Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi


Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi : biography

865 – 925

Major works on alchemy

Razi’s achievements are of exceptional importance in the history of chemistry, since in his books we find for the first time a systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in a language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity. Razi’s scheme of classification of the substances used in chemistry shows sound research on his part.

  • The Secret (Al-Asrar)
This book was written in response to a request from Razi’s close friend, colleague, and former student, Abu Mohammed b. Yunis of Bukhara, a Muslim mathematician, philosopher, a highly reputable natural scientist. In his book Sirr al-Asrar, Razi divides the subject of "Matter’ into three categories as he did in his previous book al-Asrar.

  1. Knowledge and identification of drug components of plant-, animal- and mineral-origin and the description of the best type of each for utilization in treatment.
  2. Knowledge of equipment and tools of interest to and used by either alchemist or apothecary.
  3. Knowledge of seven alchemical procedures and techniques: sublimation and condensation of mercury, precipitation of sulfur and arsenic calcination of minerals (gold, silver, copper, lead, and iron), salts, glass, talc, shells, and waxing.
This last category contains additionally a description of other methods and applications used in transmutation: * The added mixture and use of solvent vehicles. * The amount of heat (fire) used, ‘bodies and stones’, (‘al-ajsad’ and ‘al-ahjar) that can or cannot be transmuted into corporal substances such of metals and Id salts (‘al-amlah’). * The use of a liquid mordant which quickly and permanently colors lesser metals for more lucrative sale and profit.
Similar to the commentary on the 8th century text on amalgams ascribed to Al- Hayan (Jabir), Razi gives methods and procedures of coloring a silver object to imitate gold (gold leafing) and the reverse technique of removing its color back to silver. Gilding and silvering of other metals (alum, calcium salts, iron, copper, and tutty) are also described, as well as how colors will last for years without tarnishing or changing. Behind these procedures one does not find a deceptive motive rather a technical and economic deliberation. This becomes evident from the author’s quotation of market prices and the expressed triumph of artisan, craftsman or alchemist declaring the results of their efforts "to make it look exactly like gold!". However, another motive was involved, namely, to manufacture something resembling gold to be sold quickly so to help a good friend who happened to be in need of money fast. Could it be Razi’s alchemical technique of silvering and gilding metals which convinced many Muslim biographers that he was first a jeweler before he turned to the study of alchemy?
Of interest in the text is Razi’s classification of minerals into six divisions, showing his discussion a modern chemical connotation:
  1. Four spirits (AL-ARWAH) : mercury, sal ammoniac, sulfur, and arsenic sulphate (orpiment and realgar).
  2. Seven bodies (AL-AJSAD) : silver, gold, copper, iron, black lead (plumbago), zinc (Kharsind), and tin.
  3. Thirteen stones : (AL-AHJAR) Pyrites marcasite (marqashita), magnesia, malachite, tutty Zinc oxide (tutiya), talcum, lapis lazuli, gypsum, azurite, magnesia, haematite (iron oxide), arsenic oxide, mica and asbestos and glass (then identified as made of sand and alkali of which the transparent crystal Damascene is considered the best),
  4. Seven vitriols (AL-ZAJAT) : alum (al-shabb الشب), and white (qalqadis القلقديس), black, red (suri السوري), and yellow (qulqutar القلقطار) vitriols (the impure sulfates of iron, copper, etc.), green (qalqand القلقند).
  5. Seven borates : natron, and impure sodium borate.
  6. Eleven salts (AL-AMLAH): including brine, common (table) salt, ashes, naphtha, live lime, and urine, rock, and sea salts. Then he separately defines and describes each of these substances and their top choice, best colors and various adulterations.