Ibn Al Haytham Optics IV – Impact of Ibn al Haytham’s Optics

Ibn al-Haytham’s ideas were not only known through Risner edition of 1572, they have also been widely disseminated through medieval commentaries and those of the renaissance.

Bust of Ibn Al Haytham.

Bust of Ibn Al Haytham.

This is to say that Ibn al Haytham was an icon of the medieval period as illustrated by the work of Johannes Hevelius (1611 – 1687) published in 1647, entitled Selenographia lunae sive descriptio (The selenography or the study of the surface and the relief of the Moon) and considered as the first lunar atlas. The work of Hevelius had a great influence on European astronomers of the time, and was the reference for a century. Ibn al-Haytham and Galileo appear on the frontispiece of Selenographia which shows the two scientists as explorers of nature through rational thought (indicated by the geometric pattern in the hand of Ibn al-Haytham) and observation (illustrated by the long telescope in the hand of Galileo). Both approaches were probably conceived here as complementary as the two scientific approaches share. There are also stained glass windows in the John Bapst Library Boston College (USA), showing Roger Bacon (1220-1292) experiencing the theory of refraction with a text of his teacher Alhazen.

In the field of literature and art, the existence in the Shakespearean text of two competing visions of visual perception emphasizes the influence of Alhazen’s optics. Ibn al-Haytham is cited several times in the epic poem Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, one of the most widely read literary works in French for 300 years after its publication in 1275. In England, Geoffrey Chaucer refers to Ibn al Haytham in his work “Canterbury” written during the period 1387 – 1400 and considered one of the major works of English literature. Chaucer was also influenced by his study of the work of Ibn al Haytham on optics and vision.

More recently, Charles M. Falco argued that the work of Ibn al-Haytham on optics have influenced the use of perspective by Renaissance artists. Falco indicates that his examples and those of David Hockney on Renaissance art showed continuity in the use of optics by artists from 1430, very likely under the influence of Ibn al-Haytham, until today. One of the great painters of the Renaissance Alberti (1435) uses the model of direct sight of Ibn al Haytham.

In the field of philosophy, Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as a pioneer of phenomenology. He articulated a relationship between the physics of the observable world and that of intuition, psychology and mental functions. His theories on knowledge and perception, that connect science and religion, have led to a philosophy of life based on direct observation of reality from the perspective of the observer. Much of his thinking on the phenomenology was not developed until the twentieth century.

In psychology, Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the founder of experimental psychology, for his pioneering work on the psychology, visual perception and optical illusions. In the Book of Optics, Ibn al-Haytham was the first scientist to argue that vision occurs in the brain, rather than in the eyes, as already mentionned. Ibn al-Haytham also described what has been known under the name of equal innervation or Hering’s law and binocular disparity and improved theories of binocular vision and perception of the movement already discussed by Scholars like Aristotle, Euclid and Ptolemy. Ibn al-Haytham was also the first to study cognitive functions, the process of reading, giving the first descriptions of the role of perception in understanding written language.


In a summary, with Ibn al Haytham, optics has no longer the meaning it had before: geometry of perception. Now, it consists of two parts: a theory of vision, which is associated to physiology of the eye and a psychology of perception; and a theory of light, which is related to geometric optics and physical optics. Light exists independently of vision, it moves with high but a finite velocity. It propagates like corpuscles. The scientific method is born with a priority given to experimentation and experimental evidence. The impact of this new approach goes well beyond the only discipline newly born. Until 17th century, Alhazen was the reference and the lighthouse that illuminates the culture, art, painting throughout the European continent.

Universal knowledge has never been the product of a single civilization or a single culture. It is that men and women have accomplished through centuries wherever they had the curiosity and desire to understand their world. Bricks and layers built on each other and sometimes nested not unravel. Knowing the History is important especially when several important experiments are forgotten by science. Knowing these forgotten experiences can give inspiration and a better understanding of the challenges of our present world.


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  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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