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Viewed from the perspective of the history of science, alchemy can legitimately be considered an Islamic creation. Indeed, notwithstanding some development in ancient China, it was in the Islamic world that alchemy developed from a dark craft with its mysterious recipes into a systematic discipline founded on well-defined cosmological and metaphysical principles; and it was here that we find for the first time a body of alchemical literature largely (though not invariably) written in a clear scientific language unobscured by the veils of esoteric figurative terminology. Muslim alchemists deserve yet further credit: while they themselves had drawn on various foreign and indigenous sources, including Indian and possibly Chinese sources, it was their ideas and doctrines that served as the point of departure for the alchemists of the medieval West. Thus Islamic alchemy should be recognized as the springboard of that complex process that led to the birth of the modern science of chemistry.

As for the philosophical matrix of Islamic alchemy, it is possible to glean from a vast body of largely unstudied Arabic alchemical literature two of its fundamental aspects: a cosmology, and a theory of elements. The cosmology of Muslim alchemists is thoroughly nonAristotelian. In a highly enigmatic but equally influential Arabic text available to Islam from the earliest phases of its alchemical tradition, one finds unmistakable indications of the belief that there is an immutable cosmic correspondence between “what is above” and “what is below,” and between the inner world of the soul and the outer world of phenomena, and that the manifold forms in which matter occurs have a single and unique origin. This doctrine of an essential unity in diversity discards Aristotle’s fateful distinction between the terrestrial and celestial worlds; furthermore, it implies a naturalistic possibility of transmutation and accommodates astrology. In addition, it renders the process of purifying matter inseparable from that of the purification of the soul. The text in question, the celebrated Al-lawh al-zumurrud, is an apocryphal collection of aphorisms; in its Latin translation, Tabula smaragdina, it was an avidly studied document throughout the later European Middle Ages.

As for the Islamic alchemical theory of elements, it seems to have been derived from the standard Greek sources. All Muslim alchemists accept, as Aristotle does, the Empedoclean doctrine of four primary bodies-earth, water, air and fire-and all of them recognize Aristotle’s four primary qualities-hot, cold, moist and dry. Yet some of them profoundly violate the familiar Aristotelian doctrine of elements that claims that all material things are ultimately composed of the Empedoclean primary bodies, which are distinguished from one another by their qualities, but that these qualities do not exist independently of the bodies in which they inhere; qualities were forms-that is, conceptual rather than real entities. In contrast, for example, Jabir ibn Hayyan believed that the four qualities, called natures (tabai), were indeed independently existing real entities; it was these natures-and not the Empedoclean bodies-that were the true material elements of things. Nonetheless, many alchemists of Islam appear here to follow Aristotle faithfully.

This appears to be the theoretical framework of Islamic alchemy. Fundamental themes of this enterprise include not only the transmutation of base metals into gold, but also the artificial generation of living beings, even of new forms of life not existing in nature. Believing that all varieties (anwa`) of metals belong to the same genus (jins), the alchemists differentiated them only in terms of “accidents” (a`rad). Accidents were changeable; therefore, one metal could be changed into another. This transmutation could be carried out in many ways, but the best method was that of the elixir (al-iksir). Likewise, given the universal relationship between the macrocosm (ab’alam al-kabir) and the microcosm (al-`alam al-saghir), all grand biological processes occurring in nature could be replicated, and in principle improved upon, in the alchemical laboratory. Thus all kinds of monsters and strange birds, and all kinds of novel human beings, could be generated artificially. Another fundamental theme of Islamic alchemy is the prolongation of human life by means of the elixir; here alchemy is directly related to medicine.

It seems ironic that despite their fantastic claims and tantalizing discourses, it was the Muslim al-chemists and not the sober, hellenized sages of Islam-who made lasting theoretical and material contributions to the science of chemistry. For example, the Islamic alchemical theory that all metals (in some cases all substances) were composed of sulphur and mercury proved fateful, leading to the celebrated phlogiston theory of early modern chemistry. Likewise, sal ammoniac (nushadir), a substance that played a highly productive role in the development of chemistry, was introduced into the repertoire of alchemy by Muslims. Two varieties of this substance were known to them, natural (al-hajar) and derived (mustanbat)-ammonium chloride and ammonium carbonate. The latter was obtained by the dry distillation of hair and other animal substances. Again, the use of organic materials in chemical procedures, in addition to the inorganic, was a historic contribution of the alchemists of Islam.

By far the most luminous name in the history of Islamic alchemy is Jabir ibn Hayyan, but this giant figure remains wrapped in mystery, with historians since an early period doubting his very historical existence. The large encyclopedic corpus attributed to him indicates that he was a disciple of the sixth Shi`i imam Ja’far alSadiq, and this would place him in the eighth century. If Jabir was the first historical alchemist of Islam, a possibility we cannot rule out definitively, then he is the pioneer of all that is important and characteristic of Islamic alchemy: the sulphur-mercury theory, the use of organic substances, the introduction of sal ammoniac, the production (though not recognition) of mineral acids, the quantification of qualities, and the conceptual distinction between heat and temperature. Jabirian ideas were known to the European alchemists, and at least three of his treatises were translated into Latin. The great physician of Islam, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (known also by his Latin name Rhazes, d. 925) used to refer to Jabir as “our Master.”

Razi himself is another outstanding alchemical figure. In his works we find for the first time a systematic classification of carefully observed facts regarding chemical substances, reactions, and apparatus described in an unambiguous language. He too managed to produce mineral acids, although it is again doubtful if he recognized them as isolated substances. Razi’s clear language stands in sharp contrast to the obscure alchemical discourses of his younger contemporary Ibn Umayl (c. 900-960), a favorite of medieval European writers who read his Al-Ma’ al-waragi wa-al-ard al-nujumiyah (Silvery Water and Starry Earth) as Tabula chemica, just as they read in Latin translation his Risalat al-shams ila al-hildl (Epistle of the Sun to the New Moon). The Islamic West too contributed some celebrated alchemists: a familiar name is Maslamah ibn Ahmad al-Majrati (tenth century), from whose original writings were developed the Rutbat al-hakam (The Sage’s Step), containing precise instructions for the preparation of gold and silver by cupellation, and the Ghayat al-hakam (The Aim of the Wise), known in Latin as Picatrix. Finally, among the last prominent figures of Islamic alchemy are Abu al-Qasim ofIraq, a contemporary of Roger Bacon, and Ibn Aydamir al-Jildaki, living inEgyptin the fourteenth century. The latter, a great admirer of Jabir, was both an alchemist and a historian of alchemy; but by his time the hub of scientific activity had already begun to shift from the Islamic world to the Latin West.

In the contemporary Islamic world there exists no institutional or organized practice of alchemy. Still, a traditional belief in the alchemical transmutation of base metals into gold continues in the popular culture, and individuals are still searching for the ever-elusive elixir.


By far the best English-language survey of Islamic alchemy is still that of Joseph Needham, “Arabic Alchemy in Rise and Decline,” in his Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 4 (Cambridge, 1980). My short article, “Chemistry and Alchemy,” in Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East, edited by T. Mostyn and Albert Hourani, pages 389491 (Cambridge, 1988), covers the same ground as the present essay and is useful for the nonexpert. Eric J. Holmyard wrote prolifically, though sometimes uncritically, on the subject. His many articles are nevertheless worthy of serious consideration (see a bibliography of his work in my Names, Natures, and Things, cited below); see, in particular, Alchemy (Harmondsworth, 1957). H. E. Stapleton made an important contribution to the history of Islamic alchemy in several studies published with his colleagues in the Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (MASB). Of special interest is his “Three Arabic Treatises by Muhammad ibn Umail (Tenth Century AD),” written in collaboration with M. T. ‘Ali and M. H. Husain in MASB 12.1 (1933): I-127. Stapleton, Husain, and R. F. Azo also completed a rigorous textual study of Razi in “Chemistry inIraqandPersiain the Tenth Century AD,” MASB 8 (1927): 315-417. For Jabir, see Paul Kraus’s monumental, unparalleled study, “Jabir ibn Hayyan: Contributions a I’histoire des idees scientifiques dans I’Islam,” Mimoires de I’Institut d’E’gypte 44 (1942) and 45 (1943) The only full-scale English-language study of Jabir is my Names, Natures, and Things (Boston, 1994) which contains as well an annotated selected text and translation of a Jabirian treatise. Scholarly readers will find my extensive bibliographic references highly useful.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/alchemy/

  • writerPosted On: October 7, 2012
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