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English professor awarded prestigious ACLS fellowship

February 14, 2018


Jeffrey Einboden

Jeffrey Einboden, an NIU professor of English, was one of 71 scholars awarded a 2017 Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The fellowship, among the most prestigious and competitive Humanities awards in the United States, funds an academic year of full-time research and writing.

A specialist in early American literature, Islamic reception and Middle Eastern translation, Einboden’s ACLS Fellowship supports the completion of his upcoming book, “Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives: The Lost Story of American Slavery and Arabic Emancipation,” which is contracted to Oxford University Press.

His research centers around an astonishing story that surrounds a date lost to U.S. history: October 4, 1807—the day that President Thomas Jefferson was handed Arabic manuscripts penned by two Muslim slaves fleeing their captivity in rural Kentucky.

Exposing archival evidence neglected for more than two centuries, “Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives” traces the events that led up to this event and its aftermath, recounting the story of escaped Muslim slaves in the American heartland whose acts of Arabic authorship prompted a U.S. president to advocate on their behalf. It is estimated that between 10 to 20 percent of the enslaved men and women brought to the Americas were Muslims. Pivoting between parallel stories that unfold from Kentucky to the Atlantic coast, this project also discovers that the arrival of Arabic writings to Washington, D.C., in 1807 belonged to a broader tradition of private exchange between Muslim slaves and American elites in the early United States, reaching from national origins in the 1780s to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

“The Arabic manuscripts which Jefferson himself received and circulated – and which form the center of “Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives” – have indeed been entirely lost to U.S. history, never before published, or even mentioned, in a modern study,” Einboden said. “The primary reason for the stunning neglect of such historic documents is simply their language, with specialists in early American literature and history typically unable to read Middle Eastern writings.”

It is widely-known that Jefferson acquired an English copy of George Sale’s Koran, which is frequently understood as demonstrating the President’s Islamic interests. Einboden’s research discovers a much more direct, personal and private relationship with the Qur’an and Islamic sources sustained by the President throughout his life.

“Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives” shows, for the first time, that Jefferson possessed manuscripts that quote the Qur’an in authentic Arabic, rather than a British scholar’s English – and that Jefferson also spent time seeking to have these original Arabic manuscripts translated into English, circulating them discretely to friends and fellow intellectuals. The book also explores, for the first time, Jefferson’s English translation (from French) of echoes from the Qur’an, which were later published anonymously in Paris during the first years of his presidency.

Other politicians and intellectuals who owned Arabic slave writings, including Massachusetts Governor Edward Everett and Yale College President Ezra Stiles, are also treated in “Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives.” Such Arabic manuscripts, according to Einboden, shed new light on issues of urgent concern — American slavery; early U.S. relations with the Islamic world; and Jefferson’s own career and presidency.

“’Jefferson’s Muslim Fugitives’ suggests that the President’s engagement with Islamic sources, and Islam’s scripture especially, was much more active and enduring than his early acquisition of Sale’s Koran, eventually owning actual Arabic transcripts of Qur’anic chapters in manuscript, while also pursuing the rendition of selections from the Qur’an in America itself,” Einboden explained.

Einboden’s research has taken him to the East Coast, visiting institutions like UPenn and the University of Virginia, as well as the Library of Congress, The International Center for Jefferson Studies and historical societies in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Over the summer, he plans to visit archives in New England to finish his research.

Einboden received a National Endowment for the Humanities Teaching Development Fellowship in 2011 to re-design an NIU American Literature course to feature his research into Arabic Slave writings in the early United States. As a 2014 National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellow, he wrote “The Islamic Lineage of American Literary Culture,” a monograph published by Oxford University Press in 2016.

In addition to this 2016 Oxford UP book, Einboden has also authored three other previous monographs, publishing in 2013 his “Nineteenth-Century U.S. Literature in Middle Eastern Languages” (Edinburgh University Press), and, in 2014, his “Islam and Romanticism: Muslim Currents from Goethe to Emerson” (Oneworld). Einboden’s latest book, “The Qur’an and Kerygma,” will be published this summer as part of Equinox Publishing’s book series “Themes in Qur’anic Studies.”