Some modern historians, including Bernard Lewis, discredit the fact that Caliph Omar ordered the destruction of the great Alexandria Library as a 17-century Christian invention to scandalize Islam. But they ignore that fact that the original report comes from Muslim authors of the 11th century...
In this article, we investigate the claim that Omar, the second Muslim Khalif who ruled the Islamic state after Abu Bakr, did in fact order the destruction/burning of the Alexandria library when the Muslims invaded and took over Egypt.
There are researchers of history who try to clear Omar’s name from this incident. There are others who claim that Omar did indeed perpetrate this atrocity. Who is correct? Can we arrive at an answer? This is the goal of this paper.
Some thinkers who claim that Omar is not responsible for this atrocity
Presson Chesser writes:
The final individual to get blamed for the destruction is the Moslem Caliph Omar. In 640 AD the Moslems took the city of Alexandria. Upon learning of "a great library containing all the knowledge of the world" the conquering general supposedly asked Caliph Omar for instructions. The Caliph has been quoted as saying of the Library's holdings, "they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." So, allegedly, all the texts were destroyed by using them as tinder for the bathhouses of the city. Even then it was said to have taken six months to burn all the documents. But these details, from the Caliph's quote to the incredulous six months it supposedly took to burn all the books, weren't written down until 300 years after the fact. These facts condemning Omar were written by Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus, a Christian who spent a great deal of time writing about Moslem atrocities without much historical documentation.
Bernard Lewis writes:
To accept the story of the Arab destruction of the library of Alexandria, one must explain how it is that so dramatic an event was unmentioned and unnoticed not only in the rich historical literature of medieval Islam, but even in the literatures of the Coptic and other Christian churches, of the Byzantines, of the Jews, or anyone else who might have thought the destruction of a great library worthy of comment. That the story still survives, and is repeated, despite all these objections, is testimony to the enduring power of a myth.
So, this story is a myth according to Bernard Lewis. However, he continues to say:
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.
One wonders why Lewis thinks this story is a myth knowing, as he clearly says, that the original sources of the story are Muslims? Is a Muslim so anxious to show Omar in a bad light that he invents such a story? Or, could it be that Lewis is wrong in viewing this story as no more than a myth? To his credit, Lewis, in the above link tries to explain why a Muslim would do that. His reasons were related to Salah Aldin attempt to destroy the available books of a cultic Islamic tradition that is not Sunnism. But, even with this excuse, it would be hard to believe that a whole great library would be destroyed for such reason. One expects such a library to contain a huge number of documents and books that are not related to what Sunnism considers a cult. We find Lewis’s explanation very unconvincing regarding this matter. The reader is invited to read the details of Lewis’s explanation in the above link we provided.
Islamic Researchers Exonerate Omar
As one would expect, Muslims adamantly deny that Omar had anything to do with the destruction of Alexandria library. Here is a link to one such site.
Some Earlier Sources
Let us try to get to the bottom of this. We think that Isya Joseph did a thorough investigation of Bar Hebraeus and his role in the narrations about the Alexandria Library destruction by Amr Ibn Al-As on the command of Omar. His research was published in 1911 in The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature (Volume 27). Here is a link to his research.
The reader is advised to read pages 335-8. According to Isya Joseph, Bar Hebraeus says that Yahya, a Coptic philosopher, petitioned Amr Ibn Al-As to restore the royal library (Alexandria Library). Amr referred the matter to Omar. Omar ordered him to destroy the library on grounds that if what is in the library agrees with the contents of the Qur’an, then it is redundant. And, if the contents of the library do not agree with the Qur’an, then such contents are heretic.
In either case, the destruction of the library was necessary as Omar viewed it. Those of us who studied the personality of Khalif Omar “Al-Farooq” are not surprised at all by the story above. It fits Omar’s personality to expect such a reaction from him.
In any case, let us go back to Isya Joseph’s research. According to him, Bar Hebraeus’ writings date back to 1663. He is considered an authoritative source. However, modern scholars, Bernard Lewis being one of them, discredited his writings as a Christian effort to scandalize Islam and Muslims.
The assumption behind this is that no Muslim mentioned about Omar’s destruction of the Alexandria Library before Hebraeus. This latter assumption is actually mistaken. There are at least two independent sources that validate Hebraeus’s story. First, Abd-Al-Latif of Baghdad visited Egypt in the latter part of the sixth century AH (Islamic Calendar). He mentions that a library, which was in Alexandria, was burned by Umru ibn al-As in compliance to Omar’s orders. Second, Jamal Ad-din Al-Kufti, who was born in Kuft in upper Egypt in 565 AH, and died in 646, informs us that the library was burned by Umru Ibn Al-As (p. 335 in above link).
As big a name as Bernard Lewis is, he got it wrong this time. There is strong evidence to the contrary. It seems more likely than not that, in fact Omar – the second Khalif of Islam – bears the final responsibility of the destruction of Alexandria library, when Muslims invaded and took over Egypt.