The Myth Of Umar Ibn Al-Khattab: Burning The Library Of Alexandria

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Kaleef K. Karim

The Caliph Umar Ibn Al-Khattab (ra), when he conquered Alexandria in Egypt, it is claimed that he had burned the Library of Alexandria. The earliest quotation that is often used by proponents goes back as far as the 13th century. That is literally 500 hundred years after the demise of Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra). Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi who lived in the 13th century is one of the first people to allude to this.

It is highly improbably that Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra) would have taken such a decision. Besides, had he been of the view that there should be no need of any book except the Quran, then he would have also took the decision that there was no need of Churches, synonogues or fire-temples.

It is historical fact, that all of the four Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali protected and gave security to Churches, synagogues and temples. For example, the first Caliph Abu Bakr Siddique (ra) would issue clear orders not to “desecrate” Churches and leave those who are attached to their religions alone:

“Do not deluge (destroy) date-palm trees, do not kill animals, do not cut down fruit-bearing trees, DO NOT DESECRATE A CHURCH, do not kill children, do not kill women and do not kill old people. You shall soon come upon those that have secluded themselves in monasteries/churches, you must let them be so that they may SAFELY engage in that for whose sake they have secluded themselves.” (al-Sunan al-Kubra, [Mecca, Saudi Arabia: Maktaba Dar al-Baz 1994] by Ahmad bin al-Husayn al-Bayhaqi, volume 9, page 85)

Another Companion of the Prophet, Khalid Ibn Walid (ra) is said to have given guaranteed safety of the churches:

He gave them security for their persons, property, churches, and the wall of their city. None of their houses shall be destroyed or dwelt in. For this they have the promise of God, and the protection of His Prophet, the caliphs, and the believers. Nothing but good shall befall them if they tribute.’ (Futuh ul Buldan, Baladhuri, page 121)

The Prophet Muhammed (p) on his departure from this world ordered his companions to treat the Egyptians well. This is authentically reported in many of our classic sources. The Prophet (p) said to treat its inhabitants of Egypt well:

“Abu Dharr reported: Messenger of Allah said, “You will soon conquer a land where people deal with Qirat.” And according to another version: Messenger of Allah said, “You will soon conquer Egypt where Al-Qirat is frequently mentioned. So when you conquer it, TREAT ITS INHABITANTS WELL. For there lies upon you the responsibility because of blood ties or MARRIAGE RELATIONSHIP (with them)“. (Riyad as-Salihin Book 1, Hadith 328)


“Abu Dharr reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: You would soon conquer Egypt and that is a land which is known (as the land of al-qirat). So when you conquer it, TREAT ITS INHABITANTS WELL. For there lies upon you the responsibility because of blood-tie or relationship of MARRIAGE (WITH THEM). And when you see two persons falling into dispute amongst themselves for the space of a brick, than get out of that. He (Abu Dharr) said: I saw Abd al-Rahman b. Shurahbil b. Hasana and his brother Rabi’a disputing with one another for the space of a brick. So I left that (land). (Sahih Muslim Book 31, Hadith 6174)

Abd al-Hakam (803 – 870 CE) reports that Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra) himself heard this statement of the Prophet (p) to “take good care” of Christians in Egypt:

“Omar, the Commander of the Faithful, told me that he heard the Apostle of God say: ‘God will open Egypt to you after my death. So take GOOD CARE of the Copts in that country; for they are YOUR KINSMEN and under your protection. Cast down your eyes therefore, and keep your hands off them.” (The Arab Conquest Of Egypt And The Last Thirty Years Of The Roman Dominion [Oxford – At The Clarendon Press, 1902] by Alfred J. Butler, D. Litt., F.S.A., Fellow Of Brasenose College, Author Of ‘The Ancient Coptic Churches Of Egypt’. Etc., page 436)

I am sure the false story about descretating other people’s Sacred scriptures is not treating them with kindness. The report about Umar and Amr Ibn al-As in its entirety has no historical truth. Western academics have for past few centuries debunked this false story. Indeed, Umar Ibn al-Khattab is innocent of the lies that are attrbuted to him. I won’t go into much more detail, as I will list a dozen or more scholars who will vindicate Umar and Amr Ibn al-As from the lies that are attributed to them.

Muslim scholars

Dr. Muhammad Ali al-Sallabi quotes scholar Abdur-Raheem Muhammad Abdul-Hameed’s extensive work on this false story:

“The claim that the Muslims burnt the library of Alexandria
Dr. Abdur-Raheem Muhammad Abdul-Hameed said: ‘We did not find any text or indication that Amr Ibn al-As burned the library of Alexandria. All there is, is a text by Ibn al-Qafti, quoting from Ibn al-Abari (d. 685 A.H./1286 C.E.) which says: ‘Yahya al-Nahawi – who was from Alexandria and lived until the city of Alexandria was conquered by Amr Ibn al-As – went to see Amr. He was known for his knowledge, so Amr honoured him and heard from him philosophical words with which the Arabs were not familiar.’ Ibn al-Qafti completed the story by saying: ‘Amr said to him, ‘What do you want from us?’ He said, ‘The books of wisdom that are in the royal stores’… forty-five thousand, one hundred and twenty volumes. Amr thought that what Yahya had mentioned was too much, and he said, ‘I cannot issue such an order without asking permission from the caliph.’ He wrote to Umar and told him what Yahya had said, and ‘Umar wrote back, saying: ‘As for the books which you have mentioned, if what is in them is accordance with the Book of Allah, then we should be content with the Book of Allah. If what is in them is contrary to the Book of Allah, then we have no need of them. So go ahead and destroy them. ‘Amr Ibn al-As started distributing the books to the bath-houses of Alexandria, where they were burned in the stoves, and I was told the number of bath-houses at that time, but I forgot. They said that it took six months to burn them all, so listen to what happened and be amazed.’ 162 (Amr Ibn al-As Al-Qa’id Wa as-Siyasi, page 133)
But this story of the book-burning was narrated before Ibn al-Qafti and before al-Abari. Abdul-Lateef al-Baghdadi (d. 649 A.H./1231 C.E.) said: It was a house of knowledge that was built by Alexander when he built the city, in which were stored the books that were burned by Amr Ibn al-As with the permission of Umar Ibn al-Khattab.’ (Amr Ibn al-As Al-Qa’id Wa as-Siyasi, page 134)
But if we study these reports, we must note the following points:
1. There is no connection between these three reports or between their narrators, even though they lived in a similar time frame.
2. There is no isnad to which these reports can be attributed; rather they reflect assumptions that are made by their authors.
3. These reports were written at a time that was distant from the conquest of Egypt and the time of Amr Ibn al-As. So we may say with all certainty that this story is obviously fabricated and the following criticisms may be made:
4. The story of the burning of the library of Alexandria is not mentioned by those who wrote the history of Egypt and its conquest, who lived many centuries before those who wrote this story.
5. This story is not mentioned by al-Waqidi, at-Tabari, Ibn al-Atheer or Ibn Khaldoun, let alone Ibn Abdul-Hakam, and it is not mentioned by Yaqoot al-Hamawi in his description of Alexandria.
6. This story can be traced back to the time of the Crusades, through al-Baghdadi, who may have fabricated it under pressure, or it may have been fabricated later on and attributed to him.
7. If this so-called library ever existed, then we may say that the Byzantines who left Alexandria could have taken it with them and they probably did do that.
8. Amr could have thrown the books into the sea within a very short time, instead of burning them, which supposedly took six months. This points to the purpose behind fabrication of this story. We can say without any hesitation that Umar Ibn al-Khattab and Amr Ibn al-As are innocent of what has been attributed to them in this fabricated story, which stems from the imaginations of people who love to exaggerate, so they imagined things that did not happen.” (Amr Ibn al-As, Al-Qa’id Wa As-Siyasi, page 134). (Umar Ibn al-Khattab – His Life & Times [Translated by Nasiruddin al-Khattab, International Islamic Publishing House], by Dr. Muhammad Ali al-Sallabi, volume 2, page 339 – 341)

Non-Muslim Scholars

British historian and scholar of Islam, Arthur Stanley Tritton (1881 – 1973) states that “Umar I did not destroy the library” and that such words were “put into his mouth”:

“It has been proved that ‘Umar I did NOT destroy the library at Alexandria. In addition to other reasons, one may argue that the words put into his mouth, ‘If the books agree with the Koran, they are unnecessary ; if they do not, they are pernicious’ reveal the mind of a later age, when Islam had become intellectually proud.” (The Caliphs And Their Non-Muslim Subjects: A Critical Study Of The Covenant Of Umar” [Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press – London Bombay Calcutta Madras, 1930], by Arthur Stanley Tritton, page 233)

British – American historian Bernard Lewis (b. 1916) by far gives the most detailed rebuttal to this mythical story:

“The Arab Destruction Of The Library Of Alexandria: Anatomy Of A Myth
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some writers are still disposed to believe and even repeat the story of how the Great Library of Alexandria was destroyed by the Arabs after their conquest of the city in 642 A.D., by order of the Caliph Umar. This story – its origins, purpose, acceptance and rejection – provides an interesting example of how such historical myths arise and, for a while at least, flourish.
This story first became known to Western scholarship in 1663, when Edward Pococke, the Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, published an edition of the Arabic text, with Latin translation, of part of the compendious History of the Dynasties of the Syrian-Christian author Barhebraeus, also known as Abu al-Faraj. According to this story, Amr Ibn al-As, the commander of the Arab conquerors, was inclined to accept the pleas of John the Grammarian and spare the library, but the Caliph decreed otherwise: ‘If these writings 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.’ The books in the library, the story continues, were accordingly distributed among the four thousand bathouses of the city, and used to heat the furnaces, which they kept going for almost six months.
AS EARLY AS 1713, FATHER EUSEBE RENAUDOT, THE DISTINGUISHED FRENCH ORIENTALIST, CAST DOUBT ON THIS STORY, remarking in his history of the Patriarchs of Alexandria, published in that year, that it ‘HAD SOMETHING UNTRUSTWORTHY ABOUT IT.’
Curiously, although Father Renaudot’s text is in Latin, the word ‘untrustworthy’ is in Greek – perhaps a security precaution. The great English historian Edward Gibbon, never one to miss a good story, relates it with gusto, and then proceeds:
‘For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the facts and the consequences.’
To explain this denial, Gibbon gives the two principal arguments against authenticity – that the story first appears some six hundred years after the actions which it purports to describe, and that such action is in any case contrary to what we know of the teachings and practice of the Muslims. Both arguments are, to say the least, convincing, but the story still survives.
Since then, a succession of other Western scholars have analysed and demolished the story – Alfred J. Butler in 1902, Victor Chauvin in 1911, Paul Casanova and Eugenio Griffini, independently in 1923. Some have attacked the inherent improbabilities of the story. Paper was not introduced to Egypt until centuries after the Arab conquest, and many if not most, of the books at that time would have been written on vellum, which does not burn. To keep that many bathhouse furnaces going for that length of time, a library of at least 14 million books would have been required. Another difficulty is that John the Grammarian who, according to the Barhebraeus story, pleaded with Amr for his Library probably lived and died in the previous century. In any case, there is good evidence that the Library itself was destroyed long before the Arabs arrived in Egypt.
Another curious detail: the fourteenth century historian Ibn Khaldun tells an almost identical story concerning the destruction of a library of Persian, presumably Zoroastrian, books in Persia, also by order of the Caliph Umar, with the very same words. This again strongly suggests a mythic or folkloric origin. By far the strongest argument against the story is the slight and late evidence on which it rests. Barhebraeus, the principal source used by Western historians, lived from 1226 to 1289. He had only two predecessors, from one of whom he simply copied the story, and both preceded him by no more than a few decades. The earliest source is a Baghdadi physician called Abd al-Latif, who was in Egypt in 1203, and in a brief account of his journey refers in passing to “the library which ‘Amr ibn al-‘As burnt with the permisison of ‘Umar.” An Egyptian scholar, Ibn al-Qifti, wrote a history of learned men in about 1227, and includes a biography of John the Grammarian in the course of which he tells the story on which the legend is based. His narrative ends: “I was told the number of bathhouses that existed at that time, but I have forgotten it. It is said that they were heated for six months. Listen to this story and wonder!” Barhebraeus merely followed the text of Ibn al-Qifti, omitting his final observation on the number of baths. This number is provided by other Arabic sources, in quite different contexts.

A more recent example, this time of offensive, not defensive forgery, is the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These were concocted in France in the late nineteenth century, on behalf of the Czarist Russian secret police. The forgers adapted them from a French propaganda tract against Napoleon III and a minor nineteenth century French novel, neither making any mention of Jews. With this weapon, the Czarist secret police were able to discredit their two favorite enemies at the same time, by attributing revolutionary designs to the Jews and Jewish inspiration to the revolutionaries. The so-called ‘Protocols’ were extensively used in the propaganda campaigns of the Nazis in Germany and of their disciples and imitators elsewhere, to justify hatred and, where convenient, persecution. Though their falsity has been repeatedly demonstrated by historical analysis and even proved in courts of law in several countries, they remain a favorite of propagandists seeking to prove a point and not unduly concerned about the authenticity of their evidence. THE MYTH OF THE ARAB DESTRUCTION OF THE LIBRARY OF ALEXANDRIA IS NOT SUPPORTED BY EVEN A FABRICATED DOCUMENT. One may wonder what purpose it served. One answer, often given and certainly in accord with a currently popular school of epistemology would see the story as anti-Islamic propaganda, designed by hostile elements to blacken the good name of Islam by showing the revered Caliph Umar as a destroyer of libraries. But this explanation is as absurd as the myth itself. The original sources of the story are Muslim, the only exception being the Syrian-Christian Barhebraeus, who copied it from a Muslim author. Not the creation, but the demolition of the myth was the achievement of European orientalist scholarship, which from the eighteenth century to the present day has rejected the story as false and absurd, and this exonerated the Caliph Umar and the early Muslims from this libel. But if the myth was created and disseminated by Muslims and not by their enemies, what could possibly have been their motive? The answer is almost certainly provided in a comment of Paul Casanova. Since the earliest occurrence of the story is an allusion at the beginning of the thirteenth century, it must have become current in the late twelfth century – that is to say, in the time of the great Muslim hero Saladin, famous not for his victories over the Crusaders, but also – and in a Muslim context perhaps more importantly – for having extinguished the heretical Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo, which, with its Isma’ili doctrines, had for centuries threatened the unity of Islam. Abd al-Latif was an admirer of Saladin, whom he went to visit in Jerusalem. Ibn al-Qifti’s father was a follower of Saladin, who appointed him Qadi in the newly conquered city. One of Saladin’s first tasks after the restoration of Sunnism in Cairo was to break up the Fatimid collections and treasures and sell their contents at public auction. These included a very considerable library, presumably full of heretical Isma’ili books. The break-up of a library, even one containing heretical books, might well have evoked disapproval in a civilized, literate society. The myth provided an obvious justification. It is unlikely that the story was fabricated from the whole cloth at this time. More probably, those who used it adopted and adapted folkloric material current at the time. According to this interpretation, the message of the narrative was not that the Caliph Umar was a barbarian because he destroyed a library, but that destroying a library could be justified, because the revered Caliph Umar had approved of it. This once again, as on so many occasions, the early heroes of Islam were mobilized by later Muslim propagandists to give posthumous sanction to actions and policies of which they never heard and which they would probably not have condoned. IT IS SURELY TIME THAT THE CALIPH UMAR AND AMR IBN AL-AS WERE FINALLY ACQUITTED OF THIS CHARGE WHICH THEIR ADMIRERS AND LATER DETRACTORS CONSPIRED TO BRING AGAINST THEM.” (What Happened To The Ancient Library Of Alexandria [Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2008], (edited by Mostafa El-Abbadi and Omnia Mounir Fathallah), by Bernard Lewis, page 213 – 217)

British philosopher and historian Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970 CE):

“The belief that fanaticism promotes success in war is one that is not borne out by history, although it is constantly assumed by those who cloak their ignorance under the name of ‘realism’. When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, fanaticism played no part in their success. The motives of Roman Generals were either to acquire the gold reserves of temples with a view to keeping half for themselves and giving half to their soldiers, or, as in the case of Caesar, to gain the prestige which would enable them to win elections in Roma and defy their creditors. In the early contests of Christians and Mohammedans it was the Christians who were fanatical and the Mohammedans who were successful. CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA HAS INVENTED STORIES OF MOHAMMEDAN INTOLERANCE, BUT THESE ARE WHOLLY FALSE AS APPLIED TO THE EARLY CENTURIES OF ISLAM. Every Christian has been taught the story of the Caliph destroying the Library of Alexandria. As a matter of fact, this Library was frequently destroyed and frequently re-created. Its first destroyed 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 time, Spain was ruined by fanatical hatred of Jews and Moors; France was disastrously impoverished by the persecution of Huguenots…” (Human Society In Ethics And Politics [London – George Allen & Unwin LTD, Ruskin House, Museum Street, 1954] by Bertrand Russell, page 217 – 218)

English historican Alfred J. Butler (1850 – 1936) is one of the first scholars in the western world to have written extensively on the conquests of Egypt. He states that the story of Umar ordering the burning of books is “ridiculous”:

“Caliph’s orders could not make it burn: what then became of all these manuscripts ? And when one has deducted all the writings on vellum, how can it be seriously imagined that the remainder of the books would have kept the 4,000 bathfurnaces of Alexandria alive for 180 days ? The tale, as it stands, is ridiculous; one may indeed listen and wonder. … It is difficult either to convict or to clear Caesar of the charge. Plutarch has no doubt of the fact: As his fleet was falling into the hands of the enemy, he was forced to repel the danger by fire : this spread from the dockyards and destroyed the great Library. Plut. Caes. 49.” (The Arab Conquest Of Egypt And The Last Thirty Years Of The Roman Dominion [Oxford – At The Clarendon Press, 1902] by Alfred J. Butler, D. Litt., F.S.A., Fellow Of Brasenose College, Author Of ‘The Ancient Coptic Churches Of Egypt’. Etc., page 405 – 408)

Alfred J. Butler goes further and states that the story is a “mere fable, totally destitute of historical foundation”:

“One or two other points remain to be noticed. Let it be granted for a moment that all the foregoing reasoning has not seriously shaken the theory of the survival of the Serapeum Library; and suppose also that the Library was intact when the Arabs captured Alexandria ; I would still say that its destruction by the Arabs is extremely improbable. For this reason : that the Arabs did not enter Alexandria for eleven months after its capture, and in the treaty of surrender it was expressly stipulated that during the interval, not only might the Romans themselves depart, but that they might carry off all their movable possessions and valuables ^. During all this period the sea was open, and the passage to Constantinople and other ports was absolutely unhindered. The mere market value of the books in the Serapeum Library, if it existed, must have been enormous: their literary value must have been keenly appreciated by a large number of persons with intellectual interests : and these students would surely have forestalled the fabled zeal of John Philoponus by securing the removal of such priceless treasures while it was still time, instead of leaving them to the ignorant mercy of the desert warriors to whom the city was to be delivered. Finally, the silence that prevails among fifth and sixth century writers reigns also after the conquest. There are no Arab historians of Egypt in the seventh or eighth century ; and it might be said that later writers were anxious to suppress the story of the burning of the Library. But this cannot apply to the Coptic bishop, John of Nikiou, who was a man of learning, and who wrote before the end of the seventh century. The range and the detail of his work prove that he had access to plentiful sources of information fifty years after the conquest. Abu Faraj himself—the author of the charge against the Arabs—proves that Alexandria continued to be frequented by students about the year 680 a. d.: for he represents James of Edessa as going to Alexandria to complete his education after receiving a thorough instruction in the Greek language and in the Scriptures at a Syrian convent. This evidence warrants the assertion that some private and monastic libraries continued after, as before, the conquest. But if there had been a great public library before the conquest, and if it had been burned by the Arabs at the conquest, is it possible that John of Nikiou — an almost contemporary writer, who deals minutely with the capture of Alexandria—should have consigned to oblivion an event which not merely impoverished his history of its best materials, but robbed the literary world of its great storehouse of treasure for all time ? It may not be amiss to briefly recapitulate the argument. The problem being to discover the truth or falsehood of the story which charges the Arabs with burning the Alexandrian Library, I have shown, —
(i) that the story makes its first appearance more than five hundred years after the event to which it relates;
(2) that on analysis the details of the story resolve into absurdities;
(3) that the principal actor in the story, viz. John Philoponus, was dead long before the Saracens invaded Egypt;
(4) that of the two great public Libraries to which the story could refer, (a) the Museum Library perished in the conflagration caused by Julius Caesar, or, if not, then at a date not less than four hundred years anterior to the Arab conquest; while

(5) the Serapeum Library either was removed prior to the year 391, or was then dispersed or destroyed, so that in any case it disappeared two and a half centuries before the conquest; (5) that fifth, sixth, and early seventh century literature contains no mention of the existence of any such Library;
(6) that if, nevertheless, it had existed when Cyrus set his hand to the treaty surrendering Alexandria, yet the books would almost certainly have been removed—under the clause permitting the removal of valuables—during the eleven months’ armistice which intervened between the signature of the con- vention and the actual entry of the Arabs into the city; and
(7) that if the Library had been removed, or if it had been destroyed, the almost contemporary historian and man of letters, John of Nikiou, could not have passed over its disappearance in total silence.
The conclusion of the whole matter can be no longer doubtful. The suspicion of Renaudot and the scepticism of Gibbon are more than justified. One must pronounce that Abu Faraj’s story is a mere fable, totally destitute of historical foundation.” (The Arab Conquest Of Egypt And The Last Thirty Years Of The Roman Dominion [Oxford – At The Clarendon Press, 1902] by Alfred J. Butler, D. Litt., F.S.A., Fellow Of Brasenose College, Author Of ‘The Ancient Coptic Churches Of Egypt’. Etc., page 423 – 425)

Indian scholar D. P. Singhal (1954) :

“In 642 Alexandria, protected by walls and towers and guarded by the Byzantine fleet, fell to the Arabs. The hub of intellectual and cultural life for about a thousand years and the proud possessor of some of the best monuments of antiquity. Alexandria lay in ruins before the arms of the Arab commander Amr Ibn al-As. According to a well-known story, the manuscripts from the famous library supplied fuel for the public baths for six months. The story also relates the oft-quoted remark allegedly by Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab (ca. 634-44) when he consented to the destruction of the library:
‘If these writings 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.’
The story, however, is no more than a fable. It makes its first appearance in the solitary report of a stranger, Abul Faraj, who wrote five hundred 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 texts of the Jews and Christians, and had declared that the works of profane scientists and philosophers could be lawfully applied to the believer. Seldom in history has there been a parallel for transcribing a falsehood with such persistence, conviction, and indignation, in spite of contrary evidence. Gibbon, like many other scholars denied both the fact and the consequences. In fact, the Arabs were far too fond of books and knowledge to behave in this manner. They built a number of famous libraries in their empire, and their librarians were often men of high learning. But many other Asian conquerors, such as Mahmud of Ghazni, Holagu, and Genghis Khan, destroyed libraries. European invaders from Palestine and Syria burned the magnificent library at Tripolis during the first Crusade. Many early and medieval Christian enthusiasts burned libraries, archives, and works of art in North Africa, pre-Columbian America, Rome and Asia. It is likely that Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople destroyed all or part of the library of Alexandria because, as a devout Christian, he did not approve of pagan books – Greek or Asian.” (India And World Civilization [Michigan State university Press, 1969] by D. P. Singhal, volume 1, page 136 – 137)

Ruth Stellhorn Mackensen:

“Ever since 1663, when Pococke published the Arabic text of the Dynasties by Abu al-Faraj (Barhebraeus) with a Latin translation, there has been a perennial interest in the account there given of the destruction of the Alexandrian library by the Arabs when they conquered that city in 642 a.d. Renaudot and Gibbon viewed the story with skepticism, and numerous recent scholars, after examining all the available sources in detail, believe it entirely unfounded. But many more have been willing to accept it as true, partly, perhaps, because it is a well-told and on the surface fairly convincing tale, and partly due to prejudice against Mohammedanism. Those who accept it for the latter reason overlook similar charges which Moslems, supported by far more dependable evidence, make Against Christians. They point to the destruction of a princely library in Syrian Tripolis at the hands of the Crusaders, and to the burning of the royal library at Granada by Cardinal Ximenez in 1492. In the minds of many non-Arabists the annihilation of the Alexandrian library is the only connection of Arabs with libraries, and hence if for no other reason the affair merits discussion here. Briefly, the story is that the Arab general Amr became friendly with a famous Christian scholar, John Philoponus, who observed to him that among the treasures of Alexandria the conqueror had left untouched the great library, and since the Arabs were not interested in its contents he asked for the books as a gift. Amr, personally inclined to accede to the request, considered it his duty to refer the matter to his caliph. Umar sent back the brief order, “Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required: if it disagrees, they are not desired. Therefore destroy them.” Whereupon c Amr ordered the books distributed to the four thousand baths of the city, which required six months to consume the precious fuel. As A. J. Butler points out, 4 the chief argument for the authenticity of the story is its picturesqueness and the true oriental flavor of Umar’s reply. The latter somewhat loses its force when one is reminded that Ibn Khaldun places the same words in the mouth of this caliph in response to the inquiry of another general as to the proper disposal of books found in the course of his Persian conquests. Probably some Western readers have been inclined to believe the report just because it is found in Arabic sources. However, the total lack of contemporary references to the supposed event, especially in such writings as that of a Coptic bishop, John of Nikiou, who, writing before the end of the seventh century, gives minute details of the capture of the city, is significant. Further, the first Arabic reference to the incident, so far as we can judge from extant literature, comes from the twelfth century, approximately six hundred years after the event. Abd al-Latif (d. 1231 a.d.), who went to Egypt in 1193, wrote a description of that country some time after 1202, in which he makes passing allusion to “the library which c Amr burned with Umar’s permission.” 6 The first detailed account is given by the Egyptian historian Ibn al-Kifti (d. 1248 a.d.), the existing summary of whose work, generally called Tarikh al Hukama, was made by al-Zauzani the year after the author’s death. 7 Shortly before his death in 1286 Abu al-Faraj, the great Syrian Christian scholar, prepared an Arabic abridgment of the first half of his great Syriac Chronicle, to which he added a summary of biblical history and an account of Arabic scientific literature. For the latter he drew greatly on Ibn al-Kifti, from whom he copied word for word the much-quoted fate of the Alexandrian library. 8 Thereafter Arabic and Coptic writers refer to the matter frequently. Picturesque as the story is, it will not bear close scrutiny.
It is most unlikely that if Amr had been ordered to destroy the books he would have troubled to dole them out to the baths of the city— an arrangement entailing considerable work and a delay which would have given ardent bibliophiles every opportunity to make away with many of the most valuable manuscripts. The picture of four thousand baths ablaze with books for six months is the very stuff of fairy tales, and is characteristic of the fabulous numbers so dear to the heart of oriental story-tellers. An even more serious discrepancy is the part supposedly played by John Philoponus, for it is known that he was writing as early as 540, and possibly before the accession of Justinian in 527, over a century before Alexandria fell into the hands of the Arabs in 642. And, finally, scholars have shown that it is highly improbable that the library survived until this date.
The history of the Museum and its successor the Serapium is fraught with many problems which need not be discussed here. Nor shall we detain ourselves with an examination of the sources. For complete details the reader may refer to some of the complete studies of the subject. 9 However, certain conclusions which are pertinent to our problem are fairly clearly established. The Museum, of which the great library was a part, seems to have been planned and possibly begun by Ptolemy Soter, whose successor, Philadelphus, completed its equipment and organization about the middle of the third century b.c. It is generally supposed that the library suffered and perhaps was destroyed in the conflagration which spread in the Bruchion quarter as a result of the burning of the harbor by Julius Caesar in 48 b.c. Scholars, however, continued to frequent the Museum, at least until 216 a.d., when Caracalla suppressed the common hall. The institution came to an end in 273, when Aurelian destroyed all the buildings.
Sometime early in the Christian Era a new library grew up in connection with the great temple of Serapis. Some suppose that the royal library of Pergamus which Mark Antony carried off to present to Cleopatra, a few years after the fire in 48 b.c., furnished the nucleus for this new collection. Others, among them Butler, hold that Cleopatra placed her books in the Caesarion, begun during her reign and finished by Augustus, for the libraries of that temple are referred to occasionally. The Caesarion was plundered in 366 a.d. It is worthy of note that Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of numerous libraries in Alexandria.
At any rate, it is quite clear that by the fourth century the older Museum had disappeared and in its place was the daughter-institution, the Serapium, which continued its traditions as a scientific and literary academy. In 391 the latter was plundered and demolished by the Christians, to whom the great image of Serapis and its cult had long been hateful. There is no positive evidence that the library perished at this time. Rufinus, an eyewitness who gives considerable detail on the destruction of the temple, makes no mention of the fate of the library. His silence has led some scholars to suppose that the books were kept in other buildings on the Acropolis and thereby survived the catastrophe. But from the remarks of Aphthonius, who visited the Serapium not long before the events of 391, it is evident that the library was associated with the temple building and was still frequented by men of learning. Hence it is most likely that it was destroyed along with the temple proper. There is also little reason for accepting the suggestion that the books were removed and shipped to Constantinople, for the frenzied mob, whose sole desire was to wipe out idolatry and all its accompaniments, can scarcely be supposed to have given thought to the value of pagan literature. The much-discussed lament of Orosius on the empty bookshelves is evidence that in 416 there were no longer any large and ancient libraries in Alexandria. 10
The total lack of any references to such libraries in all subsequent writings, both previous to and in the centuries following the Arab conquest, can only be interpreted as mute testimony to their disappearance. Above all, we should expect John Moschus and his friend Sophronius, who evince a passionate interest in all matters relating to books and who do describe lesser libraries they saw, to have mentioned the Serapium library if it was still in existence. They visited Egypt a few years before the coming of the Arabs in 642.
Some writers have attempted to clear Abu al-Faraj of responsibility for the famous report of the destruction of the Alexandrian library. They point out that it does not appear in the Syriac original of his history and hence hold it to be a late interpolation in the Arabic. However, we have seen that Abu al-Faraj is responsible for the Arabic epitome of his work and the additions to it. Its absence in the Beirut edition  is due to the red pencil of the Turkish censor rather than to a difference in manuscripts. This passage as well as several others lacking in this edition are on the proof sheets which were sent me by the director of the Catholic Press of Beirut in response to my inquiry. The manuscript used by Pococke is fairly late, 13 but was collated by the more recent editor with other manuscripts, all of which include the incident in question. At any rate, the problem of its existence in Abu al-Faraj’s history is of secondary importance, for it is evident from the statements of two Moslems, Ibn al-Kifti and Abd al-Latif , that the tradition was current in Arabic literature. Neither will Bury’s argument 14 that Abu al-Faraj did not use the word “library” but libri philosophici qui in gazophilaciis regiis reperiuntur get us out of the difficulty. The Arabic which Pococke so translated is khazahn al-mulukvap This phrase means literally “royal treasuries or collections”; khazapin and its singular, khizana , can mean simply “treasuries,” “stores,” “collections.” A library is specifically khizanat al-kutub (“collection of books”), but Arabic writers quite frequently omit the word “books” when the context makes it clear, as it does here, that “collections of books” are meant. So the Fihrist quotes a man as saying, “In my Khizana at Basra among his books are ” Of course one can legitimately argue that the royal library or collections does not necessarily refer to the great library of the Museum or Serapium, but we have just seen that there is no evidence that any great libraries survived the depredations of the Christians. It therefore seems quite clear that there arose — why we do not know, but apparently in Egypt not later than the first half of the thirteenth century — this story that Amr, on the order of the second caliph, destroyed a great library of royal foundation in Alexandria, and that although it was believed and recounted both by Christian and by Moslem historians, it is utterly groundless. The fact that Arabic writers should have perpetuated such a reflection on their forefathers speaks for their candor if not for their critical judgment. Possibly the story arose among a group of scholarly but heretical Moslems who greatly admired the remnants of Greek learning but regretted that so few survived and at the same time had little use for the early caliphs. One can quite well imagine such among the ranks of Ismaili savants who frequented the court of the Fatimids, whose heretical caliphate in Egypt was brought to an end by Saladin in 567/ 1171. As partisans of the house of Ali, whom they believed foully prevented from succeeding Mohammed as the true head of the Moslem state, they would have felt no scruples against representing Umar and his envoy as ignorant vandals. We know that the academy and library founded and supported by the Fatimid caliphs at Cairo was definitely modeled on the Museum or Serapium and that there sciences, of Greek origin, and literature were cultivated along with strictly religious studies. This institution was closed by Saladin and the books from its library were scattered all over Egypt and Syria. Or is it too far-fetched to imagine that the story may be no older than this event and took form as a protest or a bit of literary revenge on the part of some deposed scholar of the Fatimid House of Science? Saladin’s victory spelled the triumph of orthodoxy in Egypt, and in place of the essentially liberal and diversified studies of the academy there arose numerous madrasas, or theological schools, devoted almost exclusively to problems of Koranic exegesis, theology, and canon law. One can quite easily picture some disgruntled Fellow of the old academy viewing the limited interests of these new schools with dismay, saying, “So it has always been with the orthodox ; they have no appreciation of true learning. Today their general Saladin closes our school and scatters our books and so the general of Umar, may Allah curse him, destroyed the academy and the books of the ancients.” The story, then, may be supposed to have circulated — perhaps underground — in Egypt, where it was picked up by Abd al-Latif with his fondness for antiquities, and by Ibn al-Kifti with his interest in philosophy and philosophers and translations from the Greek, and accepted as a plausible explanation for the loss of books known only by name. There is good evidence that serious Arabic scholars were aware that they did not possess the full body of Greek literature. This hypothesis is frankly an imaginative construction for which there is no direct evidence, but it is offered as a possible explanation of the origin of a curious story which has aroused endless discussion.” (Background Of The History Of Moslem Libraries, ]The University Of Chicago Press – The American Journal Of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Jan., 1935] by Ruth Stellhorn Mackensen, volume 51, page 116 – 122, No. 2)

The late Emeritus Professor Of Semitic Literature Princeton University, Philip K. Hitti (1886 -1978) calls the story “tales that make good fiction”:

“The story that by the Caliph’s order Amr for six long months fed the numerous bath furnaces of the city with the volumes of the Alexandrian library is one of those TALES THAT MAKE GOOD FICTION but bad history. The great Ptolemaic Library was burnt as early as 48 B.C. by Julius Ceasar. A later one, referred to as the Daughter Library, was destroyed about A.D. 389 as a result of an edict by the Emperor Theodosius. At the time of the Arab conquests, therefore, no library of importance existed in Alexandria and no contemporary writer ever brought the charge against Amr or Umar. Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who died as late as A.H. 629 (1231), seems to have been the first to relate the TALE. Why he did it we do not know, however, his version was copied and amplified by later authors.” (History Of The Arabs From The Earliest Times To The Present [Tenth Edition – Macmillan 1970], by Philip K. Hitti (Professor Emeritus Of Semitic Literature Princeton University), page 166)

English historian and scholar Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794):

“I should deceive the expectation of the reader, if I passed in silence the fate of the Alexandrian library, as it is described by the learned Abulpharagius. The spirit of Amrou was more curious and liberal than that of his brethren, and in his leisure hours the Arabian chief was pleased with the conversation of John, the last disciple of Ammonius, and who derived the surname of Philoponus from his laborious studies of grammar and philosophy. Emboldened by this familiar intercourse, Philoponus presumed to solicit a gift, inestimable in his opinion, contemptible in that of the barbarians: the royal library, which alone, among the spoils of Alexandria, had not been appropriated by the visit and the seal of the conqueror. Amrou was inclined to gratify the wish of the grammarian, but his rigid integrity refused to alienate the minutest object without the consent of the caliph; and the well-known answer of Omar was inspired by the ignorance of a fanatic. ‘If these writings 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.’
The sentence was executed with blind obedience; the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their incredible multitude that six months were barely sufficient for the consumption of this precious fuel. Since the Dynasties of Abulpharagius have been given to the world in a Latin version, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of antiquity. For my own part, I AM STRONGLY TEMPTED TO DENY BOTH THE FACT AND THE CONSEQUENCES. The fact is indeed marvellous; ‘Read and wonder!’ says the historian himself; and the solitary report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years on 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 Mahometan 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. A more destructive zeal may perhaps be attributed to the first successors of Mahomet; yet in this instance the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials. 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 place 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. Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books; but, if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind.
I sincerely regret the more valuable libraries which have been involved in the ruin of the Roman empire; but, when I seriously compute the lapse of ages, the waste of ignorance, and the calamities of war, our treasures, rather than our losses, are the object of my surprise. Many curious and interesting facts are buried in oblivion: the three great historians of Rome have been transmitted to our hands in a mutilated state, and we are deprived of many pleasing compositions of the lyric, iambic, and dramatic poetry of the Greeks. Yet we should gratefully remember that the mischances of time and accident have spared the classic works to which the suffrage of antiquity had adjudged the first place of genius and glory; the teachers of ancient knowledge, who are still extant, had perused and compared the writings of their predecessors; nor can it fairly be presumed that any important truth, any useful discovery in art or nature, has been snatched away from the curiosity of modern ages.” (The History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire [Methuen & Co. LTD. 36 Essex Street W.C., London, 1911] by Edward Gibbon, volume V (5), page 481 – 484)

Diana Delia:

“Although numerous other libraries throughout the ancient Mediterranean – in Asia Minor, the Persian empire, Athens and Rhodes, for example – have disappeared, no one ponders their fate. In the Western tradition, the romantic lament for the lost wisdom of the ancient world is reserved for the great library at Alexandria. The legend of the main library and its magnificent collection inspired the ruminations of the medieval Arab historians in the thirteenth century. The dazzling impression that the size and splendour of Alexandria made on Arabs and the potential danger it posed to an absolute faith are revealed by Ibn Duqmaq, who cited Abd al-Malik Ibn Juraij as claiming that, although he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca sixty times, ‘if God had suffered me to stay a month at Alexandria and pray on its shores, that month would be dearer to me than the sixty pilgrimages which I have undertaken.’ In Ibn Duqmaq’s own experience, ‘if a man make a pilgrimage around Alexandria in the morning, God will make for him a golden crown set with pearls, perfumed with musk and camphor and shining from the east to the west.’ In contrast to the classical tradition, which attributed the destruction of the Ptolemaic library to accident, Arab historians Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, Ibn al-Qifti, and Abu al-Faraj credited the dashing Muslim general Amr with its deliberate ruin during the Arab conquest of Egypt in A.D. 642. The second caliph, Umar, allegedly doomed the great library by decreeing as superfluous all books that conformed with the holy Qur’an and as undesirable all volumes that contradicted it. Thereupon, Amr reportedly consigned the entire collection to the flames, heating some four thousand public baths at Alexandria for a full six months. Bold TALES of this sort glorified both the magnificence of the ancient city and the Arabs who had conquered it.
But several considerations render the Islamic tradition SUSPECT. It is scarcely likely that many pagan manuscripts from the main library and annexes survived the depredations of Christian zealots during late antiquity. Also, this story suddenly surfaced in the thirteenth century after five and a half centuries of silence. And precisely the same response of Umar is recorded by Ibn Khaldun in connection with the destruction of another library in Persia. Romanticism combined with nationalistic fervor to FABRICATE an utterly fantastic legend about the destruction of the great Alexandrian library – not by the Romans but by the most recent subjugators of Egypt. ‘Listen and wonder,’ Ibn al-Qifti sceptically concluded, as well one might! Though clearly apocryphal…” (From Romance to Rhetoric: The Alexandrian Library in Classical and Islamic Traditions, [The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press, Dec., 1992] by Diana Delia, volume 97, No. 5, page 1464 – 1466)

In the book, “The Library Of Alexandria, Centre Of Learning In The Ancient World” written by the  Emeirtus Professor Roy Macleod (b. 1941) and published in 2000, he casts doubt on the story:

“there are many objections to accepting this tradition. The story first appears more than 500 years after the Arab conquest of Alexandria. John the Grammarian appears to be the Alexandrian philosopher John Philoponus, who must have been dead by the time of the conquest. It seems, as shown above, that both the Alexandrian libraries were destroyed by the end of the fourth century, and there is no mention of any library surviving at Alexandria in the Christian literature of the centuries following this date. It is also suspicious that the caliph Omar is recorded to have made the same remark about books found by the Arabs during their conquest of Iran. In short, the story is at best a testimony to the persistence of legends about the library long after it had in fact disappeared.” (The Library Of Alexandria, Centre Of Learning In The Ancient World [I.B.TAURIS, 2010 ], by Roy Macleod, page 74)


It is time to bury this false story once and for all. Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra) and Amr Ibn al-As (ra) are vindicated from the lies that are attributed to them.

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(1) – Prophet Muhammed’s Charity To Non-Muslims

(2) – Generosity Towards Non-Muslim Neighbours

(3) – Social Conditions: Christians And Jews In Early Period Of Islam

(4) – The Relationship Of The Muslim With Non-Muslims

(5) – What Does Islam Teach about Justice?

(6) – The Vanished Library – Bernard Lewis


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2 Responses »

  1. Good research. Jazakallahu khairan.

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