There was a historical debate in the Kerala State Assembly last week. CPI (M) MLA Babu M Palissery pontificated that a Caliph had ordered the burning of books in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt about 1500 years ago. When it appeared in the papers the next day, it said that Caliph Umar had ordered the burning of the books. This obviously upset various secular parties like Congress (I) and Muslim League and they demanded an explanation.
Founded in third century B.C.E by Ptolemy, the library was destroyed by Roman emperors and a Pope. The final destruction happened during the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 C.E. According to A Short Account of the History of Mathematics By Walter William Rouse Ball, the following happened:
The same story, with minor variations, is repeated across many books, but historian Bernard Lewis thinks it is a myth.
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.[The Vanished Library]
Back in the Kerala Assembly, the MLA apologized and reaffirmed that he intended the word Caliph to mean “a Caliph” and not Caliph Umar. He also stated that Caliph Umar was a book lover and would have never ordered the destruction of the library. Thus peace was restored to the galaxy.
People in other states might be wondering if Kerala is free of all problems that the Assembly debates historical events just to spend time. The answer is: yes, we have no other issues to debate. Kerala is God’s own country and the honourable Amartya Sen wants this model, where a literate society would spend time reading Herodotus and Josephus, to spread all over the world.
Now that the Caliph’s name has been cleared, next item on the agenda would be to make it official that St. Thomas actually arrived in Kerala in 52 C.E.