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.
Medieval Islamic alchemy was based on previous alchemical writers, firstly those writing in Greek, but also using Indian, Jewish, and Christian sources. 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.
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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