Ptolemy II, who became the ruler of Egypt after Alexander the Great in the third century BC, was a great patron of learning, and founded a library in Alexandria, Egypt, which contained about 5,00,000 books on different subjects. It is this collection which is known in history as the great library in Alexandria.
It has been alleged that this library was burned down by Amr bin Aas at the behest of the Second Caliph, Umar. The story goes to state that Amr fed the numerous bath furnaces of the city with the volumes of the Alexandrian library. The story also relates the oft-quoted remark allegedly made by Caliph Umar (ruled: 634-644) when he consented to the destruction of the library, “If these writing of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed”. It was, the story continues, thereupon, decided that the books were contrary to the Quran and the whole library was burned down without even opening the books.
Equating the burning of Alexandria Library with that of Nazi policy, Joseph Barnabas writes, “the arguments of Caliph Umar and the Nazi book burning are not without explanations.”1 A Hindutva theorist, B.N. Jog, was more emphatic and clear: “Many people are surprised that Caliph Umar burnt down the huge and rich library of Constantinople. The urge for him to do so was, however, provided by his religion.”2
Encyclopedia Britanica says that the Alexandrian Library had, in fact, been destroyed much earlier in the fourth century A.D, long before the advent of Islam: “The library survived the disintegration of Alexander?s empire (first century BC) and continued to exist under Roman rule until the third century AD.”3 The truth is that one-half of this library was burnt by Julius Caesar in 47 BC. In the third century, Alexandria came under the domination of Christians. At another place the same work states that, “The main museum and library were destroyed during the civil war of the third century AD and a subsidiary library was burned by Christians in AD 391.”4
Phillip K Hitti states that the story “is one of those tales that make good fiction but bad history.” He goes on, “…the great Ptolemic library was burnt as early as 48 BC by Julius Ceasar. A later one, referred to as the daughter library, was destroyed about AD 389 as a result of an edict by the Emperor Theodosius. At the time of the Arab conquest, therefore, no library of importance existed in Alexandria and no contemporary writer ever brought the charge about Amr or Umar.”5
Bernard Lewis, a vehement critic of Islam, has thus summarised the verdict of modern scholarship on the subject:
“Modern research has shown the story to be completely unfounded. None of the early chronicles, not even the Christian ones, make any reference to this tale, which is mentioned in the 13th century, and in any case the great library of Serapenum had already been destroyed in internal dissensions before the coming of the Arabs.”6
Lewis wrote the above words in 1950. As late as 1990, he went on to state, “not the creation, but the demolition of the myth was achievement of European scholarship, which from the 18th century to the present day has rejected the story as false and absurd, and thus exonerated the Caliph Umar and the early Muslims from this libel.”7
John M. Robertson, a historian of rationalistic and free thought, also dismissed the story of the destruction of the Alexandrian library by Umar as a myth.8
Historian D.P. Singhal considers the story untenable.9 Singhal writes:
“It makes its first appearance in the solitary report of a stranger, Abul Faraj, who wrote 500 years later. The reported sentence of the Caliph is alien to the traditional precept of the Muslim casuists who had expressly commanded the preservation of captured religious text of the Jews and Christians, and had declared that the works of profane scientists and philosophers could be lawfully applied to the believer.”10
Bertrand Russell has gone deep into the controversy and made the following statement:
“Every Christian has been taught the story of the Caliph destroying the Library in Alexandria. As a matter of fact, this library was frequently destroyed and frequently recreated. Its first destroyer was Julius Caesar, and its last antedated the Prophet. The early Mohammedans, unlike the Christians, tolerated those whom they called ?people of the Book?, provided they paid tribute. In contrast to the Christians, who persecuted not only pagans but each other, the Mohammedans were welcomed for their broadmindedness, and it was largely this that facilitated their conquests. To come to later times, Spain was ruined by fanatical hatred of Jews and Moors; France was disastrously impoverished by the persecution of Huguenots.”11
In the 500 years between the supposed event and its first reporter no Christian historian mentions it, though one of them, Eutychius, Archbishop of Alexandria in 933, described the Arab conquest of Alexandria in great detail.
Colin Wilson, a popular science writer and researcher expressed his firm opinion that the demolition of the Alexandrian library was caused by Christian clergy. He writes,
“The Library of Alexandria ? which contained, among other things, Aristotle?s own collection of books ? was burned down on the orders of the Archbishop of Alexandria (backed by the Emperor Theodosius). Knowledge was evil; had not Adam been evicted from Paradise for wanting to know?”12
M.N. Roy penetratingly analysed the issue in a wider perspective. It is worth quoting some part of his views on the subject:
“While books written in the 11th and 12th century indignantly details the shocking tale of the burning of the library of Alexandria, the historians Eustichius and Elmacin, both Egyptian Christians, who wrote soon after the Saracen conquest of their country, are significantly silent about the savage act. The former, a patriarch of Alexandria, could be hardly suspected of partiality to the enemies of Christianity. An order of Caliph Umar has been usually cited as evidence of the barbarous act ascribed to his general. It would have been much easier not to record that order than to suppress any historical work composed by Christian prelates who had endless possibilities of concealing their composition. A diligent examination of all relevant evidence enabled Gibbon to arrive at the following opinion on the matter: ‘The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Mohammedan casuist; they expressly declare that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, and that the works of profane scientists, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful.’ (The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire)13 Byzantine barbarism had undone the meritorious work of the Ptolemies. The real destruction of the Alexandrian seat of learning had been the work of St. Cyril who defiled the Goddess of learning in the famous fair of Hyparia. That was already in the beginning of the 5th century.”14
It is no mere chance that for most of its 2000 years of history, Christianity not only did not inspire a spirit of learning at an extensive level, but often suppressed it. Churchmen and Crusaders were responsible for the destruction of hundreds of thousands of Greek and Muslim books. For example, in 389 AD the celebrated library of Serapis at Alexandria was ruined on the order of Archbishop Theophilus. The guiding principle of Pope Gregory was, “Ignorance is the mother of piety.” According to this principle, Gregory burned the precious Palestine Library founded by Emperor Augustus, destroyed the greater part of the writings of Livy and forbade the study of the classics. The Crusaders destroyed the splendid library of Tripoli and reduced to ashes many of the glorious centres of Saracenic art and culture. Ferdinand and Isabella put to flames all the Muslim and Jewish works they could find in Spain. Nor is it a coincidence that when science and learning did become widespread in Europe in spite of the Church, it was accompanied by a rejection or reduction of the authority of the Bible and science became completely secularised.
The story is now generally rejected as a fable and a fabrication. Let us conclude this piece with a remark by Dr. Singhal:
“Seldom in history has there been a parallel for transcribing a falsehood with such persistence, conviction, and indignation, in spite of contrary evidence.”15
And only God knows best.
- C. Joseph Barnabas, “Religious Freedom and Human Rights,” in C. J. Nirmal (ed), Human Rights in India, Oxford University Press: N Delhi, 2000, p. 144 [⤺]
- B. N. Jog, Threat of Islam: Indian Dimension, Unnati Prakashan: Mumbai: 400081, 1994, p. 428 [⤺]
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 1, 1984, p. 227 [⤺]
- Encyclopedia Britannica, ibid., p. 479 [⤺]
- Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, Macmillan: London, 1970, p. 166 [⤺]
- Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, Goodword Books: N. Delhi, (1950), 2001, p. 54 [⤺]
- Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books, 2 September 1990 [⤺]
- John M. Robertson, A Short History of Free Thought, Watts & Co: London, 1914, p. 253 [⤺]
- D.P. Singhal, India and World Vol I. Civilization, Rupa and Co: London, 1993, p. 136. [⤺]
- D.P. Singhal, ibid., p. 136 [⤺]
- Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Routledge: London, (1954), 1992, p. 218 [⤺]
- Colin Wilson, The Occult, Panther: London, 1984, p. 278 [⤺]
- M. N. Roy, ibid., p. 64 [⤺]
- M. N. Roy, ibid., p. 65 [⤺]
- D.P. Singhal, ibid., p. 136 [⤺]