Anybody with a basic knowledge of the history of Western science will know that there is a standard narrative of its development that goes something like this. Its roots are firmly planted in the cultures of ancient Egypt and Babylon and it bloomed for the first time in ancient Greece, reaching a peak in the work of Ptolemaeus in astronomy and Galen in medicine in the second-century CE. It then goes into decline along with the Roman Empire effectively disappearing from Europe by the fifth-century CE. It began to re-emerge in the Islamic Empire in the eight-century CE from whence it was brought back into Europe beginning in the twelfth-century CE. In Europe it began to bloom again in the Renaissance transforming into modern science in the so-called Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth-century. There is much that is questionable in this broad narrative but that is not the subject of this post.
In earlier versions of this narrative, its European propagators claimed that the Islamic scholars who appropriated Greek knowledge in the eighth-century and then passed it back to their European successors, beginning in the twelfth-century, only conserved that knowledge, effectively doing nothing with it and not increasing it. For these narrators their heroes of science were either ancient Greeks or Early Modern Europeans; Islamic scholars definitely did not belong to the pantheon. However, a later generation of historians of science began to research the work of those Islamic scholars, reading, transcribing, translating and analysing their work and showing that they had in fact made substantial contributions to many areas of science and mathematics, contributions that had flowed into modern European science along with the earlier Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian contributions. Also Islamic scholars such as al-Biruni, al-Kindi, al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, al-Khwarizmi and many others were on a level with such heroes of science as Archimedes, Ptolemaeus, Galen or Kepler, Galileo and Newton. Although this work redressed the balance there is still much work to be done on the breadth and deep of Islamic science.
Unfortunately the hagiographic, amateur, wannabe pop historians of science now entered the field keen to atone for the sins of the earlier Eurocentric historical narrative and began to exaggerate the achievements of the Islamic scholars to show how superior they were to the puny Europeans who stole their ideas, like the colonial bullies who stole their lands. There came into being a type of hagiographical popular history of Islamic science that owes more to the Thousand and One Nights than it does to any form of serious historical scholarship. I came across an example of this last week during the Gravity Fields Festival, an annual shindig put on in Grantham to celebrate the life and work of one Isaac Newton, late of that parish.
On Twitter Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed (@Ammar_Ibn_AA) tweeted the following:
I’m sorry to let you know that Isaac Newton learned about gravity from the books of Ibn al-Haytham
I naturally responded in my usual graceless style that this statement was total rubbish to which Ammār ibn Aziz Ahmed responded with a link to his ‘source’
I answered this time somewhat more moderately that a very large part of that article is quite simply wrong. One of my Internet friends, a maths librarian (@MathsBooks) told me I was being unfair and that I should explain what was wrong with his source, so here I am.
The article in question is one of many potted biographies of al-Haytham that you can find dotted all other the Internet and which are mostly virtual clones of each other. They all contain the same collection of legends, half-truths, myths and straightforward lies usually without sources, or, as in this case, quoting bad popular books written by a non-historian as their source. It is fairly obvious that they all plagiarise each other without bothering to consult original sources or the work done by real historian of science on the life and work of al-Haytham.
The biography of al-Haytham is, like that of most medieval Islamic scholars, badly documented and very patchy at best. Like most popular accounts this article starts with the legend of al-Haytham’s feigned madness and ten-year incarceration. This legend is not mentioned in all the biographical sources and should be viewed with extreme scepticism by anybody seriously interested in the man and his work. The article then moves on to the most pernicious modern myth concerning al-Haytham that he was the ‘first real scientist’.
This claim is based on a misrepresentation of what al-Haytham did. He did not as the article claims introduce the scientific method, whatever that might be. For a limited part of his work al-Haytham used experiments to prove points, for the majority of it he reasoned in exactly the same way as the Greek philosophers whose heir he was. Even where he used the experimental method he was doing nothing that could not be found in the work of Archimedes or Ptolemaeus. There is also an interesting discussion outlined in Peter Dear’s Discipline and Experience (1995) as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century; Dear concludes that he doesn’t. (pp. 51-53) It is, however, interesting to sketch how this ‘misunderstanding’ came about.
The original narrative of the development of Western science not only denied the contribution of the Islamic Empire but also claimed that the Middle Ages totally rejected science, modern science only emerging after the Renaissance had reclaimed the Greek scientific inheritance. The nineteenth-century French physicist and historian of science, Pierre Duhem, was the first to challenge this fairy tale claiming instead, based on his own researches, that the Scientific Revolution didn’t take place in the seventeenth–century but in the High Middle Ages, “the mechanics and physics of which modern times are justifiably proud to proceed, by an uninterrupted series of scarcely perceptible improvements, from doctrines professed in the heart of the medieval schools.” After the Second World War Duhem’s thesis was modernised by the Australian historian of science, Alistair C. Crombie, whose studies on medieval science in general and Robert Grosseteste in particular set a new high water mark in the history of science. Crombie attributed the origins of modern science and the scientific method to Grosseteste and Roger Bacon in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries. A view that has been somewhat modified and watered down by more recent historians, such as David Lindberg. Enter Matthias Schramm.
Matthias Schramm was a German historian of science who wrote his doctoral thesis on al-Haytham. A fan of Crombie’s work Schramm argued that the principle scientific work of Grosseteste and Bacon in physical optics was based on the work of al-Haytham, correct for Bacon not so for Grosseteste, and so he should be viewed as the originator of the scientific method and not they. He makes this claim in the introduction to his Ibn al-Haythams Weg zur Physik (1964), but doesn’t really substantiate it in the book itself. (And yes, I have read it!) Al-Haytham’s use of experiment is very limited and to credit him with being the inventor of the scientific method is a step too far. However since Schramm made his claims they have been expanded, exaggerated and repeated ad nauseam by the al-Haytham hagiographers.
We now move on to what is without doubt al-Haytham’s greatest achievement his Book of Optics, the most important work on physical optics written between Ptolemaeus in the second-century CE and Kepler in the seventeenth-century. Our author writes:
In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works. Using dissections and the knowledge of previous scholars, he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focused, and is projected to the back of the eye.
Here our author demonstrates very clearly that he really has no idea what he is talking about. It should be very easy to write a clear and correct synopsis of al-Haytham’s achievements, as there is a considerable amount of very good literature on his Book of Optics, but our author gets it wrong.
Al-Haytham didn’t prove or disprove anything he rationally argued for a plausible hypothesis concerning light and vision, which was later proved to be, to a large extent, correct by others. The idea that vision consists of rays (not light) coming out of the eyes (extramission) is only one of several ideas used to explain vision by Greek thinkers. That vision is the product of light entering the eyes (intromission) also originates with the Greeks. The idea that light bounces off every point of an object in every direction comes from al-Haytham’s Islamic predecessor al-Kindi. Al-Haytham’s great achievement was to combine an intromission theory of vision with the geometrical optics of Euclid, Heron and Ptolemaeus (who had supported an extramission theory) integrating al-Kindi’s punctiform theory of light reflection. In its essence, this theory is fundamentally correct. The second part of the paragraph quoted above, on the structure and function of the eye, is pure fantasy and bears no relation to al-Haytham’s work. His views on the subject were largely borrowed from Galen and were substantially wrong.
Next up we have the pinhole camera or better camera obscura, although al-Haytham was probably the first to systematically investigate the camera obscura its basic principle was already known to the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the fifth-century BCE and Aristotle in the fourth-century BCE. The claims for al-Haytham’s studies of atmospheric refraction are also hopelessly exaggerated.
We the have an interesting statement on the impact of al-Haytham’s optics, the author writes:
The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to build the same devices as he did, and understand the way light works. From this, such important things as eyeglasses, magnifying glasses, telescopes, and cameras were developed.
The Book of Optics did indeed have a massive impact on European optics in Latin translation from the work of Bacon in the thirteenth-century up to Kepler in the seventeenth-century and this is the principle reason why he counts as one of the very important figures in the history of science, however I wonder what devices the author is referring to here, I know of none. Interesting in this context is that The Book of Optics appears to have had very little impact on the development of physical optics in the Islamic Empire. One of the anomalies in the history of science and technology is the fact that as far was we know the developments in optical physics made by al-Haytham, Bacon, Witelo, Kepler et al had no influence on the invention of optical instruments, glasses, magnifying glasses, the telescope, which were developed along a parallel but totally separate path.
Moving out of optics we get told about al-Haytham’s work in astronomy. It is true that he like many other Islamic astronomers criticised Ptolemaeus and suggested changes in his system but his influence was small in comparison to other Islamic astronomers. What follows is a collection of total rubbish.
He had a great influence on Isaac Newton, who was aware of Ibn al-Haytham’s works.
He was not an influence on Newton. Newton would have been aware of al-Haytham’s work in optics but by the time Newton did his own work in this field al-Haytham’s work had been superseded by that of Kepler, Scheiner, Descartes and Gregory amongst others.
He studied the basis of calculus, which would later lead to the engineering formulas and methods used today.
Al-Haytham did not study the basis of calculus!
He also wrote about the laws governing the movement of bodies (later known as Newton’s 3 laws of motion)
Like many others before and after him al-Haytham did discuss motion but he did not come anywhere near formulating Newton’s laws of motion, this claim is just pure bullshit.
and the attraction between two bodies – gravity. It was not, in fact, the apple that fell from the tree that told Newton about gravity, but the books of Ibn al-Haytham.
We’re back in bullshit territory again!
If anybody thinks I should give a more detailed refutation of these claims and not just dismiss them as bullshit, I can’t because al-Haytham never ever did the things being claimed. If you think he did then please show me where he did so then I will be prepared to discuss the matter, till then I’ll stick to my bullshit!
I shall examine one more claim from this ghastly piece of hagiography. Our author writes the following:
When his books were translated into Latin as the Spanish conquered Muslim lands in the Iberian Peninsula, he was not referred to by his name, but rather as “Alhazen”. The practice of changing the names of great Muslim scholars to more European sounding names was common in the European Renaissance, as a means to discredit Muslims and erase their contributions to Christian Europe.
Alhazen is merely the attempt by the unknown Latin translator of The Book of Optics to transliterate the Arabic name al-Haytham there was no discrimination intended or attempted.
Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham is without any doubt an important figure in the history of science whose contribution, particularly those in physical optics, should be known to anybody taking a serious interest in the subject, but he is not well served by inaccurate, factually false, hagiographic crap like that presented in the article I have briefly discussed here.
 Throughout this post I will refer to Islamic science an inadequate but conventional term. An alternative would be Arabic science, which is equally problematic. Both terms refer to the science produced within the Islamic Empire, which was mostly written in Arabic, as European science in the Middle Ages was mostly written in Latin. The terms do not intend to imply that all of the authors were Muslims, many of them were not, or Arabs, again many of them were not.
 For a good account of the history of optics including a detailed analysis of al-Haytham’s contributions read David C. Lindberg’s Theories of Vision: From al-Kindi to Kepler, University of Chicago Press, 1976.