Jabir Ibn H?ayyan

views updated


(fl. late eighth and early ninth centuries),

alchemy. For the original article on Jābir see DSB, vol. 7.

Several studies have been published since the 1970s bringing new documents, evidence, and arguments on the question of the biography of Jābir and the authenticity of the treatises attributed to him. Major contributions come from Fuat Sezgin in volume 4 of his Geschichte des arabis-chen Schrifttums (1971, pp. 132–269). Sezgin adds thirty new titles of treatises to the 1943 catalog by Paul Kraus. Sezgin develops the idea that alchemy began very early in the Islamic world, in the first century AH (seventh century CE). According to his conclusions, Jābir had existed, indeed lived at the time of Ja’far Muḥammad al-Sāadiq and actually composed a large number of the texts attributed to him (Jābir). This thesis consequently implies that the Greek philosophers and scientists quoted by Jabir were translated into Arabic one or two centuries earlier than is usually believed. (For this last point, see also Alexander of Aphrodisias, On Aristotle’s “On Coming-to-Be and Perishing” 2.2–5, 2004.) Thus the whole of Islamic philosophy and science would have commenced in conditions completely different from what is generally thought. Similar ideas were advocated in a more moderate way by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1968), Toufic Fahd (1970), Henry Corbin (1986b), and Syed Nomanul Haq (1994).

However, it seems difficult to overcome the arguments put forward by Kraus. Sezgin asserts a number of arguments and hypotheses about the ancientness of the Jabirian treatises, but these mere suppositions do not constitute evidence or certainty; the numerous anachronisms and the use of later translations for Greek terms in the Jabirian corpus confirm Kraus’s conclusions. The very existence of Jabir—unknown in all the ancient bio-bibliographical works—still seems very doubtful, as Manfred Ullmann pointed out in his concise 1972 account. By contrast, the idea that the corpus was composed gradually seems very likely. This had already been observed by Ernst Darmstaedter in his 1925 study of the text of Jabir’s Book of Mercy. Similar observations were made by Pierre Lory in 1996 on the basis of a comparative study of the manuscripts of the Book of Seventy: To a primitive kernel of alchemical assertions were added several technical developments and a third layer of more theoretical additions. On the basis of the study of six manuscripts of the Book of Seventy, some of them being recent and complete, such as Hüseyin Celebi 743 or Carullah 1554, one being more ancient and incomplete, Dar al-Kutub, Tabi iyyat, 731, with others containing several lacks, such as Dār al-Kutub, Taymûr, Tabī’iyyāt 67, one can draw the hypothesis of two successive additions by authors belonging to the same alchemical school.

The doctrinal dimensions of the Jabirian corpus— that is to say, his Shiite ideas—are another controversial issue. Kraus was convinced that “Jabir” was the name of a group of Ismaili propagandists working for the Fatimid dynasty (1943, Introduction). He had prepared a whole monograph on this question but died before finishing it. This point was studied again by Yves Marquet (1988). He followed Kraus’s views but was inclined to identify the Jabirian school with a trend belonging to the revolutionary and millenarian movement of the Carmatians who established a powerful state in Northern Arabia during the tenth century CE. Lory also dealt with this question (2000, 2003). He deems that the Jabirian school belonged to an original nonsectarian and millenarian Shiite movement that could in no way belong to Ismailism because of its viewpoint on the succession of the Shiite imam Ja’far Muhammad al-Sādiq. Ismailis confess indeed that the successor of Ja’far as Imam was his son Ismā’īl and after him Muhammad son of Ismā’īl; whereas Jâbir explicitly argues in his Book of the Fifty that the successor of Ja’far was Mūsa son of Ja’far.

The scientific side of Jabir’s treatises was further explained by several scholas, among them Friedemann Rex (1975), Lory (1988), and Haq (1994), who shed some light in presenting and commenting on certain texts of Jabir while translating or editing them.


Alexander of Aphrodisias. On Aristotle’s “On Coming-To-Be and Perishing 2.2-5.” Translated by Emma Gannagé and edited by Peter Adamson. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Corbin, Henry. “Le livre du glorieux de Jābir ibn Ḥayyān,” 1950. In L’Alchimie comme Art hiératique. Paris: Editions de l’Herne, 1986a.

———. Histoire de la philosophie islamique. New ed. Paris: Gallimard, 1986b.

Darmstaedter, Ernst. “Liber misericordiae Geber, eine lateinische Übersetzung des grosseren kitāb l-rahma.” Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin 18 (1925): 181–197.

Fahd, Toufic. “Ja far al-Sâdiq et la tradition scientifique arabe.” In Le chiisme imamat. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970.

Haq, Syed Nomanul. Names, Natures, and Things: The Alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and his Kitāb al-Ahjār (Book of Stones). Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1994.

Kraus, Paul. “Studien zu Jābir ibn Ḥayyān,” 1931. In Alchemie, Ketzerei, Apokryphen im frühen Islam, edited by Rémi Brague. Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1994.

———. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, contribution a l’histoire des idees scientifiques dans l’Islam. Vol. 1, Le corpus des ecrits jabiriens; vol. 2, Jābir et la science grecque. 1942, 1943. Republished, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1986.

Lory, Pierre. L’élaboration de l’Elixir suprême: Quatorze traités de Jâbir ibn Ḥayyân sur le Grand Oeuvre alchimique. Damascus: Institut Français de Damas, 1988.

———. Dix traités d’alchimie de Jâbir ibn Ḥayyân. Paris: Actes Sud/Sindbad, 1996.

———.“Eschatologie alchimique chez Jâbir ibn Ḥayyân.” In “Mahdisme et millénarisme en Islam,” Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée 91–92–93–94 (2000): 73–91.

———. Alchimie et mystique en terre d’Islam. Paris: Verdier, 2003.

Marquet, Yves. La philosophie des alchimistes et l’alchimie des philosophes: Jâbir ibn Ḥayyân et les “Frères de la Pureté.” Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1988.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Science and Civilization in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968. Republished, Lahore, Pakistan: Suhail Academy, 1983.

Rex, Friedemann. Zur Theorie der Naturprozesse in der früharabischen Wissenschaft: Das Kitâb al-ikhâj, übersetzt und erklärt, ein Beitrag zum alchemistischen Weltbild der JâbitSchriften (8./10. Jahrhundert n. Chr. Wiesbaden: Stein, 1975.

Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Vol. 4, pp. 132–269. Leiden: Brill, 1971.

Ullmann, Manfred. Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam. Leiden: Brill, 1972.

Pierre Lory