Five Muslim scientists who shaped optics
Optometrist Shamina Asif traces the historical contribution of Muslim scientists to the field of optometry
15 April 2021
OT took the opportunity to talk with optometrist and Dudley Local Optical Committee chair, Shamina Asif, about the historical contribution of Muslim scientists to the field of optics.
She shares insight below on five key figures who shaped the profession UK optometrists know today.
Improving cataract surgery: Yuhanna Ibn MasawaihYuhanna Ibn Masawaih, (Mesue the Elder) 777–857, was the first to discuss removal of cataracts with a hollow tube via suction rather than couching which involved using a bent needle to drive the lens into the posterior chamber. Couching was a dangerous procedure commonly practised in the west till 1748. It was a 10th century Iraqi scientist, Al Mawsli, who started practising the procedure of using a hollow tube to remove cataracts, which has formed the basis of how surgery is done today.
Prolific author and detailed anatomical illustrations: Ibn IshaqIbn Ishaq (Johannitus), 808–873, combined Greek doctrines and his own observations to produce 36 books describing cysts, tumours, ulcers and their causes, as well as detailing surgical techniques. He produced a detailed anatomical illustration of the eye – diagrams today that we find in our rooms explaining conditions to patients.
Advanced surgical techniques: Al-RaziAl-Razi (Rhazes), 860–932, contributed to Islamic ophthalmology, documenting advancing surgical techniques in his famous book Kitab Al-Mansouri – a medical manual which was used widely in medieval Europe.
‘The father of optics’: Ibn Al-HaythamThe most revolutionary work in the history of optics was by Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen), 965–1040. He wrote the Book of Optics disproving the Greek theories of how the eye sees.
The Greeks said that sight occurred because of rays emanating from the eye itself, however he rejected this and through a series of experiments showed that light travelled in straight lines and that we can see due to light reaching the eye from a source.
Ibn Al-Haytham said that the retina was the centre of the vision and the impressions that it received were transferred to the brain by the optic nerve for the brain to create a visual image.
He proved his theory through experimentation, using dark chambers – this was unusual for his time as physics had been more like philosophy without experimentation.
Ibn Al-Haythem also studied lenses, experimenting with different mirrors: flat, spherical, parabolic, cylindrical, concave and convex. He treated the eye as a dioptric system by applying the geometry of refraction to it.
Ibn Al Haythem laid the foundations for optical devices like cameras – the word camera itself comes from the Arabic language.
Other scientists include Al-Ghafiqi, who resided in Cordoba, Spain, and treated trachoma. This procedure was used until World War I. Ibn Isa from Baghdad, Iraq wrote the Notebook of the Oculist describing 130 eye diseases and was the first to point out that eye disease can be a consequence of general disease.
Today we know this is the case with systemic disease like diabetes and autoimmune conditions affecting the eye. He also described treatment of chalazions, styes, trichiasis and pterygium, all of which we are still practising today when advising patients of hot compresses and cleaning of eyelids.
“With the increase in diversity within optics, I think it is important to draw attention to joint scientific heritage”
I studied the history of medicine for my GCSEs and in the NEAB syllabus book there were four pages of information on the dark ages, but only two pages on the development of medicine in the Islamic world. Looking back, I believe this was a complete injustice to those great scientists. I only discovered the true role of Islamic scientists in pioneering inventions when I watched Rageh Omaar’s series on the BBC An Islamic History of Europe in 2009.
As a Muslim this was a defining moment in my career, motivating me to progress within optometry as I realised that we need to be acquiring knowledge and doing more for the community. As Prophet Muhammed said, ‘If anyone travels on a road in search of knowledge, Allah will cause him to travel on one of the roads of paradise.’ This statement itself would have motivated those scientists.
I believe discovering the history of what I am doing makes me appreciate everything I do in a sight test. From fundus photography to pinhole, the struggles those scientists went through to investigate techniques and find treatment for patients should be inspiring for all. I am hoping that having read this article, optometrists will be motivated to progress into research, gain extra qualifications and acquire knowledge to benefit patients.
I do not think that the contribution of Islamic scientists in optometry and optics is appropriately recognised in the UK. With the increase in diversity within optics, I think it is important to draw attention to joint scientific heritage that in fact links us all together. I believe that the intercultural respect and appreciation this would encourage, is needed now more than ever.