The Library of Alexandria

Author unknown

All the said above has proved that Islam advocates science and knowledge, it is the religion of the mind and thought. But another orientalist would say: "Why, then did Amr ibn-al-As by order of Umar Ibn al-Khattab burn the library of Alexandria which was full of books? This work has deprived humanity of a great treasure of learning. And the library was burnt by Arabs who thought that the literature and writings in the library contradict Islamic views and traditions. How does the religion of science account for burning the library of Alexandria?"

In fact several Western writers dealt with the topic of the Library of Alexandria such as Gibbon, Butler, Sedillot and others but they didn't reach a final judgment. Many writers suspect the whole story. Gustav Lebon in "The Arab Civilization" emphasizes that the story is only a myth and says that "The said burning of the Library of Alexandria is a barbarian action which does not agree with Arab or Muslim morality. Man would enquire: 'How could prominent scholars believe such a story for a long time?' This story which was rejected in our time need not be discussed again. Nothing is easier than proving that Christians themselves burnt the books of the polytheists before Islamic conquest." Jack. S. Wrestler in his book considered the Alexandria fire a myth. "The historians who were contemporary of the Islamic conquest like Otikha did not have anything in their books about accusation. Books of the Old Arab historians also such as: Al Yaqubi, Balathery, Ibn Abdel Hakam, Tabari, Al Kindi, Al - Maqrizi, Abul Mahasen, Al Suyouti and others did not mention any thing of the kind." The first one to say that Amr ibn--al-As burnt the library was Abdul Latif Al Baghdadi (1231), then came Ibnul Qafti (1248) and Abul Faraj Gregorius Al Malti, known as Ibnul Ibri or (son of Hebrew) without documentation. Modern historian who quoted them wanted to prove the following:

1. Muslims had a great desire to destroy any book except the Quran and the Traditions.

2. The story of the fire was not only told by Abul Faraj but was also told by two Muslim historian: Al Baghdadi and Ibnul Qafti.

3. The conquerors burnt also the books of Persians as was told in Haji Khalifa's book "Kashful Zunoon."

4. Burning books was a common thing done by everyone who wanted to punish those who opposed him as Hulagu the Tartar did when he threw the books of the Muslims in the Tigris river.

We say that the first idea is not accepted: it was the Muslim's habit to encourage science. Abul Faraj himself said that Amr ibn-al-As listened to Yuhanna (John) the Grammarian. As for the Haji Khalifa's saying, we can say that he is not considered as a good reference in historical matters because he died in 1657 A.D. And if the Muslims had burnt those books, other historians who lived before Haji Khalifa would have mentioned that in their books. Comparing Hulagu with Umar Ibn al- Khattab is irrelevant because the former wanted to destroy the civilizations of his time while the latter intended to spread intended to spread culture and knowledge. Some historians of our times spoke much about the tale of Abul Faraj concerning the library.

These historians believe that Amr and Umar are innocent and had nothing to do with the accusation of the burning. Here is what Abul Faraj said "At the time of the Arab conquest there was a famous man called Yahya ( John) the Grammarian. He was a priest in Alexandria. He believed in Jacobite Christianity and hailed the (Sauri) creed. Then he refused the idea of Trinity. The bishops met him and asked him to return to their creed but he refused, so they lowered his rank. He lived till the Arab conquest of Alexandria. He met Amr who was known for encouraging science. Amr honored him and heard his philosophical speech and was so pleased with this that he kept his company and made him very close to himself. One day Yahya said to Amr: 'You have confiscated everything in Alexandria. What you need or you find useful to you is yours without objection but what you do not want I would take it'. Amr said: 'What do you want?' Yahya said: 'The books of philosophy in the royal cupboard'. Amr said: 'I cannot do this without consulting the Prince of the Believers Umar ibn-al-Khattab'. So Amr wrote to ibn-al-Khattab asking for the advice. Umar replied 'As for the books you have mentioned I can say that those which agree with the Book of God (The Quran) are to be disposed of because Quran is sufficient. And if they have things which contradict the Quran, so they must be deposed of'. So Amr distributed those books to the public baths of Alexandria to burn in their fire places. Those books were exhausted in six months. Hear that and wonder!."

1. We can say first that this narration seems as a myth. Ibn Al Ibri said that the books were enough to heat four thousand baths - which existed in Alexandria - for six months and this seems unreasonable because the books which were allegedly burnt were 700 thousands books. If they had been burnt in 4000 baths then each bath would have taken 175 books. This number would last only for a few days not for six months. We doubt also that there were 700 thousand books or pamphlets because if we supposed that each author wrote twenty books then the number of authors would be thirty thousand and that seems imaginary at that time of the ancient world, not to count the authors in Greece and Rome. Besides, if Ibn-al-As had wanted to destroy the library he would have burnt it at once and wouldn't have left it to the owners of the said baths. Yuhanna or others would have taken those books from the bath owners for the possible prices and many of those books would have appeared later, which never happened.

2. Butler also mentioned that the said John Yuhannah had died thirty or forty years before Islamic conquest of Egypt.

3. If the tale had been true then the early historians would have said something about it, however brief.

4. They said the library was burnt twice, first in this year 48 B.C. as a result of the burning of Julius Caesar's fleet, and the second in A.D. 391 during the period of the Caesar Theodosis (338-395). The tale, then, of the burning of the Library was told with these two accidents as models.

5. Orazius visited Alexandria in the first part of the fifth century and told that at his visit of the library he saw the shelves without books. Therefore, the books which were in the library from the Ptolemian period were not existent at the end of the fourth century [A.D.) i.e., since the period of the Theodosis, at the time of the second burning. The library was not mentioned in the literature of the sixth or the seventh centuries. It is known that Egypt before the Islamic conquest since the period of Diocletian was in a state of deterioration in agriculture, industry, science, knowledge and literature. And it would not be possible that the people at that time cared for restoring the library to what it was before.

6. Islamic teachings advocate respect of all religion and their books and Muslims can, without reservations, benefit from those books. So, the tale seems contradictory to the Islamic practices which would not allow any bad treatment of anything bearing the name of God.

7. Supposing the library was still existing at the time of the Islamic conquest, nothing could prevent carrying the library to Constantinople by the Romans during the truce with the Muslims. Besides, Amr allowed them to carry with them whatever they could carry. They had enough time to carry several libraries, not only one. And the tale is merely a lie.

8. The phrase which Abul Faraj wrote at the end of this tale "Hear this and wonder!" may be understood in various ways:

a. That the tale is untrue and impossible.

b. That he believed the story was prejudiced against Umar and Amr.

Anyhow, such wondering and call to hear has something of inexactness and unfairness which makes the tale a mere lie.

The Arabs Islamic civilization which gave the world great scientific progress in all the fields of life did that because the Holy Quran asks Muslims to do so by saying: "Say [O Muhammad] are they equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition" (Quran: XXXIX - 9). We see then that God honors knowledge and its people, and considers them privileged over others. God makes the testimony of the scholars equal to His testimony and that of the angels when he says in the holy Quran "There is no god but He. That is the witness of God, His angels, and those endued with knowledge, standing from justice. There is no god but He, the Exalted in power, the Wise." (The Quran: III - 18 ) So God honors scholars when he makes His witness equal to that of the angels and that of the scholars. God also instructs Muhammad, to supplicate by saying "My Lord grant me more knowledge" (Quran: XX - 114), that knowledge which benefits man in this life and in the hereafter. Islam makes reason the basis for judging every case. In the Quran, we find so many verses which have phrases like "Ulal albab" or "Ulunuuha" which mean (people of good reason or mind). In other instances, we find phrases which address (people who understand well). Islam calls for all kinds of science which erase ignorance in life or in religion.

The Quran calls man to study the natural sciences: "Do you not see that God sends down rain from the sky? With it, we then bring out produce of various colors. And in the mountains are tracts, white and red, of various shades of color and black intense in hue. Also so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colors. Those truly fear God among his servants who have knowledge; for God is Exalted in Might Oft-Forgiving" (Quran: XXXV - 27.) Men of knowledge here are those who know the evidence and secrets of creation which God deposited in things. No one could understand how the rain falls from the clouds without learning physics and chemistry, nor how plants grow without learning some thing about botany, nor could we know anything about mountains and their kinds and styles without the science of geology. God says in the holy Quran: "Those who really fear God are the scholars" (Quran: XXX - 25). God says that those who really fear Him are the people who study the universal evidences. If the scholars were believers their knowledge of the secrets of nature would make them fear God, the Great Creator, who made the rules for every thing. In the holy Quran, we find also a call to study biology. "Let man but think from what he is created! He is created from a drop emitted proceeding from between the backbone and the ribs" (Quran: LXXXV - 5 -7) The different phases of creation of an embryo are part of the science of biology and medicine. Islam calls to the study of history and social sciences: "Do not they travel through the Earth and see what was the end of those before them? They were superior to them in strength: they tilled the soil and populated it in great numbers than these have done. There came to them their apostle with Clear Signs (which they rejected, causing their own destruction); it was not God who wronged them but they wronged their own souls." [The Quran: XXX 9] God also says: "But how many generations before them did we destroy [for their sins], stronger in power than they? Then did they wander through the land. Was there any place of escape for them?" (Quran: C - 26.) In the Quran, there is also a call to study astronomy. The names of some Suras or chapters of the Quran are like this : The Thunder, The Light, The Smoke, The Star, The Moon, The Ways of Ascent (to Heaven), The Signs, The Night-Visitant (a star), The Dawn, The Sun, The Night, The Morning Light, The Earthquake. All the above mentioned chapters call to scientific research about the earth and the heavens. One reads in the Quran: "Say 'Behold all that is in the heavens and on earth. But neither signs nor warners profit those who believe not" (Quran: X - 101) And "Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of Night and Day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding" (Quran: III - 190.) A lot of the traditions of the Prophet urge Muslims to resort to medicine when they get ill. All the traditions concerning preservation of health and the rules for food and drink have been gathered under the title of "Prophetic Medicine."

If we wanted to mention everything about Islam's call to science in all its kinds, it would take us too much time. It suffices to know that Islam considers the whole community guilty, if they did not have enough numbers of scholars in every field of specialization. The Muslim jurisprudents even say that if the community needed a hundred scientists in one field and they had only ninety then the whole nation would be considered guilty until they manage to have the required number. Many western scientists and scholars have recognized the great Islamic progress in the fields of medicine, chemistry, biology, mathematics, philosophy, social sciences, geography, history and astronomy. Zigrid Honke's book about the effects of the Arab civilization on Europe is a testimony of gratitude to the Arabs for the sciences they have provided to humanity. Gustav Lebon says that Islam is one of the closest religions to the discoveries of science (Gustav Lebon: The Arab civilization. p.126) Dreiber, a professor at the university of New York, author of "The Conflict between Religion and Science", says that Baghdad became the greatest capital of science and knowledge on earth in the days of the Abbasid - Al Ma'amoun in 813, who collected innumerable books, honored men of science and was very generous to them. Dreiber added, that the Arabs greatly developed the old sciences and discovered some sciences unknown before. The universities of Muslim countries were open to European students who traveled to those universities for the sake of science and learning. Even the kings and princes of Europe visited the Muslim countries for treatment in their hospitals. Sedillot in his book (History of the Arabs) said "In the Middle Ages the Arabs were unique in science, philosophy and art. They spread knowledge wherever they went. Their science moved to Europe and that was the reason for its rise and progress." Sedillot continues to say "When Muslims talked about earth as being a sphere, there was a great trouble in the Christian world. The Church decreed that Christopher Columbus was against religion when he went across the Atlantic ocean hoping to discover a new land! The meeting of (Salamonk) agreed on that and nothing saved him but the intrusion of some kings of Europe. The Church people consulted the saying of the Fathers, the Letters of the Apostle, the Bible, Psalms and Old Testament and found Columbus guilty." "It is really ridiculous to know that the Church was enraged when a lady called Mary Montage in 1721 introduced the method of injecting virus under the skin as a way of treatment. This was in fact discovered by the Muslims (Sedillot in his book "Islam, a Universe Call.)" Gustav Lebon says in his book "Arab civilization": "We cannot see in history a nation of such vast influence as the Muslim Arabs. All the nations who contacted them adopted their civilization even for a period." He adds: "The influence of the Arabs in the East was not only clear in religion, language and arts but also in the scientific culture." Professors Libri says: "If the Arabs had not existed on the stage of history, the rise of Europe would have been delayed for centuries."

Use the "back" button on your browser to return to the page you were on or go to Al-Muhajabah's Islamic Pages