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Who Destroyed The Library of Alexandria ?

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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.“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 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.“B. N. Jog, Threat of Islam : Indi­an Dimen­sion, Unnati Prakashan : Mum­bai : 400081, 1994, p. 428

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.“Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca, Vol. 1, 1984, p. 227 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.“Ency­clo­pe­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca, ibid., p. 479

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.“Philip K. Hit­ti, His­to­ry of the Arabs, Macmil­lan : Lon­don, 1970, p. 166

Bernard Lewis, a vehe­ment crit­ic of Islam, has thus sum­marised the ver­dict of mod­ern schol­ar­ship on the issue of the Library of Alexandria :

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.“Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in His­to­ry, Good­word Books : N. Del­hi, (1950), 2001, p. 54

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.“Bernard Lewis, New York Review of Books, 2 Sep­tem­ber 1990

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.John M. Robert­son, A Short His­to­ry of Free Thought, Watts & Co : Lon­don, 1914, p. 253

His­to­ri­an D.P. Sing­hal con­sid­ers the sto­ry unten­able.D.P. Sing­hal, India and World Vol I. Civ­i­liza­tion, Rupa and Co : Lon­don, 1993, p. 136. 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.“D.P. Sing­hal, ibid., p. 136

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.“Bertrand Rus­sell, Human Soci­ety in Ethics and Pol­i­tics, Rout­ledge : Lon­don, (1954), 1992, p. 218

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?“Col­in Wil­son, The Occult, Pan­ther : Lon­don, 1984, p. 278

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)M. N. Roy, ibid., p. 64 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.“M. N. Roy, ibid., p. 65

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.“D.P. Sing­hal, ibid., p. 136

And only God knows best. Who Destroyed The Library of Alexandria? 26Endmark

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  1. Jesus Torres Reply

    There isn’t much worth respond­ing to, as most his­tor­i­cal revi­sion­ist Islam­ic pro­pogan­ist mate­r­i­al is preva­lent in today’s cul­ture (and it would be prefer­able to post a video response which would get much more cir­cu­la­tion than these sites). In short, there’s a rea­son why sci­ence devel­oped in the Chris­t­ian West, which although not per­fect if there is ever an ide­al soci­ety that’s ever exist­ed, there is no doubt that the indus­tri­al, sci­en­tif­ic, philo­soph­i­cal, and mod­ernistic (includ­ing art, law, etc.) rev­o­lu­tions only occured in a par­tic­u­lar part of the world, specif­i­cal­ly after the col­lapse of the Roman Empire, a Chris­t­ian move­ment that lat­er engulfed the west mirac­u­lous­ly (despite per­se­cu­tion, unlike the impe­ri­al­is­tic and vio­lent Islam­ic move­ment that only gained knowl­edge and tech­nol­o­gy through con­quest, which lat­er became hereti­cal with more fun­da­men­tal islam­ic school call­ing said beliefs hereti­cal, despite Moham­mad hav­ing pre­vi­ous­ly stolen from pagan and jew­ish and hereti­cal Chris­t­ian sources which is a dif­fer­ent top­ic). It was only because of the Chris­t­ian par­a­digm and world­view, that reject­ed many regres­sive aris­totelian ideas that actu­al­ly held back sci­ence and caused the still birth of sci­ence in the mid­dle east, besides a fun­da­men­tal­ist under­stand­ing of the quran. 

    There actu­al­ly no dis­pute in the fact that umar was respon­si­ble for the burn­ing of the Library of Alexan­dria, of course the library was dam­aged in the past, (which the claim that Chris­tians had burned it once was a base­less the­o­ry that isn’t sup­port­ed by evi­dence) as a mat­ter in fact, any­one who actu­al­ly reads the direct doc­u­ments rather than read­ing the revi­sion­ists’ inter­pre­ta­tions of authors like these would know how easy it is to under­stand actu­al his­to­ry and to dis­pell the nar­ra­tive that these revi­sion­ists try to paint.

  2. Chris Whitaker Reply

    Enlight­ened ones were cru­ci­fied whatever
    thought or polit­i­cal­ly reli­gious persuasions.

  3. Assala­mualaikum, what about the scrip­tures, archives and books of the Zoroas­tri­an library of Cste­ci­phon as report­ed in Tabari ? Strange­ly enough Umar RA also ordered its destruc­tion to Sa’d ibn Abi Waqaas RA through the same words he alleged­ly told Amr RA. How can we explain its ruined state. Did Umar Al Khat­tab RA real­ly order Sa’d ibn Waqaas RA to burn it ?

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