WASHINGTON – Keith Ellison made history Thursday, becoming the first Muslim member of Congress and punctuating the occasion by taking a ceremonial oath with a Koran once owned by Thomas Jefferson.
"Look at that. That's something else," Ellison, D-Minn., said as officials from the Library of Congress showed him the two-volume Koran, which was published in London in 1764.
A few minutes later, Ellison took the ceremonial oath with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at his side. So many of Ellison's family members attended the ceremony that it was done in two takes.
Ellison had already planned to be sworn in using a Koran, rather than a Bible. He learned last month about Jefferson's Koran, with its multicolored cover and brown leather binding, and made arrangements to borrow it.
Although the Library of Congress is right across the street from the Capitol, library officials took extra precautions in delivering the Koranfor the ceremony. To protect it from the elements, they placed the Koran in a rectangular box, and handled it with a green felt wrapper once they got it inside the Capitol.
Instead of using surface streets, they walked it over via a series of winding, underground tunnels — a trip that took more than 15 minutes. Guards then ran the book through security X-ray machines at the Capitol.
The Koran was acquired in 1815 as part of a more than 6,400-volume collection that Jefferson sold for $24,000 to replace the congressional library that had been burned by British troops the year before, in the War of 1812. Jefferson, the nation's third president, was a collector of books in all topics and languages.
The book's leather binding was added in 1919. Inside, it reads, "The Koran, commonly called 'The Alcoran of Mohammed."' Jefferson marked his ownership by writing the letter "J" next to the letter "T" that was already at the bottom of pages, according to Mark Dimunation, chief of the Library of Congress' rare book and special collections division.
Ellison, the first black member of Congress from Minnesota, was born in Detroit and converted to Islam in college. He said earlier this week that he chose to use this Koran because it showed that a visionary like Jefferson believed that wisdom could be gleaned from many sources.
In a brief interview Thursday on his way to a vote, Ellison suggested he had tired of the whole issue of his using the Koran.
"It was good, we did it, it's over, and now it's time to get down to business," he said.
Asked if he was relieved to have it behind him, Ellison said, "Yeah, because maybe we don't have to talk about it so much anymore. Not that I'm complaining, but the pressing issues the country is facing are just a little bit more on my mind right now."
Ellison's mother, Clida Ellison, said in an interview that she thought any controversy over her son's choice was good, "because many people in America are going to learn what the diversity of America is all about."
She described herself as a practicing Catholic.
"I go to Mass every day," she said.