top of page

The Art of Spectacles & Eyewear in Muslim Culture

Spectacles are one of the important inventions in the history of humanity. Since the 9th century, Muslim scientists have contributed to the development of optics, as well as designers to fashioning modern eyewear.

The art of spectacles & eyewear in Muslim culture…

The invention of medical glasses is attributed to the Muslim scholar Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham, but before that the "reading stone" was used in the ninth century, which is a piece of glass divided in half that enlarges the written text when placed on it.

The “reading stone” was invented during the 9th century; it is a piece of glass cut in half, when placed on a text, it magnifies it. It is believed that Abbas ibn Firnas invented the reading stone as an early attempt to improve vision and magnify objects.

Al-Hasan Ibn Al-Haytham was a pioneer in optics, and conducted many experiments on glass, inventing glasses that helped him to read after his eyesight weakened. He came to the invention of a convex lens that showed words and shapes in a larger and clearer size.

Ibn Al-Haytham studied the structure of the eye and wrote a comprehensive work about his findings, titled Kitab Al-Manazir, or The Book of Optics. It contained a diagram of the eye & its connection to the central nervous system, an observation never been previously made.

Ibn Al-Haytham named the parts of the eye & their English translations are still used today: retina, cornea, vitreous humor & aqueous humor. Also, due to his understanding of the eye & its processes, he studied light & proposed his own theories about colors & light refraction.

After the Latin translations of Ibn al-Haytham became available in Europe in the twelfth century, optics developed there. In his treatise written between 1220 and 1235, Robert Grosseteste mentioned the use of optics to read the smallest letters at further distances.

In the 13th century, the English scholar Roger Bacon (1214-1294) wrote about how to magnify visual objects using pieces of glass spheres. Some science historians suggest Bacon extracted his knowledge from the Latin version of Ibn Al-Haytham’s book Kitab al-manazir (Optics).

In 1635, Ridhā al-'Abbasī, a Persian artist, inspired his student Mu'in al-Musawwer to paint him while he was wearing his specs. The painting is an early artwork in the Muslim world that features a pair of eyeglasses. It is in Princeton University Library in New Jersey.

One of the earliest depictions of eyeglasses in India. Miniature of artist Mir Sayyid Ali, Portrait of his father Mir Musavvir, Musee Guimet, Paris, 1565-70. In this miniature, the spectacles comprised lenses mounted on a wooden frame, with arms curling over the ears.