Chemistry and alchemy
Magical alchemy was hard to die, seen here in 19th century Iran
Alchemist Jabir helped lay the foundation of modern chemistry
Early Arab distillation device, used by early chemists like Jabir and Al Razi
Mediaeval Arab glassware that might have held perfumes invented by Al Kindi
Early Arab laboratory implements helped inventors like the Banu Musa brothers and Al Jazari
Chemist physician Al Razi at work in his laboratory
Although alchemist Jabir abandoned the quest for turning lead into gold, he is credited with discovering how to apply gold and silver leaf
Birth of the experimental and empirical scientific methods
The birth of the Arab physical sciences in the 7th and 8th centuries was one more expression of the same breakthroughs that were happening in Arab mathematics, astronomy and geography, driven partly by long-standing scientific traditions in the peoples who came into the Arabic caliphate.
Perhaps the Arab scientific field where the birth was most dramatic was in chemistry. And the earliest and most powerful Arab practitioner of the new science of chemistry was Jabir Ibn Hayyan, recruited by Caliph Harun Al Rashid to work in the early House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
Jabir was born of a Yemeni Arab family that had travelled and settled in eastern Persia more than a century before. To his own benefit and later downfall, he and his family were involved in various Persian political intrigues involving a leading Persian family called the Barmakids. The Barmakids helped the Abbasids come to power over the Umayyads, but later fell out of favour.
But politics were only a sideline for Jabir Ibn Hayyan. His first love was unlocking the secrets of substances... creating new substances out of other ingredients, and finding new uses for these creations.
Working in the late 700s, Jabir found that unlike in mathematics and astronomy, he was starting with essentially a blank slate.
Chemistry as a separate discipline had not really appeared in previous cultures. Early metallurgy centred on the search for precious metals, as well as those used in industry and warfare. Cultures from Rome to India to China knew these metals and were putting them to multiple uses. The issues metallurgists dealt with were how to prevent corrosion, how to make a metal harder or more malleable, and how best to create alloys like bronze.
Yet aside from that very pragmatic work of early metallurgy, there had also evolved a mystical and magical approach to physical questions. The English word 'magic' derives from the Persian word magus or majus. While the term could apply to high priests of the Zoroastrian faith, it also came to describe those who claimed to practise sorcery and magic.
So when Jabir Ibn Hayyan began his experiments, awareness of both of these approaches shaped what he did. It seems he was drawn to physical chemistry and 'spiritual' chemistry, the latter becoming known in the west as 'alchemy'.
The very origin of the two modern English terms, chemistry and alchemy, is one and the same. Both derive from the Arabic term al kimiye, because in the early Arab mind they were the same pursuits using different tools.
ecause 'spiritual' chemistry has long been discredited by modern science, some scientists dismiss Jabir as having been intellectually corrupted by his curiosity about magic. Some even consider him an alchemist rather than a true chemist, even though he explored both. Yet modern-day scientific purists should also acknowledge that Jabir was able to make a host of futuristic, scientifically verifiable breakthroughs, even though he was curious about the possibility of 'spiritual' chemistry.
This modern devaluing of early thinkers like Jabir is also partly due to modern prejudice. Many tend to forget that even esteemed Western scientists like Sir Isaac Newton were also devoted alchemists as late as the 17th century.
Jabir seems to have intuitively known that the two approaches to chemistry had to be kept separate. He articulated a clear principle which would lay the groundwork for the modern empirical scientific method, writing:
"The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never attain to the least degrees of mastery. But you, O my son, do experiment so that you may acquire knowledge. Scientists delight not in abundance of material; they rejoice only in the excellence of their experimental methods."
The list of what Jabir Ibn Hayyan and some of his later successors like Al Razi and Al Kindi achieved should put to rest any questions about whether they were true chemists or not.
Jabir is credited with inventing the first alembic, or distillation device, modern forms of which are still used in today's laboratories. He was especially fascinated with substances we today know as acids, and he began to categorise them. To him we owe our first knowledge of hydrochloric, citric, and nitric acids.
Jabir would also invent a substance known as aqua regia, or royal water, which could be used to dissolve gold and platinum.
Jabir was also looking for ways to solve everyday problems of home and workplace. He seemed to have invented the first ways to rustproof iron and steel. He also devised a way to remove the greenish tint from glassware. He uncovered dyes for cloth and waterproofing methods.
Jabir is credited with accidentally discovering ethanol, one of the mainstays of modern alternative fuels, by boiling wine. Jabir is also credited with inventing the most accurate laboratory scale of his time.
He is also credited with discovering a form of disappearing ink, which was especially important to the politicians and military leaders of the day, who were beginning to bring espionage and encryption of secret messages to a higher plane of sophistication.
Jabir came up with an early theory of molecules and atoms, which he could not prove, but which bore some similarity to our modern understanding enabled by powerful microscopes and advanced atomic theory.
Jabir would also create new types of hair dye and he would theorise about the source of magnetism, and try to categorise salts, paints, and greases.
His findings were set down in more than 200 papers, some of which would survive but many of which have been lost. To make the challenge ever harder, Jabir insisted on writing his important work in his own secret code. Ironically, his Latinised name, Geber, would also become the root of the English word 'gibberish', which today means nonsense. In mediaeval times it referred to Jabir's secret language for recording his work.
As we know, he was drawn to spiritual chemistry too, and although some sources indicate he was motivated by the baser quest for instant wealth by turning lead into gold, it seems he was seeking something higher.
Jabir was engaged in the ancient alchemical quest for takwin, or creating artificial life in the laboratory. Such a quest was done in secret and away from prying eyes, for it might have run foul of conventional religious teachings.
As might be expected, Jabir's ancient search for takwin went nowhere. For centuries, it did nothing more than inspire the later European narrative of the mad scientist as seen in Faust and Frankenstein.
But with the development of more sophisticated tools, including genomic research and decoding, techniques of cloning and artificial fertilisation, Jabir's ancient dream has begun to take on more reality. The fact that an early Arab was thinking along these lines 1,200 years ago should inspire new respect for these early scientific thinkers who were willing to risk shame, religious censure, and even death for their ideas.
While Jabir more closely fits the modern concept of a specialised chemist, his successor in Arab chemistry – Al Kindi – was a true Islamic polymath, equally gifted in philosophy, mathematics, science, logic, psychology, and meteorology.
Al Kindi was an Iraqi who was also considered the first great Arab-Muslim philosopher, and at times he was very close to the political leadership of the Abbasid caliphate. That work drew him into encryption, and he is credited with being the first to describe frequency analysis in cryptography.
But his work in chemistry draws special attention, because he too was an adherent of the experimental method. And unlike Jabir, Al Kindi was a devout anti-alchemist, considering alchemy to be totally useless. He even wrote two treatises, Warning against the Deceptions of the Alchemists and Refutation of the Claim of Those Who Claim the Artificial Fabrication of Gold and Silver, attacking the practice of alchemy not on religious grounds, but on staunchly scientific grounds. He insisted it had no basis in fact, only in imagination and wishful thinking.
Although Al Kindi was drawn to multiple fields ranging from music to metaphysics, certain aspects of chemistry especially attracted him. Together with Jabir, he is credited with the discovery of ethanol and the isolation of alcohol, which as a disinfectant would become a mainstay of Arab medicine. But because he was especially interested in scents, he is also considered to be the father of the modern perfume industry. He created recipes for perfumes, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics. His Kitab Kimiya' al-'Itr (Book of the Chemistry of Perfume) is considered to be the first of its kind.
But Al Kindi was not only content with a better understanding of the everyday applications of chemistry in perfumes and cosmetics. In an unexplained intuitive breakthrough, he seems to have leapt to the forefront of the science of physics when he articulated an early theory of relativity in the 9th century, that could not be proven mathematically for another 1,000 years, until the arrival of Albert Einstein.
Al Kindi even used the Arabic word for relativity, when he wrote:
"Time exists only with motion: body, with motion; motion with body... if there is motion, there is necessarily body; if there is a body, there is necessarily motion."
Al Kindi was followed by another multi-talented thinker who would continue the development of Arab chemistry and medicine.
Born in Persia in about 865 and eventually drawn to Baghdad by the intellectual ferment there, Al Razi may have begun his career in the marketplace as a money-changer. But he was a gifted man, and turned his earliest attention to chemistry and alchemy. He would later be known to Europeans not so much for his chemical research as for his medical breakthroughs, which swept through Europe like wildfire beginning in the 12th century.
It is believed that injuries and poisonings he suffered from earlier chemical experimentation took him into medicine, if only to find a cure for his ailments. He seemed to turn away from chemistry at about age 30, to devote himself to medicine.
There is disagreement among some historians as to whether Al Razi was a true chemist or really an alchemist who stumbled onto other discoveries. Part of this disagreement hinges on modern misunderstanding of the early use of the word alchemy. For Al Razi like Jabir, the spiritual side was one of two methods, and he was determined to examine both.
Arab historian Al Nadim says that Al Razi authored 19 papers defending the idea of alchemy, including one that attacked Al Kindi and others who doubted the possibility of alchemy and spiritual chemistry.
Various accounts say that Al Razi continued to believe in the possibility of transmuting base metals into precious ones, but there is disagreement over whether he meant that could be done by magical methods or by yet undiscovered chemical processes.
Al Nadim says that Al Razi wrote two alchemical texts, one called The Secrets and the other The Secret of Secrets. But once again, when one looks at those texts, the bulk of the information seems to be straight, if sometimes archaic, chemistry, not recipes for magic.
And as one reads various accounts of the evolution of Al Razi's career and work, he seems to have become increasingly sceptical or even disappointed with the mystical side of alchemy.
One story about Al Razi says that his generous practice of giving free medical care to the poor engendered suspicion in a certain general, who publicly accused him of having found a way to turn base metals into gold. This was the only way he could explain how Al Razi could afford to give free medical care. A Persian historian says that Al Razi responded to the accusation in the following way:
"I understand alchemy and I have been working on the characteristic properties of metals for an extended time. However, it still has not turned out to be evident to me, how one can transmute gold from copper. Despite the research from the ancient scientists done over the past centuries, there has been no answer. I very much doubt if it is possible..."
Yet Al Razi turned this fascination with creating gold into a practical chemical invention. He learned how to apply gold leaf to other metals, in that way finally turning lead into gold. He also did the same with silver leaf.
It would not be for another six or seven centuries that the scientific community would finally and utterly reject any magical understanding of chemistry and physics. But even though that avenue of Jabir's and Al Razi's investigation had proved a dead end, their legacy would last into the 21st century, both in their dedication to experimentation and testing, and the many laboratory instruments that they either invented or helped refine.
Those inventions include the modern chemical laboratory, the alembic, mortars, spatulas, vials, flasks, sulphuric acid, laboratory furnaces and stoves, and the chemical processes of sublimation, crystallisation, distillation, evaporation, and filtration.
Those alone were probably worth more to the modern world than turning lead into gold.