The Alchemist: Jabir Ibn e Hayyan and his Stupendous Contributions to Modern Chemistry

The Alchemist: Jabir Ibn e Hayyan and his Stupendous Contributions to Modern Chemistry
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MUBASHIR IQBAL KITABA

Chemistry is one of the sciences to which Muslims have made the greatest contribution. The Muslims of yore developed it to such a high degree of perfection that they were considered as authorities in this specific branch of science. Till the end of 17th century AC, Jabir and Zakirya Razi have the distinction of being the greatest chemists that medieval times have produced. Writing in his illuminating history of the Arabs, Philip K Hitti acknowledges the greatness of the Arab Muslims in this branch of science. He says, “After material medica, astronomy and mathematics, the Arabs made their greatest scientific contribution to chemistry. In the study of chemistry and other physical sciences, the Arabs introduced the objective experiment, a decided improvement upon the hazy speculation of the Greeks. Accurate in observation of phenomena and diligent in the accumulation of facts, the Arabs nevertheless found it difficult to protect proper hypothesis”. Another well known historian, Robert Briffault frankly admits the debut which modern chemistry owed to the Muslim scientists. Chemistry, the rudiments of which arose in the process employed by Egyptian metallurgists and jewelers combing metals into various alloys and tinting them to resemble gold processes long preserved as a secret monopoly of the priestly colleges, and clad in the usual mystic formulas, developed in the hands of the Arab Muslims into a widespread, organized passion for research which led them to the invention of distillation, sublimation infiltration, nitric and sulphuric acids, of the salts of mercury, of antimony and bismuth, and laid the basis of all subsequent chemistry and physical research.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan would still remain a very impressive personality, writes George Sarton, at once, because of his own achievements. The most famous alchemist of Islam, Jabir Ibn Hayyan seems to have good experimental knowledge of a number of chemical facts.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan –al-Azdi, also known as Geber in the West flourished in kKufa about 776 AC and is held to be a the father of modern chemistry. Along with Zakariya Razi, he stands as the greatest name in the annals of medieval chemical sciences. Jabir received his education from the Umayyad prince Khalid Ibn Yazid Ibn Muawiya and from the celebrated Imam Jafar al-Sidiq. In the beginning, he practiced as a physician and was closely attached to the house of Bermakides, whose members occupied the high posts of viziers during the region of Haroon-ar-Rashid. Jabir, too had to share the misfortune of Bermakides at the time of their downfall in 803 AC and died in at Kufa. His famous laboratory was found in ruins about two centuries later.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan is credited to have composed more than 100 works of which 22 chemical works are still extant. He introduced experimental research in chemical sciences which immensely added to its rapid development.
The fame of Jabir rests on his alchemical writings prescribed in Arabic. Five of his works namely Kitab al Rehman (book of mercy), Kitab al Tajmi (book of concentration), Al Zilaq al Sharqi (book of eastern Mercury), book of the kingdom and the little book of Balances, have been published. One may find in them remarkable sound views on the method(s) of chemical research. According to George Sarton, “A theory on the geologic formation of metals, the so called sulphur, mercury of metals, Jabir also deals with various applications of refinement of metals, preparation of steel, dyeing of cloth and leather, varnishes the waterproof cloth and protect iron, use of manganese dioxide in glass making, use of iron pyrites for writing in gold, distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid. He observed the imponderability of magnetic force.”
Jabir worked on the assumption that metals like lead, tin and iron could be transformed into gold by mixing certain chemical substances. It is said that he manufactured a large quantity of gold with the help of that mysterious substance and two centuries later when a rod was laid in Kufa, a large piece of gold was unearthed from his laboratory. Jabir laid greater emphasis on the importance of experimentation and research; hence Jabir made great headway in the chemical sciences. Western writers credit him with the discovery of several chemical compounds. According to Max Meyerhof, “His influence may be traced throughout the whole historic course of European alchemy and chemistry.”
Jabir explained scientifically the two principal functions of chemistry, calcinations and reduction, sublimation, distillation, melting and crystallization. He modified and corrected the Aristotelian theory of constituents of metal, which remained unchanged till the beginning of the modern chemistry in the 18th century AC. Jabir has explained in his works the preparation of many chemical substances including sulphuric of mercury and arsenious oxide. It has been established through historical research that he was conversant with the preparation of nearly pure vitriols, alums, alkalis and the production of the so called liver and milk of sulphur by heating sulphur with alkalis.
Jabir prepared mercury oxide and was thoroughly conversant with the preparation of crude sulphuric and nitric acids. He knew the method of the solution of gold and silver with this acid. Al –Razi has classified alchemical substances as vegetables, animals or minerals, whereas Jabir and other Arabian chemists have divided mineral substances into bodies (gold, silver, etc.) souls (sulphur, arsenic, etc.) and sprits (mercury and sal-ammoniac). Jabir Ibn Hayyan is also the author of a book on astrolabe and has written several treatises on spherical trigonometry.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan’s treatises have been translated into several European languages including Latin and he has had a deep influence over the entire course of the development of modern chemistry. Several technical scientific terms coined by Jabir found their way in various European languages through Latin and were adopted in modern chemistry.
Jabir Ibn Hayyan has been recognized as the master by the later chemical scientists, including Al Tughrai and Abu Al-Qasim Al_Iraqi who flourished during the 12th and 13th centuries respectively. These Muslim chemists made little improvement on the methods of Jabir. They confined themselves to quest of the legendary “elixir” (Al-Iksir) which they could never find out. During the 12th century , hardly any monumental creative scientific work was added to the long list of Arab scientific works. The writers during this period confined themselves to the reproduction, summarization and writing commentaries on the works of Razi, Ibn Sina and Jabir Ibn Hayyan. The works of great Muslim scientists, including Alhazeh, Gabir, Sina and Razi have been expounded by the celebrated English scientist Roger Bacon and his rival Albert of Bollstaedt. The influence of Alhazen’s “thesaurus opticae” may be traced to the optics written by Roger Bacon. Similarly, Albert incorporated the alchemical teachings and formulas of Jabir Ibn Hayyan in his “De Mineralibus”. The influence of Jabir Ibn Hayyan is very pronounced, writes a European writer in the “Encyclopedia Speculum Naturale” by Vincent de Beauvais. The alchemical tracts ascribe to Arnold of villanova and to Raymond lull are full of quotations from Jabir Ibn Hayyan.

—The author, a PhD Research Scholar, can be reached at: mubashirkitaba@gmail.com

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