Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. ca 815) was born in Tus, Khurasan, in modern-day Iran. He subsequently moved to Kufa, in Iraq, where he became a student of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), who had widespread reputation as a religious scholar, as well as being the Imam of the Shi’a. He founded the Imami Shi’i madhab or the school of religious law, named Ja’fari after him, which centred around the doctrine of Imamat, emphasising that the legitimate Imams had sole possession of knowledge or ‘ilm of the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin).
Jabir ibn Hayyan was an alchemist, a discipline that combined science, numerology, philosophy, and esoteric aspects of religion. Commonly referred to as the father of modern chemistry, Jabir ibn Hayyan emphasised systematic experimentation; he aimed to free alchemy from superstition and turn it into a science.
A prolific writer, Jabir produced a number of works on the processes of distillation, calcification, dissolution, crystallisation, and other chemical operations that were subsequently used for many centuries in Islamic regions as well as in Europe, where he came to be known by his Latin name Geber.
Jabir ibn Hayyan’s works, which were translated into Latin in Europe, continued to be influential into the seventeenth century, when his writings were also translated into English, French, and German.
From the Greek chemia, which was based on the ancient Egyptian name for Egypt, keme, meaning ‘black earth.’ The Latin term alchymia is from the Arabic al-kimiya, which refers to the preparation of the Stone or Elixir by the Egyptians.
Alchemy was rooted in a complex spiritual worldview in which everything contains a somewhat universal spirit, and metals were believed not only to be alive, but also to grow inside the Earth. Alchemists built on the Aristotelian philosophy that everything consists of four basic elements – air, fire, water, and earth – and aimed to purify and perfect certain objects.
‘When alchemists found metals such as lead, they thought it to be simply a spiritually and physically immature form of higher metals such as gold. The basest metal, lead, represented the sinful and unrepentant individual who was readily overcome by the forces of darkness … If lead and gold both consisted of fire, air, water, and earth, then surely by changing the proportions of the constituent elements, lead could be transformed into gold, which was considered the best because, by its very nature, it contained the perfect balance of all four elements’1 (Drury).
Alchemists aimed to convert base metals into precious ones using a universal ‘philosopher’s stone,’ a mythical liquid with also the ability to grant the consumer of this liquid eternal life and/or eternal youth. The quest provided a body of knowledge that ultimately led to the sciences of chemistry, metallurgy, and pharmacology.
Isaac Newton, a father of modern physics and co-discoverer of calculus, was greatly influenced by alchemy and his collaborations with alchemists.
The philosopher’s stone was the central symbol of the mystical terminology of alchemy, symbolising perfection, enlightenment, and heavenly bliss.
1Benjamin Radford, What is Alchemy? Live Science (accessed December 2016)
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Robert J. Forbes, A Short History of the Art of Distillation, E.J. Brill, Leiden, Netherlands, 1970
The Three Books on Alchemy by Geber, the Great Philosopher and Alchemist, World Digital Library (accessed December 2016)
Michael Greshko, Isaac Newton’s Lost Alchemy Recipe Rediscovered (accessed December 2016)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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