I have now located the passage where Gibbon discusses the destruction of the library of Alexandria by the Arabs, as recounted by Bar Hebraeus, and thereby gave rise to a large progeny of English-language quotations of the words of Omar given in it. It may be found here. Unfortunately I haven’t found a reliable volume/page number reference.
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)
115. Many treatises of this lover of labor (=philoponus) 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.
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 honour the rational scepticism of Renaudot, (Hist. Alex. Patriarch, p. 170: ) historia … habet aliquid ut απιστον ut Arabibus familiare est.
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.
It is remarkable that this does not involve a verbatim translation of Pococke’s text. But such a translation seems elusive. Could it be that few people can work out who the Severan monophysites were, so omit the words?