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The destruction of the library at Alexandria

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Posted

I recently read Recalling the Caliphate: Decolonization and World Order by Salman Sayyid, and one particularly strange matter stands out: Sayyid's bringing up of the destruction of the library at Alexandria, Egypt, as if it might be possible to see that event as anything other than horrific. Sayyid starts off the "Hermeneutics" chapter saying:

One of the many things Muslims are blamed for is the destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria. The story goes that Amr ibn al-'As, the Muslim general responsible for the conquest of Byzantine Egypt was approached by a Coptic priest asking that Muslim conquerors safe-guard the ancient wisdom contained in the library. Amr ibn al-As wrote back to Caliph Omar asking him what should be done: Omar's reply is along the lines: 'If the books agree with the Qur'an, we do not need them, and if they are opposed to the Qur'an destroy them'. (p. 151)

As noted here, "Later scholars are skeptical of these stories, given the range of time that had passed before they were written down and the political motivations of the various writers." And, as Sayyid notes, "When they hear this story, many Muslims would see another Orientalist calumny"; however:

What is challenging for those who want to dismiss this as an Orientalist tale, is that the story is reported by Muslims. Muslim chroniclers, writing almost five hundred years after the purported event, are the primary source for the story and why would they wish to spread a rumour that would hold Islam in a bad light? The question ... rests upon the place of the Qur'an among Muslims. (p. 151)

Sayyid then goes on to say:

If, as argued earlier, Islamic economics or the Islamic state cannot ground the Islamic nature of a great Muslim power, can the Qur'an? More specifically, can the ethical-legal content of the Qur'an be a basis for a sociopolitical order? (pp. 151-152)

... An Islamicate political order requires the Qur'an to be a reminder -- a call to ethical excellence -- that should be able to deconstruct any existing arrangement, whether economic, cultural or moral; as such it cannot be identified with any ontic order. ... What unifies the ummah is not a uniform interpretation of the Qur'an, but rather a common recognition of its ability to orient Muslims. (p. 166)

Then, in the very last paragraph of the chapter, Sayyid finally returns to the story about the destruction of the library in Alexandria with which he began this chapter.

Given the space that the Qur'an occupies emotionally, sociologically and onto-theologically, perhaps it is not that hard to understand why Muslims would retell the story of Caliph Omar's decision to burn the Royal Library in Alexandria. The library in Alexandria represents the totality of empirical knowledge. In contrast, for Muslims the sublimity of the Qur'an transcends all factual statements: it is not a book that any human could write, for it is a book of absolute judgements, a book of ethics. (pp. 166-167)

Here Sayyid posts an end note which reads:

In his lecture on ethics Wittgenstein ... makes a distinction between judgements of relative value ... that can be turned into factual statements and judgements of absolute value that cannot be reduced to factual propositions. This leads Wittgenstein to suggest that if there was a book of ethics it would 'with an explosion destroy all other books in the world'. (p, 211)

Sayyid then continues to address the Alexandria library matter saying:

The story of the burning of the library of Alexandria was told by Muslims ... because it highlights their understanding of the ethical nature of the Qur'an and an appreciation of the impossibility of turning ethics into mere facts. The Qur'an makes all other books unnecessary because it transcends relative judgements and points Believers towards the Absolute. ... Ethics trumps all claims of empirical knowledge. Perhaps the burning of the library of Alexandria is a story that demonstrates that the pre-colonial Muslims believed without apologies that the companions of the Prophet (pbuh) understood the ethical nature of the Qur'an. (p. 167)

Sayyid is a Reader in Rhetoric at the University of Leeds; he is in the sociology department. Whatever his professional training may be, the foregoing is horrifically bad not just as philosophy but simply as thinking. It is so very bad, in fact, that it tends towards being disorienting.

Even if Wittgenstein's remark, "if ... [there were] a book on Ethics which was really [emphasis added] a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all other books in the world", is regarded - in and of itself - as very highly dubious and, therefore, to be appreciated as intended for the sake of dramatic presentation, his main point remains unscathed: "Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural, and our words only express facts ...".

Wittgenstein's make-believe book on Ethics would certainly vault to the fore in importance, but that book would not destroy factual knowledge or the need for factual knowledge, and, in any event, by Sayyid's own reckoning the Qur'an is always subject to interpretation - hence indicating that the words which comprise the recorded Qur'an do not escape the limitations imposed by language itself even if the Qur'an were what Sayyid and the Muslims he references hold it to be.

Sayyid reports that "those who are of Orientalist persuasion would see [the Alexandria library destruction story] as a prime example of Islamic obscurantism" (p. 151), and he claims that the story "was told by Muslims, not because they endorse obscurantism or because it reveals the fanatical dogmatism of the early Muslims" (p. 167). However, "understanding the ethical nature of the Qur'an" and appreciating "the impossibility of turning ethics into mere facts" (p. 167) in no way communicates the slightest legitimacy to the imagining that destroying a library such as that at Alexandria was a good - a Godly - thing to do.

In essence, Sayyid's presentation is absolute non-sense, and non-sense is not to be confused with the valuable nonsense that can be found in attempts at the expression of Ethics (for instance as discussed here).

Michael

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Posted

We discussed this briefly in chat. From your report, Sayyid's quoting of Wittgenstein is selective and misses the point that he is setting up the 'book of Ethics' and other stories as examples to be knocked over later. Indeed, is it not the case that the Qur'an, on Sayyid's argument, is 'running against the boundaries of knowledge' in precisely the manner that Wittgenstein describes at the close of his lecture, with the result that the Qur'an 'does not add to our knowledge in any sense'? On this view, we may want the Qur'an to point us towards the absolute, but this is 'a document of a tendency in the human mind' and, by definition, can never express any fact, including that the content of the Qur'an trumps the empirical knowledge in the library.

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Posted

We discussed this briefly in chat. From your report, Sayyid's quoting of Wittgenstein is selective and misses the point that he is setting up the 'book of Ethics' and other stories as examples to be knocked over later. Indeed, is it not the case that the Qur'an, on Sayyid's argument, is 'running against the boundaries of knowledge' in precisely the manner that Wittgenstein describes at the close of his lecture, with the result that the Qur'an 'does not add to our knowledge in any sense'? On this view, we may want the Qur'an to point us towards the absolute, but this is 'a document of a tendency in the human mind' and, by definition, can never express any fact, including that the content of the Qur'an trumps the empirical knowledge in the library.

Whatever might be Sayyid's own position, he could resort to denying the notion of the Qur'an as "running against the boundaries of knowledge" if God is so very transcendent that no knowledge-effort can ever produce any facts or even descriptions about the being or nature or characteristics of God (even if only because all such overflows what language can contain) such that the only thing that can be said about God is what God reveals about God.

That is a reprehensible position to hold. And it is a position that makes quite clear that it will not - indeed cannot - engage interlocutors.

What Sayyid never did with the library destruction story is note those Muslims who would have responded not with reference to "Orientalists" but, rather, with simple disgust for the unacceptable beliefs of others (even if Muslims) who imagined that devotion to Godliness is in any way incompatible with empirical facts or even interest in empirical facts such that they would undertake such destruction. Maybe those Muslims are supposed to be suspected of being too subject to the hegemony of the West to serve Sayyid's interest -- whatever that might be..

Michael

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Posted

Yes, but isn't the point (or one of the points) of Wittgenstein's argument that if there exists something - a transcendent God - that there can never be any facts or descriptions associated with, then on what grounds can empirical knowledge be trumped by transcendent knowledge (whatever that is)? As you say, no one can engage with such knowledge. We might say, with Wittgenstein, that belief in transcendent knowledge is to be understood and respected, but how can the destruction of a library - or indeed any non-transcendent claim - follow from it when, ab initio, transcendent statements cannot be reconciled with it?

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Yes, but isn't the point (or one of the points) of Wittgenstein's argument that if there exists something - a transcendent God - that there can never be any facts or descriptions associated with, then on what grounds can empirical knowledge be trumped by transcendent knowledge (whatever that is)? As you say, no one can engage with such knowledge. We might say, with Wittgenstein, that belief in transcendent knowledge is to be understood and respected, but how can the destruction of a library - or indeed any non-transcendent claim - follow from it when, ab initio, transcendent statements cannot be reconciled with it?

If the only thing that can be said about God is what God reveals about God, then, if we call a revelation knowledge, that revealed knowledge would trump any empirical knowledge if and only if the empirical knowledge and the revealed knowledge addressed the very same issue(s). Since there is no revelation in the Qur'an which directly addresses any library or the contents of any library, then, as you note, it does not follow that what revealed knowledge there is about the God of the Qur'an is, in itself and without interpretation, applicable to the the matter of whether the Alexandria library should be destroyed.

Sayyid believes that the human mind cannot but interpret each and every statement it encounters -- including those which comprise the Qur'an; he denies the very notion of a literal reading. Good for him, but that just makes his use of the library story seem that much more odd in further part because he must have some awareness that he used Wittgenstein disingenuously. Actually, the way he uses Wittgenstein is odd in itself inasmuch as Wittgenstein is more useful to Sayyid's own perspective on language than it is to the really bad attempt at apologetics (which is the best description I can come up with) that he ends up presenting.

All this is made all the more odd in the immediately subsequent chapter, "Ethics", where Sayyid makes it a point to note that commonplace notions which associate "Islamic" (for instance, in governance) with "morality" are amiss. He says:

By morality I refer to an embedded, institutionalised code of behaviour about what is good and proper, and what is not. All societies are moral in that they have rules of conduct which determine proper behaviour. All morality, however, always has the possibility of failure ... what is considered to be moral works against other ideas of what might be better. Ethics on the other hand describes the constant possibility of a better union between what is and what ought to be [in an end note he states that "'the ought' is not necessarily anything innate in human nature, but is rather the condition of what arises from inter-textuality"]. ... The ethical always has the potential to trump the moral.

The "constant possibility" to which he refers in effect acknowledges the unsettledness, the indeterminateness, or the undecidability that is always - or is constantly - associated with the ethical. Since in the "Hermeneutics" chapter he described the Qur'an as "a book of ethics", he is proclaiming the Islamic importance of the indeterminateness/undecidability for Muslims. So, some sort of bridge, some sort of transition, between the attempted apologetics and the point about ethics would have made for a better presentation and would have ameliorated the oddness of the library story.

Michael

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