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Did Muslim Caliphs Burn Libraries?

“Perfume the literature you write with only the finest ink,

for literary works are luscious girls, and ink their precious scent.”

– Abu al-Fiyad[1]

Two years ago, I was reading a book with an interesting title: Slaying the Dragons. It is not a fictional novel, as can be seen from its subtitle: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith. The book was written by Allan Chapman, a historian of science at the University of Oxford. On page 28, Chapman writes that fanatical Christians destroyed pagan temples and their libraries in the 4th century. Immediately after this, he writes:

“Then the caliph Omar set fire to what was left of the great library at Alexandria in AD 642 as part of Islam’s original expansion out of Arabia, and goodness knows what vanished in this and other orgies of anti-classical destruction around the Mediterranean.”

I froze for some time after reading this. Impulsively, I rejected the narrative. Why? How could ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb – the conqueror of two empires, the founder of many garrison-cities, the liberator of the Levant, Egypt and Iraq, one of only a few men around him who could read and write, the man whom even the Devil would run away from – destroy a library? I had previously attended seminars about ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb, listened to plenty of online lectures, and had done some reading. Destroying a library does not suit him. In short, this was an outrageous claim.

From then on, I researched this claim, and, in summary, I found out it was a myth – in line with my impulsive feeling.

Recently, Richard Ovenden published a book titled Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge under Attack. It is this book that I want to review. More accurately, I want to expand on the subject of the Great Library of Alexandria. Ovenden shares the same story of ‘Umar but negates it as legend. Besides a mistake or two that Ovenden makes in relation to this story, I thought it is appropriate to expand on the origin of this myth.

Institutions under Attack

The Roman Empire began as a pagan empire. By the 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the empire. This provided Christians with immense power and influence. Prior to this, Christians were persecuted during certain periods but had an overall good life under the pagan rulers. The first thing some of the Christians did, as mentioned by Chapman, was to destroy the pagan temples and their libraries. This period, from the mid-4th century until the rise of Islam in the 7th century, is warmly remembered by Christians as the “triumph of Christianity”,[2] which was only halted by the triumph of Islam in the 7th century. In the meantime, the destruction of the ‘classical world’ was systematically carried out during the so-called triumph of Christianity. Hypatia of Alexandria, one of the few pagan female scholars, was brutally murdered by the parabalani (‘terrorist charity’) because her knowledge was considered the tool of the Devil. The parabalani dragged Hypatia from the streets and into a church, stripped her naked, flayed her skin whilst she was still alive, gouged her eyes whilst she was still gasping for air, dismembered her body once she was dead, and burnt her body parts.[3] Damascius of Syria had to flee the Roman Empire to the Persian Empire for safety.[4]

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185 – c. 254)

During this period, the Great Library of Alexandria disappeared, and the Neoplatonist Academy was closed forever. Many more incidents during this period could be cited.[5] Yet there are two institutions that many have forgotten: the Rhetorical School of Gaza (which contained a library) and the Theological Library of Caesarea Maritima.[6] Both were situated in the south and north of Palestine, respectively. Their disappearance remains a mystery.

The Library of Caesarea was founded by Origen of Alexandria (and others) during the pagan era of the Roman Empire. Origen played a great role in accumulating many books, and it is said that some 30,000 books were stored in the library. Great Christian scholars such as Eusebius of Caesarea, St Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and St Jerome studied in this library.[7] However, a council of Alexandria in the 5th century considered Origen’s views heretical and labelled them “Origenism”.[8] By the 6th century, the followers of Origen were persecuted.[9] Without apparent cause for its disappearance, nor any mention of it in Muslim sources, the library most likely ceased to exist some time during the triumph of Christianity, in the 6th century.

Contemporaneous to the disappearance of Library of Caesarea was the Library of Alexandria. Out of all the ‘heretical’ institutions that disappeared, the Library of Alexandria is still remembered. Why? It was not the only library, nor was it the only school. As mentioned above, Gaza had its Rhetorical School that was a leading institution and a centre for learning in its own right. Since the Library of Alexandria is not unique, why is it still remembered and even considered a “legendary library” as stated by Richard Ovenden?[10] The answer may appear surprising: Islamophobia.

Baghdad Under Attack

Abd al-Latīf al-Baghdādi (1162-1231) was a famed traveller, historian, and early Egyptologist (amongst other professions) who travelled to Egypt. His travel was fruitful and he recorded his experience in his book Kitāb Al-Ifādah wa Al-I’tibār, or in the modern print, Rihlat Abd Al-Latīf Al-Baghdādi fī Masr.[11] The size of the pyramids blew his mind – unsurprisingly, I would say. He had a keen eye for the food, plants, and animals of Egypt. He even met the great Salāhuddīn al-Ayyūbi, the liberator of Jerusalem. However, details aside, what concerns us here is that whilst in Egypt, he was fascinated by Greek Alexandria. He stood in front of ‘amūd al-suwāri (Pompey’s Pillar) and said to himself whilst pondering on the old Egypt:

“كان يدرس فيه ارسطوطاليس وشيعته من بعده”

[Here] Aristotle, and his group after him, studied.[12]

Immediately after this, he wrote that this place was a “house of knowledge that Alexander built…and it contained a big library that Amr b. al-‘Ās burnt with the permission of ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him.”

Was Allan Chapman right after all? Not yet. Indeed, the sentence has confused Muslim scholars. But we will return to this.

During and after the death of al-Baghdādi in 1231, the Mongols were conquering swathes of land at an unimaginable speed, surpassing even the speed of the Arabs. These nomadic warriors, united under Genghis Khan, were armed with the powerful composite bow and their pony-sized horses. They conquered the mighty Jin, Liao, and Khwarazmian dynasties.[13] Not long after the death of Genghis Khan, Hulagu sent a letter to the Abbasid Caliph, al-Musta’sim, demanding his obedience to the Mongol Empire. Foolishly, al-Musta’sim rejected the demand. The foolishness stems not from his rejection, but rather from the fact he did not prepare his defences properly!

When Hulagu received the rejection, he marched towards Baghdad with his army in three columns.[14] While this was happening, what was al-Musta’sim doing? Busy sending a letter to the governor in Mosul requesting a group of drummers to play music for him. It is said that, at the same time, the governor received an ambassador from Hulagu requesting from him siege weapons. The governor, Badr al-Dīn al-Lu’lu, said:

“انظروا الى المطلوبين و ابكوا على الاسلام واهله”

Look at the requesters and cry for Islam and its people.[15]

The three columns surrounded Baghdad, and the city was crushed under rocks launched by the counter-weight trebuchets.

After the bombardment, a group of Christians came out to plead with Doquz, the wife of Hulagu and a fellow Christian, to spare them from the massacre. Doquz duly accepted their request, and when the Mongol army entered Baghdad, the majority of the Muslim population were massacred mercilessly.[16]

Mongol army (note the two trebuchets) besieging Baghdad.

“For six days and nights the pillaging went on. Mosques were gutted, great buildings pulled down, people slaughtered… The worst act of vandalism was the destruction of the House of Wisdom – a literary loss to rank alongside the destruction of the great library at Alexandria.”[17]

Amid the destruction, the Christians remained safe. Shockingly, they went to their churches and celebrated the mass murder of their fellow resident Muslims. As the historian John Man wrote, “[the patriarch] joined other Christians in celebrating Islam’s astonishing collapse and their own renaissance.”[18] The destruction of the House of Wisdom was viewed by the Christians as divine vengeance because of the alleged destruction of the Library of Alexandria by ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb.[19]

The myth made its way into Abulpharagius’s book Tārīkh Mukhtasar Al-Duwal.[20] To simplify things: Abulpharagius, Ibn al-Abari, Gregory Bar-Hebraeus, and Abu al-Faraj are all one person. Bar-Hebraeus’s book was partly translated by the Orientalist Edward Pococke (1604-1691) in his book Specimen historiae Arabum, and through him, the myth spread to Europe. To Pococke’s credit, he did attempt to eliminate myths regarding Islam, such as the comical idea that the Prophet Muhammad trained a bird to eat peas from his ear and pretended that the ‘holy spirit’ (i.e. the bird) whispered in his ear.[21] From Pococke, the myth reached Richard Ovenden many years later.

History Under Attack

Ovenden wrote that the legend of ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb destroying the Library of Alexandria was “reported by some early Christian writers (such as Abulpharagius)…”[22] The most notable problem is that Abulpharagius lived in the 13th century, whilst Umar lived in the 7th century – 500 years apart! As for the plural “writers”, irrespective of their religion, no one reported this between the 7th and 12th century. Al-Baghdādi’s comment was short, whilst Abulpharagius provides a relatively longer account. To simplify it, the myth goes as follows:

A man by the name of Yahya al-Nahawi (John the Grammarian, or in transliterated Arabic, Yahya Bigirmatigus) was an intellectual in Alexandria. When the Muslims conquered Egypt, al-Nahawi met the army general Amr b. al-‘Ās and requested from him if he could take the books from the Library of Alexandria. Amr b. al-‘Ās told al-Nahawi that he should take permission from ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb, the Caliph at the time. ‘Umar refused to grant this permission, and the Muslim army burnt all the books and used them to heat the public baths for six months.

Besides the fact that the story is narrated 500 years late, there are many more problems with this narration. The main problem is that Yahya al-Nahawi was not even alive when Amr b. al-‘Ās entered Egypt. He died around 570 – the same year as the birth of the Prophet Muhammad – whilst Amr b. al-‘Ās entered Egypt in 642; a whole 72-year gap. Thus, the conversation is without a doubt conjured up.[23]

This myth has consistently been refuted by various authors for the past 200 years. Among them are Edward Gibbon in the 1700s and the Hindu author Vasudeva Rau in 1894, whose article was incorporated in Abdullah Quilliam’s journal The Islamic World.[24] [25] After 40 years of research, the Turkish author Muhammad Mansur published a book In 1906 titled Maktabet Iskandariyya – I could not find the book, but it was succinctly translated in Arabic in the Syrian journal Al-Maqtabis.[26] Other authors who have refuted this myth include Alfred Butler in 1902 and Abd al-Raheem Ali in 1998.[27] [28] Many more could be cited, but Hugh Kennedy deserves the last mention, for he said that this was “a myth long ago consigned to the garbage can by serious historians.”[29]

The question remains: why did the myth suddenly appear in the 13th century? There is no definite answer, but I would guess that the myth was started sometime in the late 12th century. It circulated and evolved over time, and in the 13th century we see authors such as al-Baghdādi and Abulpharagius mentioning it.

In light of the above, we have mentioned that one of the vehicles for the remembrance of the Library of Alexandria is Islamophobia. After 600 years, the connection between Islamophobia and the Library of Alexandria is slowly untangling and has been honourably discarded (by some) to the pyre.

Many more stories can be extrapolated from Richard Ovenden’s work, which I recommend to anyone who likes easy-to-read yet informative books. It does not mean that it is free from errors, for no book is free from errors except the Book of Allāh. Nor does it mean I agree with how Ovenden describes certain events, such as Iraq being embroiled in a “civil war”, which is a very cute way of describing the decades of continuing colonial influences, the British betrayal of Sykes-Picot, the crushing of Iraqis fighting for freedom between the 1910s to the 1920s by the “white supremacist mass murderer” Winston Churchill denying Iraq’s independence,[30] the potential assassination of King Faisal I, the recent terrorism by the Coalition of the Willing, and of course, the scramble for Iraq’s natural resources.[31] I also disagree with the idea that censorship and book burning is somehow the antithesis of democracy. The reality is that censorship and book burning is inherently neutral and politically free. It can be practiced by anyone under any political system. Let’s not pretend to forget that “Burn a Qur’ān Day” happens under a democracy and is justified – ironically – by democracy. Let’s not turn a blind eye to what is occurring under the iron fist of France, the Fourth Reich, currently.

Overall, this book is an enjoyable and timely read written from the perspective of an experienced librarian (a rarity) who is acutely aware of the importance of books, reading, and preservation of knowledge. Ovenden tracks the history of various libraries and archives across time, beginning with the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal and their sad fate, which only proves how susceptible knowledge is to destruction.

Source: www.islam21c.com

Notes:

[1] Translation from Mackintosh-Smith, 2019, p. 278.

[2] I took the timeline of the 4th to 7th century from Nixey, 2018, though I have slightly modified it. Of course, the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was a devastation, but Christianity nevertheless remained supreme until the rise of Islam.

[3] Nixey, 2018, pp. 135-6.

[4] Ibid, p. xxix.

[5] See for example Rohmann, 2017.

[6] Masalha, 2018.

[7] Ibid, pp. 102-3.

[8] MacCulloch, 2010, p. 150.

[9] Ibid, p. 209; Masalha, p. 102.

[10] Ovenden, 2020, p. 29.

[11] al-Sheikh, 1998.

[12] Ibid, p. 98.

[13] Mehmet Bozdağ, the creator of the Turkish TV drama Diriliş: Ertuğrul, has created a new series called Mendirman Jaloliddin about Jalal al-Dīn who ruled the western side of Khwarazm after the death of his father. The series will be aired in January 2021. On the conquest of Genghis Khan, see McLynn, 2016; Man, 2005.

[14] Man, 2007, p. 77.

[15] al-Sallabi, 2009, p. 49.

[16] Man, 2007, pp. 78-79.

[17] McLynn, 2016, p. xxxviii.

[18] Man, 2007, p. 80.

[19] McLynn, 2016, p. xxxviii.

[20] ibn al Abari, 1994 [13th century], pp. 175-6 taken from Ali, 1998, p. 133.

[21] Carlyle, 1841, p. 70.

[22] Ovenden, p. 33.

[23] For a more detailed point-by-point refutation, see Butler, 1902, taken from Hussain, 2013

[24] Ovenden, p. 33.

[25] Barakat-Ullah, 1894.

[26] Anonymous, 1906.

[27] Butler, 1902.

[28] Ali, 1998.

[29] Kennedy, 1996.

[30] I took this expression from the MSP Ross Greer.

[31] For more information on Iraq’s history, see Allawi, 2014; Rutledge, 2015.

Full biography (in alphabetical order):

ibn al-Abari, Bar-Hebraeus. 1994 [13th century]. Tārīkh Mukhtasar Al-Duwal. Dār Al-Ra’id Al-Libnāni.

Allawi, Ali. 2014. Faisal I of Iraq. Yale University.

Ali, Abd al-Raheem Muhammad Abd al-Hamid. 1998. Amr Bin Al-Ās: Al-Qāi’d wa Al-Siyāsi. Dār Zahrān li Al-Nashr.

[Anonymous]. 1906. Maktabet Iskandariyya. Al-Maqtabis.

Barakat-Ullah, M. 1894. The Alleged Destruction of the Alexandrian Library by the Khalifa Omar. Islamic World. 2(19): 219-223

Butler, Alfred. 1902. The Arab invasion of Egypt. Clarendon Press.

Carlyle, Thomas. 1841. On Heroes, Hero-Worship, & the Heroic in History. James Fraser.

Chapman, Allan. 2013. Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith. Lion Hudson.

Hussain, Amjad M. 2013. A Social History of Education in the Muslim World: From the Prophet Era to Ottoman Times. Taha Press.

Kennedy, Hugh. 1996. When Intrigue Really Was Byzantine. New York Book Times Review.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. 2010. A History of Christianity. Penguin.

Mackintosh-Smith, Tim. 2019. Arabs: A 3000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires. Yale University.

Man, John. 2005. Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection. Bantam Books.

Man, John. 2007. Kublai Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China. Bantam Books.

McLynn, Frank. 2016. Genghis Khan: The Man Who Conquered the World. Vintage.

Musalha, Nur. 2018. Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History. Zed Books.

Nixey, Catherine. 2018. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Pan Books.

Ovenden, Richard. 2020. Burnings the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack. John Murray.

Pococke, Edward. 1806. Specimen historiae Arabum. E Typographeo Clarendoniano.

Rohmann, Dirk. 2017. Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity: Studies in Text Transmission. Baylor University Press.

Rutledge, Ian. 2015. Enemy on the Euphrates: The Battle for Iraq, 1914-1921. Saqi Books.

al-Sallabi, Muhammad. 2009. Dawla Al-Mughul wa Al-Tatar bayn Al-Intishār wa Al-Inkisār. Dār Al-Ma’rifah.

al-Sheikh, Abd al Rahman Abd Allah. 1998. Rihlat Abd Al-Latīf Al-Baghdādi fī Masr aw Kitāb Al-Ifādah wa Al-I’tibār fī Al-Umūr Al-Mashāhirah wa Al-Hawādith Al-Mu’āniyah bi Ard Masr. Al-Hay’a Al-Masriyyah Al-‘Āmmah li Al-Kutub.

The views expressed on Islam21c and its connected channels do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation.

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About Abdur Rahman

Abdur Rahman is interested in history, especially Islamic history, & languages.

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