The Scholar and the Caliph

By Sean Carroll | January 7, 2011 2:11 pm

Kudos to Physics World for trying out an interesting experiment — publishing a work of fiction. No, I’m not being snarky about some science article I think is woefully misguided; they really did publish a short story rather than a more conventional feature. It’s by Jennifer Ouellette, a science writer I’ve never met, but she looks really cute. (Maybe I should shoot her an email?)

The story is about Ibn al-Haytham (sometimes Latinized to Alhazen), a pioneering Muslim scientist from around the year 1000. A story is appropriate because we just don’t know too many details of al-Haytham’s life. What we do know is that he was placed under house arrest in Cairo after disappointing the Caliph by failing to control the floods of the Nile.

There was an unanticipated advantage to house arrest, at least in Jennifer’s retelling — al-Haytham was denied his precious books, so he couldn’t engage in the usual work of scholars, which was taken to be commenting on classic texts. Instead, he hit upon the idea of doing experiments on his own. The amazing result was a seven-volume Book of Optics. Long story short, this was the work that really established the idea that sight relies on rays of light stretching from objects to the eye, as well as introducing the camera obscura and discussing the physical mechanism of sight.

After ten years of arrest, the Caliph died and al-Haytham was released. But he didn’t slow down, producing “scores” (according to Wikipedia) of other works on physics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Kind of makes my own C.V. seem pretty puny by comparison; better get back to work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, Words
  • Physicalist

    . . . she looks really cute. (Maybe I should shoot her an email?)

    Better be careful; I hear she’s married.

  • http://www.scientopia.org/blogs/galacticinteractions Rob Knop

    Sean — don’t feel bad. I bet Ibn al-Haytham had nowhere near as many Twitter followers as you do.

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    Let’s see, a former English major writes a book on calculus; now Physics World publishes fiction; What’s next??? How about a Caltech physics blogger composing an opera (…NOT!)

  • spyder

    I strongly suspect that the “really cute” Jennifer could write an entire book of fictionalize biographies of Arabic and Muslim scholars of the medieval period who truly helped inspire and motivate modern science as we now know it. The dark ages of the west were countered by some of the brightest lights of Islam.

  • The guy from there

    Sorry to burst the bubble but islam has nothing to do with it. Actually, it is islam itself which hold the arab world back on science. The sufi philosophy of islam, which dictates that earthly stuff is not important, it is the afterlife and the love of god that counts, which is widely acccepted, and practiced as a policital reigning device in many muslim countries etc. etc…

  • Brian Too

    @5. The guy from there,

    You are incorrectly extrapolating the modern world of Islam to it’s past. The Islamic world had a very well known golden age which corresponded closely with the Dark Ages in Europe. Places like Damascus, Alexandria, Granada, Cairo and Baghdad were prosperous, well organized and enlightened.

    The Muslim world has struggled to live up to their own historical example ever since.

  • ray

    A lot of English professors got their knickers in a knot when Isaac Asimov wrote his “Guide to Shakespeare”. I knew one PhD-Eng who read it and admitted that it added a whole new dimension to his understanding of the Bard.

  • Jesse M.

    @The guy from there:
    The sufi philosophy of islam, which dictates that earthly stuff is not important, it is the afterlife and the love of god that counts, which is widely acccepted

    No, the mystical Sufi philosophy is definitely not widely accepted in the Islamic world today (too bad in a way since it tends to be a lot more liberal and tolerant, and less literalist in its interpretations of the Quran, then more mainstream variants of Islam). For example, read this article which uses the “world trade center mosque” (actually an Islamic cultural center several blocks from the world trade site), which is being created by a Sufi group, as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the oppression of Sufis in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This article claims (in the paragraph before the section titled ‘Distinctive Sufi Beliefs’) that at their peak in the 16th-18th centuries something like 50-80% of Muslims were Sufis, but this summary of a book on Sufis says they number around 50 million today (as does this Sufi page), whereas this page says that a Pew study estimates about 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, so with these numbers Sufis would only make up about 3% of Muslims. I suspect that you have gotten Sufis confused with Sunnis!

  • http://theculture.org/rich/sharpblue/ Rich

    Isn’t she married to that evolution/development guy?

  • The guy from there

    You are both right and wrong. Let me explain. I’m well aware of the golden age of science in islamic world, the translation movement and etc. But like i said, it is also islam that brought the demise of that era. You are misinterpreting the ideology of sufism here. I can agree on the notion that most people who call themselves sufis today are very peaceful in nature, but the philosophy of the cult is exactly how i stated it. Sufism means turning away from all the earthly things, and devoting yourself to god and only god. This includes all the material sciences, arts and even some basic insticts of mankind. It is like an abstinence on steroids.

    If you go and tell any muslim today that you are a “materialist”, they will feel pity for you, some will pray for your soul, or even hate you to death. Make no mistake, the ideology of sufism has caught on, even when most muslims today do not call themselves sufis, they think like one.

    I won’t accept the claim that islam or any other dogma can somehow support science or reasonable thinking. Because the essence of science is “doubt” and doubt kills belief. That is a fact. But if you still want to superpose these two somehow, i could say that, the scientists of the islamic world, before they were interrupted by the political agenda (also using islam as its agent), were trying to “find god”, through the material sciences. So in a way you could say that it has something to do with islam, but i am gonna go with the idea that science flourished on that era, in the islamic world, because of the fact that all trade routes had to pass through this region, so all cultures, all literature, all discoveries, all around the world, has made their way to the islamic world. And these people made a great job to deal with this information overdose. Untill of course, the hand of god interrupted and brought an end to this. It is almost on par with what the catholic church did to Rome. A divine intervention perhaps.

  • Jesse M.

    Sufism means turning away from all the earthly things, and devoting yourself to god and only god. This includes all the material sciences, arts and even some basic insticts of mankind. It is like an abstinence on steroids.

    I happen to know some Sufis and I’ve learned a little about their beliefs…your description strikes me as silly, Sufism doesn’t seem notably more dismissive of the sciences than other mystically-oriented sects like Zen Buddhism. In general it is the textual literalists in any religion who are most hostile to science, whereas the mystics are less dogmatic and in the modern world tend to adopt “New Agey” types of attitudes to science (like Deepak Chopra), which usually comes with a lot of pseudoscientific baggage but at least they show some interest in recent discoveries and aren’t completely denying evolution or the Big Bang or whatever. Do you know of any historians who think Sufism was responsible for Islam falling behind in science or is this your own original deduction? Do you know of Sufis who actually preach that one should turn away from “all the material sciences, arts and even some basic insticts of mankind”?

    If you go and tell any muslim today that you are a “materialist”, they will feel pity for you, some will pray for your soul, or even hate you to death. Make no mistake, the ideology of sufism has caught on, even when most muslims today do not call themselves sufis, they think like one.

    It’s absurd to ascribe this to Sufism when this is the attitude of fundamentalists of all stripes towards “materialism”, they tend to think it’s very important that one believe in supernatural entities such as the “soul”, God, and angels and demons, and that those who don’t believe are probably going to Hell.

    I won’t accept the claim that islam or any other dogma can somehow support science or reasonable thinking.

    I’m not saying that religion is good for science, but I don’t think it’s true that Sufism is worse for the development of science than less mystical and more literalistic versions of Islam, quite the opposite I’d say. And I don’t think Islam is inherently more obstructive to the development of science than Christianity, although in modern times it is true that a greater fraction of Christians adopt “liberal” interpretations of Christianity which are less hostile to science.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    The Physics Today article has:

    “The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyrs,” the Koran says

    As far as I know, this is wrong. The Quran does not have any such thing. This is from the Hadith (narrations recording the sayings and doings of the Prophet).

    Moreover, the Hadith are classified by whether the chain of narration from the time of the Prophet to when the hadith were recorded a century or two later is reliable or not. As per Wiki, this is a weak Hadith.

  • Smith Powell

    Thanks for the headsup. I read it, liked it, and forwarded to several friends. This sort of thing is one of many reasons that I so enjoy this blog. Keep up the good work. And should you email the “cute” author, do pass on my appreciation for her work.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    In modern times, Abdus Salam, of Glashow-Weinberg-Salam, from all accounts, was a devout Muslim. Or if you accept Pakistani law and definitions, a devout non-Muslim Ahmaddiya. Nevertheless, religion did not keep him from doing great science.

  • aa bb

    From http://www.jenniferouellette-writes.com/bio.html:
    Jennifer is married to Caltech physicist (and fellow author/blogger) Sean (M.) Carroll.

  • Louise

    Another essay from Physics World, which is very relevant to the science/Islam discussion, is “Science in the Muslim world” by UK academic, science writer and TV star Jim Al-Khalili: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/42134

    Al-Khalili not only looks back at the history, but also examines the current state of research as well as attitudes towards science in the Muslim world today.

    On a lighter note, there are also some positive developments to report, from the new $10bn KAUST university in Saudi Arabia to the SESAME synchrotron in Jordan, an international center due to send its first electrons whizzing in 2012.

  • Mean and Anomalous

    Great story, I really enjoyed it; thanks.

  • Michael Aye

    If I were Sean, I’d be scared of the hyper-world interpreting the display of lack of connection to Jen when in fact there is as a cover-up. Just saying…

  • http://berto-meister.blogspot.com/ Berto

    You can watch part of this story in the introductory episode of a fascinating documentary series titled Light Fantastic: http://berto-meister.blogspot.com/2008/02/light-fantastic-let-there-be-light.html

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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