IN THE early days of December 1805, a handful of prominent politicians received formal invitations to join US President Thomas Jefferson for a White House dinner. Such requests were not uncommon: Jefferson frequently hosted lawmakers for political working dinners at the White House, almost always commencing them about 3.30pm, shortly after the House or Senate had adjourned for the day.
But this gathering, scheduled for December 9, 1805, would be slightly different.
“Dinner will be on the table precisely at sun-set – “the invitations read. “The favour of an answer is asked.”
The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the US, Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before, in the midst of the US conflict with what were then known as the Barbary States.
And the reason for the dinner’s laterthan-usual start was Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadaan, a holy month for Muslims in which observers fast between dawn and dusk. Only after sunset do Muslims break their fast with a meal called iftar.
Jefferson’s decision to change the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadaan 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 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 Ramadaan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration may be coming to an end.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reportedly said the State Department would not host a Ramadaan reception, as it has done nearly annually for two decades. White House officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Several former White House staff members said they would usually begin planning an iftar “months in advance”.
If there were questions about whether Jefferson knew of Mellimelli’s religious practices, the memoirs of John Quincy Adams – compiled and published by his son – put those to rest, in 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 December 9, 1805.
“By the invitation, dinner was to have been on the table precisely at sunset – it being in the midst of Ramadaan, 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.
What Jefferson could not have known is that changing the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadaan would turn that dinner into a point of contention in US culture wars more than 200 years later.
It was not until 1996 that the modern-day White House tradition of celebrating Ramadaan with a reception or meal started. That February, first lady Hillary Clinton hosted about 150 people for a reception for Eid-ul-fitr.
This was informed by her teenage daughter Chelsea, who had the year before studied Islamic history in school, according to reports that year cited by Muslim Voices.
Clinton said the reception was a “historic and overdue occasion,” a precedent for Muslim religious celebrations at the White House.
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 the dinner would be, ‘We’re a nation of many faiths.’ Asked if the sentiment was symbolic, he immediately replied, ‘No – it’s real.’”
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.
“Ramadaan 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 US, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadaan – 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 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.
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.
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. 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 definition of what an iftar is. There does not need to be a certain menu in place to make an iftar dinner. – The Washington Post
President Barack Obama hosts an iftar dinner celebrating Ramadaan in the East Room of the White House.
US President Thomas Jefferson arranged a sunset dinner for Ramadaan, making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.