Did the Moslems Burn the Library of Alexandria?
By Hadrat Sufi M. R. Bengalee
Voltaire said, “History is disfigured by fable, till at last, philosophy comes to enlighten man; and when it does finally arrive in the midst of this darkness, it finds the human mind so blinded by centuries of error, that it can hardly deceive it; it finds ceremonies, facts and monuments, heaped up to prove lies.” This seems to be particularly true with regard to the western history of Islam. Many fantastic stories concerning Islam have gained currency in the west and pass for historical truths. The readers of the Moslem Sunrise will remember that some time ago, a set of books called the Standard History of the World were declared false by a Chicago court for inserting some of the fairy tales of the Arabian Nights as history of Islam. In this article, we propose to bring to light another such fictitious story which is accepted as an historical fact in the occidental world. I mean the story of the burning of the Alexandrian Library by the Moslems. The anecdote of the alleged burning of the library runs as follows:
At the time of the capture of Alexandria by the Moslem General Amr (Amr-Ibn-Al-As), John the Grammarian, a famous philosopher contracted friendship with the Moslem chief and was in high favour with him. The philosopher solicited the conqueror the precious gift of the royal library which remained to be appropriated by the captor. Amr told the savant that it was beyond his power to grant him the request, but promised to write to Omar, the caliph. Omar is alleged to have replied that if these books contained the same truths as the Quran (Koran), they were of no use since the Quran contained the necessary truths; on the other hand, if these writings were contrary to the Quran, then they were pernicious and ought to be destroyed at once. Thus Omar sent order to his general to destroy the library under any circumstances. The order was executed with rigid and blind obedience. The Library was burned. The vast number of the volumes were distributed among the four thousand public baths of the city and for six months they served to supply the fires with fuel.
The following noteworthy facts help us in arriving at the truth about the fable.
First: The story of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria by Amr was first told by a Christian historian Abdul Fragius, six hundred years after the alleged occurrence of the episode. Before he appears on the scene with his story there is no mention at all of this myth. Whereas the minutest details of the conquest of Alexandria by Amr have been faithfully recorded, all the historians, both Christian as well as Moslem, are conspicuous by their mute silence on this point. This is exceedingly significant.
Second: It is an incontestable, historical fact, that, inspired by the lofty ideal set before them by Muhammad, “Seek knowledge even though it be in China.” “The word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer. He takes it wherever he finds it,” the followers of Islam furthered the cause of science and education all over the world. When Europe was wallowing in intellectual darkness, it was the Moslems who kept the torch of light and knowledge aloft. It was they who nurtured philosophy and science and paved the way for the modern civilization. If the Greeks were the “father” the Arabs were the “foster father” of science and philosophy and “through the Arabs and not through the Latin route, that the modern civilization received that gift of light and power.” In the face of such glorious traditions, it would be the height of fanaticism to attribute an act of such vandalism to the early Moslems who were men of surpassing tolerance and were devoted lovers of letters and learning.
Third: It should be noted in this connection that if such had been the bigotry of the Moslems, then this mischievous spirit would have found an outlet or expression somewhere else. They had much better chances nearer home for burning the sacred books of the Christians and the Jews who were their vassals. But no such charge has ever been leveled against them.
Fourth: Abdul Fragius states that the volumes of paper were distributed among the four thousand baths of Alexandria. So huge was the number of books, that it took six months for their consumption. In those times books were not written on paper but on papyrus or vellum which did not make for fuel. The author of this fable shows appalling ignorance of the elementary facts of history.
Fifth: History conclusively proves the utter falsity of this pure fiction. There were two libraries at Alexandria – one at Bruchion and the other at Serapim. The one at Bruchion quarter which was the larger of the two was connected with the Museum and served as a sort of academy. During his attack, Julius Caesar set fire to his ships in his self-defence; the fire spread to the Bruchion quarter and destroyed the celebrated library.
The disgrace of the pillage of the library at Serapim eternally belongs to the Christian emperor Theodosius. In 389 or 391, he passed an edict concerning the pagan monuments and according to this order, the Christian Bishop Theophilus destroyed the library at Serapim. So, there existed no library to be burned by the Moslem General Amr at the time of his conquest of Alexandria.
There is a host of western historians who have frankly admitted that the story of the burning of the library of Alexandria by the Moslem General Amr is an ignominious lie. The following quotations which support our claim are of interest:
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume II, The Modern Library Edition, by Edward Gibbon, pages 754-755: “For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences. The fact is indeed marvelous. “Read and wonder,” says the historian himself: and the solitary report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years of the confines of Media is overbalanced by the silence of two annalists of a more early date, both Christians, both natives of Egypt, and the most ancient of whom, the patriarch Eutychius, has amply described the conquest of Alexandria. The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Mohammedan casuists: they expressly declare that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, should never be committed to the flames; and that the works of profane science, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful….I shall not recapitulate the disasters of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defence, or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians who studied to destroy the monuments of idolatry. But if we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of contemporary witnesses that the royal palace and the temple of Serapis no longer contained the four or the seven, hundred thousand volumes which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies.”
History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, by John William Draper. D. Appleton and Company, 1925 Edition. Pages 103-104: “But it must not be supposed that the books which John the Labor-lover coveted were those which constituted the great library of the Ptolemies, and that of Eumenes, King of Pergamus. Nearly a thousand years had elapsed since Philadelphus began his collection. Julius Caesar had burnt more than half; the Patriarchs of Alexandria had not only permitted but superintended the dispersion of almost all the rest. Orosius expressly states that he saw the empty cases or shelves of the library twenty years after Theophilus, the uncle of St. Cyril, had procured from the Emperor Theodosius a rescript for its destruction. Even had this once noble collection never endured such acts of violence, the mere wear and tear, and perhaps, I may add, the pilfering of a thousand years, would have diminished it sadly. Though John, as the surname he received indicates, might rejoice in a superfluity of occupation, we may be certain that the care of a library of half a million books would transcend even his well-tried powers; and the cost of preserving and supporting it, that had demanded the ample resources of the Ptolemies and the Caesars, was beyond the means of a grammarian. Nor is the time required for its combustion or destruction any indication of the extent of the collection. Of all articles of fuel, parchment is, perhaps, the most wretched….but we may be sure that the bath-men of Alexandria did not resort to parchment so long as they could find anything else and of parchment a very large portion of these books were composed.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Vol. I-II. Page 570: “The story of the destruction of the library by the Arabs is first told by Barhebraeus (Albulfaragius), a Christian writer who lived six centuries later; and it is of very doubtful authority. It is highly improbable that many of the 700,000 volumes collected by the Ptolemies remained at the time of the Arab conquest, when the various calamities of Alexandria from the time of Caesar to that of Diocletian are considered, together with the disgraceful pillage of the library in A. D. 389 under the rule of the Christian bishop, Theophilus, acting on Theodosius’ decree concerning pagan monuments.”
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, Vol. XV-XVI. Page 546: “The usual statement that from the date of the restoration of the Brucheum under Cleopatra the libraries continued in a flourishing condition until they were destroyed after the conquest of Alexandria by the Saracens in A. D. 640, can hardly be supported. It is very possible that one of the libraries perished when the Brucheum quarter was destroyed by Aurelian, A. D. 273. In 389 or 391 an edict of Theodosius ordered the destruction of the Serapeum, and its books were pillaged by the Christians. When we take into account which literature and science had fallen, there can be little difficulty in believing that there were but few books left to be destroyed by the soldiers of Amr. The familiar anecdote of the caliph’s message to his general rests mainly upon the evidence of Abulfaraj, so that we may be tempted to agree with Gibbon that the report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years is overbalanced by the silence of earlier and native annalists…..”
Mahomet the Illustrious, by Godfrey Higgins, Esq., pages 68-69: “The Christians have made a great outcry against all the followers of Mahomet on account of the destruction of the library of Alexandria, the acts of one…, a disgrace to his religion and the literary character of his Arabian countrymen, if, indeed, he did burn it; but they carefully keep out of sight the circumstance that part of the celebrated library of the Ptolemies was burned in one of the battles of Caesar, and that another part, if not all the remainder, was burned by a decree of the Christian Theodosius, when he burned and destroyed throughout his dominions the temples of the heathens for the glory of God.
No doubt the pious acts of legitimacy of both the Christians and Mahometans had considerable effect in producing the darkness of the succeeding ages, but there were two or three other causes much more effectual. The acts of Omar only extended to one city and one moment of time; but the repeated decrees of the Roman Christian emperors for the destruction of books of both heretics and philosophers, and the canons of the Councils and the Popes of Rome, and the denunciations of the fathers of the church against the wickedness of reading the books of the Heathen, were, I have no doubt, much more effectual. They extended to the whole world…..I must fairly say, for my own part, founding my opinion on the arguments used by Mr. Gibbon, I do not believe it. It is nothing but a Christian calumny, to blacken the religion….”
Source: (pp. 14 – 18)