Alchemy in Islamic Times

Category: Featured, Nature & Science Topics: Alchemy, Chemistry, Islam And Science Views: 15320

On 8 June, A.D. 632, the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ 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 of 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 an Islamic State was established, the Arabs began to encourage learning of all kinds. Schools, colleges, libraries, observatories and hospitals were built throughout the whole Islamic World and were adequately staffed and endowed.

At 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 new vigor, and the intellectual freedom of men of the desert stimulated the search for knowledge and science.

In the early days at least, the Muslims were eager seekers of 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.

Cultural Background

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.

First of all the word 'alchemy', as the article al- indicates, is Arabic (al-klmya'). The origin of the word kimya', pre-Arabic, is arguable. Several more or less plausible or legendary hypotheses have been advanced. For some the word came from the Egyptian kemi (black), whence the Greek kemia which might indicate two things:

Egypt, 'the black land' according to Plutarch - alchemy would be preeminently the science of Egypt; 'the Black', the original matter of transmutation, i.e. the art of treating 'black metal' to produce precious metals.

For others, the word 'chemy' could have come from the Greek khymeia, 'fusion', i.e. the art of melting gold and silver. A Byzantine text states that Diocletian ordered the destruction of Egyptian books relating to khymeia, to the 'fusion' of gold and silver.

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' that, a century ago, challenged the insight of historians of science.

The large number of accumulated facts suggested a synthetic presentation to Fuat Sezgin and Manfred Ullmann. The former produced his in the frame of his series Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums; the fourth volume, appearing in 1971, dedicated several pages to alchemy. In his turn, Ullmann, in his book Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften in Islam, appearing in 1972, presented in about a hundred pages the whole of Arabic alchemic literature studying successively the translations and pseudoepigraphs from Greek authors, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, Jewish and Christian sources, then alchemy theories, the research of the elixir, laboratory experiments and the material employed, and the whole is copiously documented.


Pythagoras (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 that 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.

Plato (Aflatun)

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 (Plato's bath).

Among the books attributed to him by the Arabs, we can mention the Summa Platonis of which we only have the Latin version. There is a commentary to this book - the Kitab al-Rawabi' - whose Arabic text was edited by Badawi and whose Latin translation is known by the name Liber quartorum. The contents of this work are mainly alchemic but it contains also information on geometry, physiology and astrology. The ancient authors cited are Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Hipparchus, Proclus, the Sophists, Ostanes, Hermes, Asclepius and Hippocrates.

We note also that Plato takes up the story in the forty-fifth discourse in Turba philosophorum; this speech ends with the phrase al-tabi'a tulzimu-ltabi'ata wa-l-tabi'atu taqharu-i-tabSata wa-i-tabi'ata tafra hu li-l-tabl'ati (nature necessarily accompanies nature, nature overcomes nature, nature rejoices in nature), an aphorism often mentioned in Arabic alchemic literature under the name of Plato or anonymously. It comes from the Physika kai Mystika of Democritus.

Aristotle (Aristu)

Aristotle is considered as an alchemist author not so much because of his fourth book Meteorologica but because of his reputation as an all-around 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.

We also have a dialogue between Aristotle and the Indian Yuhin sent by the Indian king as messenger to Alexander. Ibn al-Nadim reports this dialogue to Ostanes. Finally in the Jabirian corpus there is a Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis.

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 another nature'.

How can this axiom be explained in practical terms? Zosimus, the commentator of the fourth century, explains: 'we can proceed with the transmutation of common metal into noble metal by working alloys or by purifying the metals, basing ourselves on the affinity between metals, knowing their "sympathies and antipathies". Raw material, sympathy, transmutation by qualitative change (of the colours), we have thus the principles that constitute alchemy.' Thus the school of Bolos brings to the Egyptian technique a philosophical reasoning which will open the way to the science of the Great Work. 'Once again', says Festugiere, 'we see the union of the Greek spirit and the Oriental art.' The art exists, from ancient times; the goldsmiths of Egypt work metals, stones and purple. But although they have innumerable recipes transmitted from father to son and kept in temple archives, they lack a reasoning method. No one has yet joined these practices with the principles which explain and justify them. There is practice but not theory. This is what the Greek spirit provides. The merit of Bolos of Mendes was to join theory and experiment and thus found a pseudoscience that would cross the ages up to modern chemistry.

At about the same time alchemy was practiced in most Egyptian towns. This first alchemy is a mixture of hermetic or Gnostic elements and old Greek philosophy: Heraclitus, Empedocles and their speculations about the four elements, Parmenides with his theory on the unity of the whole, the Platonic cosmogony of Timaeus.


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 reproduce 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 alchemy a religious character that 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.

Zosimus and his contemporaries who collected their predecessors' traditions insist on their connection with the Egypt of the Pharaohs or with the Persia of Zoroastra and Ostanes. We can find texts under the name of Agathodaimon compared with Hermes. Some written pieces even say that alchemic texts were engraved in hieroglyphs on steles but it was absolutely forbidden to divulge them.

This Greek-Egyptian alchemy survived in Alexandria for several centuries. From here it will go to Constantinople, where several recensions of the 'collection of Greek alchemists' were compiled, and to the Arabs when they conquered Egypt in the seventh century.

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.

The Fihrist gives a list of thirteen books of Hermes about alchemy but in fact some of them are about magic. Other texts have been traced: Alfalakiyya al-kubra (The Great Epistle of the Celestial Spheres) by Hermes of Denderah; Risalat al-sirr; Kitab Hirmis ila Tat f-l-santa; Risalat harb al-kawakEb al-barbawiyya; Tadblr Hirmis al-Haramisa; sahlfat Hirmis al'ugma, commentated by Jaldaki; Risalat Qabas al-qabis fi tadbir Hirmis al-Haramisa.

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 Alchemists

The 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.


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.

He is Abu Musa Jabir ibn Haiyan al-Azdl (al-Tusl, al-~artusl, al-Harram meaning that he was a Sabian?; al-Sufi). Flourished mostly in kufa. The most famous Arabic' alchemist; the alchemist Geberu of the Middle Ages. He may be the author of a book on the astrolabe, but his fame rests on his alchemical writings preserved in Arabic: the 'Book of the Kingdom', the 'Little Book of the Balances', the 'Book of Mercury', the 'Book of Concentration', the 'Book of Eastern Mercury', and others. According to the treatises already translated (by Berthelot), his alchemical doctrines were very anthropomorphic and animistic. But other treatises (not yet available in translation) show him in a better light. We find in them remarkably sound views on methods of chemical research; a theory on the geologic formation of metals; the so-called sulfur-mercury theory of metals (the six metals differ essentially because of different proportions of sulfur and mercury in them); preparation of various substances (e.g., basic lead carbonate; arsenic and antimony from their sulphides). Jabir deals also with various applications, e.g., refinement of metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishes to water-proof cloth and protects iron, use of manganese dioxide in glass making, use of iron pyrites for writing in gold, the distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid. He observed the imponderability of magnetic force.

It is possible that some of the facts mentioned in Latin works, ascribed to Geber and dating from the twelfth century and later, must also be placed to Jabir's credit. It is impossible to reach definite conclusions until all the Arabic writings ascribed to Jabir have been properly edited and discussed. It is only then that we shall be able to measure the full extent of his contributions, but even on the slender basis of our present knowledge, Jabir appears already as a very great personality, one of the greatest in medieval science. Jabir admits the Aristotelian theory about the composition of matter-earth, water, air, and fire-but he develops it along a different path. First, there are four elementary qualities, or natures: heat, cold, dryness, and humidity. When they get together with a substance they form compounds of the first degree, i.e. hot, cold, dry, wet. The union of two of these qualities gives

hot + dry + substance -------------- fire
hot + wet + substance -------------- air
cold + wet + substance ------------- water
cold + dry + substance ------------- earth

One of his chief contributions to the theory of chemistry lies in his views upon the constitution of metals. To understand his conceptions properly, we must hark back to Aristotle, whose philosophy of nature was universally accepted in its main principles by the scientists of Islam. According to Aristotle, it still be remembered, all substances are composed of the four elements, fire, air, water, and earth, which are themselves interconvertible. The immediate constituents of minerals and metals are two exhalations, one an 'earthy smoke' and the other a watery vapour'; the former consists of small particles of earth on the way to becoming fire, while the latter consists of small particles of water on the way to becoming air. Neither exhalation is ever entirely free from some admixture of the other. Stones and other minerals are formed when the two exhalations become imprisoned in the earth, the dry or smoky exhalation predominating; metals are formed under similar circumstances if the watery exhalation predominates.

Jabir accepted this theory of the constitution of metals, but appears to have regarded it as too indefinite to explain observed facts or to afford a guide to practical methods of transmutation. He, therefore, modified it in such a fashion as to make it less vague, and the theory he suggested survived, with some alterations and additions, until the beginning of modern chemistry in the eighteenth century. The two exhalations, he believed, when imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, are not immediately changed into minerals or metals, but undergo an intermediate conversion. The dry or smoky exhalation is converted into sulfur and the watery one into mercury, and it is only by the subsequent combination of sulfur and mercury that metals are formed. The reason of the existence of different varieties of metals is that sulfur and mercury are not always pure and that they do not always combine in the same proportion. If they are perfectly pure and if, also, they combine in the most complete natural equilibrium, then the product is the most perfect of metals, namely gold. Defects in purity or proportion, or both, result in the formation of silver, lead, tin, iron or copper, but since these metals are essentially composed of the same constituents as gold, the accidents of combination may be removed by suitable treatment. Such treatment is the object of alchemy.

The idea that the transmutation of the metals was possible had the excellent merit of provoking incessant experiments, but unfortunately, the alchemists were always prone to theorize to an inordinate extent. Moreover, at Alexandria, the mystical beliefs of the Gnostics and the Neo-Platonists - however admirable and attractive in themselves - had a very detrimental effect upon experimental science. Alchemy thus became less and less a matter for experimental research and more and more the subject of ineffable speculation and superstitious practice, not to say fraudulent deception.

The practical applications of chemistry were not neglected. Jabir describes processes for the preparation of steel and the refinement of other metals, for dyeing cloth and leather, for making varnishes to waterproof cloth and to protect iron, for the preparation of hair-dyes and so on. He gives a recipe for making an illuminating ink for manuscripts from 'golden' marcasite, to replace the much more expensive one made from gold itself, and he mentions the use of manganese dioxide in glass-making. He knew how to concentrate acetic acid by the distillation of vinegar, and was also acquainted with citric acid and other organic substances.

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.

According to one of his biographers, Razi was born in A.D. 866 at Ray, an ancient town on the southern slopes of the Elburz Range that skirts the south of the Caspian Sea. In his early youth, he devoted himself to the study of music, literature, philosophy, manichaeism, magic and alchemy.

After his first visit to Baghdad, when he was at least 30 years of age, that he seriously took up the study of medicine under the well-known doctor Ali ibn Sahl (a Jewish convert to Islam, belonging to the famous medical school of Tabaristan or Hyrcania). Razi showed such skill in the subject that he quickly surpassed his master, and wrote no fewer than a hundred medical books. He also composed 33 treatises on natural science (exclusive of alchemy), on mathematics and astronomy, and more than 45 on philosophy, logic and theology. On alchemy, in addition to his Compendium of Tweltne Treatises and Book of Secrets, he wrote about a dozen other books, two of which were refutations of works by other authors in which the possibility of alchemy had been attacked.

As to the man himself, one of the inhabitants of Ray who recollected Razi described him as a man with a large square head. He used to take his seat in the lecture room, with his own pupils next him, and the pupils of these men behind them, and, behind these again, other pupils. Whenever any one came with a question, he used first to ask the back row. If they could answer, he went away; but, if not, he used to pass on to the others, and they, in their turn, if they could give a correct answer, tried to satisfy him; otherwise Razi would speak on the subject himself. He was a liberal and generous man, and so compassionate to the poor and sick that he used to distribute alms to them freely and even nurse them himself. He was always reading or copying, and "I never visited him" (said the narrator) "without finding him at work on either a rough or a fair copy". His eyes were always watering 'on account of his excessive consumption of beans', and he became blind towards the end of his life. He died in his native town on 26 October, A.D, 925, at the age of 60 years and 2 months.

Razi is of exceptional importance in the history of chemistry, since in his books we find for the first time a systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity.

Razi's scheme of classification of the substances used in chemistry shows such a sound, it is the first time that we find such a systematic classification. The list of these products as mentioned in Sirr al-asrar book is as follows:

A. The earthly substances (al-'aqaqtr al-turabiyya) Mineral substances

1. The SPIRITS (al-arwah)
Mercury, sat ammoniac, arsenic sulphate (orpiment and realgar), sulphur

2. The BODIES (al-ajsad)
Gold, silver, copper, iron, lead, tin, Kharsind

3. The STONES (al-ahjar)
Pyrites (marqashita), iron oxide (daws), Zinc oxide (tutiya), azurite, malachite, turquoise, haematite, arsenic oxide, lead sulphate (kohl), mica and asbestos, gypsum, glass

4. The VITRIOLS (al-zajat)
Black, alums (al-shubub), white (qalqadzs), green (qalqand), yellow (qulqutar), red

5. BORAX (al-bawariq)

6. The SALTS (al-amlah)

B. Vegetable substances
Rarely used, they are mainly employed by physicians.

C. Animal substances
Hair, scalp, brain, bile, blood, milk, urine, eggs, horn, shell

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.

The insistence of al-Razl in promoting research work in the laboratory brought its fruits in pharmacy.

Razi gives also a list of the apparatus used in chemistry. This consists of two classes: (i) instruments used for melting metals, and (ii) those used for the manipulation of substances generally. In the first class were included the following:

Blacksmith's hearth
Hammer or Pestle
Semi-cylindrical iron mould

The 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 funnel

It 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.

The next stage: was to reduce them to an easily fusible condition. This was done by an operation known as aeration, which resulted in a product that readily melted, without any evolution of fumes, when dropped upon a heated metal plate.

The third stage: was to bring the 'berated' products to a further state of disintegration by the process of solution. The solutions of different substances, suitably chosen in proportion to the amount of 'bodies', 'spirits', &c., they were supposed to possess, were brought together by the process of combination.

Finally: the combined solutions underwent the process of coagulation or solidification, the product which it was hoped would result, being the Elixir. This, as previously explained, was a substance of which a small quantity, when projected upon a larger quantity of baser metal, would convert the latter into silver or gold.

From a general study of his chemical works, Stapleton says that hence forward Razi must be accepted as one of the most remarkable seekers after the knowledge that the world has ever seen - not only 'unique in his age and unequaled in his time', but without a peer until modern science began to dawn in Europe with Galileo and Robert Boyle. The evidence of his passion for objective truth that is furnished by his chemical writings, as well as the genius shown by the wide range of books he wrote on other subjects, force us to the conclusion that - with the possible exception of his acknowledged master, Jabir - Razi was the most noteworthy intellectual follower of the Greek philosophers of the seventh to fourth centuries B.C. that mankind produced for 1900 years after the death of Aristotle. His supreme merit lay in his rejection of magical and astrological practices, and adherence to nothing that could not be proved, by experiment and test, to be actual fact.

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.

The first of these men lived in the thirteenth century, probably at Cairo, and has left us several books which, apart from their intrinsic interest, serve to indicate the trend of alchemical thought and practice in Islam after the process of transmission to Europe had been in action for some considerable time. It is very obvious that in Abu'l-Qasim's time the reaction of European scientific thought upon Islam had not yet begun, and the contrast between the two intellectual worlds could not be better exemplified than in the persons of Abu'l-Qasim and his contemporary Roger Bacon. The driving force of Islam was beginning to grow weak, while the new stimulus that Arabic learning had given to Europe had resulted in a scientific renaissance which was to reach its full development not long afterwards. Abu'l-Qasim's outlook is that of his predecessors of three or four centuries earlier, and although there was unquestionably some advance in empirical practical chemistry, the theoretical views expressed are supported by quotations not merely from Jabir but from the still earlier alchemists of the Alexandrian school. Abu'l-Qasim himself seems to have been a good experimentalist and a comparatively logical thinker, but his general views often represent a retrograde movement upon those of Jabir.

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.

Al-Tughra'i (1063-1120)

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.

In his Nihaya, Jaldakl tries to appraise the scientific value of al-Tughra'l: he was the most important alchemist since Jabir; his style has become perfect but his books can only be read by those who are already advanced in the great art. In his Kitab al-Masabt,h wa-l-maf tech (The Lamps and the Keys), he reports the teaching of the Ancients; he is more theoretical than practical. He declares in his poem that he has inherited his alchemy knowledge from Hermes. According to Jaldakl, his most important book on alchemy is MafAti,h al-rahma wa masabl,h al-,hikma.

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 .

An important alchemy work, Rutbat' al-Hakzm wa mudkhal al-tathm (Rank of the Wise Man and Isagoge oh! Teaching), is attributed to him, and an astrological work called Chayat al-Haklm. The last was translated into Spanish in 1256 by order of Alfonso the Wise, King of Castile and Leon (from 1252 to 1284), and later it became popular in Latin under the name of Picatrix. Rabelais in Pantagruel mentions it when he speaks of the "Reverend Father of Devil Picatrix, rector of the diabolic faculty in Toledo". The attribution of the book to al-Majriti was considered false as the internal critique shows that this work could only have been written after 1009, while al-Majriti died in 1007.

Holmyard redeveloped an interest in Rutbat al-Haklm. The author first expresses his views on the way an aspiring alchemist should be educated: by studying mathematics, books from Euclid and Ptolemy, and natural sciences with Aristotle or Apollonius of Tyana; then he needs to acquire a manual ability and practice precise observation, reasoning about chemical substances and their reactions; in his research, he needs to follow the laws of nature, like a physician: a physician diagnoses the disease and administers the medicine, but it is Nature who acts.

General Review of Muslim Chemistry

Until 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. The 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 divided 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 affected, 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 sulfur 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 the 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 experiments 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 experiments, 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 the 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.

These pages were 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. E-mail: [email protected]


1. G. Sarton, "Introduction to the history of science," Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1927
2. E.J. Holmyard, "Makers of Chemistry," Oxford, at The Clarendon Press, 1939
3. E.Farber ,"Great Chemists ", Interscience Publishers,1961
4. E.Von-Meyer, History of Chemistry, 1906 5. J. M. Stillman, Story of Alchemy And Early Chemistry
6. J. R. Partington, A Short History of Chemistry, 1939.


  Category: Featured, Nature & Science
  Topics: Alchemy, Chemistry, Islam And Science
Views: 15320

Related Suggestions

The opinions expressed herein, through this post or comments, contain positions and viewpoints that are not necessarily those of IslamiCity. These are offered as a means for IslamiCity to stimulate dialogue and discussion in our continuing mission of being an educational organization. The IslamiCity site may occasionally contain copyrighted material the use of which may not always have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. IslamiCity is making such material available in its effort to advance understanding of humanitarian, education, democracy, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, and such (and all) material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.

Older Comments:
I am sorry but I cannot watch this article slip by with only one comment. The article was very informative for me personally. Also - while I am certainly no chemist - it seemed to me as if some of the chemistry described could have somehow been used to improve the extraction of precious metals from various ores, even if the resulting process itself might not seem all that much like "transmutation" (to the modern metallurgist).

I skimmed through the article. It looks great. Keep up the good work. I hope that more people will agree with my opinion.