destroyed Alexandria Library?
By VA Mohamad Ashrof
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.
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
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
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
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
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
wrote the above words in 1950. As late as in 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
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
DP 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
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
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.
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
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
is no mere chance that for most of its 2000 years of history of 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.
story is now generally rejected as a fable and a fabrication. Let me 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
C. Joseph Barnabas, "Religious Freedom and Human Rights," in C.
J. Nirmal (ed), Human Rights in India, Oxford University Press: N Delhi, 2000,
(2) B. N. Jog, Threat of Islam: Indian Dimension, Unnati Prakashan: Mumbai:
400081, 1994, P. 428.
(3) Ency. Britannica, Vol. 1, 1984, P. 227.
(4) Ency. Britannica, Ibid, P.479.
(5) Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, Macmillan: London, 1970, P.166.
(6) Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, Goodword Books: N. Delhi, (1950),
2001, P. 54.
(7) Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books, 2 September 1990.
(8) John M. Robertson, A Short History of Free Thought, Watts & Co: London,
1914, P. 253. (9) D. P. Singhal, India and World Vol I. Civilization, Rupa
and Co: London, 1993, P. 136. (10) D. P. Singhal, Ibid, P. 136.
(11)Bertrand Russell, Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Routledge: London,
(1954), 1992, P. 218.
(12) Colin Wilson, The Occult, Panther: London, 1984, P. 278.
(13) M. N. Roy, Ibid, P. 64.
(14) M. N. Roy, Ibid, P.65.
(15) D. P. Singhal, Ibid, P.136.