Jābir ibn Hayyān

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Jābir ibn Hayyān : biography

721 – 815

The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed three categories:Georges C. Anawati, "Arabic alchemy", in R. Rashed (1996), The Encyclopaedia of the History of Arabic Science, Vol. 3, p. 853-902 [866].

  • "Spirits" which vaporise on heating, like arsenic (realgar, orpiment), camphor, mercury, sulfur, sal ammoniac, and ammonium chloride.
  • "Metals", like gold, silver, lead, tin, copper, iron, and khar-sini
  • Non-malleable substances, that can be converted into powders, such as stones.

The origins of the idea of chemical equivalents might be traced back to Jabir, in whose time it was recognized that "a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base." Jābir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy/astrology, and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation.

Laboratory equipment and material

Jabirian corpus is renowned for its contributions to alchemy. It shows a clear recognition of the importance of experimentation, "The first essential in chemistry is that thou shouldest perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery." He is credited with the use of over twenty types of now-basic chemical laboratory equipment, such as the alembicWill Durant (1980). The Age of Faith (The Story of Civilization, Volume 4), p. 162-186. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-671-01200-2. and retort, and with the description of many now-commonplace chemical processes – such as crystallisation, various forms of alchemical "distillation", and substances citric acid (the sour component of lemons and other unripe fruits), acetic acid (from vinegar) and tartaric acid (from wine-making residues), arsenic, antimony and bismuth, sulfur, and mercury that have become the foundation of today’s chemistry.

According to Ismail al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi, "In response to Jafar al-Sadik’s wishes, [Jabir ibn Hayyan] invented a kind of paper that resisted fire, and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to an iron surface, inhibited rust and when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent."Ismail al-Faruqi and Lois Lamya al-Faruqi (1986), The Cultural Atlas of Islam, p. 328, New York

Alcohol and the mineral acids

According to Forbes "no proof was ever found that the Arabs knew alcohol or any mineral acid in a period before they were discovered in Italy, whatever the opinion of some modern authors may be on this point." However this claim is due to Forbes (and others) lack of knowledge of Arabic texts, and a number of instances of distillation of wine have been found by Ahmad Y. Al-Hassan."Studies in al-Kimya – critical issues in Latin and Arabic Alchemy" by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan, published by Georg Olms Verlag 2009. Chapter 9 "Alcohol and the distillation of wine in Arabic Sources from the 8th century." Fractional distillation of alcohol first occurs about 1100 probably in Salerno. Magister Salernus (died 1167) provides one of the earliest direct recipes. Directions to make sulfuric acid, nitric acid and aqua regis appear in the pseudo-Geberian works Liber Fornacum, De inventione perfectionis, and the Summa.

Legacy

Whether there was a real Jabir in the 8th century or not, his name would become the most famous in alchemy. He paved the way for most of the later alchemists, including al-Kindi, al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th–13th centuries. His books strongly influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their search for the philosopher’s stone. In the Middle Ages, Jabir’s treatises on alchemy were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled Book of the Composition of Alchemy in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester (1144); and the Kitab al-Sab’een (Book of Seventy) by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Marcelin Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern Mercury. Several technical Arabic terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.