Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam

Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam

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 Arabic word كيمياء or kīmīāʾ. [1][2] and may ultimately derive from the ancient Egyptian word kemi, meaning black.[2]

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Arab Empire 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 preserved as Arabic translations.[3]


Medieval Islamic alchemy was based on previous alchemical writers, firstly those writing in Greek, but also using Indian, Jewish, and Christian 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, alchemy acquired mystical and religious elements.[4]

The sources of Islamic alchemy were transmitted to the Muslim world mainly in Egypt, especially in Alexandria, but also in the cities of Harran, Nisibin, and Edessa in western Mesopotamia.[5]

Alchemists and works

Khālid ibn Yazīd

According to the biographer 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.[6][7] 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.[8][7][6]

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq

Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, the son of Muḥammad al-Bāqir, 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.[8]

Jābir ibn Ḥayyān

15th century European impression of "Geber"

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. When young Jābir studied in Arabia under Harbi al-Himyari. 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 Kraus, 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.[9]

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.</ref>

Abū Bakr al-Rāzī

Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (Latin: Rhazes), born around 864 in Rey, was mainly known as a doctor. He wrote a number of alchemical works, including Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum secretorum.)[10][11]

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.[12]

Alchemical and chemical theory

Elemental scheme used by Jābir[13]
Hot Cold
Dry Fire Earth
Moist Air Water

Jābir analyzed each Aristotelian element 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.[13] (This scheme was also used by Aristotle.)[14][15] 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.[13] The later alchemist al-Rāzī followed Jābir's mercury-sulfur theory, but added a third, salty, component.[16]

Thus, Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result.[17] By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy.[18][19] 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.[13]

Processes and equipment

Al-Rāzī mentions the following chemical processes:

Some of these operations (calcination, solution, filtration, crystallization, sublimation and distillation) are also known to have been practiced by pre-Islamic Alexandrian alchemists.[21]

In his Secretum secretorum, Al-Rāzī mentions the following equipment:[22]

  • Tools for melting substances (li-tadhwīb): hearth (kūr), bellows (minfākh aw ziqq), crucible (bawtaqa), the būt bar būt (in Arabic) or botus barbatus (in Latin), ladle (mighrafa aw milʿaqa), tongs (māsik aw kalbatān), scissors (miqṭaʿ), hammer (mukassir), file (mibrad).
  • 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 (al-uthāl), goblets (qadaḥ), flasks (qārūra, plural quwārīr), rosewater flasks (māʿ wariyya), cauldron (marjal aw tanjīr), earthenware pots varnished on the inside with their lids (qudūr wa makabbāt), water bath or sand bath (qadr), oven (al-tannūr in Arabic, athanor in Latin), small cylindirical oven for heating aludel (mustawqid), funnels, sieves, filters, etc.

See also

  • Islamic science


  1. ^ "alchemy", entry in The Oxford English Dictionary, J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, vol. 1, 2nd ed., 1989, ISBN 0-19-861213-3.
  2. ^ a b p. 854, "Arabic alchemy", Georges C. Anawati, pp. 853-885 in Encyclopedia of the history of Arabic science, eds. Roshdi Rashed and Régis Morelon, London: Routledge, 1996, vol. 3, ISBN 0415124123.
  3. ^ Burckhardt, Titus (1967). Alchemy: science of the cosmos, science of the soul. Stuart & Watkins. p. 46 
  4. ^ Anawati 1996, pp. 854-863.
  5. ^ pp. 67-68, Holmyard 1990.
  6. ^ a b pp. 63-66, Alchemy, E. J. Holmyard, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1990 (reprint of 1957 Penguin Books edition), ISBN 0-486-26298-7.
  7. ^ a b M. Ullmann, "Ḵh̲ālid b. Yazīd b. Muʿāwiya, abū hās̲h̲im.", in Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edition, edited by P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W.P. Heinrichs, Brill, 2011. Brill Online. Accessed 20 January 2011. <>
  8. ^ a b Anawati 1996, p. 864.
  9. ^ pp. 68-82, Holmyard 1990.
  10. ^ pp. 867-879, Anawati 1996.
  11. ^ pp. 86-92, Holmyard 1990.
  12. ^ pp. 870-872, Anawati 1996.
  13. ^ a b c d pp. 74-82, Holmyard 1990.
  14. ^ Holmyard 1990, pp. 21-22.
  15. ^ Aristotle, On Generation and Corruption, II.3, 330a-330b.
  16. ^ Holmyard 1990, p. 88.
  17. ^ Burckhardt, Titus (1967). Alchemy: science of the cosmos, science of the soul. Stuart & Watkins. p. 29 
  18. ^ Ragai, Jehane (1992). "The Philosopher's Stone: Alchemy and Chemistry". Journal of Comparative Poetics 12 (Metaphor and Allegory in the Middle Ages): 58–77 
  19. ^ Holmyard, E. J. (1924). "Maslama al-Majriti and the Rutbatu'l-Hakim". Isis 6 (3): 293–305 
  20. ^ p. 89, Holmyard 1990.
  21. ^ p. 23, A short history of chemistry, James Riddick Partington, 3rd ed., Courier Dover Publications, 1989, ISBN 0486659771.
  22. ^ Anawati 1996, p. 868

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