Al-Kimya: 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.

A third interesting but far-fetched etymology suggests that the word al-kimiya derives from the Hebrew kim Yah, meaning “divine science.” The idea of a connection between the origins of alchemical knowledge and the Jews was widespread among medieval Arabic alchemists, who saw in this etymology a possible confirmation of their belief. These alchemists tended to attribute the mythical origins of alchemy alternately to the angels who rose against God, to the patriarch Enoch, to King Solomon, or to other biblical characters who taught humankind the secrets of minerals and metals. This interpretive strategy dignified the origins of alchemy and attributed alchemical books pseudepigraphically to authorities of the past, providing a safe mechanism for spreading alchemical knowledge, which could otherwise be persecuted for its proximity to magic.

In contrast with the modern term alchemy, the word al-kimiya lacks abstract meaning. Rather than designating the complex of practical and theoretical knowledge we now refer to as alchemy, it was used to describe the substance through which base metals could be transmuted into noble ones. In Arabic alchemical books al-kimiya tended to be a synonym of al-iksir (elixir) and was frequently used with the more general meaning of a “medium for obtaining something.” Expressions like kimiya al-sa‘ada (the way of obtaining happiness), kimiya al-ghana (the way of obtaining richness), and kimiya alqulub (the way of touching hearts) testify to the broad meaning of this word. What we now call alchemy was called by other words: san‘at al-kimiya or san‘at al-iksir (the art or production of the elixir), ‘ilm al-sina‘a (the knowledge of the art or production), al-hikma (the wisdom), al-‘amal al-a‘zam (the great work), or simply al-sana‘a. Arabic alchemists called themselves kimawi, kimi, kimiya’i, san‘awi, or iksiri.

The contribution of Arabic alchemists to the history of alchemy is profound. They excelled in the field of practical laboratory experience and offered the first descriptions of some of the substances still used in modern chemistry. Muriatic (hydrochloric) acid, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid are discoveries of Arabic alchemists, as are soda (al-natrun) and potassium (al-qali). The words used in Arabic alchemical books have left a deep mark on the language of chemistry: besides the word alchemy itself, we see Arabic influence in alcohol (al-kohl), elixir (al-iksir), and alembic (al-inbiq). Moreover, Arabic alchemists perfected the process of distillation, equipping their distilling apparatuses with thermometers in order to better regulate the heating during alchemical operations. Finally, the discovery of the solvent later known as aqua regia—a mixture of nitric and muriatic acids—is reported to be one of their most important contributions to later alchemy and chemistry.

Arabic books on alchemy stimulated theoretical reflections on the power and the limits of humans to change matter. Moreover, we have the Arabic alchemical tradition to thank for transmitting the legacy of the ancient and Hellenistic worlds to the Latin West.

Theoretical Assumptions

The alchemical authorities most often quoted as sources in Arabic alchemical texts were Greek philosophers, such as Pythagoras, Archelaus, Socrates, and Plato. During the Middle Ages, Aristotle himself was considered the authentic author of the fourth book of Meteorologica, which deals extensively with the physical interactions of earthly phenomena, and of one letter on alchemy addressed to his pupil Alexander the Great. Arabic language sources also quoted Hermes, the supposed repository of the knowledge God gave to man before the Deluge and to whom legend attributes the famous Tabula smaragdina (Emerald Tablet); Agathodaimon; Ostanes, the Persian magician; Mary the Jewess (probably 3rd century), for whom the bain marie (akin to a double boiler) is named; and Zosimus of Panopolis (3rd–4th centuries), believed to be the author of an alchemical encyclopedia in 28 books. Indeed, Zosimus is said to have introduced religious and mystical elements into the alchemical discourse: his books meld Egyptian magic, Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, Babylonian astrology, Christian theology, pagan mythology, and doctrines of Hebrew origin in a highly symbolic writing full of allusions to the interior transformations of the alchemist’s soul.