Ibn Haytham: The man behind the camera

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Jalees Ahmad, London

Frontispiece of Johannes Hevelius, Selenographia 1647. Depiction of Ibn al-Haytham (left) holding a geometrical diagram and symbolising knowledge through reason and Galileo Galilei (right), holding a telescope and symbolising knowledge through the senses. | Wiki Commons

Dozens of inventions come to mind that possibly created the largest transformation in modern human history. But there is one such invention that has completely revolutionised the 21st century; the camera.

The camera is now part-and-parcel of our lives, and even the latest mobile phone launch boasts its “new camera specs” as a unique selling point. Today, according to research by Pew, of the five billion people who own a smart phone around the world, approximately 90% have only taken a picture with a smartphone as opposed to a purpose-built camera, thus making the camera on the smartphone one of the most used functions.

From selfies to family group photos, our phone cameras have enabled us all to become photographers in some way or another. However, one question which almost never crosses one’s mind is, where, when and who invented the camera?

What scientific research was necessary for mankind to get here? Who opened the gateway to such an invention? How far did science need to progress for someone to invent such a glorious image-capturing and breathtaking machinery?

Picture this: The year is 965. The world has seen inventions such as the windmill and gunpowder among many more and they seem to be the most advanced inventions of their time. If someone was to attempt to explain to people of that time the concept of a machine that is able to capture a moment and save it as an image forever, instant laughter would break out.

However, during the late 900s, a man by the name of Abul Muhammad ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, through his research paved the way for mankind to ultimately invent the camera. Ibn Haytham was a Muslim born in Basra, an Iraqi city located on the Shatt al-Arab, who spent most of his life in Cairo. He was an astronomer, mathematician and one of the most renowned scholars of the Islamic Golden Age.

Ibn Haytham was famous for possessing great influence in the fields of celestial physics, astronomy, optics and the science of perspective. (History of Islamic Philosophy, Henry Corbin)

In fact, this Muslim scientist was the first to explain the science behind our vision and explained, through his research, that vision occurs when light reflects from an object and then passes to one’s eyes. (Philosophy in the Islamic World, Peter Adamson)

Being a person who understood the complexities of scientific methods five centuries before the dawn of the age of science in Europe, among the many great works he accomplished, Ibn Haytham, also known as al-Hazen, penned a seven-volume treatise on optics in Arabic.

The work was later translated into Latin and his scholarly work is still being used even up to this day. In it, he explores and explains his research on light, colour and its interaction with the eye.

One aspect which I will briefly cover in this article is his works in the field of optics and being the first to analyse and understand the science behind the camera obscura. The first mention of the camera obscura can be found in old writings of a Chinese literature of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher famously known for being the founder of the Mohist School of Logic.

In Mozi’s writings the camera obscura is described as a collecting point. For centuries it was used as a means of studying and viewing eclipses of the Sun without endangering the eyes. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Great philosophers and scholars such as Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Anthemius and Al Kindi all used the camera obscura in their research. Camera obscura, in simple words, means a dark chamber. “Camera” is Latin for chamber and “obscura” is Latin for dark; a darkened room in simple words. A camera obscura can be a darkened room or even a small dark box with a small opening to allow light to come in. Since light travels in straight lines, the light projected off the objects outside the box will then project itself inside the camera obscura.

Illustration of the camera obscura principle | Wiki Commons

Through excessively studying, analysing and testing this science, Ibn Haytham was the first to fully comprehend the camera obscura effect, which opened new avenues to the gates of science. He began his analysis of vision simply by studying bright lights and colours, and came to the conclusion that bright lights cause eye pain from which he deducted that the eye receives something from outside itself and emits nothing.

Ultimately, Ibn Haytham concluded that each point of an object radiates in all directions and that some of these rays strike the cornea, the transparent front part of the eye that covers the iris, pupil and anterior chamber.

He further deducted that the rays that pass through the cornea are transmitted to the lens, which further transmit them as a bundle to the optic nerve. (Alhacen’s Theory of Visual Perception: A Critical Edition)

His theory had tremendous influence on Western optical theorists such as Roger Bacon, Witelo, John Pecham (among many others) and ultimately Johannes Hevelius, the German scholar, famously known as the founder of lunar topography. In the title page of his book, Selenographia (1647), an image of Ibn Haytham along with Galileo is shown, indicating his respect and acknowledgment of these two scholars as being the two pillars of this science.

Our knowledge of science and technology today is based on the 1,000 years of uncompromising research conducted by the scholars before us. These people were from diverse backgrounds and different faiths. Had it not been for them, it is questionable whether technology would be what it is today.

Upon closer examination into Ibn Haytham’s life, scholars assert that the reason Ibn Haytham was able to accomplish so much was due to his thinking, vision and approach of life as a whole.

He was a Muslim by faith. Whilst reading and conducting experiments and research, Ibn Haytham would look at all possible views. And, instead of trusting what he read, he would question it. This helped him to not fall into the hypothesis of others and ensured him success as he further conducted his research.

The camera we use to capture life’s finest moments would not have existed had it not been for Ibn Haytham’s revolutionary research. Prior to Ibn Haytham, many great thinkers wrote extensively and elaborated on the visual theories that were present but no real ground breaking progress was made.

In short, Ibn Haytham was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflects and bounces off an object and then passes to one’s eyes. So the next time you use your smartphone to take a selfie, a breath-taking scene or a photo at a family reunion, just remember that Ibn Haytham, a Muslim scientist, made it all possible.

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