Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham (965 in Basra – c. 1040 in Cairo) was a Muslim, scientist and polymath described in various sources as either Arabic or Persian. He is frequently referred to as Ibn al-Haytham, and sometimes as al-Basri, after his birthplace in the city of Basra. Alhazen made significant contributions to the principles of optics, as well as to physics, astronomy, mathematics, ophthalmology, philosophy, visual perception, and to the scientific method. He was also nicknamed Ptolemaeus Secundus (“Ptolemy the Second”) or simply “The Physicist” in medieval Europe. Alhazen wrote insightful commentaries on works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the Greek mathematician Euclid.
Born circa 965, in Basra, present-day Iraq, he lived mainly in Cairo, Egypt, dying there at age 74. Over-confident about practical application of his mathematical knowledge, he assumed that he could regulate the floods of the Nile. After being ordered by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth ruler of the Fatimid caliphate, to carry out this operation, he quickly perceived the impossibility of what he was attempting to do, and retired from engineering. Fearing for his life, he feigned madness and was placed under house arrest, during and after which he devoted himself to his scientific work until his death.
Alhazen, the great Islamic polymath.
Alhazen was born in Basra, in the Iraq province of the Buyid Empire. Many historians have different opinions about his ethnicity whether he was Arab or Persian . He probably died in Cairo, Egypt. During the Islamic Golden Age, Basra was a “key beginning of learning”, and he was educated there and in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the focus of the “high point of Islamic civilization”. During his time in Buyid Iran, he worked as a civil servant and read many theological and scientific books.
One account of his career has him called to Egypt by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ruler of the Fatimid Caliphate, to regulate the flooding of the Nile, a task requiring an early attempt at building a dam at the present site of the Aswan Dam. After his field work made him aware of the impracticality of this scheme, and fearing the caliph’s anger, he feigned madness. He was kept under house arrest from 1011 until al-Hakim’s death in 1021. During this time, he wrote his influential Book of Optics. After his house arrest ended, he wrote scores of other treatises on physics, astronomy and mathematics. He later traveled to Islamic Spain. During this period, he had ample time for his scientific pursuits, which included optics, mathematics, physics, medicine, and the development of the modern experimental scientific method.
Some biographers have claimed that Alhazen fled to Syria, ventured into Baghdad later in his life, or was in Basra when he pretended to be insane. In any case, he was in Egypt by 1038. During his time in Cairo, he became associated with Al-Azhar University, as well the city’s “House of Wisdom”, known as Dar al-`Ilm (House of Knowledge), which was a library “first in importance” to Baghdad’s House of Wisdom.
Among his students were Sorkhab (Sohrab), a Persian student who was one of the greatest people of Iran’s Semnan and was his student for over 3 years, and Abu al-Wafa Mubashir ibn Fatek, an Egyptian scientist who learned mathematics from Alhazan.
Alhazen made significant improvements in optics, physical science, and the scientific method. Alhazen’s work on optics is credited with contributing a new emphasis on experiment. His influence on physical sciences in general, and on optics in particular, has been held in high esteem and, in fact, ushered in a new era in optical research, both in theory and practice.
The Latin translation of his main work, Kitab al-Manazir (Book of Optics), exerted a great influence on Western science: for example, on the work of Roger Bacon, who cites him by name, and on Johannes Kepler. His research in catoptrics (the study of optical systems using mirrors) centred on spherical and parabolic mirrors and spherical aberration. He made the observation that the ratio between the angle of incidence and refraction does not remain constant, and investigated the magnifying power of a lens. His work on catoptrics also contains the problem known as “Alhazen’s problem”. Meanwhile in the Islamic world, Alhazen’s work influenced Averroes’ writings on optics, and his legacy was further advanced through the ‘reforming’ of his Optics by Persian scientist Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (d. ca. 1320) in the latter’s Kitab Tanqih al-Manazir (The Revision of [Ibn al-Haytham’s] Optics). The correct explanations of the rainbow phenomenon given by al-Fārisī and Theodoric of Freiberg in the 14th century depended on Alhazen’s Book of Optics. The work of Alhazen and al-Fārisī was also further advanced in the Ottoman Empire by polymath Taqi al-Din in his Book of the Light of the Pupil of Vision and the Light of the Truth of the Sights (1574). He wrote as many as 200 books, although only 55 have survived, and many of those have not yet been translated from Arabic. Even some of his treatises on optics survived only through Latin translation. During the Middle Ages his books on cosmology were translated into Latin,Hebrew and other languages. The crater Alhazen on the Moon is named in his honour, as was the asteroid59239 Alhazen. In honour of Alhazen, the Aga Khan University (Pakistan) named its Ophthalmology endowed chair as “The Ibn-e-Haitham Associate Professor and Chief of Ophthalmology”.
Alhazen (by the name Ibn al-Haytham) is featured on the obverse of the Iraqi 10,000 dinars banknote issued in 2003, and on 10 dinar notes from 1982. A research facility that UN weapons inspectors suspected of conducting chemical and biological weapons research in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was also named after him.