Chemistry in Arabia


The Islamic scientists, whilst still holding to the principles of Aristotle and attempting to transmute base metals into gold and find the elixir of life, were the first scientists to attempt to quantify the process and use the scientific method. Chemistry among the Arabs was developed by Jabir ibn Hayyan (720 – 813), who lived in Baghdad under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid; al Razi (866 – 925), commonly called Rhases; and ibn Sina, generally called Avicenna (980 – 1036).
Jabir ibn Hayyan, called Geber,  was the author of treatise known in Latin. It is a systematic treatise. It give a clear explanation of the properties of metals and chemical operations. Jabir’s works contain some description of experiments, but are largery mystical.
Like the Greek philosophers, Jabir made no attempt to separate the concepts of Islamic alchemy from other disciplines, looking at them within the confines of natural science, medicine and theology, drawing upon Greek ideas of balance and perfection. He certainly performed work in attempting the holy grail of transmuting base metals into gold, and he also tried to discover the secrets to an elixir of life, perhaps even creating life from components.

Jabir took the Aristotelian ideas of the four elements of heat, cold, dryness and wetness and also believed that they were combined to make every other substance. This became the basis of his theory of metals and he proposed that all metals were made of sulphur and mercury, the ‘intermediate’ stages between the elements and metals. Gold was the perfect combination of sulphur and mercury, but other metals were contaminated by impurities, with copper, silver’ lead and the other known metals resulting from this. In Jabir’s Islamic alchemy, the task was to restore the impurity by removing the impurities from the metal and ending up with gold.
He wrote how to create and purify acids; nitric, hydrochloric and sulphuric, as well as the mixture of hydrocloric and nitric acids, known as Aqua Regia, that can even dissolve gold. He described the methods used for extracting and preparing alum, antimony, lead acetate and mercury oxide. He wrote extensively about the use of varnishes to waterproof leather and metals. He also looked at organic acids, aware of how to concentrate acetic and citric acids.
Jabir ibn Hayyan (720 – 813)

Al Razi (commonly called Rhases) was apparently a skilled practical chemist, but is chiefly noteworthy as a physician. In his book on alchemy, Secret of Secrets (Sirr al-asrar), he devided mineral bodies (Earthly Substances) into six classes, which are:
1.      Bodies; the metals (gold, silver, copper, lead, tin)
2.      Spirits; sulphur, arsenic, mercury and sal ammoniac
3.      Stones; marcasite, magnesia, pyrites, malachite
4.      Vitriols; black, alum, green, red, yellow, white
5.      Boraces; borax, natron (soda), plant ash
6.      Salts; common salt, kali (potash), “salt of eggs” (probably saltpetre, used in China for fireworks), etc.

An Illustration of Chemical Process in Arabia

Ibn Sina (generally called Avicenna), who wrote A Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi At-Tibb), was the reputed author of a Latin work on alchemy called De Anima, but this is probably a later work compiled in Spain from Arabic sources. In a genuine work, he expresses doubt about the possibility of transmutation and says it is not in power of alchemists to change the species of metals : they can only make imitations of gold and silver.

[Note : Transmutation of metals was not a dream anymore. Nowdays, by nuclear reaction, the process of transmutation is posible. Physicists were able to convert platinum atoms into gold atoms via nuclear reaction. However, the new gold atoms, being unstable isotopes, lasted for under five seconds before they broke apart.]


Writer : Erfan Priyambodo, M. Si. (Lecturer of Yogyakarta State University) 

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