Generally known as the “Father of Chemistry”
Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān (born c. 721 in Tus, Iran–died c. 815 in Kufa, Iraq) was a prominent polymath: a chemist and alchemist, astronomer and astrologer, engineer, geologist, philosopher, physicist, and pharmacist and physician. Born and educated in Tus, located in Iran’s Persian heartland of Khorasan, he later traveled to Kufa. Jābir is held to be the first practical alchemist. His name was Latinized as “Geber” in the Christian West, usually referred to as Pseudo-Geber.
The Jabirian corpus:
In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan. Following the pioneering work of Paul Kraus, who demonstrated that a corpus of some several hundred works ascribed to Jābir were probably a medley from different hands, mostly dating to the late ninth and early tenth centuries, many scholars believe that many of these works consist of commentaries and additions by his followers, particularly of an Ismaili persuasion.
The scope of the corpus is vast: cosmology, music, medicine, magic, biology, chemical technology, geometry, grammar, metaphysics, logic, artificial generation of living beings, along with astrological predictions, and symbolic Imâmî myths.
The 112 Books dedicated to the Barmakids, viziers of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. This group includes the Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet, an ancient work that proved a recurring foundation of and source for alchemical operations. In the Middle Ages it was translated into Latin (Tabula Smaragdina) and widely diffused among European alchemists.
The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages. This group includes the Kitab al-Zuhra (“Book of Venus”) and the Kitab Al-Ahjar (“Book of Stones”).
The Ten Books on Rectification, containing descriptions of alchemists such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
The Books on Balance; this group includes his most famous ‘Theory of the balance in Nature’.
Jābir states in his Book of Stones (4:12) that “The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for”. His works seem to have been deliberately written in highly esoteric code, so that only those who had been initiated into his alchemical school could understand them. It is therefore difficult at best for the modern reader to discern which aspects of Jābir’s work are to be read as symbols (and what those symbols mean), and what is to be taken literally. Because his works rarely made overt sense, the term gibberish is believed to have originally referred to his writings (Hauck, p. 19).
Jābir’s interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Ja’far al-Sadiq. Ibn Hayyan was deeply religious, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah and becoming a literal instrument of Allah on Earth, since the manipulation of reality is possible only for Allah. The Book of Stones prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error alone in the desert before one can even consider alchemical experimentation.
Jābir professes to draw his inspiration from earlier writers, Legendary and historic, on the subject. In his writings, Jābir pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Zosimos, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaimon, but also Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Pythagoras, and Socrates as well as the commentators Alexander of Aphrodisias Simplicius, Porphyry and others. A huge pseudo-epigraphic literature of alchemical books was composed in Arabic, among which the names of Persian authors also appear like Jāmāsb, Ostanes, Mani, testifying that alchemy-like operations on metals and other substances were also practiced in Persia. The great number of Persian technical names (zaybaq = mercury, nošāder = sal-ammoniac) also corroborates the idea of an important Iranian roots of medieval alchemy. Ibn al-Nadim reports a dialogue between Aristotle and Ostanes, the Persian alchemist of Achaemenid era, which is in Jabirian corpus under the title of Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis. Ruska had suggested that the Sasanian medical schools played an important role in the spread of interest in alchemy. He emphasizes the long history of alchemy, “whose origin is Arius … the first man who applied the first experiment on the [philosopher’s] stone… and he declares that man possesses the ability to imitate the workings of Nature” (Nasr, Seyyed Hussein, Science and Civilization of Islam).
Jabir’s major contribution was in the field of chemistry. He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy, which rapidly changed its character into modern chemistry. On the ruins of his well-known laboratory remained after centuries, but his fame rests on over 100 monumental treatises, of which 22 relate to chemistry and alchemy. His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystallization, distillation, calcinations, sublimation and evaporation and development of several instruments for the same. The fact of early development of chemistry as a distinct branch of science by the Arabs, instead of the earlier vague ideas, is well-established and the very name chemistry is derived from the Arabic word al-Kimya, which was studied and developed extensively by the Muslim scientists.
Jābir’s alchemical investigations were theoretically grounded in an elaborate numerology related to Pythagorean and Neoplatonic systems. The nature and properties of elements was defined through numeric values assigned the Arabic consonants present in their name, ultimately culminating in the number 17.
Perhaps Jabir’s major practical achievement was the discovery of mineral and others acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Anbique). Apart from several contributions of basic nature to alchemy, involving largely the preparation of new com- pounds and development of chemical methods, he also developed a number of applied chemical processes, thus becoming a pioneer in the field of applied science. His achievements in this field include preparation of various metals, development of steel, dyeing of cloth and tanning of leather, varnishing of water-proof cloth, use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, prevention of rusting, lettering in gold, identification of paints, greases, etc. During the course of these practical endeavors, he also developed aqua regia to dissolve gold. The alembic is his great invention, which made easy and systematic the process of distillation. Jabir laid great stress on experimentation and accuracy in his work.
By Jabirs’ time Aristotelian physics, had become Neoplatonic. Each Aristotelian element was composed of these qualities: fire was both hot and dry, earth, cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air, hot and moist. This came from the elementary qualities which are theoretical in nature plus substance. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. Like Zosimos, Jabir believed this would require a catalyst, an al-iksir, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the philosopher’s stone.
According to Jabir’s mercury-sulfur theory, metals differ from each in so far as they contain different proportions of the sulfur and mercury. These are not the elements that we know by those names, but certain principles to which those elements are the closest approximation in nature. Based on Aristotle’s “exhalation” theory the dry and moist exhalations become sulfur and mercury (sometimes called “sophic” or “philosophic” mercury and sulfur). The sulfur-mercury theory is first recorded in a 7th century work Secret of Creation credited (falsely) to Balinus (Apollonius of Tyana). This view becomes wide spread. In the Book of Explanation Jabir says the metals are all, in essence, composed of mercury combined and coagulated with sulphur [that has risen to it in earthy, smoke-like vapors]. They differ from one another only because of the difference of their accidental qualities, and this difference is due to the difference of their sulphur, which again is caused by a variation in the soils and in their positions with respect to the heat of the sun.
Holmyard says that Jabir proves by experiment that these are not ordinary sulfur and mercury.
The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature.
He proposed three categories:
“Spirits” which vaporise on heating, like arsenic (realgar, orpiment), camphor, mercury, sulfur, sal ammoniac, and ammonium chloride.
“Metals”, like gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar-sini
Non-malleable substances, that can be converted into powders, such as stones.
The origins of the idea of chemical equivalents might be traced back to Jabir, in whose time it was recognized that “a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base.” Jābir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy/astrology, and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation.
Laboratory equipment and material:
Whether there was a real Jabir in the 8th century or not, his name would become the most famous in alchemy. He paved the way for most of the later alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th-13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher’s stone. In the Middle Ages, Jabir’s treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled Book of the Composition of Alchemy in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester (1144); and the Kitab al-Sab’een (Book of Seventy) by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187).
Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several technical Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.
The historian of chemistry Erick John Holmyard gives credit to Jābir for developing alchemy into an experimental science and he writes that Jābir’s importance to the history of chemistry is equal to that of Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier. The historian Paul Kraus, who had studied most of Jābir’s extant works in Arabic and Latin, summarized the importance of Jābir to the history of chemistry by comparing his experimental and systematic works in chemistry with that of the allegorical and unintelligible works of the ancient Greek alchemists. The word gibberish is theorized to be derived from the Latinised version off Jābir’s name, in reference to the incomprehensible technical jargon often used by alchemists, the most famous of whom was Jābir. Other sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary suggest the term stems from gibber; however, the first known recorded use of the term “gibberish” was before the first known recorded use of the word “gibber.”
Max Meyerhoff states the following on Jabir ibn Hayyan: “His influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry.”
According to Sarton, the true worth of his work would only be known when all his books have been edited and published. His religious views and philosophical concepts embodied in the corpus have been criticized but, apart from the question of their authenticity, it is to be emphasized that the major contribution of Jabir lies in the field of chemistry and not in religion. His various breakthroughs e.g., preparation of acids for the first time, notably nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids, and emphasis on systematic experimentation are outstanding and it is on the basis of such work that he can justly be regarded as the father of modern chemistry.
In the words of Max Mayerhaff, the development of chemistry in Europe can be traced directly to Jabir Ibn Haiyan.