Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam

Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam

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Alchemy and chemistry in Islam refers to the study of both traditional alchemy
Alchemy is an influential philosophical tradition whose early practitioners’ claims to profound powers were known from antiquity. The defining objectives of alchemy are varied; these include the creation of the fabled philosopher's stone possessing powers including the capability of turning base...

 and early practical chemistry
Chemistry is the science of matter, especially its chemical reactions, but also its composition, structure and properties. Chemistry is concerned with atoms and their interactions with other atoms, and particularly with the properties of chemical bonds....

 (the early chemical investigation of nature in general) by scholars in the medieval Islamic world. The word alchemy was derived from the Arabic
Arabic language
Arabic is a name applied to the descendants of the Classical Arabic language of the 6th century AD, used most prominently in the Quran, the Islamic Holy Book...

 word كيمياء or kīmīāʾ. and may ultimately derive
Chemistry (etymology)
In the history of science, the etymology of the word chemistry is a debatable issue. It is agreed that the word derives from the word alchemy, which is a European one, derived from the Arabic al-kīmīā . The Arabic term is derived from the Greek χημία or χημεία...

 from the ancient Egyptian word kemi, meaning black.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire
Western Roman Empire
The Western Roman Empire was the western half of the Roman Empire after its division by Diocletian in 285; the other half of the Roman Empire was the Eastern Roman Empire, commonly referred to today as the Byzantine Empire....

, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Arab Empire
The term caliphate, "dominion of a caliph " , refers to the first system of government established in Islam and represented the political unity of the Muslim Ummah...

 and the Islamic civilization
Islamic Golden Age
During the Islamic Golden Age philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology and culture, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations...

. Much more is known about Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

ic alchemy as it was better documented; most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.


Medieval Islamic alchemy was based on previous alchemical writers, firstly those writing in Greek
Greek language
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages. Native to the southern Balkans, it has the longest documented history of any Indo-European language, spanning 34 centuries of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the majority of its history;...

, but also using Indian
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, Jewish, and Christian
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 sources. According to Anawati, the alchemy practiced in Egypt around the second century BCE was a mixture of Hermetic or gnostic elements and Greek philosophy. Later, with Zosimos of Panopolis
Zosimos of Panopolis
Zosimos of Panopolis was an Egyptian or Greek alchemist and Gnostic mystic from the end of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th century AD. He was born in Panopolis, present day Akhmim in the south of Egypt, ca. 300. He wrote the oldest known books on alchemy, of which quotations in the Greek language...

, alchemy acquired mystical and religious elements.

The sources of Islamic alchemy were transmitted to the Muslim world mainly in Egypt
Egypt , officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, Arabic: , is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world...

, especially in Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

, but also in the cities of Harran
Harran was a major ancient city in Upper Mesopotamia whose site is near the modern village of Altınbaşak, Turkey, 24 miles southeast of Şanlıurfa...

, Nisibin, and Edessa
Edessa, Mesopotamia
Edessa is the Greek name of an Aramaic town in northern Mesopotamia, as refounded by Seleucus I Nicator. For the modern history of the city, see Şanlıurfa.-Names:...

 in western Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is a toponym for the area of the Tigris–Euphrates river system, largely corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Turkey and southwestern Iran.Widely considered to be the cradle of civilization, Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the...


Khālid ibn Yazīd

According to the biographer Ibn al-Nadīm
Ibn al-Nadim
Abu'l-Faraj Muhammad bin Is'hāq al-Nadim , whose father was known as al-Warrāq was a Shia Muslim scholar and bibliographer. Some scholars regard him as a Persian, but this is not certain. He is famous as the author of the Kitāb al-Fihrist...

, the first Muslim alchemist was Khālid ibn Yazīd, who is said to have studied alchemy under the Christian Marianos of Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

. The historicity of this story is not clear; according to M. Ullmann, it is a legend. According to Ibn al-Nadīm and Ḥajji 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 Waṣiyyatihi ilā bnihi fī-l-ṣanʿa (The Book of his Testament to his Son about Alchemy), and Firdaws al-ḥikma (The Paradise of Wisdom), but again, these works may be pseudepigraphical.

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, the son of Muḥammad al-Bāqir
Muhammad al-Baqir
Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī al-Bāqir was the Fifth Imām to the Twelver Shi‘a and Fourth Imām to the Ismā‘īlī Shī‘a. His father was the previous Imām, ‘Alī ibn Ḥusayn, and his mother was Fatimah bint al-Hasan...

, lived in Medina. He is said to have been the teacher of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān. A number of pseudepigraphical works have been attributed to him.

Jābir ibn Ḥayyān

Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (Persian: جابر بن حیان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber) may have been born in 721 or 722, in Tus, and have been the son of Ḥayyan, a druggist from the tribe of al-Azd who originally lived in Kufa
Kufa is a city in Iraq, about south of Baghdad, and northeast of Najaf. It is located on the banks of the Euphrates River. The estimated population in 2003 was 110,000....

. When young Jābir studied in Arabia
Arabian Peninsula
The Arabian Peninsula is a land mass situated north-east of Africa. Also known as Arabia or the Arabian subcontinent, it is the world's largest peninsula and covers 3,237,500 km2...

 under Harbi al-Himyari
Harbi al-Himyari
Harbi al-Himyari , was an Arab scholar from Yemen, who lived between the 7th and 8th century CE. He is famous as the teacher of the Islamic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. According to Holmyard nothing else is known about him.-References:...

. Later, he lived in Kufa, and eventually became a court alchemist for Hārūn al-Rashīd
Harun al-Rashid
Hārūn al-Rashīd was the fifth Arab Abbasid Caliph in Iraq. He was born in Rey, Iran, close to modern Tehran. His birth date remains a point of discussion, though, as various sources give the dates from 763 to 766)....

, in Baghdad
Baghdad is the capital of Iraq, as well as the coterminous Baghdad Governorate. The population of Baghdad in 2011 is approximately 7,216,040...

. 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 Kraus
Paul Kraus
Paul Kraus is an Australian author who was born in a Nazi forced labour camp in Viehofen, near St. Poelten, Austria in 1944 and migrated with his parents to Australia as a young child. In the 1960s Paul worked near a factory where asbestos sheets were sawn into smaller pieces...

, many of these works should be ascribed to later Ismaili authors. It includes the following groups of works: The 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 him.

Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari

Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari (Persian: محمد بن جریر طبری; Muḥammad b.Ǧarīr aṭ-Ṭabarī, Arabic: أبو جعفر محمد بن جرير بن يزيد الطبري‎; Abū Ǧaʿfar Muḥammad b.Ǧarīr b.Yazīd aṭ-Ṭabarī) (838–923) 224 – 310H, was one of the earliest, most prominent and famous Persian[1][2][3][4][5] historian and exegete of the Qur'an, most famous for his (تاريخ الرسل والملوك) Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Mulouk, or abbreviated as: "Tarikh al-Tabari" and Tafsir al-Tabari.

Abū Bakr al-Rāzī

Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (Latin: Rhazes), born around 864 in Rey
Rey, Iran
Rey or Ray , also known as Rhages and formerly as Arsacia, is the capital of Rey County, Tehran Province, Iran, and is the oldest existing city in the province....

, was mainly known as a doctor. He wrote a number of alchemical works, including Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum secretorum.)

Ibn Umayl

Muḥammad ibn Umayl al-Tamīmī was an 11th-century alchemist. One of his surviving works is Kitāb al-māʿ al-waraqī wa-l-arḍ al-najmiyya (The Book on Silvered Water and Starry Earth.) This work is a commentary on his poem Risālat al-shams wa-t-hilāl (The Epistle on the Sun and the Crescent) and contains numerous quotations from ancient authors.

Alchemical and chemical theory

Elemental scheme used by Jābir
Hot Cold
Dry Fire Earth
Moist Air Water

Jābir analyzed each Aristotelian element
Classical element
Many philosophies and worldviews have a set of classical elements believed to reflect the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything consists or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of anything are based. Most frequently, classical elements refer to ancient beliefs...

 in terms of 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. (This scheme was also used by Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

.) 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
Sulfur or sulphur is the chemical element with atomic number 16. In the periodic table it is represented by the symbol S. It is an abundant, multivalent non-metal. Under normal conditions, sulfur atoms form cyclic octatomic molecules with chemical formula S8. Elemental sulfur is a bright yellow...

 (giving the hot and dry qualities) with mercury
Mercury (element)
Mercury is a chemical element with the symbol Hg and atomic number 80. It is also known as quicksilver or hydrargyrum...

 (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, salty, component.

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
Philosopher's stone
The philosopher's stone is a legendary alchemical substance said to be capable of turning base metals into gold or silver. It was also sometimes believed to be an elixir of life, useful for rejuvenation and possibly for achieving immortality. For many centuries, it was the most sought-after goal...

 was introduced to Western alchemy. Jābir developed an elaborate numerology
Numerology is any study of the purported mystical relationship between a count or measurement and life. It has many systems and traditions and beliefs...

 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
    Distillation is a method of separating mixtures based on differences in volatilities of components in a boiling liquid mixture. Distillation is a unit operation, or a physical separation process, and not a chemical reaction....

  • calcination
    Calcination is a thermal treatment process applied to ores and other solid materials to bring about a thermal decomposition, phase transition, or removal of a volatile fraction. The calcination process normally takes place at temperatures below the melting point of the product materials...

  • solution
    In chemistry, a solution is a homogeneous mixture composed of only one phase. In such a mixture, a solute is dissolved in another substance, known as a solvent. The solvent does the dissolving.- Types of solutions :...

  • evaporation
    Evaporation is a type of vaporization of a liquid that occurs only on the surface of a liquid. The other type of vaporization is boiling, which, instead, occurs on the entire mass of the liquid....

  • crystallization
    Crystallization is the process of formation of solid crystals precipitating from a solution, melt or more rarely deposited directly from a gas. Crystallization is also a chemical solid–liquid separation technique, in which mass transfer of a solute from the liquid solution to a pure solid...

  • sublimation
    Sublimation may refer to:* Sublimation , the change from solid to gas without entering liquid phase* Sublimation , the transformation of emotions* Sublimation , a music album by Canvas Solaris-See also:...

  • filtration
    Filtration is commonly the mechanical or physical operation which is used for the separation of solids from fluids by interposing a medium through which only the fluid can pass...

  • amalgamation
    Amalgam (chemistry)
    An amalgam is a substance formed by the reaction of mercury with another metal. Almost all metals can form amalgams with mercury, notable exceptions being iron and platinum. Silver-mercury amalgams are important in dentistry, and gold-mercury amalgam is used in the extraction of gold from ore.The...

  • and ceration
    Ceration is a chemical process, a common practice in alchemy. Pseudo-Geber's Summa Perfectionis tells us ceration is "the mollification of an hard thing, not fusible unto liquefaction" and stresses the importance of correct humidity in the process. Ceration is performed by continuously adding a...

     (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 alchemists.

In his Secretum secretorum, Al-Rāzī mentions the following equipment:
  • Tools for melting substances (li-tadhwīb): hearth
    In common historic and modern usage, a hearth is a brick- or stone-lined fireplace or oven often used for cooking and/or heating. For centuries, the hearth was considered an integral part of a home, often its central or most important feature...

     (kūr), bellows
    A bellows is a device for delivering pressurized air in a controlled quantity to a controlled location.Basically, a bellows is a deformable container which has an outlet nozzle. When the volume of the bellows is decreased, the air escapes through the outlet...

     (minfākh aw ziqq), crucible
    A crucible is a container used for metal, glass, and pigment production as well as a number of modern laboratory processes, which can withstand temperatures high enough to melt or otherwise alter its contents...

     (bawtaqa), the būt bar būt (in Arabic) or botus barbatus (in Latin), ladle
    Ladle may refer to:* Ladle , a serving device, typically for soup* Ladle , a foundry ladle used to carry and pour molten metal...

     (mighrafa aw milʿaqa), tongs
    Tongs are used for gripping and lifting tools, of which there are many forms adapted to their specific use. Some are merely large pincers or nippers, but the greatest number fall into three classes:...

     (māsik aw kalbatān), scissors
    Scissors are hand-operated cutting instruments. They consist of a pair of metal blades pivoted so that the sharpened edges slide against each other when the handles opposite to the pivot are closed. Scissors are used for cutting various thin materials, such as paper, cardboard, metal foil, thin...

     (miqṭaʿ), hammer
    A hammer is a tool meant to deliver an impact to an object. The most common uses are for driving nails, fitting parts, forging metal and breaking up objects. Hammers are often designed for a specific purpose, and vary widely in their shape and structure. The usual features are a handle and a head,...

     (mukassir), file
    File (tool)
    A file is a metalworking and woodworking tool used to cut fine amounts of material from a workpiece. It most commonly refers to the hand tool style, which takes the form of a steel bar with a case hardened surface and a series of sharp, parallel teeth. Most files have a narrow, pointed tang at one...

  • Tools for the preparation of drugs (li-tadbīr al-ʿaqāqīr): cucurbit and still with evacuation tube (qarʿ aw anbīq dhū-khatm), receiving matras (qābila), blind still (without evacuation tube) (al-anbīq al-aʿmā), aludel
    An aludel is a subliming pot used in alchemy and medieval chemistry. The term refers to a range of earthen tubes, or pots without bottoms, fitted one over another, and diminishing as they advance towards the top. The lowest is adapted to a pot, placed in a furnace, wherein the matter to be sublimed...

     (al-uthāl), goblets (qadaḥ), flask
    Laboratory flask
    Laboratory flasks are vessels which fall into the category of laboratory equipment known as glassware. In laboratory and other scientific settings, they are usually referred to simply as flasks...

    s (qārūra, plural quwārīr), rosewater
    Rose water or rose syrup is the hydrosol portion of the distillate of rose petals. Rose water, itself a by-product of the production of rose oil for use in perfume, is used to flavour food, as a component in some cosmetic and medical preparations, and for religious purposes throughout Europe and...

     flasks (māʿ wariyya), cauldron
    A cauldron or caldron is a large metal pot for cooking and/or boiling over an open fire, with a large mouth and frequently with an arc-shaped hanger.- Etymology :...

     (marjal aw tanjīr), earthenware
    Earthenware is a common ceramic material, which is used extensively for pottery tableware and decorative objects.-Types of earthenware:Although body formulations vary between countries and even between individual makers, a generic composition is 25% ball clay, 28% kaolin, 32% quartz, and 15%...

     pots varnished on the inside with their lids (qudūr wa makabbāt), water bath or sand bath
    Sand bath
    A sand bath is a common piece of laboratory equipment made from a container filled with heated sand. It is used to provide even heating for another container, most often during a chemical reaction....

     (qadr), oven (al-tannūr in Arabic, athanor in Latin), small cylindirical oven for heating aludel
    An aludel is a subliming pot used in alchemy and medieval chemistry. The term refers to a range of earthen tubes, or pots without bottoms, fitted one over another, and diminishing as they advance towards the top. The lowest is adapted to a pot, placed in a furnace, wherein the matter to be sublimed...

     (mustawqid), funnel
    A funnel is a pipe with a wide, often conical mouth and a narrow stem. It is used to channel liquid or fine-grained substances into containers with a small opening. Without a funnel, spillage would occur....

    s, sieve
    A sieve, or sifter, separates wanted elements from unwanted material using a woven screen such as a mesh or net. However, in cooking, especially with flour, a sifter is used to aerate the substance, among other things. A strainer is a type of sieve typically used to separate a solid from a liquid...

    s, filter
    Filter (chemistry)
    In chemistry and common usage, a filter is a device that is designed to physically block certain objects or substances while letting others through. Filters are often used to remove solid substances suspended in fluids, for example to remove air pollution, to make water drinkable, and to prepare...

    s, etc.

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