources. Apparently all men are not created equal,lol.
    That it is hard to spin the revolution – or Jefferson and the other supposed “exemplars of democracy”- as a fight for freedom and democracy when the real story always get ignored or sidelined,at least in the official/court narrative.
    But while we are on the subject of “American democracy” perhaps a more fitting example would be the Iroquois Confederacy,the oldest continues participatory democracy on the planet.Now there is something truly worthy of admiration.
    Do not get me wrong I am not anti-American I am just sick of the one-sided version of the American revolution.In fact the main bone of contention between the anglo-settlers and their British anglo-brothers was the Royal Proclamation of 1774 in which King George attempted to rein in the anglo-settlers, who’s lust for Indian lands was murderous and gave the word greed/greedy a whole new meaning,in order to allow the Indian Nations some respite and in order to ensure the creation of Indian Nations/Territory’s.
    But that was just to much for the settlers,i.e supposed “exemplars of democracy” and or “freedom fighters”.

    • Dirk, critiques of the United States are virtually *all* that are available in Arabic, often with swastikas on the cover. Arabs know all about the themes you are instancing. But amazingly the actual substance of the tradition of American political thought is largely unavailable. Do you really think the Bill of Rights are a trivial achievement? Don’t you think that is the sort of thing people in Tahrir Square are asking for?

      • Maybe someone could translate Jefferson’s seminal democratic thought into English, so it would be available to remind American audiences what we are busy losing, as the GWOT becomes a AWOL (down with American liberties) in our bright and shining security-state.

    • When the first hydrogen-powered production car goes on sale, is your first reaction going to be howl that it still has tires, doors, windshield wipers, and a transmission?

      Or do you think that, despite have some things in common with every other previous and contemporary car, the breakthrough of the hydrogen engine will be worth noting and commenting upon?

      Gee, Thomas Jefferson had an 18th-century view of American Indians. That truly is the most important point to make when discussing his political writing.

    • Somewhere in your diatribe I detect a legitimate point. Unfortunately, it is completely lost in your overheated rhetoric, lack of balance, and lack of intellectual honesty in appraising Jefferson’s overall contribution to democratic government in America and the world.

    • Dirk, as has been already noted, Muslims would have read more American negative than positive, they should be able to read it all That said, American history, culture, thought and ideals does have much to offer. E.g., you most likely agree it would be a good thing if millions of Muslims read all of this ..

      Father of a university […]

      After his political career, Jefferson focused on creating a university free of religious involvement, offering courses in many new areas not offered elsewhere. This would help create a more organised society, where some schools would be paid for by the general public, for the benefit of poorer Americans.

      The University of Virginia was founded opened in 1825, and was Jefferson’s project. It was notable for being centered about a library rather than a church. Jefferson is widely recognized for his architectural planning of the University of Virginia grounds, a design that represents his goals education and agriculture. Jefferson liked Greek and Roman styles, which he believed to be appropriate representation of American democracy.[citation needed]

      Slavery .. Main article: Thomas Jefferson and slavery

      Historians have disagreed on how to interpret Thomas Jefferson’s public and private positions on slavery. He opposed slavery as an institution and said he wanted it to end, but he depended on enslaved labor to support his household and plantations. His first public attack on slavery came in 1774; when he was chosen in 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, his opposition to slavery was well known. Junius P. Rodriguez says, “All aspects of Jefferson’s public career suggest an opposition to slavery.” Peter Onuf points to “his well-known opposition to slavery, most famously expressed in… his Notes on the state of Virginia (1785). Jefferson called slavery an “abominable crime,” and a “moral depravity”. The historian David Brion Davis said that by 1784 Jefferson was “one of the first statesman in any part of the world to advocate concrete measures for restricting and eradicating Negro slavery.” But Davis also noted that after Jefferson returned to the U.S. in 1789 from France, “the most remarkable thing about Jefferson’s stand on slavery is his immense silence.” Paul Finkelman noted the lack of action after this date in terms of correcting or ending the institution. He said Jefferson’s greatest failing was “his inability to join the best of his generation in fighting slavery and in his working instead to prevent any significant change in America’s racial status quo.”
      link to

    • Yes Dirk, King George & the Brits in general were real defenders of indigenous peoples everywhere. Quit selectively applying present day morality to historical events, its both naive and silly. You missed how your wonderful Brits & their expansionist empire of the 18th/19th century became the poster-boys for imperialism. Ask the tribes driven from their land by the expanding Iroquois what they think of that ‘democracy’. No mention of how the Iroquois tried to manipulate the French and Brits on different occasions to take care of remaining enemies (that one backfired in the long run). Or is it only when Anglo-Americans don’t share your modern morality that it becomes wrong?.

      • Who’s apply modern moralities.
        First Nations allied themselves with the Crown because they understood this was one of the few chances they had to survive.Apparently the “exemplars of democracy ” had no time for Indigenous peoples or their rights as Peoples & Nation.That said sure the Brits acted in their own self interest but at least they understood the legal & moral implications of routing the Indian Nations
        As for the Iroquois driving people other tribes from their lands,please re-read your history.Of course the Indigenous Peoples/Nations had to adapt to a situation not of their making.

  2. all regards for the noble political thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and undoubtedly his personal honesty…

    also referring to the consequent body of references in Noam Chomsky’s ‘Hopes and Projects'(analyzing globalization as Washington postulates consequently for over two centuries), can the following regardless of your good intentions be suggested?

    that the beauty and ethics of these all American principles (Jefferson) are apt to leverage frustration, if non-US world citizens seeing and feeling the double standards America adheres to in it’s global liberal policies: plutocratic, authoritarian, anti-democratic and driven by short-term imperialistic opportunism of the glued together elites of corporate finance, the industry, dandy-politicians and media moguls with regard to all and every entity outside it’s borders.

    it could be so, some parts of the world became un-attached induced by sincere comprehension of American double standards of globalization proceedings and philosophy.

    China, Iran, Venezuela, Bolivia, Equador, Honduras, Brazil, Pakistan (tendencies) and others steer away from being lectured one way and imposed on the other.

    as nationalism in itself is an outdated concept, to say it differently, will de facto policies rather then Jeffersonian lecturing bring aboard a substantial part of the planet to ethical globalism?


  3. Since Tom’s being erased in schoolbooks in Texas, maybe it’s time he was made available to the Arabic-speaking world. It’s particularly apt at this point in time and space.

    • The Middle East has had Marx for decades. The Europeans are well-translated. But it should be noted that the momentum was with Marxism in the 1950s and 1960s but is now with Muslim fundamentalism, and Jefferson’s ideas on freedom of religion and freedom of speech are pretty urgent.

  4. Congratulations and what wonderful news. This could not come at a better time and is bound to make an enormous impact. I hope it is marketed every where and becomes an on-line publication immediately.

  5. Dr. Cole,

    What a great and heartening article this is: as an Iranian who has lived a majority of his life in the States, its good to see that mischaracterizations of American ideology can be rectified and that the peoples of the world can begin to understand American concepts of freedom and human rights.

    Just as you pointed out, these translations are not imperialist. In fact they help the sharing of ideas and information among people with different cultures and contexts. Who knows: Middle Easterners might not fully accept (and I would not want them to) every idea that TJ might have had, but I think that a lot of MEs and Muslims especially would be familiar with the rights-based ethics that TJ proposes and we might see a different version of these ideas spring forth (pun intended). Similarly, some ME ideas and values (their hospitality comes to mind) might also have a place here in America and this building of bridges and sharing of ideas is how we as a race can grow to understand and accept one another.

    Best of luck with this endeavor – I will try to support however I can.

  6. Next, maybe we can translate this into English and distribute in the U.S. – shoule be quite an eye-opener.

  7. [Journalists sometimes ask me if there isn’t something Orientalist or imperialist about translating Americana into Arabic.]

    IMO, they ask a wrong question. Much better question is, how did it happen that Gaddafi Jr. got PhD in Political Science from LSE and now he fights a civil war instead of peacefully cooperating with the West?

    As far as I understand Orientalism, the idea that promoting the Western political culture in the Arab world will result in the Arab-Western cooperation on the Western terms is 100% Orientalist. It all depends.

  8. Oh, yeah, Juan you are a huge eaxmple of American Colonialism. I just have a mental image of you with, what, cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat.

  9. That’s fantastic. Congratulations on the publication, and I hope that more will be in the works. Any way we can communicate better with other cultures, we should, and hopefully Jefferson’s ideals appeal to them.

    In a related story, it would be nice if they would appeal to us again.

  10. Abraham Lincoln regarded the Declaration of Independence as the “ground” upon which all of his views were built. Thomas Jefferson`s writings should be a very welcome addition to the “library” in Arabic literature.
    Thank you, Juan, for your efforts in helping to bridge the divide between American and Arabic cultures. I would only hope that Jefferson`s thinking would be more acceptable in the United States today!

  11. Good initiative! Helping the spread of ideas is clearly positive. It is interesting, though, that the American thinker who has directly influenced the Jasmine Revolution is the contemporary Gene Sharp, link to

    Which leads to the question: are there any other current American thinkers who should also be translated? Somehow the American Revolution seems an awful long way away from today’s Jasmine Revolution.

  12. I wrote you at the time that I thought you could avoid some of the critiques _and_ have an easier time finding translators if you had chosen Jefferson favorite political philosopher (if not Washington, Jay, Hamilton, Adams and Madison’s, too), Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu et la Brede’s The Spirit of Laws (French, 1755). It also has a beautiful English translation.

    Maybe for the next book?

    In any event, translate, translate, translate!

    And remember, if MEMRI was just a bit more serious about trying to start a war, they’d translate Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage, et cetera, et cetera.

    • Thanks, Joshua. French works like that of Montesquieu were translated a long time ago. It is the Americans that were largely ignored. In a Middle Eastern context, by the way, the French heritage of colonialism bulks rather larger than the much more recent American role. But, people want to be educated in world culture and thought in the Middle East, regardless of the source.

      • Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” should be next.

  13. Juan, this is great and best of luck in your future endeavors.

    On a slightly different note, I don’t quite understand what Joshua wrote above me, but since he’s knocking Republican ideals and acting as a backseat translator, it makes sense that he would be incoherent. It sounded like he was trying to tell you that your time would have been better used on another author of his choice. But I just would like to say that Thomas Jefferson is an excellent and thoughtful representation of America, especially at the time.

  14. I hope that Jefferson’s 1801 State of the union message, which dealt, inter alia, with Libya, is translated. It will come as a revelation to the Arab world to learn that, in Jefferson’s view, any military action by the United States, with the solitary exception of a ship returning fire in self defence, was a matter for Congress to decide.
    This is an excerpt from the Message:
    ”….. Tripoli, the least considerable of the Barbary states, had come forward with demands unfounded either in right or in compact; and had permitted itself to denounce war, on our failure to comply before a given day. The style of the demand admitted but one answer. I sent a small squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean,With assurances to that power of our sincere desire to remain in peace, but with orders to protect our commerce against the threatened attack. The measure was seasonable and salutary. The Bey had already declared war. His cruisers were out: two had arrived at Gibraltar. Our commerce in the Mediterranean was blockaded: and that of the Atlantic in peril, The arrival of our squadron dispelled the’ danger: one of the Tripolitan cruisers having fallen in with and engaged the small schooner Enterprise, commanded by Lieut. Sterrett, which had gone as a tender to our larger vessels, was captured after a heavy slaughter of her men, without the loss of a single one on our part. The bravery exhibited by our citizens on that element, will, I trust be a testimony to the world, that it is not the want of that virtue which makes us seek their peace; but a conscientious desire to direct the energies of our nation to the multiplication of the human race, and not to its destruction. Unauthorised by the constitution, without the sanction of Congress, to go beyond the line of defence, the vessel being disabled from committing further hostilities, was liberated with its crew. The legislature will doubtless consider, whether, by authorising measures of offence also, they will place our force on an equal footing with that of its adversaries. I communicate all material information on this subject, that in the exercise of the important function, confided by the constitution to the legislature exclusively, their judgment may form itself on a knowledge and consideration of every circumstance of weight.
    I wish I could say that our situation with all the other Barbary States was entirely satisfactory. Discovering that some delays had taken place in the performance of certain articles stipulated by us, I thought it my duty by immediate measures for fulfilling them to vindicate to ourselves the right of considering the effect of departure from a stipulation on their side.
    From the papers which will be laid before you, you will be enabled to judge, whether our treaties are regarded by them as fixing at all the measures of their demands; or as guarding from the exercise of force our vessels within their power: and to consider how far it will be safe and expedient to leave our affairs with them in their present posture……..

  15. Great. In a couple of centuries, when Jefferson is a lost memory, someone will find himself translating bin Jafar to English for the downtrodden in America.

  16. I’ve been looking forward to this day, wishing I could contribute big money, and as always grateful for your continued good work. Congratulations. Please be sure and tell us about reactions as they come in. Thank you a million times and best fortune on the road ahead!

  17. there is a debate going on that argues we (the west) with our colonialist history have no right to impose western ideals like democracy upon MENA. i agree. it’s the people in the region who are rising up and calling for democracy, not us.

    instead of (or in addition to) arabic translations of jefferson, i’d like to see more discussion that explains the idea of democracy isn’t exclusive in its origins to the west.

    via wiki:

    A possible example of primitive democracy may have been the early Sumerian city-states.[29] A similar proto-democracy or oligarchy existed temporarily among the Medes (ancient Iranian people) in the 6th century BC, but which came to an end after the Achaemenid (Persian) Emperor Darius the Great declared that the best monarchy was better than the best oligarchy or best democracy.[30]

    A serious claim for early democratic institutions comes from the independent “republics” of India, sanghas and ganas, which existed as early as the 6th century BC and persisted in some areas until the 4th century AD.[31] The evidence is scattered and no pure historical source exists for that period. In addition, Diodorus (a Greek historian at the time of Alexander the Great’s excursion of India), without offering any detail, mentions that independent and democratic states existed in India.[32]

    link to

    The concepts of liberalism and democratic participation were already present in the medieval Islamic world.[2][3][4] Azizah Y. al-Hibri, for example, argues that Medina during Muhammad’s time was an early example of a democratic state but that the development of democracy in the Islamic world eventually came to a halt following to the Sunni–Shia split.[5]

    link to

    proper credit hasn’t been given to the east for its contributions to the modern world.

  18. Islamic civilization deserves a great deal of credit for the Renaissance. They reintroduced Aristotle and other earlier knowledge.

    And remember that Jesus was a Jew living in the Middle East, not in Berlin or Paris, and before that, Moses and Abraham lived and taught n the same region.

    Islamic fundamentalism, like Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, is a travesty of the real teachings of these religions. Al Qaida represents Islam like the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity, or like JDL founder Kahane represents Judiasm.

    When Christian and political demagogues who get so much airtime finally get unmasked and ignored, then we’ll have a chance for peace.

  19. Where can we buy? I’d like to get my hands on a copy of this.

  20. Congratulations, Juan. That’s a fine idea. After the damage done by Bush and his cohort to our regional reputation, anything that can help disseminate the core tenets of the American political tradition to the peoples of the Middle East is to be applauded.

  21. Juan, I haven’t been following your work closely for awhile, so I didn’t know that you were doing this. This is a great thing you are trying to do, and I wish you much success. As for some of the snark above, the least I’d say is, little good was ever accomplished by restricting access to the written word.

  22. “Does it include Jefferson’s thoughts on the indigenous population, that he & the Republic displaced,i.e murdered/ethnically cleansed in order to usurp their lands and resources. Apparently all men are not created equal,lol.”

    This is naked intellectual thuggery/hooliganism – in this instance, an outright focus on inessentials. The last “lol” part was the dead giveaway that a cognitively-stunted youtubized mind is ejaculating random stuff, unable or unwilling to grasp and think in essentials. What a waste of cognitive resources!

    The essential here, of course, is the American *ideals* of reason, individualism, rights, and capitalism.

    Let’s stop wasting cognitive resources, people.

  23. I remember you writing about the start of this project, it’s nice to see it come to fruition. If publishing political thought is “cultural imperialism” then someone should tell the Greeks to stop “oppressing” us with Plato and Aristotle.

  24. Will Arabs accept the thoughts of an American who, judging by the cover, used way too much rouge?

  25. After Jefferson, here’s another suggestion for translation into Arabic: Roger Williams, the New England puritan, who founded the colony at Providence, Rhode Island. By 1640, after years of zealous participation in all the sectarian strife of the Reformation, Roger Williams had come to realise the civilising value of official toleration in matters of religion. In 1647 he was arguing against the hard-liner John Cotton (spiritual kin to the Ayatollah Khomeini), in ‘The bloody tenent of Persecution for cause of Conscience’: ‘It is indeed the ignorance and blind zeal of the second Beast … to bring fiery judgements upon men in a judicial way, and to pronounce that such judgements of imprisonment, banishment or death proceed from God’s righteous vengeance upon heretics… Civil weapons are improper in this business, and never able to (achieve) anything in the soul.’ For the translator, it may be more of a challenge than Jefferson – unless in fact the impassioned tracts of the Reformation turn out to be quite familiar to those steeped in today’s Islamic ferment. But the point is that sensitive readers would find it very instructive to see how the debate evolved as America and Europe emerged from the awful religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

  26. Democracy….To what end? To achieve a society where 50%+1 can enslave everyone else? It’s just another conflict generator and only creates moral compromise. Please get over it.

  27. We would not have the understanding of the ancient Greeks that we do have, were it not for the translation of the original texts by the scholars of the early Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Without the translation & preservation of the gospels in their original Greek by the Arabs we possibly wouldn’t be celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011.

    Are we to call the Baghdadi scholars of the Greeks and their texts Occidentalists, and what of their study & translation of Indian & Persian texts, doesn’t that make them Orientalists too.

    The famed Baghdad museum probably wouldn’t have existed to be looted in 2003 if it weren’t for the Orientalist Gertrude Bell.

    It would be preferable to have the Arabs themselves translating “modern” western texts, rather than relying on westerners doing it for them. But given we have to fight their wars for them, I guess its not asking much to translate our texts for them too.

    Keep up the good work Juan – how about doing Hobbes & Locke, and Montaigne wouldn’t hurt – and Walt Whitman.

Comments are closed.