From the perspective of the history of science, alchemy can legitimately be considered an Islamic creation. Notwithstanding some developments in ancient China, it was in the Islamic world that alchemy developed from a dark craft with its mysterious recipes into a systematic discipline founded on well-defined cosmological and metaphysical principles, and here the first alchemical literature largely (though not invariably) was written in a clear scientific language unobscured by esoteric terminology. While Muslim alchemists themselves drew on various foreign and indigenous sources, including Indian and possibly Chinese sources, it was their own ideas and doctrines that served as the point of departure from the alchemists of the medieval West. Thus Islamic alchemy should be recognized as the springboard that led to the birth of the modern science of chemistry.
The philosophical matrix of Islamic alchemy gleans two fundamental aspects from a vast body of largely unstudied Arabic alchemical literature: a cosmology and a theory of elements. The cosmology of Muslim alchemists is thoroughly non-Aristotelian. In a highly enigmatic but influential Arabic text from the earliest phase of its alchemical tradition, one finds unmistakable indications of the belief that there is an immutable cosmic correspondence between “what is above” and “what is below,” and between the inner world of the soul and the outer world of phenomena, and further, that the manifold forms in which matter occurs have a unique origin. This doctrine of essential unity discards Aristotleʾs fateful distinction between the terrestrial and celestial worlds; it implies a naturalistic possibility of transmutation and accommodates astrology. In addition, it renders the process of purifying matter inseparable from that of purifying the soul. The text in question, the celebrated Al-lawḥ al-zumurrud, is an apocryphal collection of aphorisms; in its Latin translation, Tabula smaragdina, it was an avidly studied document throughout the later European Middle Ages.
The Islamic alchemical theory of elements, however, seems to have been derived from the standard Greek sources. All Muslim alchemists accept, as Aristotle did, the Empedoclean doctrine of four primary bodies—earth, water, air, and fire—and Aristotleʾs four primary qualities—hot, cold, moist, and dry. This familiar doctrine claims that all material things are ultimately composed of these primary bodies and are distinguished from one another by their qualities, but these qualities do not exist independently; qualities are forms—that is, conceptual rather than real entities. In contrast, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān believed that the four qualities, called natures (ṭabāʿiʿ), were indeed independently existing real entities, and these natures—and not the Empedoclean bodies—were the true material elements of things. Nonetheless, many alchemists of Islam appear here to follow Aristotle faithfully.
Fundamental themes of Islamic alchemy include not only the transmutation of base metals into gold, but also the artificial generation of living beings, even new life forms not existing in nature. Believing that all varieties (anwāʿ) of metals belong to the same genus (jins), the alchemists differentiated them only in terms of “accidents” (aʿrāḍ). Accidents were changeable; therefore, one metal could be changed into another. This transmutation could be carried out in many ways, but the best method was that of the elixir (al-iksīr). Likewise, given the universal relationship between the macrocosm (al-ʿālam al-kabīr) and the microcosm (al-ʿālam al-ṣaghīr), all grand biological processes occurring in nature could be replicated, and in principle improved upon, in the alchemical laboratory. Thus all kinds of monsters and strange birds, and all kinds of novel human beings, could be generated artificially. Another fundamental theme of Islamic alchemy is the prolongation of human life by means of the elixir; here alchemy is directly related to medicine.
It seems ironic that despite their fantastic claims and tantalizing discourses, it was the Muslim alchemists—and not the sober, Hellenized sages of Islam—who made lasting theoretical and material contributions to the science of chemistry. For example, the Islamic alchemical theory that all metals (in some cases all substances) were composed of sulfur and mercury proved fateful, leading to the celebrated phlogiston theory of early modern chemistry. Likewise, sal ammoniac (nūshādir), an important substance in the development of chemistry, was introduced into the repertoire of alchemy by Muslims. Two varieties of this substance were known to them, natural (al-ḥajar) and derived (mustanbaṭ)—ammonium chloride and ammonium carbonate. The latter was obtained by the dry distillation of hair and other animal substances. Here, the use of organic materials, in chemical procedures and in addition to the inorganic, was a historic contribution of the alchemists of Islam.
By far the most luminous name in the history of Islamic alchemy is Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, but this giant figure remains wrapped in mystery, and historians have doubted his very existence. The encyclopedic corpus attributed to him indicates that he was a disciple of the sixth Shīʿī imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765). If Jābir was the first historical alchemist of Islam, then he is the pioneer of all that is important and characteristic of Islamic alchemy: the sulfur-mercury theory, the use of organic substances, the introduction of sal ammoniac, the production (though not recognition) of mineral acids, the quantification of qualities, and the conceptual distinction between heat and temperature. Jābirian ideas were known to the European alchemists, and at least three of his treatises were translated into Latin. The great physician of Islam, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyā al-Rāzī (known also by his Latin name Rhazes; d. 925) referred to Jābir as “our Master.”
Rāzī himself is another outstanding alchemical figure. His works show the first systematic classification of carefully observed facts regarding chemical substances, reactions, and apparatuses described in an unambiguous language. He also managed to produce mineral acids, although it is doubtful whether he recognized them as isolated substances. Rāzī's clear language contrasts with the obscure alchemical discourses of his younger contemporary Ibn Umayl (900–960), a favorite of medieval European writers who read his Al-Māʿ al-waraqī wa-al-arḍ al-nujūmīyah (Silvery Water and Starry Earth) as Tabula chemica, just as they read in Latin translation his Risālat al-shams ilā al-hilāl (Epistle of the Sun to the New Moon). The Islamic West contributed some celebrated alchemists, a familiar name is Maslamah ibn Aḥmad al-Majrīṭī (d. 1007/8), whose original writings were developed the Rutbat al-ḥakīm (The Sage 's Step), which contained precise instructions for the preparation of gold and silver by cupellation, and the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm (The Aim of the Wise), known in Latin as Picatrix. Finally, among the last prominent figures of Islamic alchemy are Abū al-Qāsim (d. 1013) of Iraq, a contemporary of Roger Bacon, and Ibn Aydamir al-Jildakī, (d. 1342) of Egypt. The latter, a great admirer of Jābir, was both an alchemist and a historian of alchemy; but by his time the hub of scientific activity had already begun to shift from the Islamic world to the Latin West.
In the contemporary Islamic world there exists no institutional or organized practice of alchemy. Still, a traditional belief in the alchemical transmutation of base metals into gold continues in the popular culture, and individuals are still searching for the ever-elusive elixir of long life.
- Anawati, Georges. “L’alchimie arabe (Arab Alchemy).” In Histoire des sciences arabes (History of the Arab Sciences), 3. Technologie, alchimie et sciences de la vie (Technology, Alchemy and the Sciences of Life), edited by Roshdi Rasheed, pp. 111–141. Paris: Seuil, 1997.
- Eberly, John, Al-Kimia: The Mystical Islamic Essence of the Sacred Art of Alchemy. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis, 2004.
- Haq, Syed Nomanul. Names, Natures, and Things: The Alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and His Kitāb al-Aḥjār (Book of Stones). Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1994. The only full-scale English-language study of Jābir, contains as well an annotated selected text and translation of a Jābirian treatise. Scholarly readers will find its extensive bibliographic references useful.
- Haq, Syed Nomanul. “Chemistry and Alchemy.” In Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East, edited by T. Mostyn and Albert Hourani, pp. 389–491. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. My short article covers the same ground as the present essay and is useful for the nonexpert.
- Holmyard, Eric J. Alchemy. New York: Dover, 1990. Holmyard (d. 1959) wrote prolifically, though sometimes uncritically, on the subject. His many articles are nevertheless worthy of serious consideration. (See a bibliography of Holmyardʾs work in Haqʾs Names, Natures, and Things, cited above).
- Kappler, Claire, and Thiolier-Méjean, Suzanne, eds. Alchemies: Occident–Orient (Alchemies: West–East). Paris: Harmattan, 2006.
- Kraus, Paul. “Jābir ibn Ḥayyān: Contributions à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam.” Mémoires de l’Institut d’Égypte, 44 (1942) and 45 (1943). Krausʾs monumental, unparalleled study of Jābir.
- Needham, Joseph. “Arabic Alchemy in Rise and Decline.” In his Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5, part 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. This is still by far the best English-language survey of Islamic alchemy.
- Stapleton, H. E., M. T. ʿAlī, and M. H. Ḥusain. “Three Arabic Treatises by Muḥammad ibn Umail (Tenth Century AD).”Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (MASB), 12, no. 1 (1933): 1–127. An article of special interest and one of several studies comprising his important contribution to the history of Islamic alchemy published with his colleagues in the MASB.
- Stapleton, Ḥusain, and R. F. Azo. “Chemistry in Iraq and Persia in the Tenth Century AD.” Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (MASB), 8 (1927): 315–417. Rigorous textual study of Rāzī.
- Viano, Cristina, ed. L’alchimie et ses racines philosophiques: la tradition grecque et la tradition arabe (Alchemy and Its Philosophical Roots: The Greek Tradition and the Arab Tradition). Paris: Librairie Philosophique, Vrin, 2005.