Al-Kimiya: Notes on Arabic Alchemy

Detail from a miniature from Ibn Butlan's Risalat da`wat al-atibba. Courtesy of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem.

Detail from a miniature from Ibn Butlan's Risalat da`wat al-atibba. Courtesy of the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem.

Note: Arabic words in this article are given in a simplified transliteration system: no graphical distinction is made among long and short vowels and emphatic and non-emphatic consonants. The expression “Arabic alchemy” refers to the vast literature on alchemy written in the Arabic language. Among those defined as “Arabic alchemists” we therefore find scholars of different ethnic origins—many from Persia—who produced their works in the Arabic language.

According to the 10th-century scholar Ibn Al-Nadim, the philosopher Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (9th century) claimed that “the study of philosophy could not be considered complete, and a learned man could not be called a philosopher, until he has succeeded in producing the alchemical transmutation.” For many years Western scholars ignored Al-Razi’s praise for alchemy, seeing alchemy instead as a pseudoscience, false in its purposes and fundamentally wrong in its methods, closer to magic and superstition than to the “enlightened” sciences. Only in recent years have pioneering studies conducted by historians of science, philologists, and historians of the book demonstrated the importance of alchemical practices and discoveries in creating the foundations of modern chemistry. A new generation of scholarship is revealing not only the extent to which early modern chemistry was based on alchemical practice but also the depth to which European alchemists relied on Arabic sources. Yet scholars are only beginning to scratch the surface of Arabic alchemy: a general history based on direct sources still has to be written, and an enormous number of Arabic alchemical manuscripts remain unread and unedited—sometimes not even cataloged—in Middle Eastern and European libraries. This brief survey is offered in hopes of giving Chemical Heritage’s readers a glimpse into this fascinating yet largely unexplored world.

The Origins of Arabic Alchemy

In the 7th century the Arabs started a process of territorial expansion that quickly brought them empire and influence ranging from India to Andalusia. Fruitful contacts with ancient cultural traditions were a natural consequence of this territorial expansion, and Arabic culture proved ready to absorb and reinterpret much of the technical and theoretical innovations of previous civilizations. This was certainly the case with respect to alchemy, which had been practiced and studied in ancient Greece and Hellenistic Egypt. The Arabs arrived in Egypt to find a substantial alchemical tradition; early written documents testify that Egyptian alchemists had developed advanced practical knowledge in the fields of pharmacology and metal, stone, and glass working. The first translations of alchemical treatises from Greek and Coptic sources into Arabic were reportedly commissioned by Khalid ibn Yazid, who died around the beginning of the 8th century. By the second part of that century Arabic knowledge of alchemy was already far enough advanced to produce the Corpus Jabirianum— an impressively large body of alchemical works attributed to Jabir ibn Hayyan. The Corpus, together with the alchemical works of Al-Razi, marks the creative peak of Arabic alchemy.

As is typical in the chain of transmission of ancient knowledge, the origins of alchemy are steeped in legend, and the links of this chain are either mythical or real authorities in the fields of ancient science and philosophy. The doctrines on which Arabic alchemy relied derived from the multicultural milieu of Hellenistic Egypt and included a mixture of local, Hebrew, Christian, Gnostic, ancient Greek, Indian, and Mesopotamian influences.

The presence of the Arabic definite article al in alchemy is a clear indication of the Arabic roots of the word. Hypotheses about the etymology of the Arabic term al-kimiya hint at the possible sources for early alchemical knowledge in the Arab world. One of the most plausible hypotheses traces the origin of the word back to the Egyptian word kam-it or kem-it, which indicated the color black and, by extension, the land of Egypt, known as the Black Land. Another hypothesis links kimiya to a Syriac transliteration of the Greek word khumeia or khemeia, meaning the art of melting metals and of producing alloys.