Alchemy: Islamic Alchemy
ALCHEMY: ISLAMIC ALCHEMY
The Arabic term for alchemy is al-kīmiyāʾ. The word kīmiyāʾ is alternately derived from the Greek chumeia (or chēmeia ), denoting the "art of transmutation," or from kim-iya, a South Chinese term meaning "gold-making juice." Greek and later Hellenistic writings are generally regarded as the initial impetus behind Muslim learning, thus the wide acceptance of the Greek origin of the word.
In the Islamic context, al-kīmiyāʾ refers to the "art" of transmuting substances, both material and spiritual, to their highest form of perfection. The word kīmiyāʾ also refers to the agent or catalyst that effects the transmutation and hence is used as a synonym for al-iksīr ("elixir") and ḥajar al-falāsifah ("philosopher's stone"). The search for the ideal elixir has been an ancient quest in many cultures of the world; it was supposed to transform metals to their most perfect form (gold) and minerals to their best potency and, if the correct elixir were to be found, to achieve immortality. All matter of a particular type, metals for example, were supposed to consist of the same elements. The correct kīmiyāʾ or iksīr would enable the transposition of the elements into ideal proportions and cause the metal concerned to be changed from a base form to a perfected form, for instance, copper to gold.
On another level, the philosophical theory of alchemy was used to conceptualize the purification of the soul. The terminology and procedures of alchemy were allegorized and applied to the transformation of the soul from its base, earthly, impure state to pure perfection. Elementary psychological postulations were allegorized as chemical properties. For the mystics, the iksīr served as a symbol of the divine truth that changed an unbeliever into a believer. In Ṣūfī literature, the spiritual master purifies the soul of the adept via various processes of spiritual alchemy. This usage of alchemical principles in the spiritual realm reflects the worldview of the ancients, including those of medieval Islam, whereby the human soul was regarded as a microcosm of the forces and principles contained in the macrocosm of the universe.
In Muslim tradition, alchemy enjoys ancient roots. The cultivation of alchemy is traced back to Adam, followed by most of the major prophets and sages. This chain of transmission is then connected to the "masters" from the ancient world, including Aristotle, Galen, Socrates, Plato, and others. Muslims are considered to have received the art from these masters. In Islamic times, the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632 ce), is said to have endorsed the art, lending it grace and power; his cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661), is regarded as its patron. ʿAlī's descendant Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765) is portrayed as the next major transmitter. The Umayyad prince Khālid ibn Yazīd (660–704) is depicted as both a practitioner and a patron of alchemy who encouraged the translation of relevant Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic. Legendary tales indicate that he learned the art from a Syrian monk named Marianos, whom he sought out on long journeys to strange lands. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (d. c. 815), who is held to be the disciple of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, is credited with more than three hundred treatises on alchemy; consequently, the name of this quasi-historical figure came to imply the authority and teacher par excellence.
The Jabirian corpus
By contrast with these legendary accounts, modern scholarship places the development of Islamic alchemy in the ninth century. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is indeed recorded as the first major alchemist, but the writings attributed to him are mainly pseudepigraphical, and many appeared as late as the tenth century. The Book of Mercy, the Book of the Balances, the Book of One Hundred and Twelve, the Seventy Books, and the Five Hundred Books are some of the important works in the collection. Movements such as the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Brethren of Purity) probably influenced or even contributed to some of the treatises in the Jabirian corpus, which forms an important source of information on alchemic techniques, equipment, materials, and attitudes.
According to the sulfur-mercury theory of metals introduced in the corpus, all metals were considered to possess these two elements, or the two principles they represent, in varying proportions, the combination of which lends each metal its peculiarities. Sulfur was responsible for the hot/dry features and mercury, the cold/moist ones. (Aristotle considered these four features to be represented by fire, earth, air, and water respectively.) Sulfur and mercury embody the positive and negative aspects of matter, also referred to as male and female properties.
The Book of the Balances theorizes that the metals are generated from contrary elements. Each body expresses an equilibrium of the natures composing it, and this harmony can be expressed numerically by the musical harmony that governs the heavens. The qualitative differences and degrees of intensity of the natures are analogous to the differences of tone in the musical scale. Further, each body represents a balance between internal and two external qualities, with each metal characterized by two internal and two external qualities. The transmutation of one metal into another is thus an adjustment of the ratio of the latent and manifest constituents of the first to the second, an adjustment to be brought about by an elixir. Each metal is regarded as an inversion of one of the others, and transmutation is a simple changing of qualities, which could be accomplished the same way that a physician cures by counterbalancing an excessive humor with one of contrary quality. The elixirs, in other words, were the alchemists' medicines.
According to the Jabirian corpus, there are various elixirs suitable for specific transmutations, but transmutations of every kind could be brought about by a grand or master elixir, the prime focus of the alchemists' endeavors. An important and original link between theory and practice is provided by the Jabirian author of the Seventy Books, who explains that material phenomena can be separated not only into their elements but into the contrary qualities by distillation. The inflammable and nonflammable vapors that are usually evolved when organic matter is subject to heat for distillation are considered to represent "fire" and "air." The condensable liquid that follows from the process is called "water," and the residue "earth." The author then attempts the division of these elements into the pair of qualities of which each was made. He claims not only that this process is applicable to organic matter but that even the hardest stones are distillable. The use of elixirs from the distillation of organic materials, which has been called a Jabirian innovation, indicates the medical orientation of alchemy. It is in their extensive pursuit of the elixir that the Jabirian treatises resemble those of al-Rāzī.
The physician and philosopher Muḥammad ibn Zakariyāʾ al-Rāzī (d. 925) is the next Muslim alchemist who made a major impact on the art. To the sulfur-mercury theory of the constitution of metals he added the attribute of salinity. The popular conception of alchemy with three elements—sulfur, mercury, and salt—reappeared in Europe and played an important role in Western alchemy. According to al-Rāzī, bodies were composed of invisible elements (atoms) and of empty space that lay between them. These atoms were eternal and possessed a certain size. This conception seems close to the explanation of the structure of matter in modern physics. Al-Rāzī's books, Sirr al-asrār (The secret of secrets) and Madkhal al-taʿlīmī (Instructive [or Practical] introduction), are important sources for understanding the principles and techniques of alchemy as practiced in the tenth-century Muslim world, specifically Iran. In them, he provides a systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions, and apparatus, described in language that is free of mysticism and ambiguity. Of the voluminous Jabirian writings only the Book of Mercy is mentioned by al-Rāzī, perhaps because the other works were composed after his lifetime.
Muḥammad ibn ʿUmayil (tenth century) was famous for his Kitāb al-maʾ al-waraqī (The book of the silvery water and the starry earth) and Kitāb alʿilm al-muktasab, two of his main works on alchemy. The writings attributed to ʿAli ibn Waḥshīyāʾ (a legendary figure of the tenth century) provided encyclopedic information on the tradition of alchemy in Islam. He is an important source of information on the alchemists and their art. He also provides the views of prominent nonalchemists on the subject. Another important work compiled at this time is the Muṣḥaf al-jamāʿah, known as the Turba philosophorum in its famous Latin translation; here the author, who has yet to be definitely identified, describes an ancient congress of alchemists chaired by Pythagoras, with Archelaus recording the doctrines expounded by nine pre-Socratic philosophers. Maslamah al-Majrīṭī (d. 1007?) was the author of the famous alchemical guide Rutbat al-ḥakīm (The step of the sages); his book on practical magic, Ghaʿyat al-ḥakīm (The limit of the sages), was also very popular and was translated in the West. A notable figure in the following century is Ḥusayn ʿAli al-Tughrāʾi (d. 1121?), author of the important defense of alchemy Kitāb ḥaqāʿiq al-isthishād fī-al-kīmiyāʾ (Truths of the evidence submitted with regard to alchemy). Written in 1112, the work is a strong refutation of the negative polemics of Ibn Sīnā. Later documentation of the practice of alchemy is provided by the Egyptian Aydamir ibn ʿAlī al-Jildakī (d. 1360), whose encyclopedic works provide summaries of and commentaries upon everything that had been written on alchemy and magic before him.
Opposition to the Art
Although widespread, alchemy did not have the approval of all Muslim scholars. Thus Ibn Sīnā (d. 1035) censured it as a futile activity and contested the assertion that humans are able to imitate nature. He asserted that the alchemists were only able to make something that externally resembles the precious metals, because the actual substance of base metals remained unchanged. The great North African historian Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) also made a critical assessment of Arab-Islamic alchemical activities. He characterized alchemy as the study of the properties, virtues, and temperatures of the elements used for the preparation of and search for an elixir that could transform lesser metals into gold. Elements used for the elixir included animal refuse, urine, manure, bones, feathers, blood, hair, eggs, and nails, as well as minerals. Distillation, sublimation, calcination, and other techniques were used to separate elements in the extracts used in the preparation of the elixir. Alchemists believed that if the correct elixir could be obtained by these methods, it could then be added to concocted lead, copper, or tin over fire to yield pure gold. For his part, Ibn Khaldūn rejected the alchemists' claims that their transmutations were intended to perfect the work of nature by mechanical and technical procedures. He also criticized the authenticity of works ascribed to Khālid ibn Yazīd and argued that the elaborate sciences and arts of Islam had not been developed in that early time.
Influence on the West
Islamic alchemy was brought to the West in the twelfth century, mostly through translations. The earliest extant Latin translation of an Arabic treatise on alchemy is generally considered to be Robert of Chester's work De compositione alchemiae, dating from 1144. Some scholars consider it as a possible later Latin forgery, but this issue is very complicated and requires further study. About the same time, Gerard of Cremona (1114–1187) translated the Jabirian Seventy Books into Latin; De aluminibus et salibus and Liber luminis luminum are considered his translations. Other works that seem to be translations from Arabic prior to the appearance of the first indigenous European alchemical writing (the Ars alchemia, c. 1225, attributed to Michael Scot, d. 1232) were the De anima of Ibn Sīnā, the Turba philosophorum, the Emerald Tablet, the Secret of Creation, and al-Rāzī's Sirr al-asrār. Thus it seems that the majority of celebrated Islamic alchemical works were known in Europe by the middle of the thirteenth century.
For general surveys of Islamic alchemy, the following essays are useful: Salimuzzaman Siddiqi and S. Mahdihassan's "Chemistry," in A History of Muslim Philosophy, edited by M. M. Sharif (Wiesbaden, 1966), vol. 2, pp. 1296–1316; Seyyed Hossein Nasr's "Alchemy and Other Occult Sciences," in his Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (Westerham, U.K., 1976), pp. 193–208; Eric J. Holmyard's "Alchemy in Medieval Islam," Endeavour 14 (July 1955): 117–125; Julius Ruska's Turba Philosophorum: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Alchemie (Berlin, 1931); and Manfred Ullmann's "al-Kīmiyā," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960–). As yet no comprehensive critical study of the origin, development, and practices of traditional Islamic alchemy is available.
Overviews of Islamic alchemy within the context of global surveys of alchemy or chemistry can be found in Eric J. Holmyard's Alchemy (Baltimore, 1957), chap. 5; George Sarton's Introduction to the History of Science, 3 vols. in 5 (Washington, D.C., 1927–1948); Robert P. Multhauf's The Origins of Chemistry (London, 1966); Studien zur Geschichte der Chemie, edited by Julius Ruska (Berlin, 1927); and Homer H. Dub's "The Beginnings of Alchemy," Isis 38 (November 1947): 62–86. Dubs argues that alchemy in Islam originated in China.
Julius Ruska and Karl Garbers discuss the mutual relation of the corpus Jabirian and the writings of al-Rāzī, large alchemical works written at the end of the ninth and tenth centuries, in "Vorschriften zur Herstellung von scharfen Wässern bei Gabir und Razi," Islam 25 (1938): 1–35. Some of the problems surrounding these writings are studied in Ruska's Chālid ibn Jazīd ibn Muʿāwija and Gāʾfar al-Sādiq der sechste Imām, volumes 1 and 2 of Arabische Alchemisten (Heidelberg, 1924); in Paul Kraus's "Studien zu Jâbir Ibn Hayyân," Isis (February 1931): 7–30; and in Gerard Heym's "Al-Rāzī and Alchemy," Ambix 1 (March 1938): 184–191.
A valuable study of the secret names used by Arab alchemists is Julius Ruska and E. Wiedemann's "Alchemistische Decknamen," in Sitzungsberichte der physikalisch-medicinische Sozietät (Erlangen, 1924). Their study partially utilizes al-Tugraʿī's Kitāb al-Jawhar al-nādir (Book of the brilliant stone).
Habibeh Rahim (1987)