Friday, February 4, 2011

The Great Library of Alexandria in the Golden Age of Islam

Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes is an attempt to present to Westerners an Islamic narrative of history, one that places the Islamic world and not the West at the center. If nothing else this has a value in helping readers get outside a mind frame of antiquity, middle-ages and renaissance. The book is written in a conversational apologetic tone as opposed to scholarly. On these grounds the book is quite successful. I would certainly recommend it to those Haredi authors trying to write Jewish history as a model of writing readable apologetics that do not descend into polemics and make a hash out of the actual history. Of course even the best apologetics may accidentally shoot itself in the foot. For example Ansary's discussion of early Islam's support of philosophy. According to Ansary's general description of the intellectual state of affairs during the Islamic conquest: 

Rome was virtually dead by this time, and Constantinople (for all its wealth) had degenerated into a wasteland of intellectual mediocrity, so the most original thinkers still writing in Greek were clustered in Alexandria, which fell into Arab hands early on. Alexandria possessed a great library and numerous academies, making it an intellectual capital of the Greco-Roman world. (Kindle 1885-87.)

In an earlier post I discussed the situation with the Great Library of Alexandria. We know that it was burned to the ground, but we are not sure when. It is possible that there were a number of major fires. Traditionally Christians in the early fifth century are blamed, but there have been those who blame the Muslim conquest. Now what would it mean if we are to assume that the Great Library was still standing at the time of the Muslim conquest? Not that Muslims used this library to support a new "golden age" of learning, but that they are the ones to who destroyed the Library. I assume this was not the message about Islam that Ansary wanted us to learn.    

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