History of Arabic Alchemy
By: Pamela Dimitrova/ Arab American Writer
It is not a secret that Arabs laid the foundations to many of the modern sciences – chemistry, physics, medicine, mathematics – and they greatly influenced the West. However, they were also masters in ‘alchemy’ – a medieval science, which combines modern chemistry, religion, philosophy and sometimes… magic?
What is ‘alchemy’?
Alchemy has been defined as “…a body of theory and practice that sought to harness for human use certain hidden or “occult” powers in natural objects.” This definition puts particular emphasis on Alchemy’s relation to magic and by doing so illustrates the difference between chemistry, a rational modern science, and its theoretical, sub-science predecessor. The adjective “theoretical,” is not meant to imply that Alchemists merely developed theories pertaining to elements and matter. Alchemy served both of these purposes, but it also involved a great amount of “hands on” work in laboratories with, often dangerous, chemicals. Its objective was to discover or develop the Elixir of Life, the Alchemist and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Alchemists were often polymaths, meaning they worked in several fields of study, Alchemy influenced not only science, but also, philosophy, religion, politics, literature, and art. Alchemy, like any early science, requires a great deal of imagination. Alchemists were always thinking about attaining not only the perfect acidic solution and the Stone, but a pure body and soul. It is also true that Alchemists found it necessary to believe that all mater was connected, that one element could be transformed into another, if provided the correct environment.
In the 7th century, the Arabs started a process of territorial expansion that quickly brought them a large territorial influence. As many others, following this expansion Arabic culture proved ready to absorb and reinterpret much of the technical and theoretical innovations of previous civilizations. This was certainly the case with respect to alchemy, which had been practiced and studied in ancient Greece and Hellenistic Egypt.
The Arabs arrived in Egypt to find a substantial alchemical tradition; early written documents testify that Egyptian alchemists had developed advanced practical knowledge in the fields of pharmacology and metal, stone, and glass working. The first translations of alchemical treatises from Greek and Coptic sources into Arabic were reportedly commissioned by Khalid ibn Yazid, who died around the beginning of the 8th century. By the second part of that century, Arabic knowledge of alchemy was already far enough advanced to produce the Corpus Jabirianum—an impressively large body of alchemical works attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan. The Corpus, together with the alchemical works of Al-Razi, marks the creative peak of Arabic alchemy.
The contribution of Arabic alchemists to the history of alchemy is profound. They excelled in the field of practical laboratory experience and offered the first descriptions of some of the substances still used in modern chemistry. Muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid are discoveries of Arabic alchemists, as are soda (al-natrun) and potassium (al-qali). The words used in Arabic alchemical books have left a deep mark on the language of chemistry: besides the word alchemy itself, we see Arabic influence in alcohol (al-kohl), elixir (al-iksir), and alembic (al-inbiq). Moreover, Arabic alchemists perfected the process of distillation, equipping their distilling apparatuses with thermometers in order to better regulate the heating during alchemical operations. Finally, the discovery of the solvent later known as aqua regia—a mixture of nitric and muriatic acids—is reported to be one of their most important contributions to later alchemy and chemistry.
Arabic Alchemists – The Fathers of Modern Chemistry
Our knowledge of Arabic alchemists has been largely mediated through the voices of their Latin translators, whose works are more likely to have survived to the present day. Regardless, there are two leading figures you should know about:
Jabir ibn Hayyan is famously known as the father of ‘chemistry’ and there is a good reason for that.
He was born in Tus in 721/2. Besides his Islamic studies, he was well educated in mathematics and science. After settling in the city of Kufa, he became the court alchemist of the Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid (786–809) and was reportedly a close friend of the sixth imam, Ja‘far AlSadiq. Given the enormous number of alchemical books that have been attributed to him (more than 300) and the fact that the word jabir can mean “the one who rectifies things,” some scholars have suggested that the Corpus Jabirianum should be seen as the work of a group of anonymous alchemists.
Some of the most famous books traditionally attributed to Jabir include Mi’a wa-ithna ‘ashara kitaban (The One Hundred and Twelve Books), which explains how to produce the elixir from vegetables and animals and was supposedly based on Ja‘far Al-Sadiq’s teachings; Kitab al-sab’in (The Book of the Seventy), a rich source for studying the operations and the equipment of medieval Arabic alchemy; Kutub al-tashih (The Books on Rectification), a survey of the progress of earlier alchemists; and Kitab al-mizan (The Book of the Balance), in which Jabir clearly outlines the double aim of his alchemical practice as both the transmutation of bodies in the laboratory and the transformation of his own soul.
Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi was born around 864 in the city of Rayy . A versatile mind, he was well learned in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, music, and medicine. In this last field Latin translations of his works— together with Avicenna’s Canon—became the basis of the cursus studiorum for European students of medicine. Tradition holds that he lost his sight as a consequence of one of his alchemical experiments, but in spite of his blindness he was appointed head of the Baghdad hospital, where he remained in charge until his death in 925.
His work ;aid the foundations of modern pharmacy, because of his scheme of classification of the substances used in chemistry. The list of these products as mentioned in Sirr al-asrar book is as follows:
- 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)
- Vegetable substancesRarely used, they are mainly employed by physicians.
- Animal substancesHair, scalp, brain, bile, blood, milk, urine, eggs, horn, shell