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

Our knowledge of Arabic alchemists has been largely mediated through the voices of their Latin translators, whose works are more likely to have survived to the present day. Scholarly research in this field is still in the preliminary stages, and every new discovery, every new edition of a manuscript, can lead to substantial changes in our perception of the history of Arabic alchemy. Even so, two philosophers have emerged as leading figures.

Jabir ibn Hayyan was born in Tus (in present-day Iran) in 721/2. Besides his Islamic studies, he was well educated in mathematics and science. After settling in the city of Kufa, he became the court alchemist of the Abbasid caliph Harun Al-Rashid (786–809) and was reportedly a close friend of the sixth imam, Ja‘far AlSadiq. He probably died in 803. Given the enormous number of alchemical books that have been attributed to him (more than 300) and the fact that the word jabir can mean “the one who rectifies things,” some scholars have suggested that the Corpus Jabirianum should be seen as the work of a group of anonymous alchemists. Some of the most famous books traditionally attributed to Jabir include Mi’a wa-ithna ‘ashara kitaban (The One Hundred and Twelve Books), which explains how to produce the elixir from vegetables and animals and was supposedly based on Ja‘far Al-Sadiq’s teachings; Kitab al-sab’in (The Book of the Seventy), a rich source for studying the operations and the equipment of medieval Arabic alchemy; Kutub al-tashih (The Books on Rectification), a survey of the progress of earlier alchemists; and Kitab al-mizan (The Book of the Balance), in which Jabir clearly outlines the double aim of his alchemical practice as both the transmutation of bodies in the laboratory and the transformation of his own soul. Jabir’s importance is not limited to the history of Arabic alchemy: numerous translations of his works appeared in Latin, and an abundant pseudo-Jabirian literature was transmitted under the name of Geber.

Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi was born around 864 in the city of Rayy (in present-day Iran). A versatile mind, he was well learned in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, music, and medicine. In this last field Latin translations of his works— together with Avicenna’s Canon—became the basis of the cursus studiorum for European students of medicine. Tradition holds that he lost his sight as a consequence of one of his alchemical experiments, but in spite of his blindness he was appointed head of the Baghdad hospital, where he remained in charge until his death in 925. His most important and influential alchemical book is the Sirr al-Asrar (the Latin Secretum secretorum, Secret of Secrets), in which he explains alchemical operations in detail and describes the equipment and ingredients needed in a medieval alchemical laboratory in a plain and clear style.

Historians of science would do well to look to the works of Al-Razi rather than Jabir’s highly complex and symbolic Corpus for evidence on how to reconstruct a medieval alchemical laboratory. Al-Razi mentions two groups of instruments: those used for melting metals and those used for preparing other substances. In the first group he lists the furnace (kur), bellows (minfakh), crucible (bawtaqa), double crucible (but bar but, known as botus barbatus to Latin alchemists), spoon (mighrafa), tweezers (masik), scissors (miqta‘), hammer (mukassir), and file (mibrad). In the second group we find the cucurbit (qar’), alembic with evacuation tube (anbiq dhu khatm), receiving matrass (qabila), blind alembic (al-anibiq al-a‘ma), vessel for liquids (qadah), cauldron (marjal or tanjir), and oven (al-tannur), as well as a cylindrical pot used for heating the matrass (mustawqid), different kinds of vessels (qarura), funnels, sieves, filters, and so on. Al-Razi’s clear descriptions of operations have made it possible to identify some of the alchemical procedures referred to in Arabic texts: tadbir is the word used in general for defining the treatment of bodies; sahq indicates grinding, decomposing, and the production of amalgams; hall or tahlil is solution; iqama is the procedure for solidifying; sabk is the fusion of metals; and taqtir means distillation and filtering.

As with the works attributed to Geber, many of the books attributed to Al-Razi— or the Latin author Rhazes—are pseudepigraphical. Given Al-Razi’s wide fame and the general medieval trend to fake the attribution of alchemical books, this should not come as a surprise.