Jābir Ibn Hayy

views updated May 17 2018

Jābir Ibn Hayyān

(fl.late eight and early ninth centuries?)


Jābir ibn Hayyān is the supposed author of a very extensive corpus of alchemical and other scientific writings in Arabic. The earliest mention of him in a historical work is that in the Notes (ta‘āliq) of Abū Sulāimān al-Mantiqi al-Sijistāni (d. ca. 981), the head of a scholarly circle in Baghdad, who disputed Jābir’s authorship of the corpus and asserted that the true author, a certain al-Hasan ibn al-Nakad from Mosul, was personally known to him. Shortly after Abū Sulāimaān’s death the bibliographer Ibn al-Nadim presented a biography and bibliography of Jābir in his Fihrist of 987; in the same work he opposed the already present doubt concerning Jābir’s existence. Al-Nadim, a Shiite, supported the identity of a man named Ja‘far, whom Jābir often called his teacher, with the sixth Shiite imam, Ja‘far ibn Muhammad al-Sādiq (ca. 700-765) and opposed his identification with the Barmakid vizier Ja‘far ibn Yahyā (executed in 803 under Hārūn al-Rashid).

In any case Jā was, as a student or favorite of one of the two Ja‘fars, a personality of the eighth and of a part of the ninth century. E. J. Holmyard believed that Jābir’s father was an apothecary named Hayyā who lived in Kūfa and was sent as a Shiite agent to Khurasan at the beginning of the eighth century. At the time this thesis was presented (1925), only the few writings that M. Berthelot had published in the third volume of his Chimie au moyen âge (1893) and in Archéologie et histoire des sciences (1906) were known. Holmyard published in 1928 a not very extensive volume of Jābir’s writings based on an Indian lithograph. The immense list of Jābir’s works in the Fihrist, which previously had been considered fantastic, was at least partially confirmed by these publications. Holmyard’s detailed reconstruction of Jābir’s biography on the basis of the supposition that he was the son of the above-mentioned Hayyān need not be repeated here; for even granting his historicity, Jābir is by no means the author of all the writings which bear his name.

The study of all the printed texts of Jābir and of the manuscripts partly discovered by M. Meyerhof in Cairo libraries led Paul Kraus to the following conclusions: that the corpus of the writings attributed to Jābir is not the work of a single man but, rather, that of a School; that the degree of scientific knowledge shown and the terminology employed presuppose the translations from the Greek produced by Hunayn ibn Ishāq (d.847) and his school; that the references in these works to the theology of Mu’tazila suggest that the writings are of the same period, at the earliest; that the earliest mention of the books appears in ibn Wahshīya (first half of the tenth century) and in ibn Umail (“Senior Zadith”, ca, 690); and, above all, that the writings reveal the same more or less veiled Isma’ili propaganda as that of the epistles of the Brethren of Purity, who were closely connected with the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate in. Egypt—in short, that the works were not written until the tenth century and that Ja’far was really the Shiite imam, the name, of whose eldest son, Ismail, was the epoym of Isma’iliya.

Kraus assembled a huge collection of Jābir manuscripts which enabled him to produce a relative chronology of the works enumerated in the Fihrist, with the help of citations contained in the texts themselves. The list of the Fihrist and the manuscripts form the basis of his numerical critical bibliography of Jābir’s writings (works will be cited below according to this numeration). We also are indebted to Kraus for a comprehensive historical presentation of the scientific teaching of the corpus; he died before he could complete his account of Jābir’s place in the religious history of Islam.

The publication of the writings belonging to the Arabic Corpus Jābirianum already had enabled Berthelot definitively to separate the author or authors of these works from the Latin alchemical writings appearing in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries under the name of Geber, who had been considered identical with Jābir. These Latin writings—Summa perfectionis magisterii, Liber de investigatione perfectionis, Liber de inventione veritatatis, Liber fornacum, and a Testamentum Geberi—had long confused researchers. Hermann Kopp gathered the material indicating that from the standpoint of literary history the author of these Latin writings was not the same as the author of the Arabic. Berthelot compared the contents of the Arabic texts with that of the Latin Geber texts and concluded that the latter displayed a level of chemical knowledge well beyond that shown by the Arabs. The keystone of the proof was provided by Berthelot’s recognition that the Liber de Septuaginta by Geber, which he edited, was a transla tion of Geber’s Book of Seventy (Kraus nos. 123-192) listed in the Fithrist; hence, their omission from the Arabic list of the five Latin Geber texts mentioned serve as additional proof of their being spurious.

Recently a further demonstration of the correctness of Berthelot’ thesis has been offered: in the Occulta philosophia of Agrippa von Nettesheim the Comparison of the alchemists with God is spoken of in connection with the name Geber—which is in striking opposition to the Latin writings mentioned above, who feels himself to be a poor creature whose success depends on scrupulous adherence to the instructions in his formulas and on God’s grace. We will therefore completely discregard the Latin Geber texts and consider the Arabic texts exclusively. Moreover, for brevity we will speak of Jābir as if the name applied to a single author.

The corpus of Arabic Jābir textscomprises both individual books and groups of books. The latter are in part designated according to the number of individual writings they contain; the largest are entitled Seventy, One Hundred Twelve, and Five Hundred.The Seventy includes seven grups of ten, well distinguished from each other; One Hundred Twelve (Kraus nos. 6-122) is the product of four—the number of the basic qualities, the elements, the humors—and twenty-eight, the number of the mansions of the moon and of the letters of the Arabic alphabet, which is itself equal to four times seven. The Five Hunderd (Kraus nos.447-946) are not, in contrast with the One Hundred Twelve and the Seventy, individually enumerated in the Fihrist; sice only some of them are known and shown to belong to the group, there exists no certainty concerning their character or the meaning of the number in the title.

Other writings gathered into groups are the ten supplementary books (mudāfa) to the Seventy (Kraus nos.193-202); ten books of corrections (musahhahāt) of the teachings of mostly ancient philosophers (including Homer) and physicians (Kraus nos.203212);the Twenty (Kraus nos.213-232); the Seventeen (the sacred number of the Isma‘iliya) (Kraus nos. 233-249); the 144 Books of the Balances (Kraus nos. 303-446); and the books of the seven metals (al-ajsād al-sab‘a; Kraus nos.947-956).

Alchemy takes a commanding position both in theory and in actuality in the corpus, but all the writings belonging to it are by no means concerned with this subject. Rather, all the sciences—philosophy, linguistics, astrology, the science of talis- mans, the sciences of the quadrivium, metaphysics, cosmology, and theology—are represented, as are fields which do not belong to the sciences, such as medicine, agriculture, and technology. The philo sophical writings include notes on various Pre- Socratics, a work attacking Plato’s Laws, another against Aristotle’s De anima, and a commentary on his Rhetoric and Poetics. A series of writings is based on Balīnās or Balīnūs, that is, Apollonius of Tyana. A book attributed to him, The Secret of Creation, is preserved in many manuscript copies; it was written about 820, in the time of al-Ma’mūn, and is a cosmological-alchemical commentary on the Tabula Smaragdina which concludes the work and which appears there for the first time. The writings of the corpus are full of quotations from ancient authors whose works are partly preserved elsewhere in Arabic translations.

Besides the writings published by Berthelot (1893) and Holmyard (1928), Kraus edited, during his investigation of the corpus, a volume of texts which contains several complete writings and others in extract (1935). A facsimile of the Arabic manuscript of the Poison Book (Kraus no. 2145) was published in 1958 with a German translation by A. Siggel. A French translation by H. Corbin of the Livre du glorieux (Kraus no. 706) appeared in 1950.

Besides the Latin translation of the Liber de septuaginta, only one other book is available in Latin, the Liber Misericordiae (Kraus no. 5), edited by E. Darmstaedter in 1925.

The writings of the corpus are copiously cited in the Arabic literature, and long sections from them have been copied by other authors. The long list of quotations from Jābir in Arabic works given in Kraus (I, 189-196) has long been out of date. Since most books of the corpus are still unedited, the presentation of Jābir’s doctrines must be based on the previously published material and on Kraus, who gives many quotations from the manuscripts.

For full appreciation of Jābir’s achievement, a philologically based elucidation of his relationship to the Greek alchemists is the foremost requirement. In contrast with the later works, the One Hundred Twelve contains many quotations from the Greek alchemists and references to them. Since a portion of the Greek alchemical corpus must have been translated into Arabic, as is apparent from the numerous word-for-word quotations from such writings, especially in the Turba Philosophorum, one of the chief problems is how Jābir freed himself from the confusion in the occult writings of the Greek authors and succeeded in constructing the system represented in the Seventy. It is also not inconceivable that the quotations from the Greek could contribute to the textual criticism of the original passages.

According to Jābir’s developed theory, the ingredients of the elixir are not exclusively mineral; rather, some are vegetable and animal. The substances of all three kingdoms of nature can be combined so as to arrive at a mixture in which the basic qualities contained in all natural objects are represented in the proposition sought. The theoretical interest of this procedure is at least as strong as the practical interest in the transmutation of metals. The ideal goal is a catalog of all natural objects in which the basic qualities and peculiar properties of each substance, which are to be determined experimentally, are numerically specified. The scientific principle of such research Jābir called mizān (balance); its all-encompassing importance results from the wealth of its applications. The word represents the Greek zygon (balance), also in the sense of specific weight; but it also stands for the stathmos (weight) of the Greek alchemists, in the sense of the measurement in a mixture of substances.

Beyond this purely scientific meaning, the term constitutes a basic principle of Jābir’s world view: mizān al-hurūf, the balance of the letters, concerns the relationship of the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic alphabet (four times seven) to the four qualities (warm, cold, moist, and dry), a relationship which also embraces the metaphysical hypostates of Neo-platonism —intellect, world-soul, matter, space, and time. The concept thus becomes a principle of Jābir’s scientific monism, in opposition to the dualistic world view of Manichaeism—the struggle against this religion was one of the chief concerns of Islam at that time. This religious side of Jābir’s world view is based on the appearance of the word mizān in the Koran, where it is used both in the sense of the balance in which deeds are weighed at the Last Judgment (for example, 21, 47), and an eternal, essential part of heaven itself, along with the stars (55, 7-9). The allegorical interpretation of the Koranic balance, which also appears in Islamic gnosis, unites Jābir’s scientific system with his religious doctrine.

Jābir finds an expression of this world view in the theory, already developed by the Greeks, of the specific properties (proprietates) of things, of their sympathies and antipathies, and of their specific suitabilities in practical applications, especially in medicine. Finally, this theory leads him to conceive of the possibility of the artificial production of natural objects, and therefore also of the homunculus; this conception expressly places the activity of his ideal scholar in parallel with that of the Demiurge.

Jābir’s rationalism is not obscured by this theory; rather, it is here that he finds the working of natural law, as he sees it. The same is true of his treatment of arithmetic; the significance of number in nature, a notion developed by the Pythagoreans and Plato, is for him at once an empirical fact and a principle.

The number 28 is not only the product of and 7 but also the seventh number in the arithmetical series 1-3-6-10-15-21-28-. It is a “perfect number” in that it is equal to the sum of its divisors (1, 2, 4, 7, 14). Besides this series Jābir readily used the series 1-3-5-8, which defines the relationships between the degree of the basic qualities and their intensity. It should be observed that the sum of these numbers is seventeen, a religiously significant number to the Isma’ilis. He considers this number to be the basis of the theory of the balance; it indicates the equilibrium that governs the constitution of every object in the world.

For authors of Jābir’s time it is obvious that the astrological world view played a prominent role in the entire theory. The stars are not only a constituent of the world of which they are a part;, their unique position in the cosmos also makes them of decisive importance in terrestrial events. This view is expressed in Jābir’s very detailed tailsman theory. The talisman bears the powers of the stars and, according to him, is for this reason called tilasm (tlsm in vowelless Arabic script), because it is given domination (musallat, without vowels, mslt) over events in the world. But Jābir did not stop with the importance of the stars for the creation of talismans; rather, he believed that they can be made directly subservient through sacrifice and prayer. The character of such sacrifices and prayers can be gathered from the extensive chapters dealing with similar matters in the Picatrix (Arabic, Ghāyat al-hakim), which is traditionally attributed, incorrectly, to the Spanish mathematician and astronomer Maslama al-Majrītī). The author of the Picatrix expressly names Jābir as one of his intellectual leaders. This portion of his teachings is one of the most prominent pieces of evidence for the survival of the belief in the stars as divine beings, as they were originally viewed (hence the names of the planets), even though the monotheistic religions had officially removed them from this status. The Hebrew and Latin translations of the Picatrix show that the lingering on of this “idolatry” was not confined to the Islamic world.

Two of the writings contained in the corpus, which Kraus edited and placed at the beginning of his Volume of texts, permitted him to reconstruct Jābir’s system of the sciences: Book of the Transformation of the Potential Into the Actual (Kraus no. 331, no. 29 of the Books of the Balances Texts, pp. 1-95) and Book of Definitions (Kraus no. 780, belonging to the Five Hundred Texts, pp. 97-114). This system is divided into sections on the religious and the secular sciences. Within the secular sciences, alchemy and its dependent sciences occupy one side of the genealogical tree; all the others constitute the second side. Among the former, medicine plays a major role; Jābir’s remarkable knowledge in this area is displayed in his book on poisons. As for the religious sciences, it is remarkable that here the intellectual disciplines (the science of letters, the science of the senses, philosophy, metaphysics, and others) are on the same footing. A valuable project would be the comparison of this ranking with that developed by al-Fārābī, who in his De scientiis likewise sought to place the religious sciences into a total system.

Jābir is among the pioneers of the completion of the “spirits”, that is, of the volatile substances sulfur, mercury, and arsenic, through a fourth one, sal ammoniac, which was unknown to the Greeks. He Knew mineral ammonia and other kinds that can be prepared chemically. Hair, blood, and urine served him as its material bases. The Arabic word for ammonia, nushādir, is of Persian origin and hence it is reasonable to suppose that it was discovered in the Sassanid kingdom.

Holmyard, using Kraus’s analytical presentation as a basis, attempted a complete synthetic description of Jābir’s alchemical system. Such an attempt will not be repeated here, because there is hope that a translation of the Seventy, a work central to Jābir’s theory, prepared over forty years ago by the present writer, may yet be published.

The acquaintance of the author of the corpus with the best works of Greek science is astounding. Kraus gathered the evidence for his knowledge of the works of Aristotle, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Galen, Archimedes, and of the Placita philosophorum of pseudo-Plutarch. This evidence is not complete, nor is the number of quotations from ancient authors exhausted by it. That this schooling in Greek science is comlpletely compatible with the gnostic speculations of the Sābians of Harrān has been demonstrated; for from their midst have emerged some of the most outstanding mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians of Islam.

Jābir’s importance for the history not only of alchemy but also of science in general, and for the intellectual history of Islam, has by no means been sufficiently examined. Future study of the writings contained in the corpus will no doubt provide many surprises concerning the position of their authors in the intellectual culture of the Middle Ages.


The following works may be consulted: M. Berthelot, La chimie au moyen âge, I (Paris, 1893), 320-350; and Aecheologie et histoire des sciences (Paris, 1906), pp. 308-363; H. Corbin, “Le livre du glorieux de Jābir ibn Hayyān”, in Eranos-Jahrbuch, 18 (1950), 47-114; E. Darmstadter, Die Alchemie des Geder (Berlin, 1922); and “Liber mise- ricordiae Geber, eine lateinische Ubersetzung des grosseren kitab alrahma;”, in Archiv fiir Geschichte der Medizin18 1625, 181-197; J. W. Fuck, “The Arabic Literature on Alchemy According to al–Nadim,” in Ambix, 4 (1915), 81-144; E. J. Holmyard, The works of Geber, Englished by Richard Russell, 1678, a New Ediution (London, 1957), pp. 66-80; B. S. Jorgensen, “Testamentum Geberi”, in Centaurus, 13 (1968), 11-116; H. Kopp, Beiträge zur Geschichte der Chemie, III (Brunswick, 1875), 13-54; P. Kraus , “Studien zu Jābir ibn Hayyā, in Isis15 (1931), 7-30; Jābir ibn Hayyān, essai a l’histoire des idees scientifiques dans l’Islam. l. Le corpus des ecrits jabiriens, and II. Jābir et al science grecque, in Memoires. Institut d’ Egypte44 (1943)and45 (1942); P. Kraus and M. Plessner, “Djabir b. Hayyan”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (1965); H. M. Leicester, The Historical Background of Chemistry (New York-London, 1956), pp. 63-70; Picatrix, Das Ziel des Weisen von Pseudo-Mafrītī, 2 vols.: I, Arabic text, H. Ritter, ed.(Leipzing, 1933), II, German trans.by H. Ritter and M. Plessner (London, 1962); M. Plessner, “The Place of the Turba philosophornm in the Development of Alchemy”, in Isis, 45 (1954), 331-338;“Ĝābir ibn Hayyān und die Zeit der Entsehung der arabischen ĜābirSchriften”, in Zeitschrift der Deutschen morgenlāndischen Gesellschaft, 115 (1965), 23-35; “Balīnūs”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed.(1960); “Geber and Jābir ibn HayyāAn Authetic sixteenthCentury Quotation From Jābir”, in Ambix, 16 (1969), 113-118; “Medicine and Science”, in the Legacy of Islam (1972);J. Ruska, “Sal ammoniacus, Nsādir und Salmiak”, in Sitzyngsbertichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. Kl. (1923), 5 ; Tabula Smaragdina (Heidelberg, 1926); and Turba Philosophorum (Berlin, 1913); J. Ruska and P. Kraus, “Der Zusammenbruch der Dschabir-Porblem Zu lösen,

II. Dschabir ibn Hajjan und die Isma ‘ilijja”, in Jahresbricht der Forschungsinstituts fiir Geschicte der Naturwissenschaften in Berlin, 3 (1930); F. Sezgin,“Das Problem des Gābir ibn Hayyān im Lichte neu gefundener Handschrifte”, in Zeitschrift der Deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 114 (1964), 255-268; and Siggel, Das Buch der Gifte des Gābir ibn Hayyān, arabischer Text, iibersetzt und erlāutert (Wiesbaden, 1965).

M. Plessner

Jabir ibn Hayyan

views updated May 21 2018

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Jabir ibn Hayyan (active latter 8th century), called Geber by Europeans, was reputedly the father of Moslem alchemy and chemistry.

It seems clear that there was a real person called Jabir ibn Hayyan about whom we know little except that he lived in al-Kufa, an important city of Abbasid Iraq, and that he had the reputation for skill in alchemy. There exists a vast body of Arabic writings attributed to this Jabir which could not possibly have been written by someone living in the late 8th century because the bulk of Greek scientific and al-chemical works had not been translated at that time; Arabic scientific terminology had not even been coined. The earliest biography of Jabir is contained in Ibn al-Nadim's Fihrist, a monumental bibliography compiled in 988; the author of the Fihrist is partially aware of such discrepancies but insists that Jabir was a historical personage.

Attributions to Jabir

Scholarship has shown that there was a sizable corpus of alchemical works attributed impossibly to the historical Jabir. The first references to these works by Jabir appear in the latter half of the 10th century. The corpus contains a great percentage of what medieval Islam knew of the scientific knowledge of the ancients, viewed through Islamic spectacles, and it appears impossible that the 9th- or 10th-century Jabir could have been a single man, however industrious. The Islamic point of view from which this encyclopedic collection of late Hellenistic science is viewed in the works of Jabir is an extremely heterodox one, and this is doubtless the reason for assigning its authorship to a long-deceased but actual Jabir of the 8th century.

Jabir's science of al-kimiya, from which Arabic word both "alchemy" and "chemistry" stem, was based upon the Hellenistic idea that all metals are fundamentally the same substance, but with varying impurities. The main object of alchemy was to discover a method which would transmute the base metals into the purest form of metal, gold; this could be done by means of a supposed substance called "red sulfur" by the Moslems and "the philosophers' stone" by Europeans. In the process of searching for red sulfur, Jabir and other Moslem alchemists developed a great many sound facts and processes which formed some of the basic building blocks for the science of chemistry.

In terms of practical methods evolved by Jabir and set forth in the almost 100 works ascribed to him, we are indebted to Moslem alchemy for methods of distillation, evaporation, crystallization, filtration, and sublimation. Methods of producing a considerable number of chemical substances are described: nitric acid, sulfuric acid, mercury oxide, lead acetate, and others.

Further Reading

None of Jabir's works has been translated into English, but E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (1957), is useful. See also "The Time of Jabir ibn Hayyan" in George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1 (1927). □

Jabir ibn Hayyan

views updated May 29 2018

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Circa 725 - CIRCA 815



Scientific Method . Jabir ibn Hayyan is considered the father of modern chemistry because his work in alchemy led to the development of the scientific method. His books combine science, religion, astrology, and numerology (the belief in the esoteric symbolism of numbers and how they relate to things such as metals and other natural substances).

Life and Legacy . A member of the Azd tribe of southern Arabia, Jabir spent much of his youth in Kufah, in modern-day Iraq. During the reign of the Khalifah Harun al-Rashid (ruled 786-809), Jabir went to Baghdad, where he found employment at the court of this powerful and scholarly ruler. Though he is also known for his contributions to the studies of botany and agriculture, Jabir is remembered most for his long and widely influential Kitab al-Chemi (Book of Chemistry)—the source of the English words alchemy and chemistry. In it he began the tedious job of classifying natural substances into groups according to their physical qualities, gave detailed descriptions of scientific experiments, and—perhaps most important—set the pattern for the scientific method, by which scholars carefully document each of their experiments. After British scholar Robert of Chester translated this work into Latin in 1144, it had a major impact on the teaching of science in European universities, where Jabir was known as Geber. The influence of this text is still apparent in the Arabic derivations of many scientific terms and names for laboratory.


Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing, 1976).

Jabir ibn Hayyan

views updated May 29 2018

Jabir ibn Hayyan


Arab alchemist who pioneered the development of many chemical processes. He prepared steel and other metals, used manganese dioxide in glassmaking, and devised dying and tanning techniques. He also prepared hydrochloric, citric, and tartaric acids, as well as ammonium chloride and aqua regia. Jabir is best known for modifying the Greek doctrine of four elements, maintaining that they combine to form sulfur (idealized principle of combustibility) and mercury (idealized principle of metallic properties), from whence all metals are formed. Jabir believed that, in principle, it was possible to transmute one metal into another, an idea widely believed until the rise of the phlogiston theory in the late seventeenth century.