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Ibn al-Haytham or Alhazen ( 965 CE to 1039 CE)

January 13, 2008


Quotes of Mowlana Hazar Imam, Aga Khan IV, put this whole thing into context:

In the great expansion of Muslim culture from the 8th through the 11th century, centres of learning flourished from Persia to Andalusia. I do not have to tell this audience about the glories of Al-Azhar established 1000 years ago by the Fatimids. This audience knows full well about the foresight of al-Ma'mun and the Timurid empire and in taking knowledge from all quarters and using it to benefit their society. As Ibn Khaldun wrote, "the Muslims desired to learn the sciences of foreign nations. They made them their own through translations. They pressed them into the mould of their own views. They took them over into their own language from the non-Arab languages and surpassed the achievements of the non-Arabs in them." (Aga Khan IV at the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Aga Khan University, 1993)

From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilizations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded (Brown University, 1996).

Excerpt of address made by Mowlana Hazar Imam to the graduating students at the Aga Khan University, December 2nd 2006:"That quest for a better life, among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must lead inevitably to the Knowledge Society which is developing in our time. The great and central question facing the Ummah of today is how it will relate to the Knowledge Society of tomorrow. If we judge from Islamic history, there is much to encourage us. For century after century, the Arabs, the Persians, the Turks and many other Islamic societies achieved powerful leadership roles in the worldónot only politically and economically but also intellectually. Some ill-informed historians and biased commentators have tried to argue that these successes were essentially produced by military power, but this view is profoundly incorrect. The fundamental reason for the pre-eminence of Islamic civilizations lay neither in accidents of history nor in acts of war, but rather in their ability to discover new knowledge, to make it their own, and to build constructively upon it. They became the Knowledge Societies of their time."(Aga Khan IV, 2006)

In this context, would it not also be relevant to consider how, above all, it has been the Qur'anic notion of the universe as an expression of Allah's will and creation that has inspired, in diverse Muslim communities, generations of artists, scientists and philosophers? Scientific pursuits, philosophic inquiry and artistic endeavour are all seen as the response of the faithful to the recurring call of the Qur'an to ponder the creation as a way to understand Allah's benevolent majesty. As Sura al-Baqara proclaims: 'Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah'.The famous verse of 'light' in the Qur'an, the Ayat al-Nur, whose first line is rendered here in the mural behind me, inspires among Muslims a reflection on the sacred, the transcendent. It hints at a cosmos full of signs and symbols that evoke the perfection of Allah's creation and mercy. (Aga Khan IV,Speech, 2003, London, U.K.)

This is an excellent article in the continuing education series for lifelong learning put out by the Institute of Ismaili Studies:

A good chunk of what Ibn al-Haytham and others uncovered in the 8th and 9th centuries regarding the laws of motion and aspects of gravity were later attributed to Galileo and Newton in the 16th and 17th centuries. If one looks at some of the engineering marvels created by muslim scientists during what is often called the golden age of Islam, one can perhaps surmise that they must have worked out and understood some of these universal laws a full 700 years before they were officially attributed to scientists of the European Renaissance:

Lifelong Learning: Articles, January 2007

Ibn al-Haytham or Alhazen
Dr Nader El-Bizri

This is an edited version of an article orignially published in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia, Vol. II, p. 343-345, ed. Josef W. Meri, Routledge (New York-London, 2006).

Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, known in Latin as Alhazen (b. 965 CE, Basra / d. after 1041 CE, Cairo) was one of the greatest of classical mathematicians, and a revolutionary reformer of the science of optics, as well as being a celebrated astronomer. He was the author of the influential text: Kitab al-manazir (Optics; titled in Latin as: De Aspectibus or Perspectivae), and his theories of light and vision impacted the development of the perspective traditions of European mediaeval scholars and Renaissance theorists of art and architecture. His extensive and advanced mathematical investigations in conics furthered the unfolding of the scientific disciplines of dioptrics and catoptrics, as well as facilitated his prolific and leading research in astronomy and meteorology. He also excelled in his research in infinitesimal mathematics, in arithmetic and number theory.

Download PDF version of article (29 KB)

Key words:
Kitab al-Manazir, imam caliph al-Hakim, Renaissance, science, art, mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, physics, intromission, extromission, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Risala fi'l-makan, Treatise on Light, Optics, conception of place (topos), analytical geometry, law of motion.Ibn al-Haytham

The polymath Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (ca.965-1041 CE), known in Latin as Alhazen, was born in Basra, Iraq. After completing his studies in Iraq, he settled in Egypt, wherein he was commissioned by the Fatimid imam caliph al-Hakim (1021 CE) to design a dam on the Nile. Although his prolific contributions covered a variety of disciplines in mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics, his impact was greatest in the field of optics. His chef-d'ouvre Kitab al-Manazir (The Optics, ca. 1027 CE), which was translated into Latin as De aspectibus (ca. 1270 CE), decisively shaped the emerging theory of perspective in medieval and Renaissance science and art. His influence is noticeable in medieval scholars such as Roger Bacon, John Peckam, and Witelo, and in Renaissance theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

In medieval science in Islam, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi's Tanqih al-Manazir (The Revision of the Optics) advanced the most substantive critical interpretation of Ibn al-Haytham. His theory of vision constituted an outstanding achievement in optics in the period between Claudius Ptolemy and Johannes Kepler. He resolved the ancient Greek dispute over the nature and causation of vision, which had either been derived, in physical terms, from the intromission of the form of a visible object into the eye or from the mathematical model of the extromission of a cone of light from the eye. Following physicists like Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham argued that vision occurs by intromission of the luminous form of the visible object into the eye. However, in elucidating this process, he employed the model of the cone of vision as formulated by mathematicians such as Euclid and Ptolemy. He thus demonstrated that vision results from the intromission of a luminous form by way of the rectilinear propagation of light through a transparent medium; there is a virtual cone whose vertex is in the centre of the eye and whose base is on the surface of the visible entity. He also held that visual perception is not a mere sensation but is primarily an inferential act of discernment and judgement.

Moreover, he supplemented his Optics with Treatise on Light (Risala fi l-Daw'), which further investigated the essence and comportment of luminosity and its radiant dispersion through various transparent and translucent media. His ocular observations were founded on anatomical examinations of the structure of the eye, as well as being supported by experimental installations devised to detect errors and illusions in visual perception and to explore phenomena like the camera obscura (the darkroom principle behind the pinhole camera). Ibn al-Haytham also investigated meteorological aspects related to the rainbow and to the density of the atmosphere, as well as inquiring about the nature of celestial phenomena such as the eclipse, the twilight, and moonlight. In this endeavour, he relied on his accounts of refraction and on catoptrical experimentations with spherical and parabolic mirrors and magnifying lenses.

He also presented a thorough critique of the conception of place (topos) as set in Aristotle's Physics, wherein it was stated that the place of something is the two-dimensional boundary of the containing body that is at rest and is in contact with what it contains. In contrast with this definition, Ibn al-Haytham rather attempted to demonstrate in his Risala fi'l-makan (Treatise on Place) that place (al-makan) is the imagined three-dimensional void between the inner surfaces of the containing body. Consequently, he showed that place was akin to space in a manner that prefigures Descartes' extensio. Building on the legacy of Euclid, and partly informed by the works of the mathematician Thabit ibn Qurra (d. 901 CE), Ibn al-Haytham further systematised the arts of analytical geometry (linking algebra to geometry), infinitesimal mathematics, conics, and number theory. In addition, he studied the mechanics of the first law of motion according to which it is held that a body moves perpetually unless prevented from doing so by an external force that arrests it or alters its direction. In examining the attraction between masses, he also seems to have been tangentially aware of the magnitude of acceleration due to a principle akin to the force of gravity. A pioneer in his pursuits, he also strived to develop rigorous experimental methods of controlled scientific testing in view of verifying theoretical hypotheses and substantiating inductive conjectures.

The Institute of Ismaili Studies also placed this article on Ibn al-Haytham on its website:

Finally, the Institute of Ismaili Studies has placed the article below from its gallery back onto its main page. I posted the link to this article before on my blogsite but its worth another review. It talks about four giants from the "Knowledge Society" of the 10th to 13th centuries, Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Butlan and Nasir al-Din Tusi:

After this article was posted on my blogsite I received an e-mail from one Bradley Steffens, award-winning prolific author, poet and lyricist:

"I read with interest your posting about the four giants of 10th to 13th century science. Considering that, I thought you might like to know about my new book, Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist."

"Born in Basra in 965, Ibn al-Haytham was the first person to test hypotheses with verifiable experiments, developing the modern scientific method more than two hundred years before European scholars learned of itóby reading his books.

To test his hypothesis that "lights and colors do not blend in the air," for example, Ibn al-Haytham devised the world's first camera obscura, observed what happened when light rays intersected at its aperture, and recorded the results in what would become Kitab al Manazir (Book of Optics). Ibn al-Haytham conducted this and other experiments investigating the properties of light during a ten-year period when he was stripped of his possessions and imprisoned as a madman in Cairo.

How Ibn al-Haytham came to be in Egypt, why he was judged insane, and how his discoveries launched the scientific revolution are just some of the questions answered in Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist, the world's first biography of the Muslim scholar known in the West as Alhazen or Alhacen.

Abdul Jabbar Al-Shammari, the director of the Ibn al-Haitham Center for Science and Technology in Amman, Jordan, writes: "I enjoyed reading about the events in the life of our scientist, Ibn al-Haitham. I congratulate you on writing a fantastic and accurate book."

E. Salik of Los Angeles writes: "I recently read Steffens' book on Ibn al-Haytham. This is one of the best books I have ever read. His comments on historical data are commended."

It is the first full biography of Ibn al-Haytham to be published in English (or any other language, as far as I know). It has received excellent reviews, which are available on my website:

Interestingly Mowlana Hazar Imam, Aga Khan IV, has this to say about the "spirit of disciplined, objective enquiry", "independent thinking" and engaging "both orthodox and unorthodox ideas, seeking truth and understanding wherever they may be found":

The truth, as the famous Islamic scholars repeatedly told their students, is that the spirit of disciplined, objective enquiry is the property of no single culture, but of all humanity. To quote the great physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina: "My profession is to forever journeying, to travel about the universe so that I may know all its conditions." (Aga Khan IV, Speech, 16 March 1983, Karachi, Pakistan)

An institution dedicated to proceeding beyond known limits must be committed to independent thinking. In a university scholars engage both orthodox and unorthodox ideas, seeking truth and understanding wherever they may be found. That process is often facilitated by an independent governance structure, which serves to ensure that the university adheres to its fundamental mission and is not pressured to compromise its work for short-term advantage. For a Muslim university it is appropriate to see learning and knowledge as a continuing acknowledgement of Allah's magnificence.(Aga Khan IV, Speech, 1993, Aga Khan University) Easy Nash aka easynash

The Qur'an itself repeatedly recommends Muslims to become better educated in order better to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
The Quran tells us that signs of Allah's Sovereignty are found in the contemplation of His Creation: Aga Khan IV(2007)
This notion of the capacity of the human intellect to understand and to admire the creation of Allah will bring you happiness in your everyday lives: Aga Khan IV(2007)
Islam, eminently logical, placing the greatest emphasis on knowledge, purports to understand God's creation: Aga Khan IV(2006)

Posted by Easy Nash at 6:13 PM

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