It is hard to reconcile book burning in Arabo-Islamic history, with the many manifestations of appreciation of the written word in Islamic culture—the fascination with acquiring and collecting books, the art of calligraphy, and the famed personal libraries of scholars and rulers.
How did the culture tolerate the two extremes?
The destruction of books and the deliberate burning of books occurred at certain junctures of Muslim history, not simply due to wars and disasters, but at the hands of rulers and with the blessing of scholars, or vice-versa.
In The Burning of Books in Arab Heritage, Nasser al-Khuzaymī presents a study of a different kind of burning: scholars who destroyed their own books, and finds 37 cases, among them Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), al-Mawardī, al-Ḥafī, Sa'īd ibn Jubayr, Abū 'Amr al-Kūfī, Abū Hayyān al-Tawhīdī, Abū 'Amr ibn al-'Alā', and Sufyan al-Thawrī.
As for the methods of destroying the books, these included burning, burying, dumping them in water, or ripping them apart.
During the Jahiliyyah period and the beginnings of Islam, Arab culture relied on oral tradition to transmit knowledge, rather than the written word. Memorization and oral traditions were held in high esteem, and this tendency continued even after the development of forms of writing and book production.
It is stated in the book Compendium Exposing the Nature of Knowledge and Its Immense Merit by Ibn 'Abd al-Bārr that the linguist writer Yūnus ibn Habīb overheard a man singing:
He placed his knowledge in a book, Alas!
Woe to those who save knowledge in books
This tendency, al-Khuzaymī argues, may explain why a number of companions encouraged or supported the destruction of books.
One of the most important early examples comes from Ibn Sa'd's biographical dictionary in which he mentions that the third caliph, Omar ibn al-Khattab, ordered the burning of the 'books' of Prophetic tradition. Another prominent incident was that of 'Uthmān ibn 'Affān, who burned all copies of the Quran except one, to avoid division and disagreement in the nascent community.
Similar attempts at destroying what is written occurred at the beginning of the Islamic era, perhaps for similar fears of confusion and corruption of the Quran and the Prophetic Hadiths, or preoccupation with the abundance of knowledge sources.
A saying attributed to al-Ḍaḥḥāk sums up this concern: "A time will come when people will get preoccupied with reports, and leave the Qur'an untouched."
Reasons for Burning Books Varied
It is important to note that the burning and destruction of books did not prevent the public and scholars from reading and studying them. At times, the destruction of specific books drew attention to the content, and attracted the curiosity of contemporaries and subsequent generations, inspiring their analyses.
It is equally critical to realize that book burning in Islamic history did not follow a single pattern, but was predicated on different reasons, often serving political ends.
This is evident in al-Andalus, where this phenomenon manifested itself six times throughout its history, during the Umayyad, Amirid, Abbadid, Almoravid, and Almohad reigns.
In her article "The politics of book burning in al-Andalus", Janina M. Safran notes that burning itself became a tradition employed by rulers to project a certain image of their reign.
The first of these events was the burning of the books of Ibn Masarra, with the blessing of the first Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Raḥmān al-Nāsir, in the courtyard of the Mosque of Córdoba in 961 AD.
The reasons for burning the books were not arbitrary. Ibn Masarra was a distinguished scholar, whose reputation especially grew after returning from his journey to the Islamic East, where he studied the works of the Mu'tazila and the Sufis.
Yet, his fame, which lasted decades after his death, competed with the scholars of Córdoba, most of whom followed the Maliki school of law, and his disciples and followers destabilized the balance of power.
The Umayyad Caliph saw an opportunity to exploit the concern of the scholars in his capital over Ibn Masarra’s teachings, and used it to project himself as the defender of Sunni Islam. This was a pragmatic step to boost his popularity in North Africa and at home, especially given his bitter rivalry with the Fatimid Caliph, whose legitimacy claimed a Shi'ite character.
The interplay of political conditions and intellectual considerations in the burning of books as a public event provided a powerful opportunity to affirm certain political commitments and alliances.
It is a peculiarity of Islamic history that books were almost simultaneously adored and burned by various rulers.
In Islamic history, burning books was as much a political act as it was an expression of ideological disagreement.
This instance was followed by more incidents. The process itself became a symbolic tradition, through which the rulers expressed their authority and attempted to consolidate their legitimacy, as Safran explains.
When Abū 'Āmir Muḥammad, better known as al-Ḥājib al-Manṣūr (also Almanzor in European sources), came to power, he did not have popular support, since his authority was seen as an exploitation of the young age of Caliph Hishām II, who was only 12 at the time.
Al-Manṣūr led many successful military campaigns which helped fortify his shaky position. However, al-Manṣūr followed two very powerful caliphs, whose reputation as patrons of religion and knowledge was essential in building their legitimacy.
Against this, al-Manṣūr strived to present himself as the protector of religion and the paragon of piety, and to achieve that he turned to the scholars of al-Andalus, whose approval was guaranteed to secure his position in the eyes of the public.
He resorted to burning the books of al-Ḥakam's magnificent libraries.
In a slightly different example, a decree from the governor of Seville, 'Abbād II Mu'taḍid, ordered the burning of the books of Ibn Ḥazm.
Although some attribute this to Ibn Ḥazm's commitment to the Ẓāhirī doctrine, recent studies have shown that Ibn Ḥazm’s criticism of the Mālikī school of law, and his political positions, especially being a partisan of the Umayyad dynasty, posed a threat to the authority of the the 'Abbadid ruler, who ordered the burning of his books.
Ibn Ḥazm responded to this incident attack on his scholarship and his books, with a poem:
Although you may burn the paper,
you cannot burn what the paper contains,
which is preserved in my soul despite you.
(trans. Wasserstein in “Ibn Ḥazm and al-Andalus", as cited in Safran's article)
Mohammed bin Asaad al-Yafi records in his book, Mir’āt al-jinān wa 'ibrat al-yaqzān fī ma'rifat mā yu'tabar min hawādīth al-zamān, the events of the year 537 AH, in which 'Ali ibn Yūsuf, the Almoravid ruler, ordered the burning of the book of Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī.
Striking the same path as Ali ibn Yusuf ibn Tashfin, his son followed the same practice. In his letter to Valencian authorities after he became a prince, the Almoravid Prince "instructs that if the Valencian authorities should find any books that promote heretical 'innovations', noting especially the books of al-Ghazālī, they should be burned," according to Safran.
Further, the endorsement of destroying books containing heresy—according to the scholars of Islam—was recorded in a number of sources. For example, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya said, in his book The Methods of Governance: “Al-Marwazī said, ‘I once said to Aḥmad, ‘I borrowed a book that has evil and wicked things in it. Do you think I should tear it apart and burn it?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ So I burned it.’"
It should also be noted that there are practical and scientific reasons to destroy books, particularly during the stage of collection, codification, and classification.
Shaykhs who dictated the material to their disciples, especially with religious material, asked their students to recite it back at them, for accuracy. The names of the attendees were recorded, as was the date of the session.
For fear of errors, scholars would destroy these copies during their lifetimes, or recommend destroying them after their death, as was common among many Hadith scholars.
There are also reports of the destruction of books because of the violation of the established methodology, as analyzed by Al-Khuzaymī in his book.
Sources: Janina M. Safran, “The politics of book burning in Al-Andalus”; Political and Administrative Documents in Andalusia and North Africa: Study and Texts, Mohamed Maher Hamada; Burning Books in Arab Heritage, Nasser Al-Khuzaymī.