Author Bradley Steffens on ‘First Scientist’, Ibn al-Haytham

by Nadeem Haque Published on: 8th January 2020

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Author Bradley Steffens was interviewed by IHR Director Nadeem Haque on August 25, 2017. Steffens is a poet, a novelist, and an award-winning author of more than forty nonfiction books for children and young adults. He is a two-time recipient of the San Diego Book Award for Best Young Adult and Children’s Nonfiction: his Giants won the 2005 award, and his J.K. Rowling claimed the 2007 prize. Steffens also received the Theodor S. Geisel Award for best book by a San Diego County author in 2007. The former editor-in-chief of The Foundation magazine, published by Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar, and a former editor for Velvet magazine, published in Dubai, UAE, Steffens has contributed articles to those publications as well as to Discovery Channel Magazine, QScience Review, and the Los Angeles Times. 

Concerning the Islamic genius, Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965 – c. 1040), [1] Steffens has written the following books: The Prisoner of Al-Hakim. Clifton, NJ: Blue Dome Press, 2017. ISBN 1682060160 and Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist (Profiles in Science). Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1599350246

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Front cover of Ibn Al-haytham: First Scientist by Bradley Steffens (Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2007). 

Nadeem Haque (NH): Can you please provide us a background of how you got interested in writing books and some of your highlights, aside from your works on Ibn Al-Haytham?

Bradley Steffens: I set my sights on becoming a writer in high school, when my creative writing teacher identified my first assignment—a twenty-line poem entitled “Automobile”—as publishable. He was right; it was published in a literary journal two years later. Bolstered by his encouragement, I changed which college I was planning to attend, changed my major, and embarked on a career in letters. I continued to write and publish poetry in literary journals while in college. At the age of twenty, I collected my published work into pamphlets that I sold on the streets in my hometown of Los Angeles. I supported myself as a street poet for three years. I eventually started writing poetic monologues, dialogues, and then one-act plays-in-verse. When I was twenty-five, a theater in Minneapolis produced my plays-in-verse as an evening of theater. The plays received good reviews, and my identity as a writer deepened. I got married, had children, and at twenty-seven took my first writing job as an advertising copywriter. Many people believe that commercial writing corrupts the artist, but in my case, it taught me how to write lean, taut prose, which carried over into a more economical poetic style. I began to win prizes for my poetry and eventually published about sixty poems.

When my wife’s company relocated from Minneapolis to San Diego, I found myself unemployed, so I began to do freelance proofreading for a local publisher of young adult books. They had a manuscript that was in bad shape, although the research was good, so they asked me if I would rewrite it. It did so for the money, but without credit. They liked my work, so they gave me another manuscript in the same shape. That time I insisted on credit at least as a coauthor. I eventually coauthored seven books in this way. In each case, the original author did most of the research but couldn’t or wouldn’t make the changes required by the publisher. Impressed with my ability to write about complex subjects at a low reading level—a skill that I joked I had developed by writing advertising—my publisher began to offer me the opportunity to write my own books from scratch. I wrote more than twenty for them—histories, biographies, and current affairs.

NH: What prompted or inspired you to write Ibn Al-Haytham: First Scientist?

Bradley Steffens: The young adult books I was writing were all for the library market, and authors for such books are paid a flat fee. You have to remember that when I started, in 1989, there was no public internet and no online booksellers, so the number of copies that could be sold was dictated by the specific market—in my case, the library market. By 2006, I wanted to get into a royalty situation, so I approached a different publisher. I pitched an update of my 1996 biography of Emily Dickinson, which had received excellent reviews but was out of print. The editor was interested in working with me, but he passed on the Dickinson proposal. He asked if I had any other ideas. I had written a book about the invention of photography in 1991. In the chapter on pre-invention technology, I discussed Ibn al-Haytham and his work with the camera obscura. For that book, I focused on Ibn al-Haytham’s technological advances, but it always fascinated me that he had constructed his camera obscura to test a hypothesis about light rays. I had been taught that Galileo was the first person to conduct experiments to test hypotheses. I knew from my previous publisher that books about the Middle Ages were in high demand, because every school system includes a world history course, but there was precious little (at that time) about the Middle Ages, because publishers largely ignored the Islamic Golden Age. I like to think my next book had something to do with changing that. I also knew—had been told directly by my previous publisher—that Booklist and School Library Journal were not reviewing books about “dead white males.” Based on that knowledge, I pitched the idea of a biography of a medieval, non-European scholar: Ibn al-Haytham. My publisher loved the idea, and I got the contract. Sometimes the best answer you can receive is a “no.” If the editor had said “yes” to the Dickinson book, we wouldn’t be sitting here today.

NH: Can you explain your justification for the subtitle “First Scientist”?

Bradley Steffens: At the time I pitched the book, Ibn al-Haytham was all but unknown in the West, so my hook was that he was the “first scientist.” I said that because he was practicing experimental science six hundred years before Galileo, five hundred years before Leonardo da Vinci, and two hundred years before Roger Bacon. Each of those scholars has been credited as “the first scientist” in books by Frederick Aicken, Michael White, and Brian Clegg, respectively.

NH: What is the basic outline of the story of Ibn al-Haytham?

Bradley Steffens: Biographical details are scarce, but when he was sixty-three, Ibn al-Haytham wrote a letter describing his intellectual development. Amazingly, copies of this letter were preserved, and a translation of it appeared in the proceedings of a 1969 conference commemorating the one-thousandth birthday of Ibn al-Haytham. This letter was invaluable to me. It explained what every biographer needs to know: why he did what he did. In the letter he said he had started out as a theologian who sought to unify the sects of Islam. After laboring for who knows how long, he admitted failure, concluding, “I am now convinced that…whatever differences exist between various sects are based not on the basic tenets of faith or the Ultimate Reality but on sociological content.”

I sense that he was bitterly disappointed by his failure. He lost interest in intellectual pursuits that were subject to human opinion. He subsequently discovered the works of Aristotle, and was impressed with the Greek philosopher’s systematic approach to knowledge. This was a turning point for Ibn al-Haytham. He wrote, “I saw that I can reach the truth only through concepts whose matter are sensible things, and whose form is rational.”

He began to write commentaries on Aristotle and mathematicians such as Euclid, Ptolemy, and Apollonius of Perga. He had varied interests and wrote extensively on many topics. Most notably, he solved the mystery of vision that had eluded scholars for millennia, realizing that the eyes did not send out rays to perceive objects, as Euclid and the mathematicians had argued, nor that objects gave off forms that entered the eye, as Aristotle and the physicists had argued, but that vision occurred when light rays entered the eye and created an impression—what he called “a small pain”—at the back of the eye, which the optic nerve carried to the brain. His work on vision turned into thorough a study of the propagation of light—reflection, refraction, curved mirrors, burning mirrors, and the like. This of course was all included in his landmark book, of Kitāb al-Manāzir, or The Book of Optics.

NH: What would you consider his major achievements and legacy?

Bradley Steffens: While Ibn al-Haytham is regarded as the father of analytic geometry and of course made historic breakthroughs regarding light and vision, his greatest achievement was his methodology, his insistence on using what he called “true demonstrations” and what we call experiments to test hypotheses. This was a turning point in human history. It affected not only the physical sciences, but all of the sciences—and society itself. Criminal prosecutors today complain that it’s getting harder and harder to get convictions on circumstantial evidence and logic alone. Juries today demand concrete, physical evidence, in part because of the CSI television programs. That’s a legacy of Ibn al-Haytham’s approach. It’s hard to realize that it wasn’t always like this. What I think is interesting is that we can pinpoint the moment this change occurred, not just to Ibn al-Haytham’s lifetime, but to a specific time in his life. At the beginning of The Book of Optics, he wrote, “I formerly composed a treatise on light and vision in which I employed persuasive methods of reasoning, but when true demonstrations relating to all objects of vision occurred to me, I started afresh. Whoever, therefore, comes upon the said treatise must know that it should be discarded.” He realized that everything he had done up to that point—outside of his mathematics, of course—had been for naught, because it depended on logic rather than on experiment. It also meant that the work of the Greeks and anyone who had supported their theories with “persuasive reasoning” had to be discarded. In my novel, The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, I added a line after his statement above: “Even the most brilliant reasoning is worthless if nature does not support it.” I have him make this remark in a discussion at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. One of the scholars in attendance, a man who specializes in teaching the works of Aristotle, challenges him: “Are you suggesting that we discard the knowledge of the ancients, which has endured for centuries?” The man smiled at his colleagues. “Unless, of course, it passes a ‘true demonstration?’”

The short answer to that was “yes.” That was a revolution in thinking. That was science.

NH: In my capacity as a philosopher of science, I’ve come to the conclusion that the greatest scientific thinkers in history were: Archimedes (Ancient); Ibn al-Haytham (Middle Ages) and Isaac Newton (Pre-Modern period), because Ibn al-Haytham introduced the inductive scientific method to the world more than anyone else we know of, the same method that Newton was able to apply further. Would you say that my view is inaccurate or perhaps biased? For the modern period, we’re still waiting for one who will truly unify physics on a rational basis; perhaps the next Newton will be from the Muslim world! Who knows?

Bradley Steffens: I would tend to agree about a very high ranking for Ibn al-Haytham in the pantheon of past thinkers. He was certainly one of the greatest giants upon which Newton stood and was one who, no doubt, made Newton see even farther. Newton was very religious too, was he not?

NH: Newton was an anti-Trinitarian. He was a Unitarian. In fact, he never separated science from religion. Science for him was a means to understanding and worshiping God through reason, just like it was for Ibn al-Haytham, a wholly rational approach, in general, sadly absent today. But to get back to your novel, please take us through the gist of The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, without any spoilers if possible.

Bradley Steffens: The story follows the events of Ibn al-Haytham’s life. The historical record—and there isn’t much of it, just a few paragraphs written by Ibn Abī Usaybi‘ah after his death—says that Ibn al-Haytham supported himself as a copyist in Basra, was summoned to Egypt by Caliph Al-Hakim to see if he could make good on his claim that he could tame the Nile, surveyed the Nile but thought building a dam was not feasible at that time, and was placed under house arrest by Al-Hakim. He remained in prison for ten years, until Al-Hakim’s death. The novel dramatizes those basic facts, and I add fictional episodes along the way. For example, Ibn al-Haytham, whom I call Alhasan in the novel, does not want to go to Egypt, but he is forced to do so by the man sent to retrieve him. Alhasan tries to escape from the man a couple of times, but fails. On the way, they are set upon by bandits. Things like that. Adventures. But each episode has a point, revealing something about Alhasan’s character.

I surmised in my biography that Alhasan began work on The Book of Optics while in prison in Cairo, and a large part of the novel is dedicated to that period. I invented the character of Sadeem, a young woman who brings him his meals, becomes his student, and assists him with his work. There is a somewhat comical scene when Sadeem repeats Alhasan’s experiment with the camera obscura in her home, projecting an image of herself onto a wall and frightening her sisters, who think they are seeing a spirit. This scene is modeled after something that actually happened six hundred years later, when the Italian scholar Giovanni Battista Della Porta gave a demonstration of the camera obscura at night, using actors lit by torches. The audience was terrified and bolted from the room, and Della Porta was brought before the Inquisition on charges of sorcery.

The crisis in the novel comes when Al-Hakim dies and Alhasan faces choices about his future.

NH: How has the reaction been from among both Muslims and non-Muslims to your two books Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist and The Prisoner of Al-Hakim?

Bradley Steffens: The reaction to First Scientist was very positive. Booklist and School Library Journal—the most important reviewers for the young adult market—both recommended it, and it received positive reviews from other publications. Several Muslim and interfaith organizations, including the Pacifica Institute, Women in Dialogue, and the Islamic Medical Association of North America, featured me as a speaker. I also was invited to give a talk in the computer science department of Purdue University. There I met Ahmed Elmagarmid, the head of the department, who later was appointed the first executive director of the Qatar Computing Research Institute. Based on my talk and my book, Dr. Elmagarmid offered me a position as the communications director of the new institute, and I spent three years working in Qatar. That experience, and the many Muslim friends I made while I was there, had a tremendous impact on my novel. It could not have been written without their help and support.

The Prisoner of Al-Hakim has received excellent reviews from three Islamic publications: The Fountain, Blue Minaret, and Wardah Books. Blue Minaret says, “The story of Ibn al-Haytham has now been fictionalized masterfully by Bradley Steffens in the new book The Prisoner of al-Hakim.” Justin Pahl, the reviewer for The Fountain, writes, “From the very first page Steffens brilliantly brings Alhasan’s internal character to life on the page, sketching a conflicted, fascinating portrait of a reluctant hero. It’s not easy to dramatize the acts of thinking and creating–and harder still to do so in a subtle, elegant style–yet Steffens manages the trick. Watching Alhasan’s mind work is a beautiful process.”

I am particularly pleased with Pahl’s comments about Alhasan’s faith. He writes:

Showing religious faith—especially the kind of quiet, devout faith Ibn al-Haytham practiced—can be as difficult for the writer as depicting the inner workings of a great mind. In the book’s final third, Steffens does both, and he does so without losing the story’s momentum. As Alhasan grows in his faith, he grows intellectually, too. His scientific revelations are inextricably connected to his practice of Islam.

Then, to top it off, Michael Faraday Prize winner Jim Al-Khalili, physicist, author, and host of several BBC productions, including Science and Islam, provided my publisher with this blurb for the cover:

Ibn al-Haytham, one of the greatest scholars in history, whose real life was one of the most colourful and fascinating ever told by historians, has been brought to life in a work of fiction utterly brilliantly by Steffens. The reader is transported one thousand years into medieval Arabia. This is a gripping story based on real-life events that is fizzing with adventure and rich in accurate historical and scientific nuggets.

NH: Have you had a chance to interact with the 1001 Inventions project, which featured Ibn Al-Haytham, and also made an animated film about him?

Bradley Steffens: Keep in mind that when I wrote First Scientist there was no other biography in English about Ibn al-Haytham, only A.I. Sabra’s short entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, so I was very excited to hear about 1001 Inventions. I made a trip from Doha to Abu Dhabi to see its first traveling exhibit. I was delighted that they showcased Ibn al-Haytham in a freestanding tent, with an actor portraying him. I did find it amusing that they used a lens to demonstrate his camera obscura, because he never mentions using a lens for that purpose in any of his work. He always used an aperture without a lens—a pinhole. I thought it was good entertainment, but bad history. That said, it is entirely possible that he could have placed a lens in an aperture but never wrote about it, or that he did write about it, but what he wrote is lost. He certainly understood the physics of it. When I was writing my novel, I decided to include a scene in which he uses a lens to project an image, but that scene comes after the completion of The Book of Optics. I didn’t want to imply that it was part of that groundbreaking book, because it wasn’t.

While I was at the 1001 Inventions exhibit, I chatted with the person in charge of the bookstore and gave her a sample copy of Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist for possible inclusion in the store. She was enthusiastic, but I never heard back. I also had the chance to meet Dr. Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist formerly at Imperial College London, and a contributor to the 1001 Inventions book, Muslim Heritage in Our World, when she gave a talk in Qatar. I was surprised to learn she was familiar with First Scientist. She actually introduced me to the audience from the stage. After the talk, we discussed featuring my book in the 1001 Inventions bookstore, but nothing came of that, either. Now I understand that my publisher is in talks with 1001 Inventions about The Prisoner.

NH: Are there any plans to produce a movie or TV series on the novel?

Bradley Steffens: I am keen to see this happen. One of my friends in the Middle East, Sheikha Hend Al Qassimi, publisher of Velvet Magazine in Dubai and the author of The Black Book of Arabia, believes it would make excellent television fare during Ramadan, when Muslims like to concentrate on their own culture and history. I am hoping something like that will happen. Currently, a screenplay is underway, in conjunction with an Islamic author/playwright/philosopher of science, which I hope to have completed in 2018; it is not yet clear whether I will be adapting this for a movie or a TV series.

NH: We understand that a sequel to The Prisoner of Al-Hakim is being written. What is that about? How long will it take to complete?

Bradley Steffens: I am very excited about it. I began it about six months ago and already have written forty thousand words, which is about half the length of The Prisoner. While The Prisoner was in production, I began work on another novel set in the Islamic Golden Age, and I am very excited about that one, too. But while I was working on that book, a casual acquaintance suggested writing a sequel to The Prisoner. I had thought about doing that, but I had no story. As the acquaintance and I were talking, I thought back to the closing scene of The Prisoner, and I suddenly had a vision of something occurring in the moment after the last book ended. I had the idea for a completely new adventure: Alhasan [Ibn al-Haytham] hears a rumor about a meteor crash in The Empty Quarter of Arabia and he decides to visit the site to see if he can confirm his theory about what meteors are made of (which he has deduced from observation and his understanding of optics and the atmosphere). This is loosely based on the existence of the Wabar impact craters in Saudi Arabia. There also is a subplot about the findings of his contemporary, Abu Sa’id Al-Sizji, who suggested that the earth moves. The real Ibn al-Haytham never wrote about any of this, so the story is entirely fictional. However, Al-Sizji and his theories are real, and of course Ibn al-Haytham wrote extensively about astronomy, atmospherics, and cosmology. In other words, nothing is discussed that is not in keeping with what was known at the time and the interests and capabilities of the characters in the novel. The working title is The Empty Quarter. And yes, there is also “taste of romance,” as one of the Amazon customer reviewers put it about The Prisoner, in the sequel.

NH: What do you think are the misunderstandings that non-Muslims and also Muslims have about Islam and Science?

Bradley Steffens: I am not really qualified to answer that question. I don’t really know. However, I will say that in the West, there is a divide between science and religion, as if they are incompatible. Ibn al-Haytham was devout, and he believed that the study of the universe was a way of coming closer to God. He wrote in his autobiographical letter, “It became my belief that for gaining access to the effulgence and closeness to God, there is no better way than that of searching for truth and knowledge.” At one point in The Prisoner, I have Alhasan describe experimental science as “a dialogue with the universe, and through it, with The Creator.” So I present a kind of unification of science and theology.

NH: Your works help clarify the role of the evolution of experimental science as chiefly established through the Muslims. Do you think that the causative factor for this was the Qur’an, because it is never really pointed to by non-Muslim historians of science, even to this day?

Bradley Steffens: Yes, I do. The Qur’an talks about gaining knowledge, including knowledge about nature, in verses such as: “Those who remember Allah…reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth.” I think Ibn al-Haytham took that to heart. The Qur’an also teaches that only God is perfect, and human beings are deeply flawed. I think this instilled a deep skepticism in Ibn al-Haytham and drove him to seek a way of knowing things that was as independent of human opinion as possible. In Doubts on Ptolemy, he wrote, “Truths are immersed in uncertainties, and authorities are not immune from error, nor is human nature itself.” This shows a tremendous humility and awareness of shortcomings of human knowledge. Nevertheless, his faith gave him hope that these limitations could be overcome. He wrote, “None of us are free from that human turbidity which is in the nature of man, but we must do our best with what we possess of human power. From God we derive support in all things.”

NH: Which other Muslim scientist/thinker do you think should be written about and paid more attention to?

Bradley Steffens: All of them! Until Al-Khwarizmi is as well-known in the West as Newton, Al-Biruni is as well-known as Galileo, and Al-Sizji is as well-known as Copernicus, we have a long way to go.

NH: How do you think your work can be a bridge to understanding between the Muslims and non-Muslims in today’s highly politicized world?

Bradley Steffens: People learn from stories. They put themselves into the main character’s shoes. They empathize. God willing, that will happen to my readers. They will come to appreciate that Alhasan’s struggles are not that different from their own. Perhaps the most surprising—and promising—reaction the book has gotten so far came from a woman I’ve known since we were in junior high school. She is a devout evangelical Christian, and I was a little surprised that she was even interested in reading a story about an eleventh century Muslim scholar. In her Amazon customer review, she wrote, “I am writing this with tear-stained eyes to say how much I loved this book. It transported me into an adventure I couldn’t walk away from without knowing how it ended.” If other Westerners can relate to the characters as she did, and respect them and their culture, perhaps bridges can be built.

NH: How has your understanding of Ibn al-Haytham’s thoughts and works affected your life?

Bradley Steffens: He has inspired me on many levels. Here’s a guy, stripped of his possessions, placed under house arrest, with the entire world believing he was mad, who had the courage of his convictions to pursue a new way of discovering the truth about the universe. He comes to the realization that everyone has been going about natural science the wrong way, and yet he arrives at this conclusion not out of arrogance, not out of a belief that he is smarter than everyone who has gone before, but out of humility, out of the conviction that he and everyone else is deeply flawed and prone to error, and that their thinking—however brilliant they might think it is, and however well it conforms to the rules of logic—must be tested against a higher authority, against the universe itself.

I am inspired by that. I mean, here I am, sitting in a small house at the end of a dirt road in rural Philippines, telling the story of one of the greatest figures in history, dreaming his dreams, describing his adventures, daring to put words in his mouth. Who am I to do that? But I draw inspiration from Alhasan, his intellectual courage and his faith.

NH: Do you think there needs to be an educational reform in Western education to teach students of the great achievements of other cultures/religions at a younger age? What are your thoughts on this?

Bradley Steffens: Again, not my area of expertise, but I’ll tell a little story. When I was twelve, I had a sixth grade teacher, Betsy Crawford, who taught a survey of world history. I don’t know if it was part of the curriculum or not. She used a nonstandard text—an entertaining, layman’s version of world history. I can’t remember the title of it. This was in the 1960s, and the book was old by then. She scoured used book stores to find copies of it. It focused on the Western tradition, but it also incorporated some things from the East, such as the advent of writing in Mesopotamia and so forth. She was fascinated with the ancient Greeks, and we got thumbnail sketches of Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, and others. She also was a big enthusiast of astronomy. For homework, we would observe the stars and planets. We even had a telephone tree so we could all get in touch if there were an astronomical emergency. An astronomical emergency! Can you imagine? “Hi, Bill. This is Brad. There’s an incredible conjunction of Venus and the crescent moon in the west. Pass it on.” My point is that at that age we were receptive to stories about other cultures and old enough to understand and retain them. There’s more than a little of that twelve-year-old boy in The Prisoner. So yes, the great achievements of other cultures and religions can taught and should be taught at a younger age.

References

[1] A preprint from the Institute of Higher Reasoning (IHR) journal, Quranicosmos: Volume 1, Issue 2, January 2017.
Website: https://www.facebook.com/instituteofhigherreasoning

Nadeem Haque is a Philosopher of Science and Belief Systems and author of numerous books and articles that focus on ‘Reality Studies’. He is a researcher and author/writer on numerous interrelated areas that connect with Islamic Studies. He is also the author of eight books and one other soon to be published book, and numerous peer-reviewed articles (total of around 40 articles/papers). Nadeem was the co-founder of the King’s College Islamic Society at the University of London (in 1985), and is also one of the founders of the Institute of Higher Reasoning (IHR) which is an educational, research and think tank organisation.

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