Book Review

  • Issue 63 / May - June 2008

    Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist

    Ertan Salik

    Bradley Steffens is the author of twenty-seven nonfiction books for children and young adults. Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist is one of his recent books, published in the series Profiles in Science by Morgan Reynolds Publishing. When I first read the title of this book, I could not help asking myself whether calling Ibn al-Haytham the first scientist was an overstatement. I was aware of Ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhazen in the West, and his contributions to science and especially optics, but I had never thought of him as the father of science, as we know it now. That is, I had not thought of him as father of the experimental science that has given rise to the understanding of so many phenomena in the universe, the science that is the foundation of the technological accomplishments of the present day.

    The author describes Ibn al-Haytham’s life in chronological order, with the last chapter concentrating on the occurrences after his death and how his contributions were inherited by especially Western scientists. He starts the book by describing the environment in and around Basra, a city in the south of what is now Iraq, where Ibn al-Haytham was born in 965 AD. After narrating the story of the spread of Islam in the region, the author indicates that the Muslims showed great interest in the knowledge of their subjects:

    “The thirst for knowledge was partly from the religious philosophy of Islam. The Qur’an says: ‘Those who remember Allah [God]…reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth.’ Prophet Muhammad says: ‘Seeking knowledge is a duty upon every Muslim.’”

    The first chapter “Boyhood in Basra” continues with Muslims’ interest in the writings of ancient Greeks, especially Caliph al-Ma’mun and his founding of Bait-ul-Hikmat, or the “House of Wisdom,” a center dedicated to the study and translation of books. The author notes the fact that Muslims did not merely collect and translate the works of other cultures, but absorbed the material and added to it, making it their own. He adds, “This was true not only in literature, but also in science and mathematics. Muslim advances in these areas changed the course of human history.” The mathematical breakthrough of the invention of the number zero by al-Khwarizmi and Abu Kamil’s contributions to advanced algebra are mentioned.

    The first chapter ends with a description of the education system in the 10th century Middle East. Many books, translations and original works, found their place in libraries, sometimes attached to mosques. Ibn al-Haytham’s early education took place at the mosque of Basra. The tradition was that every teacher would take up a position by a pillar while the students sat on the floor in a semicircle around him. Munazarah, or debates, were required of every student, where students were posed controversial and difficult questions. The winner was determined according to the thoroughness of the student’s answer and soundness of his logic. Some teachers required students to produce copies of the books, as books were difficult to reproduce. While in the mosques religion, literature, grammar, and rhetoric were taught, the sciences were taught generally in the private homes of amateur scholars. Ibn al-Haytham first studied theology, Qur’an, Hadith (a collection of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings), and law.

    The author quotes Ibn al-Haytham explaining why he was inspired to study philosophy and science: “I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.” Steffens describes Sunnah and Shi’ite theologies, as the disagreements between Muslim sects troubled young Ibn al-Haytham. He realized that if one belief was true, then a conflicting belief could not be true. False beliefs were dangerous, he reasoned, as they obscured the truth and led believers away from God. After studying various belief systems in depth, he concluded that, in his words, “whatever differences exist between them are based not on the basic tenets of faith or the Ultimate Reality but on sociological content.” In his autobiography Ibn Haytham later wrote, “I studied in considerable detail the beliefs of various sects, thoughts, and theological systems, but I failed to gain anything which could point the way to Reality.” When Ibn al-Haytham discovered the works of Aristotle, he decided to examine the works of God in the universe, rather than studying the words of men. He not only wrote summaries for Aristotle’s works, but also commentaries. He also studied mathematics by Euclid as well as Ptolemy and Archimedes.

    The author quotes from Qaysar that Ibn al-Haytham thought about resigning from the government office he was appointed to because of his love of pure learning. This was almost impossible, however, as resignation would have insulted the person who appointed him. He could not run away as this would bring dishonor to his family. According to Qaysar, Ibn al-Haytham pretended to be insane. The author makes a very detailed analysis of what may have actually happened by examining Ibn al-Haytham’s character and the claim that he misleads government officials by playing insane. The author writes, “This behavior seems incongruous with what is known of Ibn al-Haytham’s character and his commitment to Islam, which condemns lying.” He concludes, “Real or fake, Ibn al-Haytham’s mental breakdown allowed him to escape the drudgery of his government job.”

    The book then concentrates on how Ibn-al Haytham traveled to Egypt, where he would make most of his contributions to science and especially optics. His invention of the camera obscura (the pinhole camera), his correct description of vision occurring when light rays enter the eye and stimulate the optic nerve, the fact that light travels in straight rays, and radiates from every point on a luminous object in all directions are all mentioned, along with some errors in his famous book Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics). Most importantly, the author goes into great detail about how Ibn al-Haytham performed his research to arrive at these conclusions. Because Ibn al-Haytham established and used the scientific method as we know it today, it becomes apparent why the author calls him the first scientist. The author includes striking examples with diagrams and pictures demonstrating Ibn al Haytham’s experiments.

    In his late life, Ibn al-Haytham supported himself by copying manuscripts, as well as teaching in Cairo. The author reports a story from al-Bayhaqi: “Ibn al-Haytham agreed to tutor a Syrian nobleman, Surkhab, but demanded one hundred dinars a month for payment. The price was high, but Surkhab did not hesitate to pay the fee. For years the Syrian studied with Ibn al-Haytham. At the end of his time, his education complete, Surkhab bid his tutor farewell. Ibn al-Haytham asked the nobleman to wait a moment. ‘You deserve this money all the more,’ Ibn al-Haytham said, returning all 3,600 dinars to Surkhab, ‘since I just wished to test your sincerity and, when I saw that for the sake of learning you cared little for money, I devoted full attention towards your education. Do remember that, in any righteous cause, it is not good to accept a return, a bribe, or a gift.”

    In chapter six, the author gives a list of Ibn al-Haytham’s books (about 182 according to Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah), and ends the chapter with a possible journey back to Basra, or a continued stay in Cairo with Ibn al-Haytham’s return to God around 1040 AD. Steffens writes, “He turned towards the Ka’aba, and recited a verse from the Qur’an: ‘Verily my return is to You; I rely upon You and turn unto You.’”

    The author ends his book by giving an account of occurrences after Ibn al-Haytham’s death, such as the reason why many works by Ibn Haytham went missing, and how his contributions transferred to Europe. As interest in pure science waned in the Muslim world, the opposite was happening in Europe, the author writes. After giving an account of how Christians in Europe viewed science, he talks about the role of Andalus (current-day Spain) in disseminating knowledge in the Muslim World towards Europe. Also a translator in Toledo translated Ibn al-Haytham’s Kitab al-Manazir, and titled the book De aspectibus, or The Optics. He called the author Alhacen, a Latinized form of al-Hasan. De aspectibus fascinated European scholars. The last chapter recounts how Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, wrote Perspectiva, a book on optics based largely on Ibn al-Haytham’s work. One important analysis Steffens makes is very significant:

    “Although Roger Bacon acknowledged his debt to Ibn al-Haytham in the field of optics, he did not give the Iraqi scholar credit for having developed the method of inquiry that he strongly advanced. Instead, Bacon praised Peter Peregrinus, a French scholar he met while he was in Paris, as the master of experiments.”

    The author explains the reasons behind this by taking a very careful historian’s approach:
    “Bacon may have credited Peregrinus over Ibn al-Haytham for pioneering the experimental method because he knew the Frenchman personally and revered his work. Another motive may have been the fact that both Bacon and Peregrinus were devout Christians at a time when Muslims and Christians were fighting for control of Jerusalem and the areas around it in a series of wars known as Crusades. Bacon was a member of the clergy and Peregrinus even fought in one of the Crusades himself. Because of these ongoing conflicts, Bacon may have felt that attaching a Muslim scholar’s name to the scientific method may have slowed down its acceptance among the Christians.”

    The book also includes many colorful illustrations from the pages of history relevant to understanding Ibn al-Haytham’s life and his contributions to science. The timeline at the end is very informative. Finally, it has sources, a bibliography, and web pages, which direct the interested reader to further information. I congratulate Bradley Steffens for his beautiful work about Ibn al-Haytham and his advancement of experimental science. I end with the last quotation of the book from Ibn al-Haytham which acts as a general guide for all serious scientists: “The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency. Thus the job of the man who investigates the writings of scientist, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and applying his mind to the core and margins of its content, attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”


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