Debunking Golden Age Of Islam #2: Shining A Light On Islam’s Contribution To Modern Optics
In this article, I want to take a look at the exaggerated claims made about Islam’s contribution to Optics and the technological advancements that have come out of it. I plan to use the 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets video clip as a starting point but also show how the exaggerations have been extended by other media companies, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera among others, since the 1001 Inventions project was first launched back in 2006. As I said in my introductory video, one of my aims is to arm you with information and arguments so that when you come across an Islamic apologists exaggerating Islam’s intellectual contribution to modernity, you’ll be better equipped to call them out.
As we are discussing Islam’s contribution to Optics, the central character is inevitably Ibn al-Haytham, who, and let’s be clear about this, is one of a handful of Muslim intellectuals who truly ranks amongst the great thinkers in history.
Ibn al-Haytham was born in Basra in the Buyid Emirate in 965 but spent most of his life in Cairo in the Fatimid Caliphate, where he died in 1040. He is better known in the West as Alhazen and was undoubtedly a brilliant thinker. In medieval Europe, Ibn al-Haytham was honoured as Ptolemaeus Secundus (the “Second Ptolemy”) or simply called “The Physicist” so he was highly thought of in his day. He was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher and made significant contributions to the principles of optics, astronomy, mathematics and visual perception.
Apparently, on arriving in Cairo, he proposed to the Caliph a hydraulic project to improve regulation of the flooding of the Nile, a task requiring an early attempt at building a dam at the present site of the Aswan Dam, but later his field work convinced him of the technical impracticality of this scheme. Legend has it that after deciding the scheme was impractical and fearing the caliph’s anger, Alhazen feigned madness and was kept under house arrest from 1011 until al-Hakim’s death in 1021. During this time, he wrote his influential Book of Optics and continued to write further treatises on astronomy, geometry, number theory, optics and natural philosophy.
Given his intellectual stature, it’s not surprising that al-Haytham is the first great inventor to make an appearance in 1001 Inventions and the Library of Secrets so let’s pay particular attention to the sophistry of how he is portrayed. Al-Haytham first action is to take one of the children’s mobile phones and says “I knew it was a good idea” implying the link between his own inventions and modern technology. Ben Kingsley’s character backs this by introducing him as “Ibn al-Haytham, a great scientist, whose ideas led to the invention of the camera.”
The rest of the clip continues in the same vein conflating al-Haytham’s very brilliant discoveries with advances in modern technology. It’s also worth pointing out that the terms science and scientist didn’t come into use until around 1300, about 250 years after al-Haytham’s death, and in the English language weren’t used in the modern sense until the 18th century. The closest word in Arabic — ilm — means “knowledge,” and not necessarily that of the natural world so we have be very wary when bandying such terms around.
However, in his article How Islamic inventors changed the world, Paul Vallely goes even further than the designers of 1001 Inventions and states that “The ancient Greeks thought our eyes emitted rays, like a laser, which enabled us to see. The first person to realise that light enters the eye, rather than leaving it, was the 10th-century Muslim mathematician, astronomer and physicist Ibn al-Haitham. He invented the first pin-hole camera after noticing the way light came through a hole in window shutters. The smaller the hole, the better the picture, he worked out, and set up the first Camera Obscura (from the Arab word qamara for a dark or private room). He is also credited with being the first man to shift physics from a philosophical activity to an experimental one.”
In response, the WikiIslam article How Islamic Inventors Did Not Change The World points out “The basic optical principles of the pinhole are commented on in Chinese texts from the 5th century BC. Both the claims, that he created intromission theory, and that he invented the pin-hole camera, are false. Intromission theory (opposing emission theory) originated in Greek philosophy, and its proponents included Aristotle, Galen, and Empedocles. Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538–1615), a scientist from Naples, was long thought to have been the inventor, due to his description found inside Magia naturalis (1558). However, the first published picture of a pin-hole camera is a drawing in Gemma Frisius’ De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica (1545).
While both the Latin and Arabic languages have borrowed from each other, the Latin language actually pre-dates classic Arabic (the precursor to modern Arabic) by at least 1,600 years. The term “camera” was not derived from the Arabic word “qamara”. “Camera” is a Latin word meaning a vaulted or arched space, derived from the Greek ?aµa?a, which refers to anything with an arched cover. The Italian word “camera”, the French word “chambre”, and the English word “chamber” all share the same Latin root. “Camera obscura” literally meaning a “dark room”. The term “camera”, as applied today, was first coined by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). The Arabic word “qamara” has almost certainly been borrowed from the Latin word “camera”, and at best the similarity between the two words is a coincidence.”
So it’s pretty clear that despite his important contribution to optics, al-Haythan cannot be credited with intromission theory or camera obscura. However, this doesn’t stop Islamic propagandisers, masquerading as bona fide academics, from asserting the contrary.
One of these people is “Jim” Al-Khalili OBE, who is a British Iraqi theoretical physicist, author and broadcaster. He is currently Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey, where he is also Chair in the Public Engagement in Science. This means he is definitely part of the British academic establishment and in a perfect position to prosletyse for Islam.
In 2009, he presented a BBC miniseries called Science and Islam in which he drooled over the brilliance of Islamic inventions, , and in 2015 he presented a longer more in depth series for Al Jazeera called Science in the Golden Age, to which they don’t even bother adding “of Islam”. His programme called Optics: The True Nature of Light, in which he talks about Ibn al-Haitham, shows the same sophistry as 1001 Inventions but is evidently designed for adults.
In the course of the programme, Al-Khalili manages to attribute synchotrons, satellites and the Internet to Al-Haytham’s discovery that light travels in straight lines. What Al-Khalili is trying to do is claim that Islamic science not only shone in the past but is also brilliant in the present. However, in this article entitled Why The Arab World Turned Away From Science, Hillel Ofek makes clear this is not the case.
“To anyone familiar with this Golden Age, roughly spanning the eighth through the thirteenth centuries a.d., the disparity between the intellectual achievements of the Middle East then and now — particularly relative to the rest of the world — is staggering indeed. In his 2002 book What Went Wrong?, historian Bernard Lewis notes that “for many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilization and achievement.” “Nothing in Europe,” notes Jamil Ragep, a professor of the history of science at the University of Oklahoma, “could hold a candle to what was going on in the Islamic world until about 1600.” Algebra, algorithm, alchemy, alcohol, alkali, nadir, zenith, coffee, and lemon: these words all derive from Arabic, reflecting Islam’s contribution to the West.
Today, however, the spirit of science in the Muslim world is as dry as the desert. Pakistani physicist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy laid out the grim statistics in a 2007 Physics Today article: Muslim countries have nine scientists, engineers, and technicians per thousand people, compared with a world average of forty-one. In these nations, there are approximately 1,800 universities, but only 312 of those universities have scholars who have published journal articles. Of the fifty most-published of these universities, twenty-six are in Turkey, nine are in Iran, three each are in Malaysia and Egypt, Pakistan has two, and Uganda, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, and Azerbaijan each have one.
There are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but only two scientists from Muslim countries have won Nobel Prizes in science (one for physics in 1979, the other for chemistry in 1999). Forty-six Muslim countries combined contribute just 1 percent of the world’s scientific literature; Spain and India each contribute more of the world’s scientific literature than those countries taken together. In fact, although Spain is hardly an intellectual superpower, it translates more books in a single year than the entire Arab world has in the past thousand years. “Though there are talented scientists of Muslim origin working productively in the West,” Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has observed, “for forty years I have not seen a single paper by a physicist or astronomer working in a Muslim country that was worth reading.”
Comparative metrics on the Arab world tell the same story. Arabs comprise 5 percent of the world’s population, but publish just 1.1 percent of its books, according to the U.N.’s 2003 Arab Human Development Report. Between 1980 and 2000, Korea granted 16,328 patents, while nine Arab countries, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the U.A.E., granted a combined total of only 370, many of them registered by foreigners. A study in 1989 found that in one year, the United States published 10,481 scientific papers that were frequently cited, while the entire Arab world published only four. This may sound like the punch line of a bad joke, but when Nature magazine published a sketch of science in the Arab world in 2002, its reporter identified just three scientific areas in which Islamic countries excel: desalination, falconry, and camel reproduction. The recent push to establish new research and science institutions in the Arab world — described in these pages by Waleed Al-Shobakky (see “Petrodollar Science,” Fall 2008) — clearly still has a long way to go.”
Watch on YouTube
Watch on VidMe
1001 Inventions and The Library of Secrets – starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Al-Jazari
How Islamic inventors changed the world
How Islamic Inventors Did Not Change The World
Science in a Golden Age – Optics: The True Nature of Light
Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science
Further Reading and Study
Who was the first scientist?