Here is a relevant passage from Gibbon, who himself doubts the veracity of Abupharalgius' anecdote.
Hope this helps... Charles Seife (Hooray for e-texts!)
--- Chapter LI: Conquests By The Arabs. Part VII.
I should deceive the expectation of the reader, if I passed in silence the fate of the Alexandrian library, as it is described by the learned Abulpharagius. The spirit of Amrou was more curious and liberal than that of his brethren, and in his leisure hours, the Arabian chief was pleased with the conversation of John, the last disciple of Ammonius, and who derived the surname of Philoponus from his laborious studies of grammar and philosophy. ^115 Emboldened by this familiar intercourse, Philoponus presumed to solicit a gift, inestimable in his opinion, contemptible in that of the Barbarians - the royal library, which alone, among the spoils of Alexandria, had not been appropriated by the visit and the seal of the conqueror. Amrou was inclined to gratify the wish of the grammarian, but his rigid integrity refused to alienate the minutest object without the consent of the caliph; and the well-known answer of Omar was inspired by the ignorance of a fanatic. "If these writings of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved: if they disagree, they are pernicious, and ought to be destroyed." The sentence was executed with blind obedience: the volumes of paper or parchment were distributed to the four thousand baths of the city; and such was their incredible multitude, that six months were barely sufficient for the consumption of this precious fuel. Since the Dynasties of Abulpharagius ^116 have been given to the world in a Latin version, the tale has been repeatedly transcribed; and every scholar, with pious indignation, has deplored the irreparable shipwreck of the learning, the arts, and the genius, of antiquity. For my own part, I am strongly tempted to deny both the fact and the consequences. ^* The fact is indeed marvellous. "Read and wonder!" says the historian himself: and the solitary report of a stranger who wrote at the end of six hundred years on the confines of Media, is overbalanced by the silence of two annalist of a more early date, both Christians, both natives of Egypt, and the most ancient of whom, the patriarch Eutychius, has amply described the conquest of Alexandria. ^117 The rigid sentence of Omar is repugnant to the sound and orthodox precept of the Mahometan casuists they expressly declare, that the religious books of the Jews and Christians, which are acquired by the right of war, should never be committed to the flames; and that the works of profane science, historians or poets, physicians or philosophers, may be lawfully applied to the use of the faithful. ^118 A more destructive zeal may perhaps be attributed to the first successors of Mahomet; yet in this instance, the conflagration would have speedily expired in the deficiency of materials. I should not recapitulate the disasters of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defence, ^119 or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians, who studied to destroy the monuments of idolatry.... ^120
[Footnote 115: Many treatises of this lover of labor are still extant, but for readers of the present age, the printed and unpublished are nearly in the same predicament. Moses and Aristotle are the chief objects of his verbose commentaries, one of which is dated as early as May 10th, A.D. 617, (Fabric. Bibliot. Graec. tom. ix. p. 458 - 468.) A modern, (John Le Clerc,) who sometimes assumed the same name was equal to old Philoponus in diligence, and far superior in good sense and real knowledge.]
[Footnote 116: Abulpharag. Dynast. p. 114, vers. Pocock. Audi quid factum sit et mirare. It would be endless to enumerate the moderns who have wondered and believed, but I may distinguish with honor the rational scepticism of Renaudot, (Hist. Alex. Patriarch, p. 170: ) historia ... habet aliquid ut Arabibus familiare est.]
[Footnote *: Since this period several new Mahometan authorities have been adduced to support the authority of Abulpharagius. That of, I. Abdollatiph by Professor White: II. Of Makrizi; I have seen a Ms. extract from this writer: III. Of Ibn Chaledun: and after them Hadschi Chalfa. See Von Hammer, Geschichte der Assassinen, p. 17. Reinhard, in a German Dissertation, printed at Gottingen, 1792, and St. Croix, (Magasin Encyclop. tom. iv. p. 433,) have examined the question. Among Oriental scholars, Professor White, M. St. Martin, Von Hammer. and Silv. de Sacy, consider the fact of the burning the library, by the command of Omar, beyond question. Compare St. Martin's note. vol. xi. p. 296. A Mahometan writer brings a similar charge against the Crusaders. The library of Tripoli is said to have contained the incredible number of three millions of volumes. On the capture of the city, Count Bertram of St. Giles, entering the first room, which contained nothing but the Koran, ordered the whole to be burnt, as the works of the false prophet of Arabia. See Wilken. Gesch der Kreux zuge, vol. ii. p. 211. - M.] [Footnote 117: This curious anecdote will be vainly sought in the annals of Eutychius, and the Saracenic history of Elmacin. The silence of Abulfeda, Murtadi, and a crowd of Moslems, is less conclusive from their ignorance of Christian literature.]
[Footnote 118: See Reland, de Jure Militari Mohammedanorum, in his iiid volume of Dissertations, p. 37. The reason for not burning the religious books of the Jews or Christians, is derived from the respect that is due to the name of God.]
[Footnote 119: Consult the collections of Frensheim (Supplement. Livian, c. 12, 43) and Usher, (Anal. p. 469.) Livy himself had styled the Alexandrian library, elegantiae regum curaeque egregium opus; a liberal encomium, for which he is pertly criticized by the narrow stoicism of Seneca, (De Tranquillitate Animi, c. 9,) whose wisdom, on this occasion, deviates into nonsense.]
[Footnote 120: See this History, vol. iii. p. 146.]
At 08:20 PM 09/08/2000 , you wrote: >Reading in "A Short Account of the History of Mathematics" by Ball, I came >upon a passage that said that when the Arab commander gave orders to burn >the library of Alexandria, the Greeks protested so much that the commander >asked the Caliph Omar. The Caliph answered, "As to the books you have >mentioned, if they contain what is agreeable with the book of God, the book >of God is sufficient without them; and, if they contain what is contrary to >the book of God, there is no need for them; so give orders for their >destruction." > >Does anyone know where Ball got this quote? I seem to recall that it comes >from one of the later Roman writers, but I do not recall which one. > >Thank you for your help! > >Michael Button > >************************************************************************** > >Dr. Michael Button >Department of Mathematics phone: (661) 259-3540 X 3163 >The Master's College e-ddress: firstname.lastname@example.org >21726 Placerita Canyon Road fax: (661) 253-4080 >Santa Clarita, CA 91321-1200 > >**************************************************************************