Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān
was a prominent Persian or Arab polymath
: a chemist and alchemist
, and pharmacist and physician
. Born and educated in Tus
, he later traveled to Kufa
. Jābir is held to have been the first practical alchemist.
As early as the 10th century, the identity and exact corpus of works of Jābir was in dispute in Islamic circles.
His name was Latinized as “Geber” in the Christian West and in 13th-century Europe an anonymous writer, usually referred to as Pseudo-Geber
, produced alchemical and metallurgical writings under the pen-name Geber
In 988 Ibn al-Nadim
compiled the Kitab al-Fihrist
which mentions Jabir as a spiritual follower and as a companion to Jafar as-Sadiq
. In another reference al-Nadim reports that a group of philosophers claimed Jabir was one of their own members. Another group, reported by al-Nadim, says only The Large Book of Mercy
is genuine and that the rest are pseudographical. Their assertions are rejected by al-Nadim.
Joining al-Nadim in asserting a real Jabir; Ibn-Wahshiyya
(“Jaber ibn Hayyn al-Sufi …book on poison is a great work..”) Rejecting a real Jabir; (the philosopher c.970) Abu Sulayman al-Mantiqi
claims the real author is one al-Hasan ibn al-Nakad al-Mawili
. 14th century critic of Arabic literature, Jamal al-Din ibn Nubata al-Misri
declares all the writings attributed to Jabir doubtful.
Life and background
Jabir was a Natural Philosopher
who lived mostly in the 8th century; he was born in Tus
, in Iran
then ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate
. Jabir in the classical sources has been entitled differently as al-Azdi al-Barigi
or al-Kufi or al-Tusi or al-Sufi.
There is a difference of opinion
as to whether he was a Persian from Khorasan who later went to Kufa or whether he was, as some have suggested, of Syrian origin and later lived in Persia and Iraq.
His ethnic background is not clear,
but most sources reference him as a Persian.
In some sources, he is reported to have been the son of Hayyan al-Azdi, a pharmacist
of the Arabian Azd
tribe who emigrated from Yemen
(in present-day Iraq
) during the Umayyad Caliphate
while Henry Corbin
believes Geber seems to have been a client of the ‘Azd tribe.
Jābir became an alchemist at the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid
, for whom he wrote the Kitab al-Zuhra
(“The Book of Venus”, on “the noble art of alchemy”).
Hayyan had supported the Abbasid
revolt against the Umayyads, and was sent by them to the province of Khorasan
(present day Afghanistan and Iran) to gather support for their cause. He was eventually caught by the Umayyads and executed. His family fled to Yemen,
where Jābir grew up and studied the Quran, mathematics and other subjects.
Jābir’s father’s profession may have contributed greatly to his interest in alchemy
. After the Abbasids took power, Jābir went back to Kufa. He began his career practicing medicine, under the patronage of a Vizir
(from the noble Persian family Barmakids
) of Caliph Harun al-Rashid
. His connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that family fell from grace in 803, Jābir was placed under house arrest in Kufa, where he remained until his death. It has been asserted that Jābir was a student of the sixth Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq
and Harbi al-Himyari
however other scholars have questioned this theory.
The Jabirian corpus
In total, nearly 3,000 treatises and articles are credited to Jabir ibn Hayyan.
Following the pioneering work of Paul Kraus, who demonstrated that a corpus of some several hundred works ascribed to Jābir were probably a medley from different hands,
mostly dating to the late 9th and early 10th centuries, many scholars believe that many of these works consist of commentaries and additions by his followers,
particularly of an Ismaili
The scope of the corpus is vast: cosmology, music, medicine, magic, biology, chemical technology, geometry, grammar, metaphysics, logic, artificial generation of living beings, along with astrological predictions, and symbolic Imâmî myths.
The 112 Books
dedicated to the Barmakids
, viziers of Caliph Harun al-Rashid
. This group includes the Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet
, an ancient work that proved a recurring foundation of and source for alchemical operations. In the Middle Ages it was translated into Latin (Tabula Smaragdina
) and widely diffused among European alchemists.
The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages. This group includes the Kitab al-Zuhra (“Book of Venus”) and the Kitab Al-Ahjar (“Book of Stones”).
The Ten Books on Rectification, containing descriptions of alchemists such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
The Books on Balance; this group includes his most famous ‘Theory of the balance in Nature’.
Jābir states in his Book of Stones
(4:12) that “The purpose is to baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves and provides for”. His works seem to have been deliberately written in highly esoteric code (see steganography
), so that only those who had been initiated into his alchemical school could understand them. It is therefore difficult at best for the modern reader to discern which aspects of Jābir’s work are to be read as symbols (and what those symbols mean), and what is to be taken literally. Because his works rarely made overt sense, the term gibberish
is believed to have originally referred to his writings (Hauck, p. 19).
Jābir’s interest in alchemy was inspired by his teacher Ja’far as-Sadiq
. When he used to talk about alchemy, he would say “my master Ja’far as-Sadiq taught me about calcium, evaporation, distillation and crystallization and everything I learned in alchemy was from my master Ja’far as-Sadiq.” Imam Jafar was famed for his depth and breadth of knowledge. In addition to his knowledge of Islamic sciences, Imam Jafar was well educated in natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, anatomy, chemistry (alchemy), and other subjects. The foremost Islamic alchemist Jabir bin Hayyan was his most prominent student. Other famous students of his were Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik Ibn Anas, the founders of two Sunni schools of jurisprudence, and Wasil ibn Ata, the founder of the Mutazilite school of Islamic thought. Imam Jafar was known for his liberal views on learning, and was keen to debate with scholars of different faiths and of different beliefs. Imam Abu Hanifa is quoted by many souces as having said “My knowledge extends to only two years. The two I spent with Imam Jafar Sadiq”, some Islamic scholars have gone so far as to call Imam Jafar Saddiq as the root of most of Islamic jurisprudence, having a massive influence on Hanafi, Maliki and Shia schools of thought extending well into mainstream Hanbali and Shafi’i thought. Imam Jafar also attained a surpassing knowledge in astronomy and in the science of medicine. it is said that he wrote more than five hundred books on health care which were compiled and annotated by another great scholar and scientist of Islam, Jabir bin Hayyan Jābir professes to draw his inspiration from earlier writers, legendary and historic, on the subject.
In his writings, Jābir pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists Zosimos
, Democritus, Hermes Trismegistus
, but also Plato
, and Socrates
as well as the commentators Alexander of Aphrodisias Simplicius
A huge pseudo-epigraphic literature of alchemical books was composed in Arabic, among which the names of Persian
authors also appear like Jāmāsb
, testifying that alchemy-like operations on metals and other substances were also practiced in Persia
. The great number of Persian
technical names (zaybaq = mercury, nošāder = sal-ammoniac) also corroborates the idea of an important Iranian root of medieval alchemy.
Ibn al-Nadim reports a dialogue between Aristotle
, the Persian
alchemist of Achaemenid
era, which is in Jabirian corpus under the title of Kitab Musahhaha Aristutalis. Ruska
had suggested that the Sasanian
medical schools played an important role in the spread of interest in alchemy.
He emphasizes the long history of alchemy, “whose origin is Arius … the first man who applied the first
experiment on the [philosopher’s] stone… and he declares that man possesses the ability to imitate the workings of Nature” (Nasr, Seyyed Hussein, Science and Civilization of Islam
Jābir’s alchemical investigations ostensibly revolved around the ultimate goal of takwin
— the artificial creation of life. The Book of Stones
includes several recipes for creating creatures such as scorpions
, and even humans in a laboratory environment, which are subject to the control of their creator. What Jābir meant by these recipes is unknown. Jābir’s alchemical investigations were theoretically grounded in an elaborate numerology
related to Pythagorean
systems. The nature and properties of elements was defined through numeric values assigned the Arabic
consonants present in their name, ultimately culminating in the number 17
By Jabirs’ time Aristotelian physics
, had become Neoplatonic. Each Aristotelian element
was composed of these qualities: fire
was both hot and dry, earth
, cold and dry, water
cold and moist, and air
, hot and moist. This came from the elementary qualities which are theoretical in nature plus substance. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jābir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. Like Zosimos
, Jabir believed this would require a catalyst, an al-iksir
, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the philosopher’s stone
According to Jabir’s mercury-sulfur theory
, metals differ from each in so far as they contain different proportions of the sulfur and mercury. These are not the elements that we know by those names, but certain principles to which those elements are the closest approximation in nature.
Based on Aristotle’s “exhalation” theory the dry and moist exhalations become sulfur
(sometimes called “sophic” or “philosophic” mercury and sulfur). The sulfur-mercury theory is first recorded in a 7th-century work Secret of Creation
credited (falsely) to Balinus
(Apollonius of Tyana
). This view becomes widespread.
In the Book of Explanation
the metals are all, in essence, composed of mercury combined and coagulated with sulphur [that has risen to it in earthy, smoke-like vapors]. They differ from one another only because of the difference of their accidental qualities, and this difference is due to the difference of their sulphur, which again is caused by a variation in the soils and in their positions with respect to
the heat of the sun
Holmyard says that Jabir proves by experiment that these are not ordinary sulfur and mercury.
The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals
and non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed three categories:
The origins of the idea of chemical equivalents
might be traced back to Jabir, in whose time it was recognized that “a certain quantity of acid is necessary in order to neutralize a given amount of base.”
Jābir also made important contributions to medicine
, and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation..