Jabir Ibn Hayyan: The Father of Chemistry
By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer
Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān is the author of an enormous number and variety of works in Arabic, often called the Jabirian corpus. The scope of the corpus is vast and diverse, covering a wide range of topics, including alchemy, cosmology, numerology, astrology, medicine, magic, mysticism, and philosophy. Popularly known as the father of chemistry, Jabir’s works contain the oldest known systematic classification of chemical substances and the oldest known instructions for deriving an inorganic compound from organic substances by chemical means. Some Arabic Jabirian works were translated into Latin under the Latinized name Geber.
Jabir was a natural philosopher who lived mostly in the 8th century. He was born under the rule of the Umayyad Caliphate. Jabir in the classical sources has been variously attributed as al-Azdi, al-Kufi, al-Tusi, al-Sufi, al-Tartusi, or al-Tarsusi, and al-Harrani. After the Abbasids took power, Jabir went back to Kufa. He began his career practicing medicine under the patronage of a Vizir of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Jabir was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death. In 988, Ibn al-Nadim compiled the Kitab al-Fihrist, which mentions Jabir as a spiritual follower, companion, and student to Jafar as-Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam. In another reference, al-Nadim reports that a group of philosophers claimed Jabir was one of their members. Another group, reported by al-Nadim, says only The Large Book of Mercy is genuine and that the rest are pseudo graphical.
In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan. Following the pioneering work of Paul Kraus, who demonstrated that a corpus of several hundred works ascribed to Jābir was probably a medley from different hands, mostly dating to the late 9th and early 10th centuries, many scholars believe that many of these works consist of commentaries and additions by his followers, particularly of an Ismaili persuasion. However, contemporary scholar Syed Nomanul Haq refuses the multiplicity of authors’ hypotheses, and says that Kraus has misrepresented the Jabirian corpus for three main reasons:
- He hasn’t inspected the bibliographies correctly, considering that there have been many leaps (in one instance, we have no titles between 500 and 530), so, all in all, the numbers are over 500 rather than close to 3000
- In many cases, a part or chapter of a book has been counted as a book itself, like with the Kitab al-Jumal al-‘Ishrin (book of twenty maxims), which has been counted for 20 books
- Finally, many of the supposed “books” are not so in the formal sense, the Kitab al-Sahl occupying a single paragraph and many other few folios. Syed Nomanul Haq concludes that “this rough investigation makes it abundantly clear that we should view with a great deal of suspicion any arguments for a plurality of authors, which is based on Kraus’ inflated estimate of the volume of the Jabirian corpus.”
The Jabirian Corpus
The scope of the corpus is vast: cosmology, music, medicine, magic, biology, chemical technology, geometry, grammar, metaphysics, logic, artificial generation of living beings, along with astrological predictions, and symbolic Imâmî myths. Jabir professed to have drawn his alchemical inspiration from earlier writers, both legendary and historic, on the subject. In his writings, Jabir pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Zosimos, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaemon, but also Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Pythagoras, and Socrates, as well as the commentators Alexander of Aphrodisias, Simplicius, Porphyry, and others.
Jabir’s alchemical investigations ostensibly revolved around the ultimate goal of takwin, the artificial creation of life. The Book of Assemblage includes several recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions, snakes, and even humans in a laboratory environment, which are subject to the control of their creator. What Jabir meant by these recipes is unknown. Jabir’s alchemical investigations were theoretically grounded in an elaborate numerology related to Pythagorean and Neoplatonic systems. The nature and properties of elements were defined through numeric values assigned to the Arabic consonants present in their name.
The Jabirian corpus is renowned for its contributions to alchemy. It shows a clear recognition of the importance of experimentation. Jabir is credited with the use of over twenty types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, such as the alembic and retort, and with the description of many now-commonplace chemical processes, such as crystallization, various forms of alchemical distillation, and substances citric acid, acetic acid, and tartaric acid, arsenic, antimony and bismuth, sulfur, and mercury that have become the foundation of today’s chemistry.
Whether Jabir lived in the 8th century or not, his name would become the most famous in alchemy. He paved the way for most of the later alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai, and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th to13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher’s stone. In the Middle Ages, Jabir’s treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya or the book of composition, translated by Robert of Chester, and the Book of Seventy by Gerard of Cremona. Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several technical Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.
The historian of chemistry Erick John Holmyard gives credit to Jabir for developing alchemy into an experimental science, and he writes that Jabir’s importance to the history of chemistry is equal to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier. The historian Paul Kraus, who had studied most of Jabir’s extant works in Arabic and Latin, summarized the importance of Jabir to the history of chemistry by comparing his experimental and systematic works in chemistry with that of the allegorical and unintelligible works of the ancient Greek alchemists. Although there is much controversy concerning some of the work that he did, it is undeniable that his efforts laid the foundation for future generations to begin seeking to understand Chemistry and its properties.
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