Thursday, January 19, 2006

Burning the Alexandria Library

Tim Cavanaugh put up a post on Reason's Hit & Run blog yesterday about "an interesting brouhaha result[ing] from Pope Benedict XVI's alleged comments on Islam and the possibility of reinterpreting the Quran." The title of the post, which wasn't referenced further in the piece but shares with it an underlying principle, was "If it accords with the Quran it is unnecessary and can be burned. If it doesn't accord with the Quran it is heresy and must be burned."

That quotation, while phrased differently elsewhere, is surely a reference to the command of the Caliph 'Umar concerning the great library at Alexandria after the Muslim conquest of that city in the seventh century. Since Cavanaugh only quotes it in passing, it's difficult to know whether he means to refer to it as historical fact or as legend. It's worth noting, though, that it's the latter.

I probably wouldn't have recognized it all if I hadn't been reading earlier this week Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles. Battles relates the story of a Coptic priest, John the Grammarian, who in 641 asked the Muslim conqueror Amr what was to be done with the famous library.
The general replied, however, that he could not decide the fate of the books without consulting Caliph Omar. The caliph's answer, quoted here from Alfred J. Butler's Arab Conquest of Egypt, is infamous: "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. Destroy them therefore." According to tradition, the scrolls were bundled up and delivered as fuel to the city's baths, where it is said they fueled the furnaces for six months.
Some on the web are today passing this on as historical fact, sometimes for the apparent purpose of disparaging either Islam specifically or religion generally. However, as Dex at The Straight Dope puts it, "this story is almost certainly apocryphal, invented in the 12th century." Battles again:
In fact, the story as we know it may have been invented by one Ibn al-Qifti, a twelfth-century [or thirteenth] Sunni chronicler. According to the Egyptian classicist Mostafa el-Abbadi, al-Qifti may have invented the story to justify the sale of books by the twelfth-century Sunni ruler Saladin, who sold off whole libraries to pay for his fight against the Crusaders.
While Battles does note that "despite its possible Islamic origin...the story has been handed down in the West as an Orientalist lament for the fate of Hellenic learning in the heathen East," this Wikipedia article considers no Islamic origin and instead asserts that claims of 'Umar's library destruction simply "are generally regarded as a Christian attack on Muslims."

While it's possible these claims are generally regarded that way, we can find a persuasive rebuttal for such an explanation from Princeton's Bernard Lewis. Lewis is professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the university and has been described as "one of the world's foremost authorities on the Middle East" and "a towering figure among experts on the culture and religion of the Muslim world." There was a very interesting 2003 Wall Street Journal article about him that's worth reading.

In 1990, Lewis wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books, wherein he expresses his astonishment that a reviewed book found credible the story of 'Umar's destruction order and proceeds to set the record straight. It could be Lewis's work that Battles draws on in his 2003 book; it certainly seems to provide the details behind the conclusion Battles presents succinctly.

Lewis first notes,
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 History of the Dynasties of the Syrian-Christian author Barhebraeus, otherwise known as Ibn al-'Ibri.
He then describes a long history of Western scholarship finding the story implausible for various reasons, culminating with this:
By far the strongest argument against the story, however, 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....Barhebraeus merely followed the text of Ibn al-Qifti....
In light of Ibn al-Qfti being the apparent originator of the tale, Lewis responds this way to the idea that it's principally "a Christian attack on Muslims":
Myths come into existence to answer a question or to serve a purpose, and one may wonder what purpose was served by this myth. An answer sometimes 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 Barhebraeus, who copied it from a Muslim author. Not the creation, but the demolition of the myth was the achievement of European scholarship, which from the 18th century to the present day has rejected the story as false and absurd, and thus exonerated the Caliph 'Umar and the early Muslims from this libel.
The last two full paragraphs of the piece explain in some detail the reasoning that the actual impetus of the myth was not to slander 'Umar but, as Battles suggests in his book, to justify Saladin for breaking up and selling off another, much later library.

None of this affects the points raised in Cavanaugh's post about Quranic interpretation and the Pope's views on it. But it's worth bearing in mind when encountering the story he alludes to in his title.

Updated to correct a bad link and a typo. Also, see Tim Cavanaugh's reply in the comments.

Another update, 11/30/06: I guess, given the mutable nature of Wikipedia, it's not surprising that the passage I quoted above from the relevant entry isn't there any longer. What is surprising is I discovered that after noticing from my referral logs that two of the footnotes there (11 & 12) point to this blog post. At least today they do. Wacky!


Anonymous Tim Cavanaugh said...

Come on, Steve, anybody who's read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire knows the story's just a legend. I'm not gonna steer clear of a great quote just because it's invented.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

Good point about the Edward Gibbon angle. It does look as though I'm not the only one who hasn't read Decline and Fall, as a few have cited the legend as fact. Completely unsurprising, though, that someone with your bio and career has read it. Unsurprising also that I haven't. This blog is practically founded on the principle of my ignorance.

11:46 AM  
Blogger language said...

Bernard Lewis is hardly an impartial source. He knows a tremendous amount, but he's the paradigmatic example of an essentialist: to him, all times and places are interchangeable in one vast structure called "Islam" that he's happy to explicate in ways that serve the purpose of a triumphalist West. Use with caution.


11:50 AM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

That's a very helpful reminder for me to avoid as much as possible accepting anyone's conclusion simply on the basis of their authority.

While I guess I did attribute a lot of authority to him (mostly, I think, to provide a little context in case someone less knowledgeable than you or Mr. Cavanaugh should read it), what I found most compelling was the case he made with the evidence he presented. I presume the conclusion of his in this case you're wary of is that the "anti-Islamic propaganda, designed by hostile elements to blacken the good name of Islam" "explanation is as absurd as the myth itself." Perhaps he is wrong about that, and the story really is a Christian attack on Muslims. In the absence of an effective refutation, though, he is pretty convincing here.

I'd certainly be interested in seeing contrary facts that Lewis leaves out, evidence that he distorted or lied about his facts, or a persuasive explanation of the same facts that leads to the opposite conclusion. I'll try to look around some more for that, but if you know of anything specific you'd like to direct me to, that'd be terrific.

12:46 PM  
Blogger language said...

Oh, I don't have any particular facts in mind, and I don't know much about this particular subject, but it doesn't surprise me that Lewis is arguing that it's all the Muslims' fault. I'm not saying he's wrong, just that I'd discount for prejudice.

2:02 PM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

OK. I'll bear that in mind and keep an eye out. Thanks.

2:22 PM  
Anonymous str said...


"that Lewis is arguing that it's all the Muslims' fault"

He is actually not arguing this but merely dispelling the myth that it was all evil Western evil Christian evil Orientalists.

So we should not only be careful about Mr Lewis, but also about Mr Language here.

And Mr Gibbon for that matter. His literary merit notwithstanding, the book is almost 300 years old, preceding the days of critical historiography.

3:06 AM  
Blogger elrushbuni said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:42 PM  

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