Ibn Al Haytham Optics III – Kitab al Manazir

The legacy of Ibn Al Haytham was transmitted to us especially through his major work ‘Kitab al-Manazir’ (Book of Optics), which was written around 1028, translated into Latin and published in the West in the early 13th century.


Cover page of the first printed version of Kitab Al Manazir in 1572. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This book consists of seven volumes: Book 1 provides a general introduction to the theory of vision, light and its dispersion, the eye and its anatomy, the sensation produced by the penetration in the eye of light rays as well as the functions of the various parts of the eye. In Book 2, Ibn al Haytham, deals with direct vision, the elements of the visible seized by direct vision, and he reports discussions on visual perception and psychology of visual perception and the optical illusions. He is the first scientist to argue that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes. He noted that personal experience has an effect on what people see and how they see; and the vision and perception are subjective. He also gives the example of an adult who can make mistakes in the vision of how his own experience suggests that he/she sees one thing, when he/she actually sees something else. Books 3 -6 are devoted to vision by reflection, the mathematical theory of reflection, and the catoptric image. Are also presented what is known as Alhazen’s problem and errors caused by the reflection of mirrors. The last volume addresses the vision by refraction and the refraction causes, law of refraction, the construction of the refracted image and the contribution of refraction in direct vision and errors produced by refraction.

Later on, Ibn al Haytham published a complementary to his Kitab al Manazir “Risala fi l-Daw” or Letter of light, where he reported new experiments on the properties of light and dispersion of radiation through various transparent media, new observations, experiences and reviews on the anatomy of the eye, the camera obscura and the pinhole, optical illusions, visual perception, rainbow meteorology and the atmosphere density, various celestial phenomena (the eclipse, twilight and moonlight), refraction, catoptrics, the diopter, spherical and parabolic mirrors, etc.

The first Latin translation of Kitab al Manazir under the title of Perspectiva (De aspectibus) was performed by Gerard of Cremona (1114 – 1187), an Italian writer and translator of Cremona (Lombardy) Italy. This work has greatly influenced the work on optics of most Renaissance Scholars. The first to study and disseminate the works of Ibn al-Haytham was his fervent disciple Roger Bacon (1214 – 1292), who realized the importance of Muslim heritage in the areas of science and philosophy. The Polish Witelio (1230 – 1275) was the other Scholar of medieval age to be interested in the work of Ibn al Haytham and its dissemination in Europe. Fourteen copies are identified in Europe, two are located in Cambridge, one in Edinburgh, three in London and Oxford. Seven in all – that is to say half of the manuscripts are available in England. This is not surprising given that the English John Pecham (1277 – 1273) has developed from Kitab al Manazir an optical manual for teaching which remains as such until the late of sixteenth century.

The Pecham’s text explicitly claims its belonging to Alhacen’s optics and the name of Alhazen is cited several times and even many copies of Alhazen’s writings are included in many places.”, said Anne Valérie Dulac.

This book was also referenced at the University of Paris in 1296 and at the library of the Sorbonne in 1306 and used as a textbook in Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury and Merton College until the 14th century (Holbrook, 1998). Opticae Thesaurus was a reference to Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Descartes and it was a very important text books on optics until the late of the 17th century as stated by D. Lindberg.

Kitab al Manazir was printed for the first time in Basel in 1572 by a disciple of the humanist Pierre Ramus, Frédéric Risner as a book entitled “Opticae Thesaurus”, also including a Perspectiva of 10 books written by the Polish Vitellion (Witelo ) in 1270.


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  19.   Herausgegeben von Fuat Sezgin, “Wissenschaft und Technik im Islam“, Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften an der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main (2003).
  20.   Dominique Raynaud, ‘Ibn al-Haytham sur la vision binoculaire: un précurseur de l’optique physiologique’, Arabic Science and Philosophy, 2003, 13: 79-99.
  21.   Charles M. Falco, ‘Ibn al-Haytham and the Origins of Computerized Image Analysis’
  22.   Sameen Ahmed Khan, ‘Arab Origins of the Discovery of the Refraction of Light’, OPN October 2007.
  23.   Charles M. Falco, Aimée L. Weintz Allen, ‘Ibn al-Haytham’s Contributions to Optics, Art, and Visual Literacy’, PainteOd pticsS ymposi, Florence, September 7 -9, 2008.
  24.   Anne-Valérie Dulac, ‘Shakespeare et l’optique arabe’, Actes des congrès de la Société française Shakespeare (Shakespeare et l’Orient) 27 (2009).
  25.   Archimedes and the Burning Mirror, http://www.unmuseum.org/burning_mirror.htm

More posts on Ibn Al Haytham and Arabic Optics Series

boudriouaAzzedine Boudrioua is a full Professor at the University Paris 13. He is leading Organic Photonics and Nanostructures group of Laboratoire de Physique des Lasers (LPL). He is currently developing activities in the field of nanophotonics as well as nonlinear optics. He was involved in the organization of several conferences. He participates to several national and international scientific committees and expert panels. He is a member of the French Optical Society board and he is involved in several national and international projects and he is leading some of them. More recently he also concentrates on the history of medieval optics. He is Coordinator of Ibn al Haytham International Working Group.


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