Bradley Steffens’ fine work of historical fiction, “The Prisoner of Al-Hakim,” begins quietly, with two friends sitting in a study, talking about mathematics. One of these friends is Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhasan. History knows him as one of the greatest mathematical minds of the last fifteen hundred years, but when our novel begins, Alhasan is a lowly translator, his reputation in shambles after a failed civic project. Alhasan has no big dreams left. An introvert, he wants, simply, to study Ptolemy and the other great thinkers. He would be happy to pass his days alone in his study.
Had Alhasan gotten his wish, that book would still have been worth reading. 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, the prose moving along smoothly, like the gears of a reliable old clock.
Fate, however, did not grant Ibn al-Haytham his quiet life – or us our quiet book. While walking home from his friend’s study, Alhasan notices a mysterious stranger stalking him through the streets of Basra. His encounter with Al-Ghazi, a brutish emissary from the Fatimid Caliphate, will upend Alhasan’s modest existence, sending him on a journey to Cairo, where Al-Hakim – the Mad Caliph – demands a dam be constructed to block the Nile. Alhasan will be the man to design it and oversee its construction.
After its intimate, scholarly beginning, “The Prisoner of Al-Hakim” feels, for much of its middle section, like the best kind of adventure novel – a road-trip book full of swashbuckling, danger, and indelible scenery. Alhasan and Al-Ghazi make a classic odd couple. One is thoughtful and self-contained, the other gregarious but ferocious. Their relationship begins as captive and captor, two polar opposites forced by autocratic decree to coexist. This especially rankles the captured Alhasan:
As a young man, Alhasan had dreamed of becoming a warrior like the great generals of history, including his own grandfather, nicknamed Al-Haytham, “The Lion,” for his courage in battle against the Buwayhids.
Alhasan’s father had counseled him against becoming a soldier. “There are many ways to serve God and your people,” the elder Alhasan had said. “Taking up the sword is one way. Taking up the pen is another. Give your people knowledge, and you will make them great.”
In the end, Alhasan had taken his father’s advice. He had given his people knowledge, but now he found himself at the mercy of a brute with a sword.
When their party is beset by bandits, the two men are forced to rely on one another. The reader will recognize their relationship following a well-worn, but effective, arc – from enmity to grudging respect, and finally to friendship. This trajectory could feel pat in the hands of lesser writer, but Steffens’ myriad talents imbue it with grace and very real emotion.
Readers will likely tear through this middle section. Steffens’ gift for internal monologue is matched by his deftness with action sequences. It would be understandable if the contrast between quiet and internal and loud and external was jarring, but the changes in tone always feel natural and organic. The novel seems to bounce between at least four different genres: historical fiction; a character study; a book of ideas; and an adventure novel. Yet somehow Steffens makes it all fit harmoniously together. He creates vivid characters, through both dialogue and gesture, and he has the historian’s knack for never providing too many details, but always providing the right detail:
Alhasan stood and looked at the man in the gold-trimmed robe. He had piercing blue eyes flecked with reddish gold. No one had introduced them, but Alhasan knew he was standing before none other than Al-Hakim Bi-amr Allah, ruler of the Fatimid Caliphate.
As Al-Ghazi and Alhasan reach Cairo, the real trouble begins. Their party, sent to survey the Nile, is beset by one disaster after another. Many members, including the Mad Caliph’s counsel, Al-Jarajarai, begin to think the project is cursed.
Part of the pleasure of reading is being surprised. All too often, the astute reader can sense where a book is going (of course, this is pleasurable in its own way, too). Halfway through The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, most readers will have a sense of where the book is headed – trials and tribulations, but ultimately triumph. But then the novel sharply veers off course, and the book’s action moves from the banks of the Nile to the confines of Alhasan’s mind. Again, were Steffens a less talented writer, such a dramatic swerve might seem forced; here, it seems natural. As with all good writing, the characters dictate the action, not vice versa.
The shift is surprising, but considering the characters involved – including the dangerous dogmatist Al-Jarajarai – it makes sense. Yet even here, Steffens shows restraint. Many writers would paint in broad strokes, framing Al-Jarjarai as a one-dimensional villain. But he is given long sections to expound on his ideas, interacting with – instead of against – the other characters. His frustrations with Alhasan are antagonistic, but also understandable; the two men’s personalities couldn’t be more conflicting.
With Alhasan’s future, as well as the dam project, in doubt, he once again sets his mind to all the proofs and ideas he’d wanted to explore back in Basra. He begins by memorizing the Qur’an. 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.
Of course, Alhasan is not working alone. He has an unexpected student and assistant helping him as he gets closer and closer to unraveling one of the great mysteries of his time. Through their interactions, Steffens turns one more trick of his own by introducing a fifth genre into the book’s latter stages: romance. They hurtle towards a surprising conclusion that has been earned by all parties – the characters, the author, and us readers.
Any work of fiction is a monumental undertaking, but historical fiction is an even taller order. Research must be seamlessly integrated into a plot; characters must be fleshed out based upon the historical record. Fact must coexist with fiction. With so many moving parts, it’s a nearly impossible balance. To do it as well as Steffens has – and to have it be as entertaining as The Prisoner of al-Hakim is – feels, as so many of Ibn al-Haytham’s discoveries must have felt, like magic.
“Give your people knowledge, and you will make them great.”
Interview with Bradley Steffens
How did you start writing?
I loved poetry as a kid—Dr. Seuss, song lyrics, and classic children’s poems like “The Children’s Hour,” “If Once You Have Slept On An Island,” and “Nancy Hanks”—and I tried my hand at versifying. When I was about ten I wrote a stanza-by-stanza parody of “Casey at the Bat” that I thought at the time was pretty good. (Unfortunately, I lost it.) I also read the sports columnist Jim Murray every day in the Los Angeles Times and thought that must be a nice job. I tried to follow in Murray’s footsteps in a sense when I began to create little sports pages for my father, who was a machinist who worked second shift at an aerospace factory. He couldn’t listen to baseball games at work, so I left him notes about the games before I went to bed. I was eleven. Once I was out of school for the summer, my descriptions became more elaborate, and I began typing them on my mother’s old Smith Corona manual typewriter. It got so that I was producing full-page accounts, which I really enjoyed doing. I added little sidebars, anecdotes, and even weather reports. When I was in sixth grade, my mother and I attended Open House Night, and she proudly told my teacher about the “newspapers” I made for my dad. I about died of embarrassment. But the teacher suggested I create newspapers based on the ancient history we were studying. There was no way out of it, so I did one on Socrates drinking hemlock. The teacher made copies of it and handed them out to the class as required reading. The other kids hated me. But that was my first publication and my first effort at bringing history alive. I did about ten more that year, and I began to form an identity as a writer.
Are you personally religious? In the character of Alhasan, you brilliantly capture what it’s like to be a scholar of religious persuasion – of showing how the religious mind can work. What role has your faith – or lack thereof – played in your writing?
I am religious. I pray every day. I was raised in the Lutheran Church. I considered the ministry at one point, in part because I loved listening to the sermons and I thought it would be exciting to make your living writing meditations on faith and scripture. Of course there are other facets of the ministry that didn’t suit me as well. I never got “the call.” As a teenager, I became serious about writing, and I followed that path.
One of the things that touched me deeply about Alhasan Ibn al-Haytham was his devotion to God. He was above all a man of faith. One of the things he said in a letter he wrote when he was sixty-three years old was: “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.” I use that quote early in The Prisoner of Al-Hakim, because it is essential to understanding not only the man, but also why he did what he did—why he pioneered experimental science.
In the West we have a schism between science and religion, but what I find fascinating is that experimental science was a product of Alhasan’s faith. As a Muslim, he believed that only God is perfect and that human beings are deeply flawed. As a result, he had a deep skepticism toward human endeavors, including human reasoning. In Doubts Concerning Ptolemy, he wrote: “The seeker after truth is not one who studies the writings of the ancients and, following his natural disposition, puts his trust in them, but rather the one who suspects his faith in them and questions what he gathers from them, the one who submits to argument and demonstration, and not to the sayings of a human being whose nature is fraught with all kinds of imperfection and deficiency.”
He yearned to find a way to avoid the pitfalls and limitations of human reasoning. Mathematics did that, but he wanted to expand on that. This is what drove him to devise what he called “true demonstrations,” what we call experiments. He wanted to bypass human opinion and interact directly with nature. At one point in the novel, he says, “If we are to know the truth about nature, we must enter into a dialogue with the universe itself.” While I invented that particular line, it closely tracks not only what I quoted above, but also a statement he made in the introduction to his Book of Optics. He said, “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 experimentation rendered all works based purely on “persuasive reasoning” obsolete, including his own. In this we see his tremendous humility and the attitude of a true scientist.
Where did you first hear about Alhasan? I know you wrote a children’s book about him; what inspired you to turn his story into a novel?
I first heard about him in 1991 when I was working on a book entitled Photography for a series called The Encyclopedia of Discovery and Invention. In the chapter about pre-invention technology, I talked about the camera obscura. Alhasan is credited as the first person to accurately describe the physics behind its workings. What I found interesting was that my source said Alhasan used the camera obscura in an experiment to test whether or not light rays travel in straight lines. I thought, “Hold on. Experiment? I thought Galileo was the first person to conduct experiments.” That got me interested in him. As it turned out, he devised the camera obscura to test something even more subtle than whether light rays travel in straight lines. He had already established that. He actually wanted to test whether or not light rays interfere with each other, or, as he put it, “Do lights and colors mix in the air?” He believed, based on observation, that they did not, but he constructed a camera obscura to test that hypothesis. That, to me, was groundbreaking. Others, such as astronomers, had tested their hypotheses by observing nature. But Alhasan imagined and built an apparatus to test a discrete hypothesis, and that, I believe, is an altogether different thing.
As I delved into the origins of modern science, I found that various people had been credited as the “first scientist” by different authors over the years, including Galileo, of course, but also Leonardo da Vinci, who preceded Galileo, and Roger Bacon, who preceded Leonardo. But no one had discussed Alhasan, even though Bacon actually referred to his work in his Opus Majus. In fact, Alhasan’s Book of Optics was known throughout Europe in a Latin translation and was one of the earliest printed books. So that gave me the idea of writing the biography Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist, which was published by Morgan Reynolds in 2006.
The idea for turning his biography into a novel came from an interview—like this one. I was interviewed about Ibn al-Haytham: First Scientist by a reporter for The North County Times in Escondido, California, in 2007. After the interview, the reporter, Ruth Marvin Webster, closed her notebook and asked me if I wrote fiction. I said no. She said, “That is an amazing life story. You should write a historical [novel] based on it, then you could fill in all the missing details.” I didn’t write fiction and had no intention of doing so, but I wanted a good interview to appear, so I said, “That’s a great idea.” Then she added a sentence that changed my life. She said, “But of course he would have to have a love interest.” I almost laughed out loud. The idea of Alhasan and a love interest seemed farfetched, but, wanting the good interview, I suppressed the laugh and said, “Of course!”
When I thought about it the next morning, I did laugh out loud. But then I got to thinking about the facts in Alhasan’s life. There is one intriguing detail: The inscription in the oldest surviving copy of his Book of Optics states that the copyist was Alhasan’s son-in-law. That, of course, means Alhasan had a daughter and, thus, a wife—the love interest. I began to consider the date of the copy, the date Alhasan left for Egypt, the date of his release from house arrest in Egypt, and I suddenly envisioned who this love interest might be. I realized I had the kernel of a story. The question was, would I write it?
Did you find the process of writing a novel for an adult audience to be difficult? What was the transition like–from writing stories for children to this, a full-blown historical novel?
A: That’s the funny thing: I hadn’t written stories for children. I had never written fiction of any kind. I had published dozens of poems, and I had written some plays-in-verse that had been professionally produced when I was in my twenties, but I hadn’t written a word of fiction. It all seemed a bit overwhelming—plot, subplot, setting, mood, characterization, dialogue. However, I had this story, so I thought I would give it a try. I decided to keep it as simple as possible—to concentrate on the action and leave the insights and wisdom to Alhasan.
Why do you think Alhasan’s story is important for a contemporary audience?
A: First, it’s important to set the historical record straight. Experimental science has its origins not in Europe—as I was taught in school—but in the Middle East. Second, there’s the religious angle. Faith and science need not be opposed. Third, Westerners in general need to become more acquainted with Islamic history, culture, and achievements. Fourth, I hope that by bringing these characters to life, I will help readers of all backgrounds have a greater appreciation for the struggles these people went through and how they overcame obstacles. The world we have today didn’t fall from the sky. It was built step by step, increment by increment, by people just like us. They deserve to be remembered and appreciated.
A lot of historians have ignored the role that science played in the Islamic world. Alhasan is just one example of the important work Islamic thinkers were doing in the fields of math and science. Why do you think history – at least Western history – has discounted their achievements?
It’s complex. On the one hand, many of the first Europeans to learn about Islamic ideas were members of the Christian clergy, such as Roger Bacon. There may have been a general reluctance to give credit to Muslims. However, the Europeans did embrace Muslim scholars, including Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Al-Khawarizmi (Algoritmi). Alhasan himself was revered in Europe for hundreds of years. As I point out in my biography, when the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius published an atlas of the moon in 1647, the frontispiece bore the likenesses of two people: Galileo, shown holding a telescope, and Ibn al-Haytham, depicted with a geometric drawing in his hand. They were considered the two pillars of science at that time. What happened after that is that European scientists and mathematicians such as Newton eventually surpassed their work. Scholars stopped referring to it, and they were forgotten. But six hundred years was a pretty good run for Alhasan. I mean, just imagine: We are closer in time to Galileo than Galileo was to Alhasan.
Do you see evidence in today’s world of science and faith still working together, side-by-side?
I see it in the Arab world more than in the West. Islam has never had the same conflicts with science that Christianity has. Science in the West is very secular. If you’re a person of faith, you keep that kind of quiet. But I spent three-and-a-half years in Qatar, working in two scientific research institutes—as a communications consultant, not as a scientist—and there the Muslim scientists were quite open about their faith.
What is your hope for the book? Who do you hope will read it?
About a billion people would be nice! Actually, my thinking on that has changed over time. At first I wanted commercial success and the recognition of reviewers. But I have received such positive feedback from people who have read it—my “beta readers,” my editors, and a few friends—that now I realize there are people out there who are really going to enjoy this book, and I just want them to find it. I want them to have that pleasant experience. It is my gift to them.
Before I wrote the novel, I had several friends tell me that they loved historical fiction because it was an escape and at the same time they learned a lot about other times and other cultures. I remember one friend way back in the 1970s who told me how much she loved Shōgun by James Clavell for those reasons. That really stuck with me. I hope that people feel that way about my book, and that in some small way it succeeds in building bridges between cultures.
What is your next project? Do you think you’ll continue to write novels?
I’ve been busy writing more nonfiction books for young adults—I wrote eight last year alone, and I have contracts for four more. Last year, I started another novel set in the Islamic Golden Age. It’s deeper, more complex, and more psychological than The Prisoner of Al-Hakim. But about two months ago, I was talking to someone about The Prisoner, and he asked, “Have you thought of writing a sequel?” I had, vaguely, but had set the idea aside. A sequel, sure, but about what? But when this guy asked me about it, I thought back to where I had last seen the main characters, and I suddenly envisioned a scene that would kick off a new adventure. When I got home, I sat down and wrote that scene, and then several others. Things just clicked. I have written 17,000 words and am very excited about it. I can see why authors write series: Once you have created a cast of characters, you have a lot to work with. You just put them into new situations, create new problems, and see what they do. I love these characters, and the longer I can keep them in my life, the better.