By: Amy B Wang
Published in the Washington Post
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 sun-set — ” the invitations read. “The favour of an answer is asked.”
The occasion was the presence of a Tunisian envoy to the United States, SidiSolimanMellimelli, who had arrived in the country just the week before, in the midst of America’s ongoing 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 Ramadan, 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 Ramadan 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 — and it has been referenced in recent White House celebrations of Ramadan as an embodiment of the Founding Father’s respect for religious freedom. Meanwhile, critics on the far right have taken issue with the characterization 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 Ramadan with an iftar dinner or Eid celebration may be coming to an end.
There has so far been no word from President 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 Ramadan reception, as it has done nearly annually for two decades. White House officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ramadan, which falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, started on May 27 this year and will end June 24. Several former White House staff members said they would usually begin planning an iftar “months in advance” and don’t believe the Trump White House could pull something off before the end of Ramadan next week.
If there were any questions about whether Jefferson was aware of Mellimelli’s religious practices, the memoirs of John Quincy Adams — later compiled and published by his son — 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.”
In his diary, the future president described Mellimelli with an air of fascination, noting everything from how the envoy smelled (of rose-scented snuff) to how his appearance differed from that of the other “Turks” (Mellimelli wore his beard long, while the two secretaries who had accompanied him only had whiskers).
Adams, the son of President John Adams, captured few details about what was served for dinner itself, only that Mellimelli “freely partook of the dishes on the table without inquiring into the cookery” and that, soon after eating, he left for the drawing room to smoke his pipe again.
“His manners are courteous, but we were all unable to converse with him, except through the medium of an interpreter,” Adams wrote.
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 couldn’t have known is that changing the time of the meal to accommodate Mellimelli’s observance of Ramadan would turn that dinner into a point of contention in America’s culture wars more than 200 years later.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the modern-day White House tradition of celebrating Ramadan with a reception or meal started. That February, first lady Hillary Clinton hosted about 150 people for a reception for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.
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 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. (It’s unclear if she knew about the Jefferson dinner.)
“A greater understanding of the tenets of Islam in our national consciousness will help us build strength and resilience as a nation,” Clinton told guests, according to the Associated Press. “The values that lie at the heart of Ramadan — faith, family, community and responsibility to the less fortunate — resonate with all the peoples of this earth.”
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 toward Muslim Americans was spiking. At the 2001 dinner, in mid-November, Bush emphasized that America was fighting against terrorism, not Islam, according to The Washington Post’s coverage then:
“All the world continues to benefit from this faith and its achievements,” Bush said. “Ramadan and the upcoming holiday season are a good time for people of different faiths to learn more about each other. And the more we learn, the more we find that many commitments are broadly shared.”
After a White House Rose Garden ceremony, Bush had said his message for the dinner would be, “We’re a nation of many faiths.” Asked if the sentiment was symbolic, he immediately replied, “No — it’s real.”
More than 15 years later, Charlotte Beers, who served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy under Bush, can still remember how effective the iftar had been diplomatically, in being able to show that the United States respected all religions.
“We all agreed that we had to reach out to moderate Muslims and acknowledge that they had as much concern as we did about the circumstances,” Beers told The Post in a recent interview. “That dinner was extremely important and heard around the world. … My personal opinion was, this speaks to that whole underpinning of what makes the United States tick — freedom of religion. It was extremely timely, we felt.”
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.”
Obama mentioned this historical dinner again in his 2012 White House iftar remarks; that year, organizers also had set up a special display of Jefferson’s copy of the Koran, on loan from the Library of Congress.
“And that’s a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam — like so many faiths — is part of our national story,” Obama said.
Terence Szuplat, a speechwriter for Obama, told The Post he couldn’t pinpoint who had brought up the Jefferson dinner first.
“I remember thinking, that would be a very interesting and fascinating and powerful story, but we can’t have the president say it until we know that it’s 100 percent accurate,” Szuplat said. He does remember consulting with historians at Monticello; historian Gaye Wilson, who wrote a 2003 essay about Jefferson’s dealings with Mellimelli, also remembers working with the White House to confirm details about the dinner.
As Szuplat expected, 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 favorable 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, 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 would push back the time of a dinner by several hours is an indication for his respect for religious freedom, even though Jefferson was widely criticized in his time for his accommodation of the Tunisian envoy, said Scott Harrop, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and cultures at the University of Virginia.
Those who insist Jefferson didn’t host an iftar — even if he intended to, in the spirit of religious freedom — 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 celebrateChristmas, there does not need to be a certain menu in place to make an iftar dinner.
“All iftar is is people breaking their fast. If they broke their fast in the White House, then that was iftar,” said ZakiBarzinji, a former senior associate director at the Obama White House who helped plan the administration’s last Ramadan celebration. “If I’m with a group of friends who are not Muslim, and we go and eat super late, and I break my fast while I’m with them, technically there was an iftar at that 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 honored guest. The dinner is specifically scheduled after sundown to accommodate him,” Ragosta said. “Yeah, it sounds to me like an iftar dinner. You’re breaking the fast during Ramadan with someone who is a Muslim.”
Rumana Ahmed, who helped plan several White House iftar dinners and one Eid celebration during the Obama administration, said it was unfortunate the tradition could end with Trump. For all of the events she helped coordinate, the focus changed slightly each year: from honoring Muslim American youth to recognizing the economic contributions of the community, for example. But the overarching message of each White House Ramadan event was always one of inclusion and respect, Ahmed said.
“If you look at when it started and how it’s evolved, in a way it’s kind of been in response to conversations happening on a national level and in our society,” Ahmed said.