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.

Arabic alchemists largely worked from an Aristotelian theory of the formation of matter in which the four elementary qualities (heat, coldness, dryness, and moisture) generate first-degree compounds (hot, cold, dry, and moist), which, in turn, combine in pairs, acquire matter, and generate the four elements: hot + dry + matter = fire; hot + moist + matter = air; cold + moist + matter = water; cold + dry + matter = earth. Everything on earth consists of varying proportions of these four elements. A particularly clear explanation of how alchemists made sense of Aristotelian theory can be found in the pseudo-Avicennian treatise De Anima in arte alchimiae (Basel, 1572), an alchemical work probably of Arabic origins that survives only in Latin translation. According to this treatise, every existing body is a compound of the four elements: if a body is defined as cold and dry, this means that the qualities of coldness and dryness predominate, while heat and moisture occur in minor proportions and thus remain concealed. An external cause—either natural or artificial—could generate a change in the structure of the body, rebalancing the natural proportion of its external and internal qualities, thereby changing its appearance. The alchemist in his laboratory seeks to artificially overturn the balance of qualities in the body he is trying to transmute by adding or removing heat, coldness, dryness, or moisture.

Arabic natural philosophy similarly accepted the classical theory of the formation of minerals in mines. This explanation held that two different movements take place in the depths of caves as the caverns are heated by the sun: particles of water (cold and moist) rise to the surface and generate vapors (bukhar) when they make contact with air (hot and moist); particles of earth (cold and dry), however, rise to the surface and generate fumes (duhan). The meeting of vapors and fumes creates quicksilver, if the vapors predominate, or sulfur, if the fumes predominate. Gold is generated when quicksilver and sulfur are pure and in a balanced proportion, and the soil and astral conditions are positive. Imperfections in any of these conditions create metals of progressively lesser value. An impressive description of the formation of metals in caves can be read in Epistle 19, on mineralogy, of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-safa’ (Epistles of the Brethrens of Purity), a 10th-century encyclopedia of science, religion, and ethics attributed to a group of philosophers influenced by Neoplatonism and Pythagorism.

The alchemist’s goal, to be achieved through study and practical expertise in the laboratory, was to reproduce these natural processes in a shorter period or to interfere somehow with the natural processes to produce “natural accidents.” The alchemist’s knowledge was, therefore, often compared to the creative power of God (for instance, in the 10th-century treatise Rutbat al-hakim, by Al-Majriti) and represented the highest level of knowledge attainable by humans. Yet Arabic alchemists were, for the most part, able to harmonize alchemical doctrines with Islam. The belief in a pure and absolute version of monotheism led Islamic theology to assume the existence of a single creator: according to classical Islamic philosophy, God is the creator of everything that exists and is the direct cause of every action that takes place in the sublunary world. Since only God can create a change—a fasl (differentia specifica, substantial difference)—alchemy, with its aim of changing the internal nature of metals and stones, could have been considered religiously unacceptable. In the 12th century, however, the alchemist Al-Tughra’i proposed an intriguing solution: since nothing can be created unless God wants it to be so, the alchemist simply prepares matter to receive the fasl God will bestow.

Perhaps because of alchemy’s association with divine knowledge, Arabic alchemical treatises persistently appeal to secrecy: alchemists should avoid the transmission of recipes to greedy people whose main aim is to obtain riches rather than wisdom. As would their European followers several centuries later, Arabic alchemists used rhetorical tricks to conceal the secrets of the art from the uninitiated. In the introductory essay to his translation of the first 10 books of Jabir ibn Hayyan’s Kitab al-sab‘in (The Book of the Seventy), Pierre Lory underlines the author’s habit of “scattering knowledge” (tabdid al-‘ilm) by intentionally presenting alchemical procedures out of order so that only the initiated could understand how to read the text. Alchemical authors used a highly enigmatic language, marked by abundant metaphors and technical and allusive terminology, to describe their processes and ingredients. Like the Hellenistic alchemists before them, the Arabic alchemists referred to a metal by the name of the planet that was thought to exert influence over it, so that recipes included Moon for silver, Mercury for quicksilver, Venus for copper, Sun for gold, Mars for iron, Jupiter for tin, and Saturn for lead. Modern readers must bear in mind that even when the names of the alchemical ingredients appear identical to those used in modern chemistry, they rarely designate the same substance.