Alchemy in Islamic TimesThese pages are edited by Prof. Hamed Abdel-reheem Ead
Professor of Chemistry at Faculty of Science-University of Cairo Giza-Egypt and director of Science Heritage Center
Web site: http://www.frcu.eun.eg/www/universities/html/shc/index.htm
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INTRODUCTIONOn 8 June, A.D. 632, the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Prayers be upon Him) died, having accomplished the marvelous task of uniting the tribes of Arabia into a homogeneous and powerful nation.
In the interval, Persia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, the whole North Africa, Gibraltar and Spain had been submitted to the Islamic State, and a new civilization had been established.
The Arabs quickly assimilated the culture and knowledge of the peoples they ruled, while the latter in turn-Persians, Syrians, Copts, Berbers, and others-adopted the Arabic language. The nationality of the Muslim thus became submerged, and the term Arab acquired a linguistic sense rather than a strictly ethnological one.
As soon as Islamic State had been established, the Arabs began to encourage learning of all kinds. schools, colleges, libraries, observatories and hospitals were built throughout the whole Islamic State, and were adequately staffed and endowed.
In the same time, scholars were invited to Damascus and Baghdad without distinction of nationality or creed. Greek manuscripts were acquired in large numbers and were studied, translated and provided with scholarly and illuminating commentaries.
The old learning was thus infused with a new vigor, and the intellectual freedom of men of the desert stimulated the search for knowledge and science.
In early days at least, the Muslims were eager seekers for knowledge, and Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world. Historians have justly remarked that the school of Baghdad was characterized by a new scientific spirit.
Proceeding from the known to the unknown; taking precise account of phenomena; accepting nothing as true which was not confirmed by experience, or established by experiment, such were fundamental principles taught and acclaimed by the then masters of the sciences.
Three of the 'Abbasid Caliphs distinguished themselves greatly in this
respect: the second, al-Mansur (754-775), who founded Baghdad, and, even
more so, the fifth, Harun-al-Rashid whose fame has been immortalized by
many legends and the seventh, Al-Ma'mun (813-833). All of them
encouraged the work of the translators who were busily unlocking the
treasures of Greek knowledge.
Islamic Alchemy In Western Writings
Following the work of French chemist Marcellin Berthelot on alchemy,
many researchers on the basis of original texts discovered and published,
became interested in the study of alchemy with the Arabs: Lippmann,
Wiedemann, Ganzenmuller, Stapleton, Holmyard, Plessner and especially
Paul Kraus whose work about Jabir ibn Hayyan is still a classic in this
subject. More recently Henry Corbin in his research on Shi'ism has tried
to give an esoteric interpretation of the great alchemy texts. His ideas
created a school of thought and some contemporary authors, Roger
Deladriere and Pierre Lory for instance, did not escape his influence.
Arabic alchemy is no longer the 'terra incognita' which, a century ago,
challenged the insight of historians of science.
THE SOURCES OF ALCHEMY AMONG MUSLIMSPythagoras (Fithaghurus)
Pythagoras is often mentioned in Arabic philosophy and in gnomic literature. Jaldaki calls him al-mu'allim al-awwal because he acquired the science from hermetic texts. Jabir refers to him as an alchemic author and speaks of Ta'ifat Fthaghurus, the school of Pythagoras, and of his book Kitab almu'sahhahat (Book of Adjustments). Other quotations refer to Pythagoras's theory of numbers. Tughra'i mentions him several times and refers to his treatise about 'natural numbers'. The fragments of texts which are attributed to him could have come either from Turba philosophorum, where he is among the participants, or from other texts.
Archelaos is mentioned in the Fihrist (p. 352, 25) and by al-Kindi in his Fada'il Misr (p. 191, 11). He is considered as the disciple of Anaxagoras and the teacher of Socrates. He should not be confused with his Byzantine namesake, author of an alchemic poem of 336 verses. The Arabs consider him as the author of Turba philosophorum (Mu.shafal aljama'a) and attribute to him the Risalat madd al-ba hr dhat al-ru'ya, a text which had been revealed in a vision about the tide and which was translated into Latin with the title Visio Arislei. This text is introduced as the continuation of Turba philosophorum.
Socrates is considered not only as a wise man but also as an alchemist. Jabir calls him 'the father and mother of all philosophers' and considers him as the prototype of the real chemist. From Socrates to Jabir, there is a continuous tradition which attributes entire treatises to him. Jabir affirms that Socrates was opposed to the writing down of alchemic knowledge to avoid its exposition to the ignorance of the masses. Most references to Socrates refer to his arithmetical speculations (theory of the balance) and also to artificial generation.
Olympiodorus already (at the end of the sixth century) considered Plato
as an alchemist and Ibn al-Nadlm mentions him in the list of alchemists.
Butrus al-Ilmlml mentions an alchemic device called ,hammam Aflatun
Aristotle is considered as an alchemist author not so much because of
his fourth book Meteorologica but because of his reputation as an
all-round scholar. He wrote a book on alchemy for his disciple
Alexander. In 618, by order of Heraclius, the book was translated into
Syriac by the monk Jean, and the Bishop of Nisibis, Eliyya bar Shinaya,
made sure of its orthodoxy. Finally Abdishu' bar Brika, Bishop of
Sinjar, and later of Nisibis, made a commentary on it in Syriac of
which there still exists an Arabic translation. The text contains an
introduction in which Abdlshu reports the legendary history of the text
followed by a Ietter from Alexander to Aristotle where the former poses
questions to which the latter responds. This dialogue is called sahifat
kanz Allah al-akbar (Epistle of the Great Treasure of God). it includes
three chapters: (1) About the great principles of alchemy; (2) Alchemic
operations; (3) The elixir. Pythagoras, Democritus, Asclepiades, Hermes,
Plato, Ostanes and Balmas are mentioned in the text.
Porphyry (d. c. 303)
Porphyry is often mentioned, especially by Jabir who attributes artificial generation to him. The later alchemists such as Tughra'i and Jaldakl also mention him.
Galen (Jahnus) (d. c. 199 AD)
According to a note in Kitab al-hajar 'ala ra'y Balinas, Galen was interested in alchemy before dedicating himself to philosophy. In fact, he is sometimes mentioned as an authority on alchemy' and fragments of alchemy texts attributed to Galen can be found in the National Library of Cairo.
Bolos the Democritean of Mendes
Bolos the Democritean lived in the second century before Christ. The
work of this scholar is varied: alchemy, astrology, medicine. He is
probably at the origin of the alchemic tradition transmitted by the work
of pseudo-Democritus: Physika kai Mystika. He expounds there the four
traditional branches of alchemy: gold, silver, precious stones, dyes.
One can find the famous formula which aims to synthesize the
quintessence of the alchemic art: 'one nature is charmed by another
nature, one nature overcomes another nature, one nature dominates
The most famous character of this time is Zosimus of Panopolis (Akhmim, in Upper Egypt). He probably lived at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century; he wrote an encyclopedia with twenty-eight books on alchemy which he dedicated to his sister Theosebeia. Some sections are original but most of it reproduces old texts lost to the present time. His name in Arabic, because of the ambiguity of the writing, is often transcribed under different forms: Risimus, Rusim, Rusam. Al-Qifli affirms that he lived before Islam.
Some of his aphorisms and anecdotes are reported by Arab authors such as Jahiz, Ibn Durayd, al-Tawhidi,. Ibn Arfa' Ra's calls him 'the universal wise man and the brilliant flame' (al-hakim aljami' wa-i-shihab al-lami'). Ibn al-Nadlm mentions four books from Zosimus: Kitab al-mafatih f-l-santa; Kitab al-sab'tuna risala; Kitab al-'anasir; Kitab ila jamb alhukama' fi-lsan'a.
The epistle from Zosimus to Theosebeia has the title Mushaf al-suwar
(The Book of Images). The name of Theosebeia is often rendered as
Atusabiya, Amtuthasiya, Uthasiya, etc. Zosimus can be placed at the end
of an evolution in alchemy. With Bolos, it became philosophical; with
Zosimus it becomes a mystical religion where the idea of salvation is
predominant. In fact, the period which separates Bolos the Democritean
from Zosimus saw intense alchemic activity. Vastly different elements -
Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, neo-Platonism, Babylonian astrology,
Christian theology, pagan mythology - can be found in Zosimus' texts.
He is full of gnostic and hermetic books, he knows the Jewish
speculations about the Old Testament. He gives to alchemy a religious
character which will remain forever, at least in its traditional course,
since with the Arab alchemists it will retain its concrete technical
character before meeting the Ismaeli gnostic speculations.
Hermes and Hermetic literature
According to Ibn al-Nadlm (351, 19) Arab alchemists considered the
Babylonian Hermes as the first one to have mentioned the art of alchemy.
Exiled by his countrymen, he came to Egypt where he became king. He
wrote a certain number of books on alchemy and was equally interested in
the study of the hidden forces of nature.
Sirr al-Khaliqa of Ballnas
The Kitab Sirr al-khaliqa wa santat al-tabia also has the title Kitab al-'ilal (The Book of Causes); it was sometimes called simply li-lashya'. In the introduction a certain Sajiyus is introduced, a priest from Nablus who commented on the story of Bal.
Muslim AlchemistsThe Arabs appeared in history in the seventh century. Alchemy had by then gone through a long path. The first contacts took place in Egypt, in Alexandria, where the traditions went back several centuries before Christianity.
Muslim alchemy was derived from the Greek. The frequency with which Greek authors are quoted, the numerous theories that are common to both Greek and Arabic alchemy, and the large number of Arab technical terms clearly taken over from Hellenic treatises (e.g. hayuli, atisyus, athalia, iksir, qambar,S) prove beyond doubt the affiliation of Muslim and Greek alchemy. The transmission was made partly through direct contact in Egypt, partly through the medium of Syrian Christian translators, and partly by way of Persia. There are unmistakable traces of Persian influence, manifested distinctly by linguistic affinities in technical names and usage and in names of minerals. These traces are sufficiently well marked to render it probable that Persia was, indeed, one of the main channels through which alchemy came to Islam; and it is not without interest to note that many of the principal Muslim alchemists were Persians.
It has already been observed that Chinese alchemy has so much in common with Greek and Arabic alchemy as to afford support to the hypothesis that all three had a common origin; and there is some reason to believe that the Chinese practiced a kind of alchemy long before the days of Islam. The remote origins of Arabic alchemy are therefore still to some extent uncertain, but there is very little to recommend the suggestion that the Arabs received any direct introduction to alchemy from the Chinese. Whatever may be the cause of the similarity between Chinese, Greek and Muslim alchemical ideas.
JABIR IBN HAIYAN (721-815)
The greatest chemist of Islam has long been familiar to western readers
under the name of Geber, which is the medieval rendering of the Arabic
Jabir. Since the work of Paul Kraus we are on more solid ground with
Jabir ibn Haiyan.
hot + dry + substance -------------- fire
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (866-925)
After the death of Jabir, nearly a century elapsed before Islam produced
a worthy successor. History records a few alchemists in the interval,
but it is only with the Persian chemist and physician Abu Bakr Muhammad
ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (known to the West as Rhazes) that Jabir's great
example is successfully followed.
A. The earthly substances (al-'aqaqtr al-turabiyya) Mineral substances
1. The SPIRITS (al-arwah)
2. The BODIES (al-ajsad)
3. The STONES (al-ahjar)
4. The VITRIOLS (al-zajat)
5. BORAX (al-bawariq)
6. The SALTS (al-amlah)
B. Vegetable substances
C. Animal substances
To these 'natural substances' we need to add a certain number of
artificially obtained substances; al-Razl mentions litharge, lead oxide,
verdigris, copper oxide, zinc oxide, cinnabar, caustic soda, a solution
of polysulphur of calcium and other alloys.
Blacksmith's hearth Bellows Crucible Descensory Ladle Tongs Shears Hammer or Pestle File Semi-cylindrical iron mouldThe second class included:
Crucible Flasks Alembic Phials Receiving flask Cars Aludel Cauldron Beakers Sand-bath Glass cups Water-bath Shallow iron pan Large oven Sieve Hair-cloth Heating-lamps Filter of linen Cylindrical stove Potter's Kiln Chafing-dish Mortar Flat stone mortar Stone roller Round mold Glass funnelIt will be observed that the list was comprehensive, but Razi completes the subject by giving details of making composite pieces of apparatus, and in general provides the same kind of information as is to be found nowadays in manuals of laboratory arts.
Like Jabir, Razi was a firm believer in the possibility of transmutation, and Stapleton describes his scheme of procedure approximately as follows:
The first stage: consisted in the cleansing and purification of the
substances employed, by means of distillation, calcination,
amalgamation, sublimation and other processes. Having freed the crude
materials from their impurities,
Later Arab Alchemists
No account of chemistry in Islam would be even approximately complete
which omitted to mention four of Arab Alchemists: Abu'l-Qasim of Iraq,
Aidamir al-Jildaki, Al-Tughra‘i and Al-Majriti.
Aidamir al-Jildaki (?-1342)
Who also lived for part of his life at Cairo, is of importance chiefly on account of his extensive and deep knowledge of Muslim chemical literature. He apparently spent the major portion of his existence in collecting and explaining all the books upon alchemy that he could discover, and labours are now beginning to receive their reward; for writings form an indispensable source of a great deal of our knowledge of chemistry and chemists in Islam. In a few instances it is possible to observe that he must have carried out experimental work himself, but for the most part his books are commentaries upon the works of earlier writers. Thus his great End of the Search is a commentary upon Abu'l-Qasim's book Knowledge acquired concerning the Cultivation of Gold, and although his explanations are not seldom more obscure than the passages they are designed to illuminate, he had the admirable habit of making innumerable and lengthy quotations from Khalid, Jabir, Razi and many other authors, and his books are thus a rich storehouse of information upon Muslim chemistry. It is therefore necessary to inquire into the question whether his quotations and historical facts are authentic, and whether his reliability is to be accepted or doubted. Fortunately, it often happens that a book from which he quotes is extant, and his quotations in such cases can of course be checked. A test conducted on these lines has shown that Jildaki was conscientious and although he does not always come through unscathed, his general trustworthiness can be safely assumed. He thus deserves the warmest thanks of all who are interested in the history of chemistry.
This alchemist, who was a civil servant under the Seljuks Malik-shah and
Muhammad, has great importance as a poet and a writer. His Lamiyyat
al'ajam is very famous. He was executed in 1121.
Al-Majriti ( -1007)
In Andalusia, under the Caliphat of al-Hakam II (961-76) flourished
scholars in all the domains, including alchemy. One of these was Maslama
b. Ahmad, from Cordoba, better known under the name al-Majriti because
he lived for a long time in Madrid. He assimilated Muslim sciences in
the Arab Orient where he seems to have had close contacts with the
originators of the famous Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa'. He brought to
Spain a new edition of this encyclopaedia. He is known in particular for
his astronomical work: a revision of the Persian astronomical tables in
Arabic chronology, a commentary on the Planispherium of Ptolemy and a
treatise on the astrolabe. The last two were translated quite early into
Latin and were very successful .
General Review of Muslim ChemistryUntil the time of Jabir, chemistry was 'without form and void'. The solid technical knowledge of the craftsmen was lost in the vapourings of occultists, and if there were any men with a more reasonable view of chemical science, its aims, its objects and its methods, we find no record of them. By the efforts of Jabir and Razi, the two Muslim chemical geniuses, much of the vast accretion of unbridled speculation was cleared away, and chemistry first began to take shape as a true science. Experimental fact was at last informed with the beginnings of reasonable theory, while on the practical side a workmanlike scheme of classification was evolved and a divide range of substances was carefully investigated and systematically characterized. The common laboratory methods of distillation, sublimation, calcination, reduction, solution and crystallization were improved and their general purposes well understood. The refinement of metals, by cupellation and in other ways, was brought to a high degree of perfection, and the careful assay of gold and silver was accompanied by extraordinary accuracy in methods of weighing and in the determination of specific gravity.
On the theoretical side, the idea that 'base' metals could be transmuted into gold or silver overshadowed every other. The generally accepted belief was that elixirs could be prepared which, by an action we should now describe as catalytic, would convert practically unlimited amounts of lead, mercury, tin, copper, or even iron into silver first and then into gold. There were alternative theories as to the means whereby transmutation could be effected, but as we may more conveniently study these in their later developments a mere reference to them in passing may be sufficient at the moment. The philosophical justification for the almost universal credence in the possibility of transmutation is to be found ultimately in the Aristotelian conception of the Four Elements and proximately in Jabir's theory that all metals are composed of sulphur and mercury. Its practical justification lay in the elegant manner in which it explained numerous phenomena and stimulated unceasing research.
Chemistry, in the work of the great chemists from Jabir to the time of Avicenna, was concerned chiefly not so much with alchemy but with concrete technical matters such as the development of apparatus, the preparations of, and the study of their reactions. The development of chemistry in the period, although almost entirely empirical, was of great importance in that a new high level was attained in the accumulation of chemical data. The previous period of such great growth had taken place long before 3000-500 B.C., in Mesopotamia. In many ways, Muslim chemistry grew in the same manner as it did in Mesopotamia with the difference that the Arabs were more careful in their larger number of experiments, made careful notations of their laboratory results, and developed their laboratory apparatus to a high point of perfection. This was the real beginning of scientific method in the science of chemistry. Not only did the Muslims organize their scientific knowledge as did ancient Mesopotamians before them, but they used experiments to gain scientific data. Because of this accent on experiment in later times, there is much more practical discussion of the categories of matter in the Muslim literature than may be found in the Mesopotamian literature where appearances were of prime consideration.
Alongside experiment, logical speculation took its place in chemical science as an important adjunct. Although Muslim theorizing was grossly inadequate, it was, however, carried out by important chemists in an effort to explain results of laboratory work and not necessarily to add to the so-called 'natures'. This was a distinct Muslim advancement over their Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian predecessors.
1. G. Sarton, "Introduction to the history of science," Williams and Wilkins,