October 12, 2015 By Ali Ahsan

Haytham and the Naming of Islamic Science

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has organised a two-day conference that aims to explore the decisive contributions of Ibn Al-Haytham and Islamic culture to the history and evolution of sciences. The conference entitled “Islamic Golden Age of Science for actual knowledge based society – The Ibn Al-Haytham example” is part of the International year of light and light-based technologies.

The usual names thrown at the mention of who is the founder of the modern scientific method might include Isaac Newton or Galileo or maybe Aristotle. Some others might opt for Descartes or Roger Bacon? Take a peek at the history of the lineage leading to these modern greats and you find names like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Biruni and Ibn Al-Haytham as the pioneers of the scientific method. The time is referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ in Arabic science and Ibn Al-Haytham was the first to set a precedent for the others to follow.


Ibn Al-Haytham was born in Basra, Iraq in the year 965. Being the son of a civil servant, he had a good education in science and was passionate about it. He was a devout Muslim and was driven by the endless quest for truth. He moved to Cairo in Egypt in the 11thcentury and it was here that he wrote and proved his most influential works. Over the next decade or so, Ibn Al-Haytham first disproved the prevailing wisdom that what we saw was illuminated by the eyes itself. The emission theory was supported by Euclid and Ptolemy but he was not convinced. He wondered why the eyes watered when we look at the sun, it wouldn’t if it emitted light. This realization made him research the behaviour and properties of light now known as optics.

The concept of science in Islam is a subject in itself, so vast that it has an identity of its own. The Arabs and Persians who were interested in explaining the natural world around them introduced Greek scientific treatises to the Arabic speaking world during the eighth century. From the ninth century on, scholars carried books and ideas from one end of the empire to the other, thereby insuring what people call the cultural and intellectual unity of the Islamic world. Since this time, countless Muslims have been involved in scientific developments. Here, we note that there is a problem with our conceptual and taxonomical understanding. What does ‘Islamic Science’ mean? It can either mean a particular Islamic take on science or it might refer to science done by individuals who identify themselves as Muslims? Very little evidence points to the assumption of the latter assertion. And there are evidences to prove that Islam, conceived as a peculiar religious take on reality and weltanschauung grown out of the history and vocation of the Quran and Prophet Muhammad, bred interest and attitudes which ultimately helped in the advance of sciences.

There are hermeneutical problems when one tries to define the Arabic term ‘ilm. Does it mean something what is today called science? Because the Arabic term is not identical to the Western concept of hard science and it is used mainly in theological and mystical contexts. It is important to keep these subtle differences in the understanding because these bring about misconceptions in the long run. During those days, despite the use of the term ‘ilm in ‘ilm al-kalam (theology) and ‘ilm al-rijal (the science of men), it was regarded as a science though there was nothing particularly scientific about it. It has its demonstrative method derived from first principles and these principles were in-turn not derived from syllogistic reasoning, but the Qur’an.

The development of science in the Islamic world received a huge fillip with the accession of the Abbasid caliphate to power and Baghdad was founded as its capital in 762. This brought about a translation movement, when almost all of the scientific and philosophical secular works that were available in the late antique period (fourth to seventh centuries C.E.) were translated into Arabic. The works dealt with include diverse topics such as astrology, alchemy, physics, mathematics, medicine, and the various branches of philosophy. Many of the translators were Christian and were employed at the renowned bayt al-hikma (House of Wisdom). This institute functioned as the official institute and a place for translators and research. The Caliph Ali-Ma’mun (d.833) sent emissaries throughout the Mediterranean to seek out and get books on ancient learning and wisdom which were then brought back to Baghdad and translated into Arabic by scholars. It resulted in an impressive official library that included many of the important scientific and philosophical treatises. This provided the foundation for medieval science, not only in the Islamic world but subsequently in the Christian world.

The earliest works translated into Arabic from Greek were done for purely pragmatic reasons. This was the case with the earliest scientific works are on astrology, mathematics and alchemy. It is on this point that there is a common but incorrect assumption which says that the Greeks invented the sciences and the Arabs rescued them during the ‘Dark Ages’ and subsequently passed them on untouched and uncommented upon to the ‘Renaissance period’. This claim completely ignores the fact that many people wrote commentaries on the works of individuals such as Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy. It is not just a re-recording of a text but a creative interpretation and writing in the medieval period. Though the Arabs worked within the parameters set by the Greeks, they made many important developments in the western scientific tradition.

Classification of the sciences (maratib al-‘ulum) was an important activity among many of the medieval philosophers. One of the famous examples is the Enumeration of Sciences by Al-Farabi (870-950). His intention was to give an enumeration of all the sciences of his day and provide descriptions of their themes and subject matter. His classification was, 1)Language, 2)Logic, 3)Mathematics, 4)Physics and Metaphysics, 5)Political science, Jurisprudence and Dialectical theology. There were many other lists compiled by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), Ibn al-Nadim, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Al-Ghazali and Ibn Khaldun. Al-Ghazali’s classification was particularly interesting as he made a clear distinction into those that are praiseworthy (mahmuda) or blameworthy (madhmuma). Classifications such as these are carried out in the modern times as well but it usually begins with the memorization of the Qur’an and ends with practical sciences. Here lies the difference.

If the field of medicine had Ibn Sina, who famously claimed that the field is not one of the difficult sciences and mastered it by the age of sixteen, and Al-Farabi, who classified the sciences including mathematics, Ibn Al-Haytham was the most important among the physicists.  The encyclopaedia of Islam in the extract below shows his relevance in the field of mathematics. “…and probably the mostimportant Arab physicist was Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen; d. 1039). Among other things, he attempted, without success, to regulate the flow of the Nile. He also composed over a hundred different scientific treatises, most devoted to medicine, mathematics, and physics. Furthermore, he was responsible for establishing the theorem of the cotangent, in addition to resolving the problem of optics (the intersection of an equilateral hyperbole with a circle) that still bears his name.”

The history of Muslim philosophers is interesting and care should be taken not to neglect their contribution completely or claim them as the inventors of the sciences. The Muslim philosophers too had their influences and then, it turns out it was the Greeks who provided them with different texts of the time. This was then adopted by these scholars and adapted as they saw fit. The next point to be noted is that it is better to use the term ‘Arab Science’ rather than ‘Islamic Science’ since there was nothing particularly religious about the sciences. Many of the scientists spoke in Arabic though they might have been Christian or Jewish.

Aaron Hughes in his piece ‘Islam and Science’ uses for the sake of our understanding, three different trajectories. The first goes along the line of the Islamic fundamentalists who claim that the Qur’an predicts breakthroughs in modern science. What makes these predictions complicated is the absence of corresponding technical language used in the Qur’an.  The second claim is that the Western world has failed to formulate a vision of truth based on revelation and rather relies on the texts by the rational and secular principles of the pagan Greeks. This is at the least a very apologetic understanding and results in the desacralization of knowledge. Islam, in contrast, presents a world view. Some Muslims say that there is such a thing as Islamic science which does not go along the lines of science in cases such as the theory of evolution. It is here that there develops a dichotomy between ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ science but we have already learnt that Islamic science in itself was, Western science. There is of course the third strand that includes thousands of Muslim scientists throughout the globe who work on the ongoing discovery of scientific principles by means of careful and controlled observation.

Anyway, the UNESCO paid homage to the great master in the Muslim world, who questioned the deeply-entrenched ‘scientific’ notions of his time, thereby deserving the title of ‘one of the progenitors of modern science.’ However, this gesture to acknowledge the presence of Islam and Muslim in the sphere of science and modernity should be read in the context of hullabaloo raised in the aftermath of Ahmad’s discovery of a clock and its interpretation as a time bomb.

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