Alchemy and chemistry in
Islam refers to the study of both traditional
alchemy and early practical chemistry (the early chemical
investigation of nature in general) by scholars in the medieval
Islamic world. The word alchemy was derived from the
كيمياء or kīmiyāʾ. and may ultimately derive from the
ancient Egyptian word kemi, meaning black.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical
development moved to the
Caliphate and the Islamic civilization. Much
more is known about Islamic alchemy as it was better documented; most
of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were
1 Definition and relationship with medieval western sciences
1.1 Contributions of Islamic alchemists to mystical alchemy
2 Alchemists and works
2.1 Khālid ibn Yazīd
2.2 Jābir ibn Ḥayyān
2.3 Abū Bakr al-Rāzī
2.4 Ibn Umayl
3 Alchemical and chemical theory
4 Processes and equipment
5 See also
7 Further reading
8 External links
Definition and relationship with medieval western sciences
In considering Islamic sciences as a distinct, local practice, it is
important to define words such as "Arabic," "Islamic," "alchemy," and
"chemistry." In order to gain a better grasp on the concepts discussed
in this article, it is important to come to an understanding of what
these terms mean historically. This may also help to clear up any
misconceptions regarding the possible differences between alchemy and
early chemistry in the context of medieval times. As A.I. Sabra writes
in his article entitled, "Situating
Arabic Science: Location versus
Essence," "the term
Arabic (or Islamic) science denotes the scientific
activities of individuals who lived in a region that roughly extended
chronologically from the eighth century A.D. to the beginning of the
modern era, and geographically from the Iberian Peninsula and North
Africa to the
Indus valley and from southern Arabia to the Caspian Sea
- that is, the region covered for most of that period by what we call
Islamic civilization, and in which the results of the activities
referred to were for the most part expressed in the Arabic
language." This definition of
Arabic science provides a sense that
there are many distinguishing factors to contrast with science of the
Western hemisphere regarding physical location, culture, and language,
though there are also several similarities in the goals pursued by
scientists of the Middle Ages, and in the origins of thinking from
which both were derived.
Lawrence Principe describes the relationship between alchemy and
chemistry in his article entitled, "
Alchemy Restored," in which he
states, "The search for metallic transmutation — what we call
"alchemy" but that is more accurately termed "Chrysopoeia" — was
ordinarily viewed in the late seventeenth century as synonymous with
or as a subset of chemistry."  He therefore proposes that the early
spelling of chemistry as "chymistry" refers to a unified science
including both alchemy and early chemistry. Principe goes on to argue
that, "[a]ll their chymical activities were unified by a common focus
on the analysis, synthesis, transformation, and production of material
substances." Therefore, there is not a defined contrast between the
two fields until the early 18th century. Though Principe's
discussion is centered on the Western practice of alchemy and
chemistry, this argument is supported in the context of Islamic
science as well when considering the similarity in methodology and
Aristotelian inspirations, as noted in other sections of this article.
This distinction between alchemy and early chemistry is one that lies
predominately in semantics, though with an understanding of previous
uses of the words, we can better understand the historical lack of
distinct connotations regarding the terms despite their altered
connotations in modern contexts.
The transmission of these sciences throughout the Eastern and Western
hemispheres is also important to understand when distinguishing the
sciences of both regions. The beginnings of cultural, religious, and
scientific diffusion of information between the Western and Eastern
societies began with the successful conquests of Alexander the Great
(334-323 B.C). By establishing territory throughout the East,
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great allowed greater communication between the two
hemispheres that would continue throughout history. A thousand years
later, those Asian territories conquered by Alexander the Great, such
Iraq and Iran, became a center of religious movements with a focus
on Christianity, Manicheism, and Zoroastrianism, which all involve
sacred texts as a basis, thus encouraging literacy, scholarship, and
the spread of ideas. Aristotelian logic was soon included in the
curriculum a center for higher education in Nisibis, located east of
the Persian border, and was used to enhance the philosophical
discussion of theology taking place at the time. The Qur'an, the
holy book of Islam, became an important source of "theology, morality,
law, and cosmology," in what Lindberg describes as "the centerpiece of
Islamic education." After the death of Muhammed in 632,
extended throughout the Arabian peninsula, Byzantium, Persia, Syria,
Egypt, and Israel by means of military conquest, solidifying the
region as a predominately Muslim one. While the expansion of the
Islamic empire was an important factor in diminishing political
barriers between such areas, there was still a wide range of
religions, beliefs, and philosophies that could move freely and be
translated throughout the regions. This development made way for
contributions to be made on behalf of the East towards the Western
conception of sciences such as alchemy.
While this transmission of information and practices allowed for the
further development of the field, and though both were inspired by
Aristotelian logic and Hellenic philosophies, as well as by mystical
aspects it is also important to note that cultural and religious
boundaries remained. The mystical and religious elements discussed
previously in the article distinguished Islamic alchemy from that of
its Western counterpart, given that the West had predominately
Christian ideals on which to base their beliefs and results, while the
Islamic tradition differed greatly. While the motives differed in some
ways, as did the calculations, the practice and development of alchemy
and chemistry was similar given the contemporaneous nature of the
fields and the ability with which scientists could transmit their
Contributions of Islamic alchemists to mystical alchemy
Marie-Louise von Franz describes in her introduction to Ibn Umails
"Book of the Explanation of the Symbols — Kitāb Ḥall ar-Rumūz"
the contributions of Islamic alchemy as follows: In the 7th to 8th
century, Islamic scholars were mainly concerned with translating
ancient Hermetic-Gnostic texts without changing them. Gradually they
began "'confronting' their content with the Islamic religion" and
began "to think independently and experiment themselves in the realm
of alchemy". Thus they added "an emphasis on the monotheistic outlook"
(tawḥīd) and more and more creating a synopsis of the diverse
antique traditions. Thus unifying their meaning, the Islamic scholars
arrived at the idea, that the secret and aim of alchemy were the
achievement of "one inner psychic experience, namely the God-image"
and that stone, water, prima materia etc. were "all aspects of the
inner mystery through which the alchemist unites with the transendent
God". Secondly, they added "a passionate feeling tone" by using much
more a poetic language than the antique Hermetists did, also giving "a
greater emphasis on the coniunctio motif", i.e. images of the union of
male and female, sun and moon, king and queen etc. "The mystical
Islam understood alchemy as a transformative process of the
alchemist's psyche. The fire which promoted this transformation was
the love of God."
Alchemists and works
Khālid ibn Yazīd
According to the bibliographer Ibn al-Nadīm, the first Muslim
alchemist was Khālid ibn Yazīd, who is said to have studied alchemy
under the Christian Marianos of Alexandria. The historicity of this
story is not clear; according to M. Ullmann, it is a legend.
Ibn al-Nadīm and Ḥajjī Khalīfa, he is the author of
the alchemical works Kitāb al-kharazāt (The Book of Pearls), Kitāb
al-ṣaḥīfa al-kabīr (The Big Book of the Roll), Kitāb
al-ṣaḥīfa al-saghīr (The Small Book of the Roll), Kitāb
Waṣīyatihi ilā bnihi fī-ṣ-ṣanʿa (The Book of his Testament
to his Son about the Craft), and Firdaws al-ḥikma (The Paradise of
Wisdom), but again, these works may be pseudepigraphical.
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān
15th century European impression of "Geber"
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (Persian: جابرحیان, Arabic: جابر
بن حیان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber)
may have been born in 721 or 722, in Persian city of Tus, Iran, and
have been the son of Ḥayyān, a druggist from the tribe of al-Azd
who originally lived in Kufa. When young Jābir studied in Arabia
under Ḥarbī al-Ḥimyarī. Later, he lived in Kufa, and eventually
became a court alchemist for Hārūn al-Rashīd, in Baghdad. Jābir
was friendly with the
Barmecides and became caught up in their
disgrace in 803. As a result, he returned to Kufa. According to some
sources, he died in Tus in 815.
A large corpus of works is ascribed to Jābir, so large that it's
difficult to believe he wrote them all himself. According to the
theory of Paul Kraus, many of these works should be ascribed to later
Ismaili authors. It includes the following groups of works: The One
Hundred and Twelve Books; The Seventy Books; The Ten Books of
Rectifications; and The Books of the Balances. This article will not
distinguish between Jābir and the authors of works attributed to
Abū Bakr al-Rāzī
Abū Bakr ibn Zakariyā’ al-Rāzī (Latin: Rhazes), born around 864
in Rayy, was mainly known as a Persian physician. He wrote a number of
alchemical works, including the Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum
secretorum; English: Secret of Secrets.)
Muḥammad ibn Umayl al-Tamīmī was a 10th-century alchemist of the
symbolic-mystical branch. One of his surviving works is Kitāb
al-māʿ al-waraqī wa-l-arḍ al-najmiyya (The Book on Silvery Water
and Starry Earth). This work is a commentary on his poem, the Risālat
al-shams ilā al-hilāl (The Epistle of the Sun to the Crescent Moon)
and contains numerous quotations from ancient authors. Ibn Umayl
had important influence on medieval Western (Latin) alchemy, where
his work is found under different names, mainly as Senior or as
Zadith. His "Silvery Water" e.g. was reprinted as "The Chemical
Tables of Senior Zadith" in the collection of alchemical texts:
Theatrum Chemicum, and commented upon by Pseudo Aquinas in Aurora
Consurgens. They both also give his (modified) image of the sage
holding a chemical table (see image above).
Al-Tughrai was an 11th–12th century Persian physician. whose
work theMasabih al-hikma wa-mafatih al-rahma (The Lanterns of Wisdom
and the Keys of Mercy) is one of the earliest works of material
Al-Jildaki who was a Persian alchemist urged in his book the need for
experimental chemistry and mentioned many experiments Kanz al-ikhtisas
fi ma'rifat al-khawas by Abu 'l-Qasim Aydamir al-Jildaki.
Alchemical and chemical theory
Elemental scheme used by Jābir
Jābir analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of Aristotle's four
basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. For
example, fire is a substance that is hot and dry, as shown in the
table. According to Jābir, in each metal two of these
qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was
externally cold and dry but internally hot and moist; gold, on the
other hand, was externally hot and moist but internally cold and dry.
He believed that metals were formed in the Earth by fusion of sulfur
(giving the hot and dry qualities) with mercury (giving the cold and
moist.) These elements, mercury and sulfur, should be thought of as
not the ordinary elements but ideal, hypothetical substances. Which
metal is formed depends on the purity of the mercury and sulfur and
the proportion in which they come together. The later alchemist
al-Rāzī followed Jābir's mercury-sulfur theory, but added a third,
Thus, Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a
different metal would result. By this reasoning, the search for
the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy.
Jābir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a
substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations,
held correspondences to the element's physical properties.
Processes and equipment
Al-Rāzī mentions the following chemical processes: distillation,
calcination, solution, evaporation, crystallization, sublimation,
filtration, amalgamation, and ceration (a process for making solids
pasty or fusible.) Some of these operations (calcination,
solution, filtration, crystallization, sublimation and distillation)
are also known to have been practiced by pre-Islamic Alexandrian
In his Secretum secretorum, Al-Rāzī mentions the following
Tools for melting substances (li-tadhwīb): hearth (kūr), bellows
(minfākh or ziqq), crucible (bawtaqa), the būt bar būt (in Arabic,
from Persian) or botus barbatus (in Latin), ladle (mighrafa or
milʿaqa), tongs (māsik or kalbatān), scissors (miqṭaʿ), hammer
(mukassir), file (mibrad).
Tools for the preparation of drugs (li-tadbīr al-ʿaqāqīr):
cucurbit and still with evacuation tube (qarʿ or anbīq dhū khatm),
receiving matras (qābila), blind still (without evacuation tube)
(al-anbīq al-aʿmā), aludel (al-uthāl), goblets (qadaḥ), flasks
(qārūra, plural quwārīr), rosewater flasks (mā’ wardiyya),
cauldron (marjal or tanjīr), earthenware pots varnished on the inside
with their lids (qudūr and makabbāt), water bath or sand bath
(qidr), oven (al-tannūr in Arabic, athanor in Latin), small
cylindirical oven for heating aludel (mustawqid), funnels, sieves,
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"How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs" by De Lacy O'Leary
Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam
Khālid ibn Yazīd
Jābir ibn Hayyān
Abbas ibn Firnas
Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri
Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi
Abu Mansur Muwaffaq
Al-Mu'izz ibn Badis
Ahmad ibn 'Imad al-Din
Abu'l Hasan ibn Arfa Ra'a
Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati
Attar of Nishapur
Abul Ashba ibn Tammam
Influences on Western art
Early social change
World contributions to Medieval Europe
Reception in Early Modern Europe
Law and politics
use of analogy
Early social change
Alchemy and chemistry
Geography and cartography
Arab Agricultural Revolution
Classical planets (Suns)
Elixir of life
In art and entertainment
Cleopatra the Alchemist
Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa
Jābir ibn Hayyān
Khālid ibn Yazīd
Bernard of Treviso
Mary the Jewess
Zosimos of Panopolis
Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa
Buch der heiligen Dreifaltigkeit
Cantilenae Intelectuales de Phoenice Redivivo
Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz
Den vises sten
Deutsches Theatrum Chemicum
Greek Magical Papyri
Leyden papyrus X
Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis
Psychology and Alchemy
Rosary of the Philosophers
Suspicions about the Hidden Realities of the Air
The Hermetical Triumph
The Mirror of Alchimy
The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine
Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum
Treatise on the Appa