The unfortunate backlash in the historiography of Islamic science

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[1] 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[2].

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.






[1] 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.

[2] 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.


Filed under History of Optics, History of Physics, Mediaeval Science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

36 responses to “The unfortunate backlash in the historiography of Islamic science

  1. Laurence Cox

    There is evidence though that Ibn Sahl was the first discoverer of what we now call Snell’s Law (the law of refraction that links the sines of the angles of incidence and refraction) and his work was used by Ibn Al-Haytham.

    • There is no evidence that al-Haytham knew of Ibn Sahl’s discovery of the law of refraction.

      • Laurence Cox

        “The work contains a complete formulation of the laws of reflection and a detailed investigation of refraction, including experiments involving angles of incidence and deviation. Refraction is correctly explained by light’s moving slower in denser mediums”
        taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica article online.

      • The article that you quote does not state that al-Haytham knew the law of refraction for the simple reason that he didn’t.

      • I added my brief comment late last night on my iPad and didn’t feel like a long explanation, so I’m adding that now.

        What does the quote you posted actually say? A complete formulation of the laws of reflection could already be found in the Catoptrics of Euclid, known to al-Haytham. Al-Haytham’s investigations of refraction do not differ substantially from those of Ptolemaeus on which they are modelled, including the experiments and measurements.

        The only thing here original to al-Haytham is the explanation of refraction as light moving slower in denser media. An interesting but at that time not particularly fruitful speculation and a speculation was all it was, even if it proved to be correct.

        I wrote the following on the Talk Page for Snell’s Law on Wikipedia almost six years ago. In case you don’t know A. I. Sabra is a leading expert on the history of optics, he is also a leading expert on the history of Islamic science and he translated the Arabic manuscript of al-Haytham’s The Book of Optics into English, so I think we can agree that he knows what he is talking about.

        Al Haythem, A.I.Sabra and the Sine Law of Refraction

        I have removed a sentence from the main text in which it was claimed that Al Haythem had known the sine law of refraction and which gave A.I. Sabra’s Theories of Light From Descartes to Newton as source for this claim. This is not true Al Haythem did not have knowledge of the sine law of refraction and this is clear from the following passage from Sabra(page97):

        Now let us suppose that Ibn al-Haythem moved one step further and assumed the increase… (there follow a series of mathematical deductions)… In other words the sines of the angles of incidence and refraction are in a constant ratio, which is the geometrical statement of the law of refraction .(…) He did not, however, take that step…

        Sabra then goes on to argue that this might have been the route taken by Descarte who knew Al Haythem’s work in discorvering the law of refraction. What we have here is a hypothetical argument concerning the possible route of discovery taken by Descarte and not the claim that Al Haythem had discovered the law himself, which he had not.Thony C. (talk) 13:12, 4 December 2008 (UTC)

      • ouzy

        I would like to know your sources at least the author your criticizing included sources. The part I totally disagree on is the part were the Latin translator didnt mean to discriminate al-Haytham. This is totally false because if it were so then olny al-Haythams name would have been canged into a Latin form. But many other Muslim scientist had thier names Latinized which means it was done on purpose.

  2. About the most extreme example I know of this occurred on wikipedia; I’ll point you at it in case you find it interesting (or a fertile source of posts 😉 but I won’t go into too much detail because it may just be tedious; let me know if its interesting but unclear and you want it expanded. But, it follows very much the pattern you’re explaining: grossly over-exaggerating the value of “Islamic” scholars in order to rebalance. and then in more detail perhaps – which even has the theory of gravity, though this time its being attributed to Muhammad ibn Musa instead.

  3. theofloinn

    Two comments I wouldn’t mind a follow up:
    1. What were the lines that led to eyeglasses and telescopes if not the optics of AlHaytham and Witelo and their ilk? I think the marriage between science and engineering is rather recent, so it’s not astonishing if tinkerers owed little to the “ur-scientists”. Still, it might make for an interesting post.

    2. Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists?

    • jimhexis

      about your second question; Syriac Christians had a key role, especially in the work of translating Greek philosophy into Arabic. Many of the leading lights of the era were Central Asians, Muslims but mostly not Arabs, who were heir to a great, but largely ignored civilization in what we now call the Stans. The region was was arguably more advanced than the Middle East until it was thoroughly ravaged, first by the Arabs and later by the Mongols and Turks. Tough neighborhood. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment is a recent account of the area’s golden age, an attempt to do for Samerkand and Merv what Joseph Needham did for China in Science and Civilization in China.

      • theofloinn

        I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” I knew about the Persians, but hadn’t thought of the Central Asians. Who were they? My impression had been that some of the Names (al-Kindi, al-Haytham, ibn Rushd, et al.) were in fact non-muslim or non-Arab.

      • jimhexis

        Thony addressed some of what you asked. About the issue of the relevance of translations: we tend to distinguish the scientists and the humanists as those who deal with things versus those that deal with the words, but you really can’t separate the two absolutely. Especially in the era before printing, it was a perpetual struggle to preserve the knowledge already attained, an effort that not only involved keeping accurate copies of texts but of preserving the ability to understand ’em in your own language. Many of the great scientists of antiquity were also great philologists; and the Syriac Christians who translated Greek texts into Arabic surely belong to the history of science.

    • Not non-muslim “muslim” scientists but non-muslim Islamic scientists, a small but important difference in terminology. Here the Islamic refers to the Islamic Empire, a political entity, and not to the religion. There are Jews, Zoroastrians, Sabians, and a smattering of Buddhists and even Christians.

      Ethnicity and/or nationality is a major problem when considering the Islamic scholars. The Sasanian (read Persian) Empire was vast and included many ethnicities other than Persian most notably in the translation movement, an important integral part of Islamic science, Syriacs. This problem is illustrated by the modern arguments over whose scientific hero a particular scholar is. Just to give one example al-Khwārizmī is listed in the Wikipedia article as Persian but the region he came from Khwarezm is today mostly in Uzbekistan and many people, including some historians, claim that he was an Uzbek.

      What were the lines that led to eyeglasses and telescopes if not the optics of AlHaytham and Witelo and their ilk?

      Simple answer, we don’t really know! It is a subject much debated by historians of science and technology but which hasn’t really produced any substantive answers.The problem is that the tinkerers as you call them, a very apt term if I may say so, unlike the scientists did not leave behind written records of their achievements.

      • theofloinn

        Yes, I think it is useful to distinguish mathematics (of which astronomy and optics were largely a part) and tinkering/engineering from natural science. These seem to be three threads that eventually converged in the Cartesian thing. But the “exact” sciences were often content with “saving the appearances” and tinkerers were largely interested in how something worked, not with why it worked.

    • Baerista

      A prominent example for a highly influential ‘Arabic’ scientist who wasn’t a Muslim is Thabit b. Qurra, who was among the most frequently cited authorities on astronomy-astrology in the Latin world. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that he was a Christian, but he was actual a follower of the Sabian religion. Another example is Masha’allah, a very popular writer on astrology, who was a Jew.

  4. avi

    Excelent!! and truly Many Thanks

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  6. @MathsBooks

    Your that’s-rubbish-tweet wasn’t very enlightening for me as a self-taught amateur in the history of mathematics …
    Thank you very much for this valuable lesson. You won the challenge!!!

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  8. Another fascinating and informative post! Thanks.

  9. Both Arabic and Islamic are extremely problematic as labels for science! There were many different ethnicities and religions (including zoroastrianism, buddhism, xianity, China as well as the main sects of Islam. Many of these alleged Islamic or Arab scientists were neither!

    For example

    Empires of the Silk Road:
    A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present
    Christopher I. Beckwith

    Book Description | Endorsements | Table of Contents

    COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2009, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to


    Central Eurasia1 is the vast, largely landlocked area in between Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia,2 and the sub-Arctic and Arctic taïgatundra zone. It is one of the six major constituent world areas of the Eurasian continent.

    Because geographical boundaries change along with human cultural and political change, the regions included within Central Eurasia have changed over time. From High Antiquity to the Roman conquests by Julius Caesar and his successors, and again from the fall of the Roman Empire to the end of the Early Middle Ages, Central Eurasia generally included most of Europe north of the Mediterranean zone. Culturally speaking, Central Eurasia was thus a horizontal band from the Atlantic to the Pacific between the warmer peripheral regions to the south and the Arctic to the north. Its approximate limits after the Early Middle Ages (when Central Eurasia was actually at its height and reached its greatest extent) exclude Europe west of the Danube, the Near or Middle East (the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, western and southern Iran, and the Caucasus), South and Southeast Asia, East Asia (Japan, Korea, and China proper), and Arctic and sub-Arctic Northern Eurasia. There are of course no fixed boundaries between any of these regions or areas—all change gradually and imperceptibly into one other—but the central points of each of the peripheral regions are distinctive and clearly non–Central Eurasian. This traditional Central Eurasia has shrunk further with the Europeanization of the Slavs in the Western Steppe during the Middle Ages3 and the settlement of Manchuria and Inner Mongolia by Chinese in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

    What may be called “traditional Central Eurasia” after the Early Middle Ages thus included the temperate zone roughly between the lower Danube River region in the west and the Yalu River region in the east, and between the sub-Arctic taïga forest zone in the north4 and the Himalayas in the south. It included the Western (Pontic) Steppe and North Caucasus Steppe (now Ukraine and south Russia); the Central Steppe and Western Central Asia, also known together as West Turkistan (now Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kirghizstan); Southern Central Asia (now Afghanistan and northeastern Iran); Jungharia and Eastern Central Asia or the Tarim Basin, also known together as East Turkistan (now Xinjiang); Tibet; the Eastern Steppe (now Mongolia and Inner Mongolia); and Manchuria. Of these regions, most of the Western Steppe, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria are no longer culturally part of Central Eurasia.

    Central Eurasian peoples made fundamental, crucial contributions to the formation of world civilization, to the extent that understanding Eurasian history is impossible without including the relationship between Central Eurasians and the peoples around them. A history of Central Eurasia therefore necessarily also treats to some degree the great peripheral civilizations of Eurasia—Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia— which were once deeply involved in Central Eurasian history.

    Traditional Central Eurasia was coterminous with the ancient continental internal economy and international trade system misleadingly conceptualized and labeled as the Silk Road. It has often been distinguished from the Littoral zone maritime trade network, which also existed in some sense from prehistoric times and steadily increased in importance throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but the sources make no such distinction. The continental and maritime trade routes were all integral parts of what must be considered to have been a single international trade system. That system was resoundingly, overwhelmingly, oriented to the Eurasian continental economy (and its local economies) based in the great political entities of Eurasia, all of which were focused not on the sea but on Central Eurasia. The Littoral System, as a distinctive economy of major significance, developed only after the Western European establishment of regular open-sea trade between Europe and South, Southeast, and East Asia, as discussed in chapter 10; it became completely separate from the Silk Road only when the latter no longer existed.

    The cultural-geographical area of Central Eurasia must be distinguished from the Central Eurasian peoples and from Central Eurasian languages, all of which have been variously defined. While the topic of this book is the history of Central Eurasia, it is really about the Central Eurasian peoples. It therefore includes the history of Central Eurasians who left their homeland for one of the other regions, carrying with them their Central Eurasian languages and the Central Eurasian Culture Complex (on which see the prologue). To some extent, the history of Eurasia as a whole from its beginnings to the present day can be viewed as the successive movements of Central Eurasians and Central Eurasian cultures into the periphery and of peripheral peoples and their cultures into Central Eurasia.

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  11. Crito

    Excellent post! Thony you should get a Nobel Prize in “patience” for the time you spent in explaining why these people are completely full of…. Unfortunately, there are too many Muslim and non-Muslim amateurs that are trying to find the roots of science (even quantum mechanics) and innovation to Islam (and/or Arabic scholars).

  12. Along similar lines to this post Sonja Brentjes took the exhibition and companion book “1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization” to task.

    “There were times when the richest intellectual life on the planet was to be found in places where Islam was the dominant religion.
    But 1001 Inventions is a missed opportunity to raise awareness about the history of science. The exhibit presents a series of heroic tales of medieval Muslim discoveries from out of nowhere, with no context, and with a disregard for accuracy that shades into pure fiction”.
    A small 5 page article
    A more academic 35 page review ca be found below.

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  14. Sonja Brentjes

    Hi everybody, a few comments only:
    1. the issue with Muslims and non-Muslim and linguistic/ethnic differences is actually pretty simple. It depends on the time period, we are talking about. Between, say roughly 750 and roughly 1000, we find some Zoroastrians, some Sabians, some Jews, a good number of Oriental Christians of different communities and a growing number of Muslims of different communities writing scientific texts on all sorts of subjects, including things we do not consider anymore scientific, but they did. Linguistically, the Christians spoke usually Syriac and Arabic or Syriac and Greek or only Greek, but learned quickly Arabic, in most cases we really know, they did so before 750. Several of them, in particular this who grew up in territories ruled until the mid-7th century by the Sasanian yeasty may have also spoken Middle Persian. How do we know that? Because they translated from Greek into Syriac or Arabic or from Syriac into Arabic. The early Sabians like Thabit b. Qurra spoke Syriac and also already Arabic and were fluent in Greek. They were prominent in the sciences until the later 10th century. With the conversion of leading members in the community of Baghdad, we lose their traces. Zoroastrians spoke Middle Persian and Arabic and are among the first converts in the scientific professions. They translated from Middle Persian into Arabic. From the 11th c onwards, the majority of scholars adhered to three mani Muslim creeds (Sunni, 12er Shi’a, Isma’iliyya). There continued to be Oriental Christian as well as Jewish scholars of different creeds, but they now were a minority in most Islamicate societies. In terms of language, the sciences were dominated since the 9th c b Arabic. In about the early 11th century New Persian began to be used for scholarly works written for princes who did not know Arabic well enough and later also for students in the regions that adopted New Persian as language of culture (Iran, Khwarazm, Transoxania, South Asia mainly). With the rise of later Turkic dynasties like the Timurids (c. 1370-1502) or the Ottomans ( c.-1922) at least Turk languages began to be used for geography, history and in case of the Ottomans since the early 16th c also for mathematical sciences, astrology, medicine, philosophy etc.
    So much to these elementary things for the central regions. The situation differs for Ottoman possessions in eastern Europe and for the Islamization of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
    2. I find the gutter language of BS inappropriate for any kind of serious debate about scholarly matters, independent of how wrong I believe or know the opinion of someone might be or is. The use of such language disqualifies the user. It is simple to be polite and say that an opinion is false, distorted or lack substance. I am certain you can find many other expressions for your profound disagreement with someone else that relieve you from the need to be supercilious and condescending.
    3. The text lacks on a certain level the will to understand both Ibn al-Haytham and the misguided Muslim who believes that the 10th/11th-century scholar had invented the concept of gravity in the Newtonian sense. Antipathy towards Muslims seems to color some of the comments. Such attitudes are unhelpful for a quest to understand anybody whether he or she lived in the past or does so today.
    4. Authority proofs are usually no proofs bat demands for belief. The question of P. Dear whether Ibn al-Haytham in the 10th/11th century thought and felt about experiments in the same way as scholars of the 17th century is absurd. Of course not, since there are 600 years and different cultural and scholarly contexts that separate them. All we can do is compare texts. It is not a matter of belief as Dear is quoted to say, because we cannot mind-read dead bodies, which have dissolved for centuries. Serious history is not about beliefs, but about serious analysis and the acceptance that often we are limited in our possibilities to know and understand, because too many sources are lost.
    5. Juxtaposing rational explanation and proof is disingenuous, since both have their manifold histories. There is not just a proof. There are many different practices that scholars at different times have considered valid, while others at other times rejected them. Same goes for rational explanation.
    6. There is more to say, but I need to run for a health therapy and cannot continue taking issue with how many of you look at the past of cultures which certainly are not part of your own upbringing.

    • Baerista

      “The text lacks on a certain level the will to understand both Ibn al-Haytham and the misguided Muslim who believes that the 10th/11th-century scholar had invented the concept of gravity in the Newtonian sense. Antipathy towards Muslims seems to color some of the comments.”

      There are several interesting and valid points in your post, Dr Brentjes. But this is where you completely lose me. Whence the imputation of anti-Muslim sentiment? Did we read the same blogpost?

      • hello, read my reply to TC. I explain why I consider his blog entry being unsympathetic and unfair towards Ibn al-Haytham and that is why I wrote the lines above which you find objectionable. It is about his choice of language, his comparative claims and his evaluations. I also think that if he believes he is getting it all right, he should take the time and care to explain his beliefs on the basis of Ibn al-Haytham’s text, give examples to the reader to weigh whether he as an amateur understands the text better (which is possible) than the various colleagues of mine who studied it as professional experts and do not share his strong claims or not all of them. Peter Dear is not an expert for the sciences in the Islamicate world, but an expert for early modern sciences in a few countries in Europe. He is not familiar with the discourses, contexts and conditions in Fatimid Cairo, where Ibn al-Haytham lived, nor with those of other cities in the Middle East and their scholarly communities. Unfortunately, many Europeanists make claims about scholars of the Middle East on a very limited basis and familiarity with the sources. There are lots of things to consider in such discussions and much goodwill is needed.

    • I thank you for having taken the time and trouble to comment so extensively on my post. You have numbered your comments, so I will use your numbers for my responses.

      1) Thank you for elucidating the point on religious, ethnic and linguistic differences within the scientific community of the Islamic Empire. Your comments are very informative and much appreciated.

      2) Oh dear, we’ve been here before and not just once. This is a blog, it is my blog and I can write it in anyway that I choose and I choose to write it in the way that I do. I do not find that my choice of expression is any more supercilious or condescending than if I had used terms that would have met with your approval.

      3) The text lacks on a certain level the will to understand both Ibn al-Haytham and the misguided Muslim who believes that the 10th/11th-century scholar had invented the concept of gravity in the Newtonian sense. Antipathy towards Muslims seems to color some of the comments.

      Quite frankly I find these comments totally bizarre! As somebody with a deep interest in the history of optics I have a very strong will to understand al-Haytham and I can’t find anything that I wrote in my post that indicates the opposite. I also cannot find anything in my post that indicates an antipathy towards Muslims, a sentiment that I do not hold.

      4) I in no way offer a proof by authority in directing my readers to Peter Dear’s discussion of the questions as to how al-Haytham used and interpreted experiments within his investigations. I also do not quote Dear as believing anything. I do use the expression ‘think so’, meaning in this context concludes, a standard linguistic usage in English. As you have misunderstood the usage I have changed the text accordingly. Dear’s discussion is “serious analysis”, which is why I drew the readers’ attention to it for those who might wish to delve deeper. The only person suggesting that “Ibn al-Haytham in the 10th/11th century thought and felt about experiments in the same way as scholars of the 17th century” is the author of the text I am criticising.

      5) I don’t disagree with you on the subject of rational explanations and proofs. The author and those he is quoting and imitating claim that al-Haytham’s theories of vision are ‘proved’ in the modern sense of strict empirical experimental proofs. My point is that this is factually and historically not true. Ibn al-Haytham does not deliver such proofs for his theories but offers rational arguments to justify them in the style of the Greek philosophers whose work he is refereeing.

      6) “…cannot continue taking issue with how many of you look at the past of cultures which certainly are not part of your own upbringing.“

      I’m curious, are you claiming clairvoyant abilities? Also. are you really saying that only a medieval Muslim can understand and comment on medieval Islamic science?

      • Sonja Brentjes

        T C,

        according to my social upbringing using words like BS is profoundly impolite, rude and speaks of arrogance of the user or (in this case) his lack of goodwill. Certainly this blog is yours and hence you can present yourself in any rude manner you wish. This does not mean I as a reader have to accept this kind of language as appropriate for a serious discussion. Your condescending tone in your reply simply underlines your lack of courtesy. This kind of behavior induces me to have little regard for you as a scholar. As I said you can be polite and still clear in your rejections. You call your style “graceless”. This is incorrect. It is offensive. Since you refuse to be polite, I will abstain from talking to you in future since this attitude makes me doubt your honesty. But I will answer your main points of ridiculing me.

        My comment that Arabic (or other languages) and cultures of the Middle East were not part of your upbringing has nothing to do with your impolite suggestion that I might consider myself a pseudo-scientist with some kind of sight or so. This is mere rhetoric to denigrate me and fits well with your use of gutter language. My statement is based on your cv. If I misunderstood it and you grew up in a context of Middle Eastern languages and cultures or acquired them at some point of your academic career, you might consider adding this to your c to avoid future misunderstandings.

        I hear that you find my critique of your generalizing dismissal of Ibn al-Haytham’s methods of investigating, arguing and demonstrating his views, observations and conclusions by phrases (which I do not copy and hence only paraphrase) that he did only things that ancient Greek philosophers had already done, that his experiments and observations were nothing what Archimedes and Ptolemy had not already done and that he did not prove anything, but argued only rationally “bizarre”. That’s fine with me. The point is that in all those formulations you deny that in Ibn al-Haytham’s approach to optical problems and their explanation and theoretical grounding, his way of studying texts and theories of ancient scholars, whether philosophers or not, and in his efforts to build a new theory out of those ancient doctrines, but also Mu’tazili concepts and arguments (which you just forgot?) is something new, worthwhile, going beyond the achievements of antiquity. This is unfair and it is where I see the continuation of Eurocentric unwillingness to make a serious effort to recognize and appreciate difference and scholarly work in other cultures. If you were a seriously interested colleague you would pause for a second and consider whether the manner in which you speak, write and think suffers under such a heritage.

        I know that you write that Ibn al-Haytham’s use of various elements you listed to build a new theory is what you think is his great achievement. But despite your calling it a great achievement you describe it as combining previous theories as if this was a rather formalistic or simple step. You deny explicitly that he proved something, opposing proof with rational argument and hence suggesting that the two are fundamentally different in an absolute manner and the latter of lesser value than the former. Taking all your various rhetorical elements together, Ibn al-Haytham appears as inferior in comparison to the ancient scholars and – without saying so – modern ones. The tone of your entire text is favoring ancient and modern scholars and downgrading Ibn al-Haytham. You may deny this, fine. But this is what your language causes as an impression in me as a reader.

        As for your reference to P. Dear, you summarize him asking “as to whether al-Haytham used or understood experiments in the same ways as researchers in the seventeenth-century”. Then this means that it is Dear speaking here and not the person of the objectionable article. I find this question absurd for the part “understood” because we cannot know what Ibn al-Haytham believed about his experiments beyond what he wrote and for the phrase “in the same way”, because this would be the most surprising thing to be given the huge differences in time, culture, contexts. The fact though that there were differences does not say per se that Ibn al-Haytham’s practices should not be appreciated, given a place of honor as all who write such kinds of heroic histories are doing for their dear and beloved heroes. It is not that I personally find glorifying past scholars particularly appealing or good historical practice, but your position of downplaying and at times clearly denying that Ibn al-Haytham did something meaningful and of historical value when he experimented that we should respect, appreciate and try to understand in his own context is not acceptable to me either. You can of course continue to deny that you write such things in the same manner as you reformulated your own text (I do not mean your replacement of ‘think so’ by ‘conclude’, but of replacing Dear by the unnamed author of the false article) in your reply to this point, but this does not change the effect that your vocabulary and phrasing has on me.

        Do I mean only Muslims can understand their past or past scholarly texts and practices? No, of course not. This is one of your little game playing strategies. I assume you checked me on the Internet as I did you in order to understand who is writing in this discourteous manner about matters of my professional field. Hence, this question is rhetorical and serves to portray me as a ridiculous person. Most Muslims do not understand their past, know all too little about it and do not have the skills to understand a medieval text. But I mean that there is no easy way to such past products and we need to study them with respect, empathy and willingness to find out where their authors thought their contributions rested and what it is they wanted to achieve and how they went about it. Your text is lacking most of these attributes and this is primarily your choice of language and attitude.

        I think you do not deserve the prize you received for the best blog on history of science, even if all your other articles were of a different style and approach. This article violates codes of good behavior in a manner that I find intolerable. In order to avoid any misunderstanding: I do not defend the false claims made by the person on Twitter nor by the various authors of unsubstantiated claims about Ibn al-Haytham. I agree they are false, need to be corrected and need to be replaced by fundamentally correct narratives. But I think this should be done with courtesy and respect.

  15. melvin

    I can’t, for the life of me, understand the disproportionate sensitivity towards the author’s use of language (and the apparent inability to simply get over it, months after it was posted). Also, I really can’t think of any other word for this, I really find the attitude here rather indicative of mere paranoia/a huge cip on the shoulder. I mean, let’s speak in plain English, shall we: the article wasn’t islamophobic in content any more than the one setting the records straight on Turing is homophobic, or the one pertaining Ada Lovelace a show of mysoginy. None of them are any of those things, and in fact I never saw anyone make any of those claims.

    I would truly hope that a reasonable adult would have the emotional maturity and intellectual honesty to see how no matter how much or little a certain scientist/protoscientist/etc. might have done, there is nothing to be gained by being counterfactual about his or her achievements. And if the claims are made in order to advance an agenda or cause of any kind (political, etc.), consciously or otherwise, I really don’t see how or why that should be regarded with any sort of respect. For example, personally I would like to see more women join STEM fields, and I think that the example of female scientists as role models might be motivating, but that wouldn’t authorize me to engage in myth making in an attempt to “enhance” the story of Ada Byron, to make it more appealing, or to repeat exhaggerated claims without checking their validity, or, even worse, after having been told of the inaccurancies. Nor would it make it alright to react by imagining a sort of plan or conspiracy against females in science in general, or Ada Byron in particular, if someone decided to correct me.

    The standards of evidence and level of confidence in those claims cannot be selectively adjusted to suit our purposes, even if doing so might be convenient. As for the aspect of cultural background, that has exactly zero relevance. A proposition can either be true or false, and its validity doesn’t change according to who makes the claim. The purpose of history is to arrive at the truth (or at least to assign realistic levels of confidence to various hypotheses), not to validate one’s identity/sense of worth. In the case of female partecipation in STEM, I could at least respect the goal, but in this case, even the aim itself is something that I can’t help but consider essentially worthless.

    If the science vs religion thing has become a huge part of a militant atheist’s identity and said atheist would prefer to be counterfactual, and see any attempt to disabuse him or her of an overblown idea about, say, Galileo, as an “attack” on his “community” (the scientist/rationalist/atheist) by the “external enemy”, who, “of course”, either doesn’t understand Galileo because he doesn’t belong to “the group” or is actively trying to “bring it down” as part of a “cospiracy” by “them”, the “science hating irrationalists/religious nutjobs/agnostics”, it doesn’t mean that said militant atheist would be, as they would say “entitled to their own facts”, and neither would be someone of a different religion persuasion, no matter how popular or unpopular the trend might be in society at large -the essential concern here is with what is true, not with what is convenient or the way it is presented-.

    Modern fundamentalists bashing Darwin and his theory of evolution wouldn’t authorize the biologist to make exhaggerated claims about Darwin’s achievements, the same way we don’t dismiss someone’s observations about Newton and Leibnitz because they are German and English respectively (assuming that the Calculus controversy was still a hot topic) -none of those facts have any relevance when it comes to determine if the argument itself is true or false-. I really feel rather silly pointing out these obvious facts, but it’s from the time of the posts on Galileo that I don’t see such blatantly paranoid behavior: the “what is it about Galileo that makes you so angry” innuendo, the conspiratorial worldview, the prehemptively whining “everyone is ganging up on me because I am an unbeliever and a scientist” attitude: the only thing that changes is the group in question.

    In conclusion, one thing to point out is that if the road is straight and you were turning left, it’s not as if turning all the way to the right means that you won’t end up against a wall, since the only right direction to turn to is straight ahead. Secondly, I would separate observations about the “tone” of the post from the topic of the discussion. It is both not an issue, and exactly the same as the tone used everywhere else on this site, and it has zero impact on the veracity of the claims, nor, for that matter, can I see why considerations about the larger community’s perception of the situation should supersede the fundamental matter of the truth and falsity of the proposition at hand in the mind of an historian.

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  17. Ummer Farooq

    “…this claim is just pure bullshit.” – are you an atheist or anti atheist pop mathematician that is troubled by anyone disturbing a past notion of godless researchers (or rather researchers amongst wicca eras) being looked down upon and disregarded then realised that it is only religious researchers that gain any ground work when it comes to research? I personally am troubled by those who would hide the origin of scientific progress, in Ibn Haytham being the Quranic method of which he used for his experiments, as he was a Muslim and gave reference to. And also inspired those who were with King John of England’s desire to make England a nation under the “laws of Muhammed” as per the catholic priest chronicler Matthew Paris who rebuked him for that.

    Of course if you cannot comprehend what I’m writing then you can consult the condition of your temporal lobes.

  18. I read your article it seems very interesting; I am writing an article on Islamic links in the Copernicanican revolution.

    It would be great if I could discuss with you.


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