Book Burning – A Long Cherished Tradition in Fundamental Islam

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Most students of Indian history are aware of the twelfth-century destruction of the great library of Nalanda University (Bihar, India) by Bakhtiar Khilji. Sadly, this was by no means an isolated incident. In fact, the destruction of knowledge has been a long-cherished tradition in fundamental Islam.

This article chronicles a number of incidents involving the mindless destruction of priceless ancient books by Islamic barbarians. Some of these incidents are only a few decades old!

Note: The material in this article is based on the Wikipedia article titled “List of Book Burning Incidents” (

Destruction of Nalanda University by Bakhtiar Khilji

976 CE: Cardoba, Andalus (Spain)  

Al-Mansur ibn Abi Aamir, in a fit of ultra-orthodoxy, ordered all the ancient science books in the al-Hakam library in Cardoba to be destroyed.

1029 CE: Rayy, Persia

Mahmud of Ghazni ordered the library of Rayy and all its books deemed heretical to be destroyed. Evidently, the Rayy emirate was of the Shia persuasion, whose literature apparently had offended Mahmud’s Sunni sensibilities.

1034 CE: Isfahan, Persia

Another Sunni invader, Sultan Mas’ud I, conquered the Shia emirate of Isfahan, Persia, in 1034 CE and had the entire library destroyed.

1151 CE: Ghazna, Afghanistan

Ghaznavid was a Muslim Turkic dynasty of mamluk origin. At its zenith, it ruled large parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and the northwest Indian subcontinent. In 1151, Ala al-Din Husayn of the Gurid dynasty overran Ghazna and set the city on fire. The libraries and the palaces built by the Ghaznavids were destroyed. Ironically, history records Ala al-Din Husayn as the greatest Gurid king!

1153 CE: Maldives

In 1153, Maldives converted to Islam as the state religion from Buddhism – a religion they had followed for more than a thousand years. Immediately following the conversion, the Buddhist monks were beheaded, the statues of Buddha were destroyed, and all the Buddhist texts were burnt.

1154 CE: Nishapur, Persia

Nishapur was an ancient Silk Road city in Northeastern Iran. In 1154, it was overrun by Oghuz Turks, who burned the city, sacked its libraries, and set them on fire.

1193 CE: Nalanda University, India

The library of Nalanda, known as Dharma Gunj (Mountain of Truth, was the most renowned repository of Hindu and Buddhist knowledge in the world at the time. Its collection was said to comprise hundreds of thousands of volumes, so extensive that it burned for months when set aflame in 1193 by Bakhtiar Khilji, a Muslim zealot.

12th Century CE: Al-Azhar, Egypt

Al-Azhar is a relic of the Isma’ili Shi’a Fatimid dynasty, claiming its descent from Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad. In the 12th century, Saladin, the founder of the Sunni Ayyubid Dynasty, overthrew the Fatimid Dynasty and converted Al-Azhar into a Sunni center of learning. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden, 1936, 3rd vol., p. 353), “He had all the treasures of the palace, including the books, sold over a period of ten years. Many were burned, thrown into the Nile, or thrown into a great heap covered with sand so that a regular “hill of books” was formed…. The number of books said to have been disposed of varies from 120,000 to 2,000,000.”

12-13th Centuries: India

Muslims considered Buddhism to be idolatrous religion. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Turko-Mongol invaders set the Buddhist texts to fire, destroyed hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, and killed thousands of monks.

1256 CE: Alamut Castle, Persia

The invading Mongols destroyed the famous library of the Alamut Castle, Persia, the main stronghold of the Nizari Isma’ilis.

1258 CE: Baghdad

The Mongol invaders destroyed the famous “House of Wisdom” in 1258, along with many other libraries in Baghdad. It was said that the waters of the Tigris River ran black for six months with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river. [There is some question about whether the Mongols had yet converted to Islam, although one wonders if that would have made a difference – Ed.]

1885 CE, Sudan

After establishing his rule over Sudan in 1885, Muhammad Ahmad, known as the Mahdi, authorized the burning of Muslim law and theology books because of their association with the old order that the Mahdi had overthrown.

(Editor’s note: The more-than-six-century gap between the last two episodes is highly unusual in Islamic history. More research is required to confirm the validity of or to fill this gap)

1946-47 CE, Kurdish Republic

In 1946, the pro-Soviet Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in northern Iran was overrun by the Iranian army, burning all Kurdish language books that they could find, and banning the teaching of the Kurdish language.

1988 CE, The Satanic Verses (worldwide)

The 1988 publication of the novel The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was met with angry protests and riots around the world by Islamic fundamentalists. There were a number of book-burning incidents in the United Kingdom and the firebombing of two bookstores in California.

1987 CE: Kabul, Afghanistan

The Nasir-i Khusraw Foundation in Kabul housed book publishing facilities, a museum, and a library that held a collection of fifty-five thousand books,  including an extremely rare 12th-century manuscript of Firdawsi’s masterpiece The Book of Kings (Shāhnāma). In 1998, the Taliban ransacked the press, the museum, and the library, destroying some books in the fire and throwing others in a nearby river. Not a single book was spared, including a thousand-year-old Quran.

2001 CE: Egypt

In January 2001, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture ordered the burning of some 6,000 books of homoerotic poetry by the well-known 8th Century Persian-Arab poet Abu Nuwas, even though his writings are considered classics of Arab literature.

And the tradition continues…

Dr. Jai Bansal is a retired scientist, currently serving as the VP Education for the World Hindu Council of America (VHPA)