Muhammed ibn Umail al-Tamimi

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Illustration from a transcript 1339 of The Silvery Water. Ibn Umayl described a statue of an ancient sage holding a tablet inscribed with symbolic pictograms. Ibn Umayl understands it to a document of alchemical knowledge and names it The Letter from the Sun to the Moon

Ibn Umayl, Senior Zadith, Muhammed ibn Umail at-Tamîmî (Arabic: محمد بن أميل التميمي) was an alchemist of the tenth century. He can be dated to 900–960 AD (286-348 AH) on the basis of the names of acquaintances he mentioned.[1] About his life, since he lived in seclusion, very little is known.[2] Ibn Umayl may have been born in Spain of Arabic parents for a Vatican Library catalogue lists one manuscript with the nisba Andalusian[3] but his writings suggest he mostly lived and worked in Egypt. He also visited North Africa and Iraq.[1][4] Ibn Umayl has been considered a Gnostic Hermetist[5] who seems to have led an introverted life style, which he recommended to others in his writings.[6][7] Statements in his writings, comparing the Alchemical oven with Egyptian temples suggest that he might have lived for some time in Akhmim, the former centre of Alchemy. He also quoted alchemists that had lived in Egypt: Zosimos of Panopolis and Dhul-Nun al-Misri.[7]:XIV

In later European literature ibn Umayl became known by a number of names, including Senior from the title Sheikh becoming 'senior' by translation into Latin, Senior Zadith from the honorific al-sadik becoming Zadith phonetically[8] and Zadith filius Hamuel, Zadith ben Hamuel or Zadith Hamuelis from an erroneous translation of ibn Umail.

Allegorical alchemist[edit]

Ibn Umayl is what is now called an allegorical alchemist. He saw himself as following his “predecessors among the sages of Islam” in rejecting alchemists who take their subject literally. Although such experimenters discovered the sciences of metallurgy and chemistry, Ibn Umayl felt the allegorical meaning of alchemy is the precious goal that is tragically overlooked. He wrote:

“Eggs are only used as an analogy... the philosophers … wrote many books on such things as eggs, hair, the biles, milk, semen, claws, salt, sulphur, iron, copper, silver, mercury, gold and all the various animals and plants … But then people would copy and circulate these books according to the apparent meaning of these things, and waste their possessions and ruin their souls” The Pure Pearl chap. 1.[1]

For all his devotion to Greek alchemy Ibn Umayl writes as a Muslim, frequently mentioning his religion, explaining his ideas "for all our brothers who are pious Muslims" and quoting verses from the Quran.[1]

The interpreter[edit]

Ibn Umail presented himself as an interpreter of mysterious symbols. He set his treatise Silvery Water in an Egyptian temple Sidr wa-Abu Sîr, the Prison of Yasuf, where Joseph learned how to interpret the dreams of the Pharaoh. (Koran: 12 Yusuf and Genesis: 4)

"... none of those people who are famous for their wisdom could explain a word of what the philosophers said. In their books they only continue using the same terms that we find in the sages .... What is necessary, if I am a sage to whom secrets have been revealed, and if I have learned the symbolic meanings, is that I explain the mysteries of the sages." [4][9]

The psychologist CG Jung recognized in ibn Umayl’s story the ability to bring self-realization to a soul by interpreting dreams, and from the 1940s onwards focused his work on alchemy. In continuation of Jung's approach towards alchemy, the psychologist Theodor Abt states that Ibn Umail's Book of the Silvery Water and the Starry Earth gives a description of a process of distillation, which is meant as image for a process of "continuous pondering over the different symbols", creating thus consciousness (symbolised by 'light', 'gold') out of the reality of matter, nature and body ('starry earth'). This shows that the "alchemical process is in fact entirely a psychological work that is based on dealing with concrete matter and the bodily reality."[4]:96.21–26[7]:XVI

Ibn Umails Book of the Explanation of Symbols (Ḥall ar-Rumūz) can be considered as a summary of his Silvery Water and Starry Earth, giving an "unified synthesis of Ibn Umail's earlier works".[7]:XVI

Works Attributed to ibn Umail[edit]

  • Ḥall ar-Rumūz (Solving the Riddles/Explanation of Symbols)
  • ad-Durra an-Naqīya (The Pure Pearl)
  • Kitāb al-Maghnisīya (The Book of Magnesium)
  • Kitāb Mafātīḥ al-Ḥikma al-‘Uẓmā (The Book of the Keys of the Greatest Wisdom)
  • al-Mā’ al-Waraqî wa'l-Arḍ an-Najmīya (The Silvery Water and the Starry Earth) that comprises a narrative; a poem Risālat ash-Shams ilā al-Hilâl (Epistola solis ad lunam crescentem, the letter of the Sun to the Crescent Moon),[10][11]
  • Al-Qasida Nuniya (Poem rhyming on the Letter Nun), with a commentary by Ibn Umail. Ms. Beşir Ağa (Istanbul) 505. For the poem without commentary see Stapelton's Three Arabic Treatises[12]
  • Al-Qasida al-mīmīya (Poem rhyming on the Letter Mīm), with a commentary by Ibn Umail[13]

Later Publications[edit]

  • 12th century: al-Mā’ al-Waraqī (Silvery Water) became a classic of Islamic Alchemy. It was translated into Latin in the twelfth or thirteenth century and was widely disseminated among alchemists in Europe often called Senioris Zadith tabula chymica (The Chemical Tables of Senior Zadith)[10]
  • 1339: In the al-Mâ’ al-Waraqī transcript that is now in Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, the scribe added a note to the diagram that the sun represents the spirit (al-rūḥ) and the moon the soul (al-nafs) so the "Letter from the Sun to the Moon" is about perfecting the receptivity of soul to spirit.[10]
  • 14th century: Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman's Tale has alchemy as a theme and cites Chimica Senioris Zadith Tabula (The Chemical Tables of Senior Zadith). Chaucer considered Ibn Umayl to be a follower of Plato.
  • 15th century: Aurora consurgens is a commentary by Pseudo Aquinas on a Latin translation of Al-mâ' al-waraqî (Silvery Water).
  • 1605 Senioris Zadith filii Hamuelis tabula chymica (The Chemical Tables of Senior Zadith son of Hamuel) was printed as part I of Philosophiae Chymicae IV. Vetvstissima Scripta by Joannes Saur[14]
  • 1660: The Chemical Tables of Senior Zadith retitled Senioris antiquissimi philosophi libellus was printed in volume 5 of the Theatrum chemicum.
  • 1933 Three Arabic treatises on alchemy by Muhammad ibn Umail (10th century AD) translated from the Arabic by H.E. Stapleton and M.H. Husein. Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta.[4]
  • 1997/2006: Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum 1A: A new translation of Book of the Explanation of the Symbols. Kitāb Ḥall ar-Rumūz with a commentary by the Jungian psychologist and scholar Marie-Louise von Franz.[5]

Value to Scholars[edit]

The Silvery Water was particularly valuable to Stapleton,[4] Lewis and Sherwood Taylor, who showed that of some of Umail's Sayings of Hermes came from Greek originals. Also its numerous quotations from earlier alchemical authors[2]:102 allowed, for example, Stapleton to provenance the Turba Philosophorum as being Arabic in origin,[2]:83 and Plessner to date the Turba ca. 900AD.[15]

For the history of alchemy, as Marie-Louise von Franz points out, Ibn Umail's Book of the Explanation of Symbols (Ḥall ar-Rumūz) can be regarded as cultural link "within the mystical branch of alchemy, between the Gnostic Hermetic Greek alchemy and that of the mystical Latin alchemy in Europe", enabling a "better understanding of the religious dimension of symbolic Arabic alchemy".[5]:9,11[7]:XII Among others, Ibn Umail commented on typical Pharaonic images and symbols like e.g. frog and snail, thus connecting the work of alchemy to the Egyptian quest for creating a resurrection body.[7]:XIV

Value to Psychology[edit]

By using symbolical images, Ibn Umail describes psychic phenomen, which makes his work of particular interest for modern psychology, especially of how to deal with desirousness and "how to contain the drivenness by the hellish-divine fire, that he calls the male soul, in its very opposite, the divine water that he calls the female spirit."[7]:XIV



  1. ^ a b c d Starr, Peter: Towards a Context for Ibn Umayl, Known to Chaucer as the Alchemist Senior. Retrieved 2013-05-22
  2. ^ a b c Holmyard, E.J. (1990) [1957]. Alchemy (reprint ed.). New York: Dover. ISBN 0486262987. 
  3. ^ Paul Kraus: Jâbir ibn Haiyân, Cairo, IFAO, 1942–3, p. 299.
  4. ^ a b c d e Stapleton, H.E.; M.H. Husein (1933). Three Arabic treatises on Alchemy by Muhammad ibn Umail (10th century AD). Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal. 
  5. ^ a b c von Franz, Marie-Louise (2006). Theodor Abt, ed. Book of the Explanation of the Symbols. Kitāb Ḥall ar-Rumūz by Muḥammad ibn Umail. Psychological commentary by Marie-Louise von Franz. Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum (CALA) IA. Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publications. p. 50. ISBN 3952260835. 
  6. ^ Ibn Umayl, Mohammad. Ad-Durra an-naqīya Ms No. 1410. Hyderabad: Asaf. lib. fol. 2f.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Abt, Theodor; Madelung, Wilferd; Hofmeier, Thomas (2003). Book of the Explanation of the Symbols. Kitāb Ḥall ar-Rumūz by Muḥammad ibn Umail. Corpus Alchemicum Arabicum (CALA) I. Translated by Salwa Fuad and Theodor Abt. Zurich: Living Human Heritage Publications. p. XIII.
  8. ^ Julius Ruska, Senior Zadith = Ibn Umail. Orientalistische Literaturzeitung 31, 1928, pp. 665-666.
  9. ^ Stapleton/Husein's seminal work was reprinted in facsimile in 2002 as Ibn Umayl (fl. c. 912). Texts and Studies (Collection "Natural Science in Islam", vols. nº 55-75). Ed. F. Sezgin. ISBN 3-8298-7081-7. Published by Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, University of Frankfurt, Westendstrasse 89 , D-60325 Frankfurt am Main.
  10. ^ a b c Berlekamp, Persis (2003). Murqarnas Volume 20: Painting as Persuasion, a visual defense of alchemy in an Islamic manuscript of the Mongol period. Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. ISBN 9004132074. 
  11. ^ Julius Ruska, Studien zu Muhammad Ibn Umail al-Tamimi's Kitab al-Ma' al-Waraqi wa'l-Ard an-Najmiyah, Isis, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Feb., 1936), pp. 310-342.
  12. ^ H.E. Stapleton and M. Hidayat Husain: Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy by Muḥammad Bin Umail (10th. Century A.D.) (Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 12.1.), Calcutta 1933. Reprint in: F. Sezgin (ed.) et al: Ibn Umayl Abū 'Abdallāh Muḥammad, Texts and Studies. Natural Sciences in Islam 75, (Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science) Frankfurt 2002. ISBN 3-8298-7081-7, EAN 9783829870818.
  13. ^ Ms. Beşir Ağa (Istanbul) 505.
  14. ^ Dickinson College Digital Collections Philosophiae Chymicae IV. Vetvstissima Scripta
  15. ^ Martin Plessner, The Place of the Turba Philosophorum in the Development of Alchemy. ISIS, Vol. 45, No. 4, Dec. 1954, pp. 331-338

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