This is based on what has been mentioned by Ibn al ‘Anbari in his book. He states:
وفي هذا الزمان اشتهر بين الإسلاميين يحيى المعروف عندنا بغرماطيقوس أي النحوي وكان اسكندرياً يعتقد اعتقاد النصارى اليعقوبية ويشيد عقيدة ساوري ثم رجع عما يعتقده النصارى في التثليث فاجتمع إليه الأساقفة بمصر وسألوه الرجوع عما هو عليه فلم يرجع. فأسقطوه عن منزلته وعاش إلى أن فتح عمرو بن العاص مدينة الإسكندرية ودخل على عمرو وقد عرف موضعه من العلوم فأكرمه عمرو وسمع من ألفاظه الفلسفية التي لم تكن للعرب بها انسة ما هاله ففتن به وكان عمرو عاقلاً حسن الاستماع صحيح الفكر فلازمه وكان لا يفارقه ثُمَّ قال لَهُ يحيى يوماً إنك قَدْ أحطت بحواصل الإسكندرية وختمت عَلَى كل الأصناف الموجودة بِها فأما مَا لك به انتفاع فلا أعارضك فيه وأما لا نفع لكم به فنحن أولى به فقال عمرو وما الذي تحتاج إليه؟ قال كتب الحكمة في الخزائن الملوكية فقال له عمرو لا يمكنني أن آمر بأمر إلا بعد استئذان أمير المؤمنين عمر ابن الخطاب وكتب إلى عمر وعرفه بقول يحيى الذي ذكر واستأذنه ما الذي يصنعه فيها فورد عليه كتاب عمر يقول فيه وأما الكتب التي ذكرتها فأن كان فيها ما يوافق كتاب الله ففي كتاب الله عنه غنى وإن كان فيها ما يخالف كتاب الله تعالى فلا حاجة إليها فتقدم بإعدامها فشرع عمرو بن العاص في تفريقها على حمامات الإسكندرية وأحرقها في مواقدها وذكرت عدة الحمامات يومئذ وأنسيتها فذكروا أنها استنفدت في مدة ستة أشهر فاسمع ما جرى واعجب
In this era John the grammarian became famous amongst the Muslims. He was Jacobite Coptic priest and disciple of Severus but that he was deprived of his office owing to his rejection of the dogma of the Trinity. He lived and saw the capture of Alexandria by ‘Amr ibn al ‘As. ‘Amr was impressed by the erudition and intellect of John and listened to his philosophical opinions that were yet unknown to the Arabs. John one day remarked, “You have examined the whole city and have set your seal on every object of value. I make no claim for aught that is useful to you; but things of no use to you may be of service to us.”
‘Amr asked him, “What is it you wish for?”
He replied, “The books of wisdom in the Royal Treasuries.”
‘Amr’s reply was that he could not dispose of the books without asking for permission from the Khalifah ‘Umar ibn al Khattab. A letter was dispatched and the answer soon came, “Regarding the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the Book of Allah then they are not required but if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.”
Accordingly, ‘Amr ordered the books to be distributed among the baths of Alexandria and used as fuel for it. It took six months to consume them. Listen and wonder.
This misconception can be answered in seven ways:
The incident mentioned has no chain of transmission. It has been recorded by ‘Abdul Latif ibn Yusuf al Baghdadi [d. 629 A.H. 1231 A.D.], ‘Ali ibn Yusuf al Qafti [d. 646 A.H. 1248 A.D.], Gregory Bar Hebraeus, Abu al Farj commonly known as Ibn al ‘Anbari —a Miaphysite Christian — [d. 685 A.H. 1286 A.D.], and lastly by al Maqrizi [d. 845 A.H. 1441 A.D.].
Not one of them has recorded a chain of transmission.
There are a number of inaccuracies within the incident which clearly depict it to be a fabrication. These are explained here:
i. The ‘John’ that is mentioned in the incident who asked ‘Amr radiya Llahu ‘anhu for the books died three hundred and forty years prior to the conquest. Alfred Joshua Butler has emphasized this by saying, “It is a factual matter that cannot be disputed.”
ii. For arguments sake, if we were to accept that the library was burnt, it would make more sense to have burnt the books on a hillock at the castle. But the story wants us to believe that the entire library was carried away by people and dispersed to various public baths in an arduous exercise that lasted six months.
~ An incident sewn together by threads of deceit ~
If these books were ordered burnt, they would have been burnt exactly where they were. Besides, ‘Amr radiya Llahu ‘anhu had refused to give it to his friend. To hand it over to the owners of various public baths over a period of six months would only allow for ‘John’ and his ilk to rescue a large number of books at a trifling cost.
iii. There is no doubt that most of the books in Egypt in the seventh century were made from vellum, which will not burn as fuel and all the khalifah’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 bath-furnaces of Alexandria alive for 180 days? The tale, as it stands, is ridiculous. One may indeed listen and wonder.
iv. The story could refer to two great public Libraries, a. the Museum Library to which 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 b. 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.
v. 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 convention and the actual entry of the Arabs into the city.
The conclusion of the whole matter can be no longer doubtful. The suspicion of Renaudot and the skepticism of Gibbon are more than justified. One must pronounce that the story of Abu al Farj is a mere fable, totally destitute of historical foundation.
The early historians have failed to mention the incident, notwithstanding the importance it holds. This also depicts the falsity of the Library’s presence at the conquest. The incident has creeped in in the later years without any verifiable reference. It is not far-fetched that this fabrication is a product of the enemies of Islam who wish to scar its face.
Fifth, sixth, and early seventh century literature contains no mention of the existence of any such Library.
He further says:
If the Library had been removed, or if it had been destroyed by the Arabs, the almost contemporary historian and man of letters, John of Nikiou, could not have passed over its disappearance in total silence.
He was after all the Archbishop of Lower Egypt who died during the Umayyad dynasty.
If the incident was true, then the contemporary historian on the Islamic Egyptian conquest, Ortega, would have surely mentioned it; the man who has termed the conquest of Egypt redundant.
Jack Ressler states:
Before concluding this study of libraries, it seems prudent and fair to present that ‘Amr ibn al ‘As has been slandered by those who say he carried out the instruction of the khalifah ‘Umar and destroyed the Library of Alexandria.
The truth of the matter is quite the opposite. It should be borne in mind that the first library perished in the conflagration caused by Julius Caesar the year 48 B.C. Further, the Christians destroyed another similar library during the era of Pope Theophilus the year 392. Many battles took place between 392 and 642 which resulted in the alleged destruction. Over and above this, consider how many books would have gone to tatters during these 250 years as a result of abandonment and exposure.
Another issue to contend with is that the occurrence of alleged incident and the revelation of it leaves a gap of five and a half centuries. No, then, contemporary man brought this to attention. Even Pope Macarius of Alexandria who described Alexandria in the year 933 failed to make any mention of it.
This goes against what we know about ‘Amr ibn al ‘As and his mode of governance. He was a resurrector of cities, not a destroyer of them. He went against the old customs and allowed for religious freedom.
Many non-Muslim historians have stated their case which concludes that the conflagration occurred before the Muslim conquest.
Sigrid Hunke writes:
The truth of the matter is that the Academy of Sciences established by Ptolemy I Soter in the year 300 B.C. was an institution of Hellenic teachings. It boasted an enormous library which contained around one million manuscripts. It is said that it contained every book written in Greek and covered all the sciences known to man at the time. It was engulfed in flames in the year 47 B.C. when Julius Caesar laid siege to Alexandria. Cleopatra reconstructed the library thereafter and introduced a large number of manuscripts from the libraries of Pergamum.
The third century A.D. then saw the destruction once again.
— The Roman Emperor Caracalla canceled the Academy and mascaraed its scholars in an animalistic fashion.
— The Pope closed the academy and dispersed the scholars, instructing them to burn the blasphemous writings. Religious fundamentalists thus set fire to the library. In the year 391 A.D. Patriarch Theophilos obtained the permission of Emperor Theodosios to destroy the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria and to set fire to the annexed library which at that time, contained three hundred thousand scrolls, in order to found a church and a monastery in its place.
— As for what remnants remained and those who remained became targets of extremism which had spread in Alexandria during the 5th century. An undertaking to destroy of what remained was green lit and thus all of the remnants, its scholars, it philosophy, and centres were razed to the ground. This has been clearly noted by Severus al Antaki who had thereafter become the Patriarch of the Copts.
This is what had become of the old libraries in Egypt. Nothing of it remained when the Arabs came into Alexandria in the year 642 A.D.
But if the great Serapeum Library had continued in existence into the seventh century, how come that not a single writer in the fifth or sixth century can be cited to establish the fact in clear and unmistakable language? Take one particular instance. I have already related the visit of John Moschus and his friend Sophronius to Egypt not many years before the Arab conquest; and I have shown the keen intellectual interest of the two scholars and their fondness for anything in the shape of a book but though they were both fairly voluminous writers, and though they travelled and resided a great deal in Egypt, their pages will be searched in vain for any allusion to other than private libraries in the country. Two centuries of silence, ending in the silence of John Moschus and Sophronius, seem to render it impossible that any great public library can have existed when the Arabs entered Alexandria.
For my own part, I am strongly to deny both the facts and the consequences. And the solitary report of a stranger like Abu al Farj who wrote of it after of six hundred years is unacceptable. His report 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.
‘Abbas Mahmud al ‘Aqqad writes:
The most important thing to note here regarding the issue of the library is that those who absolve ‘Umar of sacking it are European historians who have no interest in helping the cause of Islam. They based their conclusions on their own findings.
He then reproduced the case of Butler and Gibbon. He further states:
The orientalist Cassanova deems this incident a fairy tale. He states, “This incident was born six hundred after the fact and is refuted by what Butler has offered.” He goes on to say, “There is another issue that needs to be dissected. What has been said regarding John the Grammarian has been taken from al Fihrist of Ibn al Nadim who lived towards the end of the tenth century. He has recorded John to have lived up to the conquest of Egypt and to have been a close associate of ‘Amr. However, he has not mentioned anything of the Library at Alexandria. The incident of the Library is thus a delusion of al Qafti. He was influenced by the myths circulating in his era.”
Based on the views cited regarding this, we can confidently say, the scale of falsity far outweighs any truth it may contain. It was fabricated in the century it was first written in without any authentic chain of transmission to the earlier times. If there is any chain, that too has been fabricated by the latter historians in order to vilify the khalifah and to arouse negative sentiment against him and against Islam.
Since this incident is a result of evil intent, it cannot be traced to any book before the sixth century wherein it found place in certain books. This clarifies any ambiguity one may find with regards to the incident. The fabrication of this incident is a no-brainer since it contains elements that span multiple centuries before the sixth century.
We also learn from this that Egypt and the incidents of Egypt are a target of fabrication. Egypt was not a focus of international attention as it was during the Crusades when it became a strategic location for military policy. This was also a time when Islam and its opponents came under scrutiny. We thus understand why this fabricated narration did come to fore in the years before al Qafti, al Baghdadi, and Abu al Farj. Its fabrication during the Crusades make perfect sense considering the climate of the time.
Orazius visited Alexandria in the early part of the fifth century. He mentions that the shelves of the library were bare of books and filled with owls hooting. This was twenty years after it had been sacked by Theodosis upon the instruction of the Emperor.
Islam has always celebrated knowledge. This faith started with the divine instruction of ‘Read’ and the instruments of knowledge, i.e. the pen and what it writes are subjects of an oath within the Qur’an. The acts of the Khalifas from the Banu Umayyah and Banu al ‘Abbas in as far procuring and preserving books of Persian, Roman, Greek, and Syrian are second to none. Some of the Khalifas made efforts to procure books from Europe and other far-off places too by spending exorbitant amounts. They further labored to have them translated into Arabic and benefited from the sciences. They held dear, books of medicine, astrology, mathematics, botany, and others. They paid special attention to the books of Greek Philosophy by studying it and introducing within its ambit Islamic philosophy; a counter measure to materialism and paganism within the science.
Treating books and libraries with this immense amount of respect was an innate Islamic characteristic. The Muslims learnt this from the Sunnah of Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. When the forts of Khaybar were conquered, they found some pages of the Tawrah which the Jews came back to seek. Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam instructed they be handed over. Even though they were at literal war and there was much animosity, the Muslims treated their books with respect. Even the Banu al Nadir were allowed to carry off their books after the Battle of Uhud when they were being expelled from al Madinah al Munawwarah.
In fact, Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said:
بلغوا عني ولو آية، وحدثوا عن بني إسرائيل ولا حرج، ومن كذب علي متعمدا فَلْيَتَبَوَّأْ مقعده من النار
Convey from me even a verse of the Qur’an; relate traditions from Banu Isra’il, for there is no restriction; but he who deliberately forges a lie against me let him have his abode in the Hell.
Therefore, some Sahabah such as Ibn Mas’ud, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr, and Ibn ‘Abbas radiya Llahu ‘anhum would sometimes relate views of the Ahl al Kitab which had been sanctioned by Rasulullah salla Llahu ‘alayhi wa sallam in this hadith.
Ibn Kathir states:
ولهذا كان عبد الله بن عمرو يوم اليرموك قد أصاب زاملتين من كتب أهل الكتاب فكان يحدث منهما بما فهمه من هذا الحديث من الإذن في ذلك ولكن هذه الأحاديث الإسرائيلية تذكر للاستشهاد لا للاعتضاد فإنها على ثلاثة أقسام أحدها ما علمنا صحته مما بأيدينا مما يشهد له بالصدق فذاك صحيح والثاني ما علمنا كذبه بما عندنا مما يخالفه والثالث ما هو مسكوت عنه لا من هذا القبيل ولا من هذا القبيل فلا نؤمن به ولا نكذبه وتجوز حکایته لما تقدم
That is why ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr had taken two camel loads of books of the Ahl al Kitab on the Day of Yarmuk. He would narrate from there as per his understanding of permission granted in this hadith.
However, these Isra’ili narrations are mentioned for supporting evidences, not to be relied on in and of themselves, and are of three categories:
Christianity of the west remained enemies of knowledge for ten odd centuries. They stayed far off from knowledge and avoided it like the plague. When one ponders over this, it leaves one with second-hand embarrassment. Europe didn’t benefit from the knowledge and expertise they may have possessed until they intermingled with the Muslims. The clergy branded apostate, killed, and burnt anyone who studied anything besides what their monasteries held. Inhumanity at its worst.
Consider the following: When the Christians of Spain overthrew Cordoba, they burnt every book and page of the Muslims that they could lay their hands on. In total they destroyed 1.5 million volumes which they burnt in a single day. They then turned their attention to the seventy libraries in Andalus and destroyed every work of the Arabs. One of their historian’s writes, the books that the Spanish burnt of Andalus numbered 1.5 million volumes. Some historians have stated that one of the Catholicos instructed the burning of eighty thousand volumes at Granada after they took hold of it. They went as far as capturing three ships headed for Marrakesh which held items of value to the Muslims and had its contents thrown at El Escorial where they burnt it all.
If we were to say, for arguments sake that ‘Umar ibn Khattab truly did order the burning of the Library of Alexandria, then too, this would not blemish his legacy. Why was it impermissible for him to issue this instruction and why was it necessary for him to preserve it? Why was it necessary for him to know that it would contain matters that would benefit the Muslims and others and that it was an invaluable treasure? Does being unaware of Greek philosophy fault a person? Were the benefits of those books so clear that the people whose books these were had preserved it? If they had at all?
The condition of the Romans and the Copts in those days did not present any evidence of them preserving their intellectual heritage. They were in a pitiless state of weakness, corruption, ignorance, lowliness, and involved in all matters of absurdity. As such, ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu being unaware of Greek philosophy doesn’t blemish him in the slightest. And since the people whose heritage this was were in the state of obliviousness to its value, then what fault was it of ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu to think along the lines alleged?
Yes, one can be faulted for being an enemy of knowledge; however, ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu was not such. He had applied his mind and made a decision based on what he saw, whether it came from his people or from others.
He would seek counsel from people of far-off lands in codifying public administration and with regards to the manufacturing industry. He would not prevent the study of anything unless it was deemed harmful or disadvantageous. Yes, of course, he would give preference to the study of the Qur’an such that Muslims may study and understand its purport. This was no doubt his primary obligation. ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu was the first to impress this obligation as the khalifah since the Muslims had dispersed to regions far and wide and he was fearful of them undoing the knot that tied them together and made them leaders of the world.
Amongst the incidents mentioned in this regard is the following:
أن رجلا أنبأه أنهم لما فتحوا المدائن أصاب كتابة فيه كلام معجب فسأل أمن كتاب الله ؟ قال لا فدعا بالدرة فجعل يضربه بها وهو يقرأ: الٓر تِلْكَ ءَايَـٰتُ الْكِتَـٰبِ الْمُبِينِ إِنَّآ أَنزَلْنَـٰهُ قُرْءَٰنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ ثم قال إنما أهلك من كان قبلكم أنهم أقبلوا على كتب علمائهم وتركوا التوراة والإنجيل حتی درسا وذهب ما فيهما من العلم
A man informed him of procuring a book which contained marvels at the conquest of al Mada’in.
‘Umar asked, “Is it from the Book of Allah?”
The man said, “No.”
‘Umar called for his whip and hit him while reciting:
الٓر تِلْكَ أٰيٰتُ الْكِتٰـبِ الْمُبِيْنِ إِنَّآ أَنْزَلْنٰهُ قُرْءٰنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُوْنَ
Alif, Lam, Ra. These are the verses of the clear Book. Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand.
‘Umar then said, “Those of the past were destroyed due to studying the books of their scholars and discarding the Tawrah and the Injil. Thus, the knowledge of these divine books were lost.
This narration has been recorded from ‘Umar ibn Maymun — from his father. The incident does not contain anything that goes against sound intellect, even if we overlook the laws of the faith, for a moment, and consider what is learnt through experience. Experience taught ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu that the Muslims were taken from darkness into light by their divine Book. It was through their Book that they were able to overcome their enemies who had every other book.
Further, the general Muslim populous had perhaps barely completed complete recitations of the Qur’an and were still in the early stages of studying its purport, how could ‘Umar radiya Llahu ‘anhu then, at this critical juncture allow for external influence which would result in factions and groups forming with differences galore? The various regions had not even been united on the modes of recitation with work yet to be done in that area. So, we ask, was the instruction of ‘Umar based on enmity for knowledge? Or was it based on giving preference to knowledge? If preference to the divine Book was not to be given in these early years then when? When would the Qur’an be given its right of study to extract its juridical purport if not in these early days? And which book would the spiritual effulgence come from if not from the divine Book?
In any case, if we were to accept this, slanderous, allegation then too ‘Umar’s radiya Llahu ‘anhu instruction would have made complete sense. He was a man who had his finger on the pulse of the time and understood the happenings around him. It was permissible for him to issue the instruction of burning the library at Alexandria, but it is far from possible for a just and impartial person to think him an enemy of literacy based on this. He had evaluated the benefit which was clear and plain to him in relation to the benefit which was unknown. He cannot be censured from preferring the former over the latter, more-so when considering the negative spiritual, intellectual, and material space the people of the latter occupied. Saying he did not consider all angles or that he was incorrect in his decision would be fallacy; his decisions, as he, were on the straight path.
To conclude, dear reader, this fairy tale which has been attributed to the Muslims has not been recorded by the early historians who were contemporaries to the conquest. Neither has it been recorded by any other historian up to the 6th century. If there was any truth to it, they would have recorded it. John of Nikiû the Egyptian chronicler who lived during the Umayyad dynasty and was prejudiced in his views against ‘Amr radiya Llahu ‘anhu, characterizing him in an unbefitting manner in an attempt to muddy the true incident of the conquest, would have most definitely mentioned ‘Amr radiya Llahu ‘anhu having burnt it! Even he understood this allegation so far from the truth and having occurred such a long time before the conquest, that he too could not stick it to ‘Amr radiya Llahu ‘anhu. The burning of the library having occurred long before is supported by the facts we have elucidated. Just consider the following two:
There remains nothing for us now but to conclude, correctly, that the burning of the library occurred before the Muslim conquest. The Muslims are absolved from this allegation just as the wolf is absolved from the blood of Yusuf.
 Ibn al ‘Anbari: Mukhtasar al Duwal, pg. 176; see his bio-data in Al Zirkili: Al A’lam, vol. 5 pg. 117.
 Shawqi Abu Khalil: Al Isqat fi Manahij al Mustashriqin, pg. 124; Jack Ressler: Al Hadarah al ‘Arabiyyah, pgs. 106-107.
 Akhbar al ‘Ulama bi akhbar al Hukama’, vol. 1 pg. 266.
 Ibn al ‘Anbari: Mukhtasar al Duwal, pg. 172. Dr Shawqi Abu Khalil states that the incident of burning the library by ‘Amr has been omitted from the latest edition. See the marginalia of al Isqat, pg. 125.
 Al Mawa’iz wa al I’tibar, vol. 1 pg. 99.
 Alfred: Fath al ‘Arab li Misr, pg. 422.
 Alfred: Fath al ‘Arab li Misr, pg. 441.
 Shawqi Abu Khalil: Al Isqat fi Manahij al Mustashriqin, pg. 126.
 Jack Ressler: Al Hadarah al ‘Arabiyyah, pgs. 106-107.
 Allah Laysa Kadhalik, pgs. 73-74.
 Alfred: Fath al ‘Arab li Misr, pg. 438.
 Nazmi Luqa: ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, pg. 149.
 ‘Abqariyyah ‘Umar, pg. 590.
 Shawqi Abu Khalil: Al Isqat fi Manahij al Mustashriqin, pg. 127.
 Ibid, pg. 130.
 Sahih al Bukhari, Hadith: 3274.
 Tafsir ibn Kathir, vol. 1 pgs. 8-9.
 Shawqi Abu Khalil: Al Isqat fi Manahij al Mustashriqin, pg. 127.
 Surah Yusuf: 1-2.
 ’Aqqad: ’Abqariyyah ‘Umar, pgs. 82-184.Back to top