Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam
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Alchemy and chemistry in Islam refers to the study of both traditional alchemy and early practical chemistry (the early chemical investigation of nature in general) by scholars in the medieval Islamic world. The word alchemy was derived from the Arabic word كيمياء or kīmiyāʾ.  and may ultimately derive from the ancient Egyptian word kemi, meaning black.
After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the focus of alchemical development moved to the Arab Empire and the Islamic civilization. Much more is known about Islamic alchemy as it was better documented; most of the earlier writings that have come down through the years were preserved as Arabic translations.
- 1 Origins
- 2 The Definition of Islamic Alchemy and its Relationship with Medieval Western Sciences
- 3 Alchemists and works
- 4 Alchemical and chemical theory
- 5 Processes and equipment
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 References
- 9 External links
To determine the source of Islamic alchemy you must first look at the origins of the Islamic world. Looking back past the eighth century, you find a different world. A world that was created by conquest. Alexander the Great conquered the entire area that later became the Islamic world. Through his acquisition of territories, Alexander spread Greek civilization from Egypt to Bactria in Central Asia (what is now northeastern Afghanistan) to the northwestern corner of India. In Alexander’s kingdom, Greek Natural Philosophy was a primary source of knowledge. The major centers of Greek culture were Alexandria in Egypt and the Kingdom of Bactria in Central Asia.
What is known of Medieval Islamic alchemy is based on previous alchemical writers. That is the biggest strength of Islam, that the religion does not try to control or direct that which is not. They learned what was already known, firstly from those writing in Greek, but also using Indian, Jewish, and Christian sources. They took from past research and tried to improve it.
According to Anawati, the alchemy practiced in Egypt around the second century BCE was a mixture of Hermetic or gnostic elements and Greek philosophy. Later, with Zosimos of Panopolis, alchemy acquired mystical and religious elements. The sources of Islamic alchemy were transmitted to the Muslim world from Egypt, especially in Alexandria, also in the cities of Harran, Nisibin, and Edessa in western Mesopotamia.
The Definition of Islamic Alchemy and its Relationship with Medieval Western Sciences
In considering Islamic sciences as a distinct, local practice, it is important to define words such as “Arabic,” “Islamic,” “alchemy,” and “chemistry.” In order to gain a better grasp on the concepts discussed in this article, it is important to come to an understanding of what these terms mean historically. This may also help to clear up any misconceptions regarding the possible differences between alchemy and early chemistry in the context of Medieval times. As A.I. Sabra writes in his article entitled, “Situating Arabic Science: Location versus Essence,” “the term Arabic (or Islamic) science denotes the scientific activities of individuals who lived in a region that roughly extended chronologically from the eighth century A.D. to the beginning of the modern era, and geographically from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa to the Indus valley and from southern Arabia to the Caspian Sea-that is, the region covered for most of that period by what we call Islamic civilization, and in which the results of the activities referred to were for the most part expressed in the Arabic language.”  This definition of Arabic science provides a sense that there are many distinguishing factors to contrast with science of the Western hemisphere regarding physical location, culture, and language, though there are also several similarities in the goals pursued by scientists of the Middle Ages, and in the origins of thinking from which both were derived.
Lawrence Principe describes the relationship between alchemy and chemistry in his article entitled, “Alchemy Restored,” in which he states, “The search for metallic transmutation—what we call “alchemy” but that is more accurately termed “chrysopoeia”—was ordinarily viewed in the late seventeenth century as synonymous with or as a subset of chemistry.”  He therefore proposes that the early spelling of chemistry as “chymistry” refers to a unified science including both alchemy and early chemistry. Principe goes on to argue that, “[a]ll their chymical activities were unified by a common focus on the analysis, synthesis, transformation, and production of material substances.”  Therefore, there is not a defined contrast between the two fields until the early 18th century.  Though Principe's discussion is centered on the Western practice of alchemy and chemistry, this argument is supported in the context of Islamic science as well when considering the similarity in methodology and Aristotelian inspirations, as noted in other sections of this article. This distinction between alchemy and early chemistry is one that lies predominately in semantics, though with an understanding of previous uses of the words, we can better understand the historical lack of distinct connotations regarding the terms despite their altered connotations in modern contexts.
The transmission of these sciences throughout the Eastern and Western hemispheres is also important to understand when distinguishing the sciences of both regions. The beginnings of cultural, religious, and scientific diffusion of information between the Western and Eastern societies began with the successful conquests of Alexander the Great (334-323 B.C). By establishing territory throughout the East, Alexander the Great allowed greater communication between the two hemispheres that would continue throughout history. A thousand years later, those Asian territories conquered by Alexander the Great, such as Iraq and Iran, became a center of religious movements with a focus on Christianity, Manicheism, and Zoroastrianism, which all involve sacred texts as a basis, thus encouraging literacy, scholarship, and the spread of ideas.  Aristotelian logic was soon included in the curriculum a center for higher education in Nisibis, located east of the Persian border, and was used to enhance the philosophical discussion of theology taking place at the time.  When the Islamic prophet Muhammad and his followers formed the Qur'an, the holy book of Islam, it later became an important source of “theology, morality, law, and cosmology,” in what Lindberg describes as “the centerpiece of Islamic education.” After the death of Muhammed in 632, Islam was extended throughout the Arabian peninsula, Byzantium, Persia, Syria, Egypt, and Palestine by means of military conquest, solidifying the region as a predominately Muslim one.  While the expansion of the Islamic empire was an important factor in diminishing political barriers between such areas, there was still a wide range of religions, beliefs, and philosophies that could move freely and be translated throughout the regions. This development made way for contributions to be made on behalf of the East towards the Western conception of sciences such as alchemy.
While this transmission of information and practices allowed for the further development of the field, and though both were inspired by Aristotelian logic and Hellenic philosophies, it is also important to note that cultural and religious boundaries remained. The mystical and religious elements discussed previously in the article distinguished Islamic alchemy from that of its Western counterpart, given that the West had predominately Christian ideals on which to base their beliefs and results, while the Islamic tradition differed greatly. While the motives differed in some ways, as did the calculations, the practice and development of alchemy and chemistry was similar given the contemporaneous nature of the fields and the ability with which scientists could transmit their beliefs.
Alchemists and works
Khālid ibn Yazīd
According to the bibliographer Ibn al-Nadīm, the first Muslim alchemist was Khālid ibn Yazīd, who is said to have studied alchemy under the Christian Marianos of Alexandria. The historicity of this story is not clear; according to M. Ullmann, it is a legend. According to Ibn al-Nadīm and Ḥajjī Khalīfa, he is the author of the alchemical works Kitāb al-kharazāt (The Book of Pearls), Kitāb al-ṣaḥīfa al-kabīr (The Big Book of the Roll), Kitāb al-ṣaḥīfa al-saghīr (The Small Book of the Roll), Kitāb Waṣīyatihi ilā bnihi fī-ṣ-ṣanʿa (The Book of his Testament to his Son about the Craft), and Firdaws al-ḥikma (The Paradise of Wisdom), but again, these works may be pseudepigraphical.
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān
Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (Arabic: جابر بن حیان, Latin Geberus; usually rendered in English as Geber) may have been born in 721 or 722, in Tus, and have been the son of Ḥayyān, a druggist from the tribe of al-Azd who originally lived in Kufa. When young Jābir studied in Arabia under Ḥarbī al-Ḥimyarī. Later, he lived in Kufa, and eventually became a court alchemist for Hārūn al-Rashīd, in Baghdad. Jābir was friendly with the Barmecides and became caught up in their disgrace in 803. As a result, he returned to Kufa. According to some sources, he died in Tus in 815.
A large corpus of works is ascribed to Jābir, so large that it's difficult to believe he wrote them all himself. According to the theory of Paul Kraus, many of these works should be ascribed to later Ismaili authors. It includes the following groups of works: The One Hundred and Twelve Books; The Seventy Books; The Ten Books of Rectifications; and The Books of the Balances. This article will not distinguish between Jābir and the authors of works attributed to him.
Abū Bakr al-Rāzī
Abū Bakr ibn Zakariyā’ al-Rāzī (Latin: Rhazes), born around 864 in Rayy, was mainly known as a physician. He wrote a number of alchemical works, including the Sirr al-asrār (Latin: Secretum secretorum; English: Secret of Secrets.)
Muḥammad ibn Umayl al-Tamīmī was an 11th-century alchemist. One of his surviving works is Kitāb al-māʿ al-waraqī wa-l-arḍ al-najmiyya (The Book on Silvery Water and Starry Earth.) This work is a commentary on his poem, the Risālat al-shams wa-l-hilāl (The Epistle of the Sun and the Crescent) and contains numerous quotations from ancient authors.
Alchemical and chemical theory
Jābir analyzed each Aristotelian element in terms of four basic qualities of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. For example, fire is a substance that is hot and dry, as shown in the table. (This scheme was also used by Aristotle.) According to Jābir, in each metal two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was externally cold and dry but internally hot and moist; gold, on the other hand, was externally hot and moist but internally cold and dry. He believed that metals were formed in the Earth by fusion of sulfur (giving the hot and dry qualities) with mercury (giving the cold and moist.) These elements, mercury and sulfur, should be thought of as not the ordinary elements but ideal, hypothetical substances. Which metal is formed depends on the purity of the mercury and sulfur and the proportion in which they come together. The later alchemist al-Rāzī followed Jābir's mercury-sulfur theory, but added a third, salty, component.
Thus, Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. By this reasoning, the search for the philosopher's stone was introduced to Western alchemy. Jābir developed an elaborate numerology whereby the root letters of a substance's name in Arabic, when treated with various transformations, held correspondences to the element's physical properties.
Processes and equipment
Al-Rāzī mentions the following chemical processes:
- and ceration (a process for making solids pasty or fusible.)
Some of these operations (calcination, solution, filtration, crystallization, sublimation and distillation) are also known to have been practiced by pre-Islamic Alexandrian alchemists.
In his Secretum secretorum, Al-Rāzī mentions the following equipment:
- Tools for melting substances (li-tadhwīb): hearth (kūr), bellows (minfākh or ziqq), crucible (bawtaqa), the būt bar būt (in Arabic, from Persian) or botus barbatus (in Latin), ladle (mighrafa or milʿaqa), tongs (māsik or kalbatān), scissors (miqṭaʿ), hammer (mukassir), file (mibrad).
- Tools for the preparation of drugs (li-tadbīr al-ʿaqāqīr): cucurbit and still with evacuation tube (qarʿ or anbīq dhū khatm), receiving matras (qābila), blind still (without evacuation tube) (al-anbīq al-aʿmā), aludel (al-uthāl), goblets (qadaḥ), flasks (qārūra, plural quwārīr), rosewater flasks (mā’ wardiyya), cauldron (marjal or tanjīr), earthenware pots varnished on the inside with their lids (qudūr and makabbāt), water bath or sand bath (qidr), oven (al-tannūr in Arabic, athanor in Latin), small cylindirical oven for heating aludel (mustawqid), funnels, sieves, filters, etc.
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