Correcting the Scientific Method Legacy of Ibn al-Haytham

By, Spahic Omer

Ibn al-Haytham (d. 1040) was a Muslim polymath specializing in mathematics, astronomy and physics. He made remarkable contributions to the principles of optics, vision and light. His most outstanding book was “Book of Optics”, which is a seven-volume treatise on optics and other relatable fields. The book is called “Kitab al-Manazir” in Arabic. Colloquially, he is described as the man who discovered how we see.

A pioneer of the scientific experimental method

Alongside his significant and varied scientific accomplishments, Ibn al-Haytham’s contributions to the development of the scientific method stand out. He is considered a trailblazer who preceded the scientists of the Renaissance by approximately five centuries. His investigative approach, which emphasized observation, experimentation, creative and critical thinking, is often viewed as an early version of the modern scientific method.

Bearing many similarities to the modern scientific methodology, Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific approach positioned him as one of the earliest true scientists in the modern sense. This is why Bradley Steffens named his 2007 book “Ibn al-Haytham, First Scientist.” In the book, the author portrays Ibn al-Haytham as a figure who transformed the scientific process by consistently applying his investigative methods to his research. This contribution is noted to have initiated a new era in the history of knowledge – the era of modern science.

Bradley Steffens concluded that Ibn al-Haytham, “was the first person to systematically construct devices – such as the camera obscura – to test hypotheses and verify the accuracy of his findings. By using concrete, physical experiments to support his conclusions, Ibn al-Haytham helped establish the modern scientific method.”

For that reason, furthermore, during the International Year of Light 2015, UNESCO honored Ibn al-Haytham not just for his contributions to modern optics, but also for his advancements in the modern scientific experimental method. Consequently, in the same year UNESCO hosted an international conference about the Islamic Golden Age of science and the legacy of Ibn al-Haytham. For the duration of a two-day event, researchers, academics, science historians and political decision makers from different parts of the world discussed the scientific legacy of Ibn al-Haytham, the history of optical sciences and the future of light-based technologies.

Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific method

Ibn al-Haytham’s books are filled with concepts, theories and discoveries. While these are crucial, the author’s approaches, processes and justifications are equally significant. In fact, much of Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific ideas and methods formed a comprehensive package, encompassing both the outcomes and the means (methodologies).

By way of illustration, this is how at the beginning of his “Book of Optics” Ibn al-Haytham presented the need for a new investigative method specifically in the arena of optics and visual sensation: “Early investigators diligently pursued the inquiry into the manner of visual sensation and applied their thoughts and effort to it, eventually reaching the limit to which their investigation had led, and gaining as much knowledge of this matter as their inquiry and judgement had yielded. Nevertheless, their views on the nature of vision are divergent and their doctrines regarding the manner of sensation not concordant. Thus, perplexity prevails, certainty is hard to come by, and there is no assurance of attaining the object of inquiry.”

Ibn al-Haytham then proceeded to explain the main aspects of his new method: “We have thought it appropriate that we direct our attention to this subject as much as we can, and seriously apply ourselves to it, and examine it, and diligently inquire into its nature. We should, that is, recommence the inquiry into its principles and premises, beginning our investigation with an inspection of the things that exist and a survey of the conditions of visible objects. We should distinguish the properties of particulars, and gather by induction what pertains to the eye when vision takes place and what is found in the manner of sensation to be uniform, unchanging, manifest and not subject to doubt. After which we should ascend in our inquiry and reasonings, gradually and orderly, criticizing premises and exercising caution in regard to conclusions – our aim in all that we make subject to inspection and review being to employ justice, not to follow prejudice, and to take care in all that we judge and criticize that we seek the truth and not to be swayed by opinion. We may in this way eventually come to the truth that gratifies the heart and gradually and carefully reach the end at which certainty appears; while through criticism and caution we may seize the truth that dispels disagreement and resolves doubtful matters. For all that, we are not free from that human turbidity which is in the nature of man; but we must do our best with what we possess of human power.”

Islamic science and Western science are fundamentally different

While it is commendable that the West has recognized the significant contribution of Ibn al-Haytham and the role played by his breakthrough scientific thought, it is important to note that his legacy, in the end, has been somewhat misunderstood and misapplied due to it being taken out of context. It is hard to prove that such a thing was deliberate, but there are signs suggesting so.

Ibn al-Haytham is often discussed as if he is part of the Western cultural tradition, albeit not because of his geographical location, religion, or nationality, but because of the perceived commonalities in the realm of the scientific worldview, mission and purpose. He is shown as someone who, much like the West, embraced a similar ideological framework – the framework of science – and pursued similar aims. The common ground were the innocence and universality of science.

Thus, Ibn al-Haytham’s name has been Latinized as Alhazen, similar to other Muslim scholars and scientists whose intellectualism has influenced Western civilization. This Latinization aimed to conceal the true Arab-Islamic identity of Ibn al-Haytham. The man was depicted as part of the “intermediate” Islamic civilization that focused on preserving, refining and somewhat enriching the legacies of Greece and Rome, while at the same time laying the foundation for the development of modern Western civilization, considered the peak of human socio-political evolution.

Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific contributions have been placed within the bosom of Western science which, nonetheless, is irreligious and immoral. Subscribing itself to the idea of the exclusivity of the acquired knowledge, Western science rejects the prospect of the revealed knowledge. This is because it does not believe in any metaphysical, transcendent, or supernatural being or source of knowledge. As clearly spelled out in the terms of the scientific method, anything that falls beyond the scopes of observation, experimentation and rationalization – a blend of empirical knowledge and logical or rational knowledge deduced solely by the mind – is considered nonexistent and therefore not worthy of study.

Themes like God, the afterlife, the Day of Judgment, Paradise, Hell, angels, jinn, divine providence and destiny are deemed non-existent and worthless. Neither of them is compatible with the mantra of science, which is “subject matter”, meaning that things ought to reside in the realm of matter only, if they were to be taken seriously and studied, and must be subjectable to the processes of examination, observation and experimentation. Needless to say that since man is the one who examines, observes, experiments and ultimately deduces and judges, he and his abilities signify not just the epistemological, but as well ontological “Criterion.”

It follows that science in the West, together with all its direct and indirect offshoots, is dangerous. As an entirely desacralized enterprise, it acts as both a destructive and productive force. It guides and misguides, enlightens and befuddles, in equal measure. Only Almighty Allah knows how many innocent souls have drowned in its ostensibly attractive world of deceptions, pretenses and unfulfilled promises.

The reason for this is simple: being at odds with heaven and spirituality never stood science in good stead. Ultimately, it rendered itself antagonistic, aberrant and even inhuman. It was yet set against its very self. Science was fated to continuously chase after, but never acquire let alone enjoy, the boons of authentic knowledge, wisdom and truth. Its narrative is one of engaging in a never-ending game of catch.

An act of injustice to Ibn al-Haytham

That said, it was unfair to associate Ibn al-Haytham with this ungodly character of Western science, without providing adequate explanations as regards similarities and differences. If the two were able to meet at a few junctures, they separated at many more. They were similar in accidents, but were worlds apart in substance.   

Ibn al-Haytham was a Muslim, championing the Islamic worldview and ethics in general and the scientific worldview and ethics of Islam in particular. He lived centuries before the birth of Western science, as a result of which it was the West that owed much to him and had to observe the ethics of following and emulation. Certainly, the standards should have been set by the early Western scientific luminaries, who had been influenced by Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific yield, such as Roger Bacon, Georg von Peuerbach, Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Christiaan Huygens and many more. However, it seems that things did not turn out as longed for.

As a Muslim, Ibn al-Haytham saw science as a tool to reach lofty objectives, related to the highest level of existence and the most honorable state of being. This was different from the Western view, where science was often pursued for its own sake, seen as the ultimate goal. In the West, science was elevated to a quasi-religious status, with its practitioners and accomplishments placed on a pedestal. This transformation can be described as scientism.

Hence, to Ibn al-Haytham science was a persistent endeavor to discover, read, comprehend and act upon the signs (ayat) of the Almighty Creator spread across the infinite layers of His creation, with the aim to know the Creator – and one’s self – better and to thus draw ever closer to Him.  Consistent with these principles, in his role as a scientist Ibn al-Haytham perceived himself as a humble servant whose knowledge was a responsibility rather than a privilege. Irrespective of what may happen within the domains of creation, the end of all existential ends and all human cravings, as well as aspirations, remains the Oneness of Almighty God.

Thus, science in Islam was magnanimous, commensurate with the magnanimity of its mission and objectives. The West did a disservice to Ibn al-Haytham – and Islamic science as a whole – by utilizing his legacy without recognizing the truth within the broader cultural and religious contexts. Ibn al-Haytham was hijacked, so to speak, by the professed global utility of Western science and its insatiable proselytization penchant.

The scientific method and other methods of learning

Ibn al-Haytham discussed the topic of the scientific method merely in relation to the physical aspect of existence. He recognized the presence of spiritual dimensions and understood the need for distinct methods of learning for various types and areas of knowledge. These diverse approaches work together to achieve the ultimate knowledge, synonymous with truth. It is this knowledge and truth that humanity is meant to attain and actualize.

Ibn al-Haytham regularly referred to these definitive epistemological realities. However, the less his scientific discourses were certain, the less he mentioned the truth-related verities, most probably out of respect, for he did not want to mix certainty with uncertainty, and actualities with theories. No wonder that Ibn al-Haytham composed a few religion-oriented treatises as well, such as “The Direction of Makkah”, for which he is sometimes referred to as a theologian.

Because of all this, Ibn al-Haytham regularly started his discussions “in the name of Allah” and concluded them with praising Allah alone and with invoking “His blessings and peace upon the best of His creations, Muhammad the prophet, and upon his family and companions.”

Ibn al-Haytham also accepted that all human endeavors, including science and its experimental methods, are imperfect and bound to lead to flawed outcomes, one way or another. This is owing to the inherent weaknesses of man as a creation. Therefore, the only way out from the predicament of human imperfections is to “derive support from Allah in all matters.” Saying moreover that the goal of meticulous scientific investigations is the truth, which gratifies the heart, Ibn al-Haytham also implied the totality as well as spiritual disposition of that truth, whose locus is none other than the enlightened and purified heart.

Ibn al-Haytham was explicit that truth as humankind’s raison d’etre is “sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything that is sought for its own sake are not interested in other things.” But finding truth is difficult, and “the road to it is rough.” Scientists play a significant role, but even in their domain, truth can be hard to grasp. And since God is the supreme authority and source of infallibility, He remains the sole refuge.

According to Ibn al-Haytham, “it is natural to everyone to regard scientists favorably. Consequently, a person who studies their books, giving a free rein to his natural disposition and making it his object to understand what they say and to possess himself of what they put forward, comes to consider as truth the notions which they had in mind and the ends they indicate. God, however, has not preserved the scientist from error and has not safeguarded science from shortcomings and faults. If this had been the case, scientists would not have disagreed upon any point of science, and their opinions upon any question concerning the truth of things would not have diverged.”

The imperfections of people, particularly scientists, led Ibn al-Haytham to rely on the rigor and thoroughness of his scientific method. He accentuated that “it is not the person who studies the books of his predecessors and gives a free rein to his natural disposition to regard them favorably who is the real seeker after truth. But rather the person who in thinking about them is filled with doubts, who holds back with his judgement with respect to what he has understood of what they say, who follows proof and demonstration rather than the assertions of a man whose natural disposition is characterized by all kinds of defects and shortcomings. A person who studies scientific books with a view to knowing the truth ought to turn himself into a hostile critic of everything that he studies. He should criticize it from every point of view and in all its aspects. And while thus engaged in criticism he should also be suspicious of himself and not allow himself to be easy-going and indulgent with regard to the object of his criticism. If he takes this course, the truth will be revealed to him and the flaws in the writings of his predecessors will stand out clearly.”

It is worthwhile noting that for his unprecedented scientific method Ibn al-Haytham used the word “ijtihad.” He wrapped up the whole thing with the following words: “We must do our best (in search of knowledge and truth) with what we possess of human power (najtahidu bi qadri ma huwa lana min al-quwwah al-insaniyyah).” He did so at least in his two books: “Book of Optics” and “On the Configuration of the World.” Ibn al-Haytham appears to have intended as much the technical as linguistically practical connotations of the “ijtihad” term.

By and large, “ijtihad” refers to “exerting one’s self to form an opinion in a given case or give a legal verdict or decision on an issue on which there is no specific guidance in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. It involves the interpretation of the source material and inference of rules from them.” “Ijtihad” is a purely Islamic concept-cum-method, prescribed even by the Prophet, whose primary object was to seek and implement truth.

At first, the “ijtihad” method was confined to religious sciences, led by Islamic law, but here it seems that with the emergence and flourishing of worldly sciences, Ibn al-Haytham wanted to expand the scope of “ijtihad” and diversify its fields, so that it could entail the regulation of empirical and deduced-from-the-mind knowledge as well.

Ibn al-Haytham also believed that knowledge and truth were the means of approach to Allah. He wrote: “I constantly sought knowledge and truth, and it became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge.”

Ibn al-Haytham emphasized that the world of Almighty Allah, in His divine capacity as the Creator, and the world of creation (the natural physical world) are related to each other in such a way that the latter remains subservient to the former. There is nothing, including optics, vision and light, that does not function as a demonstration and mercy from Almighty Allah, carrying the imprints of the naturality of the created world. Simply put, there is nothing that is not a portent of the presence, omnipotence and munificence of Allah.

Ibn al-Haytham said: “The matters we have mentioned are the utilities of the instruments of sight. They are subtle matters that show the wisdom and mercy of the exalted Maker or Author (Almighty Allah as al-Sani’) and the consummate perfection of His work, the skillful ways of nature and the subtlety of her productions.”

By referring to Allah as al-Sani’, which translates to the Maker, Author, or Producer, Ibn al-Haytham asserted that Allah is the sole Creator. Everything else, including man and the natural environment that man studies scientifically, are simply creations. In this manner, the limitations of both humans and the environment, and consequently, the restrictions and transience of science, have been referenced.

In addition, concerning the eyes which denote the instrument of everything Ibn al-Haytham studied, he said: “The eyes are two and not one because of the mercy of the Maker (Almighty Allah as al-Sani’), be He exalted, and the foresight of nature – so that when one eye is harmed the other remains (intact) – and also because they beautify the appearance of the face.”

The eyes work because of the wise design of Allah and the wise disposition of the world, which has been instilled in it by its Creator: “The characterization of the eye by this property is one of the things that show the wisdom of the Maker (Almighty Allah as al-Sani’), great be His glory, the skillfulness of His work, and the successful and skillful manner in which nature has arranged the instruments of sight in the disposition through which sensation can be achieved and the visible objects distinguished.”

Finally, in his book “Balance of Wisdom,” Ibn al-Haytham extensively discussed the spiritual significance of the terms “balance” and “wisdom” and their relevance to science. These concepts are considered fundamental in Islamic studies, with numerous references to them in the Qur’an. In view of that, the beauty and perfection we see on earth are attributed to the beauty and perfection of heaven, while balance, justice and integrity on earth are linked to those in heaven. The Creator is the origin of all equilibrium and wisdom, whether within man, around him, or beyond him in the vast realms of existence.

Ibn al-Haytham elaborated: “Justice is the stay of all virtues, and the support of all excellencies. For perfect virtue, which is wisdom in its two parts, knowledge and action, and in its two aspects, religion and the course of the world, consists of perfect knowledge and assured action; and justice brings the two (requisites) together. It is the confluence of the two perfections of that virtue, the means of reaching the limits of all greatness, and the cause of securing the prize in all excellence. In order to place justice on the pinnacle of perfection, the Supreme Creator made Himself known to the Choicest of His servants under the name of the Just; and it was by the light of justice that the world became complete and perfected, and was brought to perfect order – to which there is allusion in the words of the Prophet: ‘by justice were the heavens and the earth established,’ and, having appropriated to justice this elevated rank and lofty place, God has lavished upon it the robes of complacency and love, and made it an object of love to the hearts of all His servants; so that human nature is fond of it, and the souls of men yearn after it, and may be seen to covet the experience of it, using all diligence to secure it. If any thing happens to divert men from it, or to incline them to its opposite, still they find within themselves a recognition of it and a confirmation of its real nature; so that the tyrant commends the justice of others.”***

(Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer is an academic in the Department of History and Civilisation, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia.)