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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.

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