Islamic Alchemy and Alchemists
Islamic alchemy evolved rapidly with the mingling of cultures and the Near East began absorbing Greek knowledge.
Philosophers already in the region lacked sufficient knowledge to meet their needs. This assumption of knowledge was even more rapid during the fifth century BCE when the learned sect of Nestorian Christians were expelled from Constantinople and set up a school at Edessa in northern Syria.
Then being expelled again by the Greek Emperor they fled into Mesopotamia finally around 500 established the famous Persian medical school at Jundai-Shapur. They had started translating Greeks works into Syriac and were followed in the nest century by the Monophysite Christians, also expelled, who continued translating Greek texts.
However, during the fifth and sixth centuries this rapid growth of knowledge was slowed when the Arab states and tribes came under Muslim influence. Islamic leaders imposed the religion on every region they conquered including Asia Minor, Syria, Persia, Egypt, Africa, and Spain.
This hostility toward infidel learning continued till after 750 when under Abbasid culiphs of Baghdad the people developed a thirst for knowledge again. The Abbsaids also sought philosophies that would eliminate the need of imams thus Greek works of philosophy, mathematics, science could not be translated fast enough.
When trying to determine the author of ancient treaties on most subjects including alchemy a dubious phenomenon occurs, the author usually remains a mystery. This is because everyone signed a well-known name to their work to give it more authenticity.
This would be like someone today signing their work as Roger Bacon, William Shakespeare, or William Faulkner. This was why work may be attributed to men that never wrote it.
One of the first named recognized in Islamic alchemy is Abu Musa Jabir, born Hayyan and supposedly a pupil of the sixth Imam-Islamic spiritual and secular leader-Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, who is reported to have numerous treatises, mostly on alchemy but also on medicine, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, music, and philosophy, all subjects would constitute an encyclopedia.
Although it is thought that Ja’far wrote many treatises accredited to him, it is doubtful, if not impossible, that he alone wrote on all of these subjects, mostly likely others did under his name; remember there were no copyright laws then. And, some of what was considered science then would currently be called magic because in that era there was little difference between science and magic.
What is known for certain from assaying the alchemical work attributed to Jabir is that he or who ever wrote it was familiar with Greek alchemy theory. He divided substances into three categories:
- Spirits: volatile bodies such as camphor, sal ammoniac, mercury, arsenic, and sulphur.
- Metallic bodies: the metals.
- Bodies: non-volatile, pulverizable solids such as substances other than “spirits” or metallic bodies.
As can be seen, this resembles the Greek classification. The Greeks believed metals were comprised of a body, soul, and spirit. In fact, Jabir’s categories could have came straight from Aristotle whose “moist” and “dry” vapors now become vapors of mercury and sulphur.
Like the Greeks, Jabir spoke of different sulpurs, at the time sulphur was thought to be a fusible, volatile, combustible body, such as yellow sulphur, white sulphur, green sulphur, black sulphur, and so on. But the sulphur referred to in modern chemistry also was known.
Jabir’s varieties of sulpurs might have been compounds containing sulphur, which some miners call iron pyrites. The notion that metals contained mercury and sulphur-the latter being an inflammable principle (before oxygen was discovered)-remained a part of alchemy and chemistry even into the 18th century. The idea that this inflammable principle-sulphur-was in metals, if not all bodies, was the progenitor of the notion of phlogiston.
Jabir shared Aristotle’s conception of the four elements, fire, air, water, earth, but developed it along different lines. He states the first essence or natures of the four elementary qualities were hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness.
When these natures unite with the substance they form a compound of the first degree namely hot, cold, dry, moist.
The union of two compounds produces an element:
- fire (hot + dry + substance)
- air (hot + moist + substance)
- water (cold + moist + substance)
- earth (cold + dry + substance).
He said all metals had two external natures and two internal. The diagram below shows how he viewed gold and silver:
As shown, in order to change silver into gold its nature, quality composition, had to be reversed. This reversal of qualities, according to Jabir, was necessary for transmutation to occur. The idea of altering metallic qualities did not seem impossible at the time for the concept was widely accepted in medicine.
It can be seen the Islamic alchemists, like their Greek counterparts, were barrowing the ancient Greek physician Galen’s methods. For example, if a patient suffered a disease in which he had too much heat element, he would be given, as a remedy, medicine containing a cold element.
Jabir and follow Arabian alchemists viewed base metals similarly as Galen and his followers had viewed patients, imperfect. Base metals were considered imperfect, being defective in purity, and particularly in proportion, that is not being naturally balanced.
This resulted in the formation of silver, lead, tin, or copper. But, it was reasoned, since the base metals were of the same composition as gold, though not as equally proportioned, they could be perfected by equally proportioning them. Jabir sought to do this by elixirs and hoped to develop the supreme elixir.
He invented his method of balance to proportionally balance the metallic qualities which contained a strange numbering system.
The Greeks denoted the variation of qualities, hotness and coldness, moistness and dryness, by degrees though they lacked the means to measure them quantitatively. Jabir elaborated on the Greek system by assigning a “value” to each substance. For example, if gold was 1, then the elixir was 5. Each treatment was noted by a special fraction; a sublimation equaled 1/50, a fusion, 1/200, thus the formula read:
(Gold) 1 X (Fusion) 1/200 X 1000 = (Elixir) 5
(Computerized as [1 * .005 * 1000 = 5])
The conclusion was that after one thousand fusions gold should be converted into an elixir. The conclusion of this method of balance (mizan) proved to be very doubtful, to say the least, but it was a first step toward quantitative measurement which became so important in chemistry.
It might be added that some experiments attributed to Jabir seemed very dubious too. For example, in one, he wanted to remove moisture from water. After distilling and redistilling ordinary water 700 times he got white, brilliant solidifies like salt which he said was the pure element, but is simply the quality of coldness residing in first matter.
Like processes applied to other distilled products supposedly rendered the warm, the moist, and the dry elements. Were these experiments ever verified? There is a great deal of uncertainty about their verification; on the other hand, there seems to be more certainty that they were not, who is going to redistill water, or any other product, 700 times again?
Another explanation, perhaps a more plausible one, for the lack of validity is that during retesting some accident occurred; a cracked still, a furnace collapse or some other incident stopped the procedure.
Even through none of his alchemical works have been translated directly from Arabic, but summaries of them indicated Rhases, or Razi, was a practical scientist. Although he did not go along with Jabir’s elaborate calculated “balance” theory, Rhases believed basically that all substances were composed of the four elements and transmutation was possible.
He also shared Jabir’s assumption that the proximate constituents of metals were mercury and sulphur (or an inflammable oil), but sometimes suggests a third constituent of a salty nature–an idea occurring most frequently in later alchemical literature.
In his Book of the Secret of Secrets he divides chemical substances into well-marked classes: “spirits,” metallic bodies, stones, vitriols, boraxes, and salts.
He further describes necessary equipment needed, the various chemical preparation including various “poisonous” waters, the processes of calcination, sublimation, dissolution, and combustion; and finally in obscure terms the production of elixirs of gold and silver.
Although his islamic alchemy book is not always clearly understood, it is free of deliberate concealments, allegory and rhetoric as in many texts of the era.
A survey of Rhases’ work indicates that he was much more interested in practical chemistry than theoretical alchemy and probably this why his Book of the Secret of Secrets foreshadowed the chemistry laboratory manual. Although the procedures describe in it are frequently difficult to interpret they indicate experiments that he probably undertook himself.
He in turn begun to revolutionize alchemical thinking in that he demonstrated that practice was better than just unsupported hypotheses; it was better to composed treatises with workable laboratory experiments than untried studies.
Rhases initially gave a systematic classification of alchemical substances. For the first time substances were divided into the categories of animal, vegetable, and mineral.
Another noted chemist is Abu’l-Qasim al’Iraqi, probably in the 13th century wrote a work called Knowledge Acquired Concerning the Cultivation of Gold, English translation by E. J. Holmyard. His alchemical theory is similar to Jabir’s.
He accepted the Aristotelian theory for the origin of metals and believed the various metals were imperfection of gold, and their properties could be changed with red and white elixir in order to transform them into gold or silver.
As proof for this transformation he cited the then known fact that lead heat for a long time in a fire yields small amounts of silver. Unknown to the Arabians then was that small amounts of silver compounds are present in all lead ore. Once again this illustrates alchemists could only work with knowledge which they had at the time.
Al-Iraqi’s theory was excellent, but when it came to instructions as to actually performing experiments he reverted to dark sayings, allegories, and quotations of alchemical sages. This indicated al-Iraqi had little or no practical experience.
Abu Ali ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, was an Islamic genius referred to as the “Prince of Physicians.” he was a boy prodigy: he needed advanced tuition after being taught the Koran and Arabian poetry; then he mastered arithmetic, Euclid and logic, and medicine was among the other subjects he privately applied himself to and by the age of sixteen he was teaching physicians new forms of treatments.
He advanced to hold high medical and government positions, on one occasion being grand vizier and prime minister. He wrote over one hundred books, some being quite short, one medicine, philosophy, and science; his famous “Canon of Medicine” contained over a million words; in the pharmacological section he mentioned no fewer than 760 drugs. For several hundred years he shared with Rhases the distinction of being an authority in medicine, a subject for which there was no appeal.
Another interest which he shared with Rhases was music. One might wonder how an acute such as Avicenna’s could be interested in alchemy. A plausible answer is that his contemporaries believed it was possible to transmute metals, and many held it had successfully been accomplished while a few believing it to be theoretically possible were skeptical. Avicenna’s views on the constitution of metals closely resemble Jabir’s.
However, Avicenna was no skeptic for he clearly stated that the concept of transmutation was impossible. He saw no way to split up one metallic combination to make another. His negative opinions did not go unanswered. Vizier Al-Tughra’i, a better poet than alchemist, answered his criticism after carefully studying it and pointed out Avicenna’s views were inconsistent with those he had expressed elsewhere in the same work.
Avicenna’s negative views, however, did little to detour those interested in alchemy, they just continued their work.
The Islamic alchemists took what the knowledge inherited from the Greeks, added to it, and passed it onto their Western counterparts. But not all of this knowledge strictly concerned alchemy. A bit of knowledge of this type is The Emerald Tablet or the Tabula Smaragdina, which is ascribed to Hermes Trismegistus, or the Egyptian god Thoth, god of mathematics and science.
Early versions were dogmatic to Arabic alchemy since they claim to express the summary of the principle changes in Nature and therefore serve as the basis of the alchemical doctrine.
Another notable Islamic alchemist was Geber, famous Prince and Philosopher, or at least a number of treatises attributed to him, the most important Summa Perfectionis. This work was the most important source of medieval chemistry.
A survey of these treatises, especially this one, shows the author, or authors, were true believers that transmutation of metals was possible. The most important points in these works are the advocacy of the sulphur-mercury of metals, the initial descriptions of chemical methods, and the initial descriptions of analysis, the stating of numerous of ways of testing metals to tell whether they were genuine gold. The work also gave the vital knowledge of mineral acids to the Western world.
The descriptions and recipes were clearly stated free of allegories as were the diagrams also provided. But, this textbook material did not enable the reader to make gold.
Beginning with the 12th through the 16th centuries the Arabs were clearly adding there own knowledge to that which they adopted from the Greeks and were far in advance of the Western counterparts. They knew the preparation of sal ammoniac, ammonia, the mineral acids, and borax.
They were familiar with the method of distillation and other chemical operations. They were making certain chemical preparations while the idea of transmutation by a medicine or stone and the lore of the four elements still awaited their Western neighbors. A.G.H.
Holmyard, E.J. “Islamic Alchemy” Alchemy. New York. Dower Publications. 1990. pp. 80-104
Taylor, F. Sherwood. “Alchemists of Islam” Alchemists, Founders of Modern Chemistry. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 76-94