Alternative Approach to the History of Islamic Chemistry:


 Firstly, the sources. One of the most reliable sources is Holmyard, who in his Makers of Chemistry, for instance, traces the evolution of the science from very early times until the 20th century.[1] His work includes none of the usual gaps of centuries one finds with others; nor does it include ‘sudden’, ‘enlightened’ ‘miraculous’ breakthroughs out of nothing during the so called Renaissance, which turns science into hocus-pocus. (More on Holmyard as this work progresses.)

Levey’s contribution is equally instructive, especially in a good series of articles in Chymia,[2] which deal with a variety of subjects. In Volume 7 (1961) of this review, for instance, Levey deals with inks, glues, and erasure fluids, and makes a preliminary survey of Islamic chemical technology (pp. 57-72). Levey highlights the pioneering works of the Tunisian Ibn Badis (1007-1061), who in his Umdat al-Kuttab (Staff of the Scribes) in twelve chapters, writes amongst others on: the excellence of the pen, the preparation of types of inks, the preparation of coloured inks, the colouring of dyes and mixtures, secret writing, the making of paper, and so on. In the same issue Levey also deals with the development of the Islamic atomic theory (pp.40-56). In volume eight, Levey looks at Al-Kindi’s views of Aqrabadhins (pharmacists) (pp.11-20), whilst in volume nine, he considers matters of chemical technology and commercial law in Early Islam (pp.19-25). Focus in this latter article is rightly placed on the office of the Muhtasib (Market Inspector), the law and commercial chemical applications.

Other sources are the Islamic manuscripts, themselves. These should be re-read and re-translated if available in translation. Those that have not been looked at should be edited and translated.  It is also important to return to older sources, such as Wiedemannn, Singer, Ruska, and Meyerhof.



The second step is a shift of focus; avoiding the usual, stale, dated approach chosen by others, who have elected to demean the contribution of Islamic chemistry, mainly by focusing on the tedious, obscure, and un-scientific aspects of Jabir’s work to describe such Muslim chemistry.[3] Such a partial approach completely distorts the reality of Islamic chemistry as can be seen from the following extracts. Stillman, for instance, tells us:

‘From the half dozen treatises which are published by Berthelot, one can obtain a fair idea of the kind of writing which characterises the real Djaber: his style is diffuse and verbose. He is interested in the philosophy of matter, its constitution and change rather than in the experimental manipulation……

From an examination of these works of Djaber, there is not found anything that suggests a real advance over the Greek alchemists, either in knowledge or chemical facts or in theories.’ [4]


‘The body of the writings of Djaber that have been translated at the instance of M. Berthelot and published by him, are fine spun metaphysical discussions upon the nature of matter and its changes and the application of these. There is very little allusion indeed to anything conveying any comprehensible idea of actual substances or methods.’ [5]

These views by Stillman, shared by most Western historians, are completely false, and Jabir’s achievements in scientific terms, as briefly outlined here, are not just considerable, they form the first elements of modern chemistry in many regards.[6] This includes his writings on chemical properties in Al Khawass al-kabir (The Great Book of Chemical Properties), on weights and measures in al-Mawazin, Chemical combinations in Al-Mizaj, and dyes in Al-Asbagh.[7] Jabir also built a precise scale that weighed items 6,480 times smaller than the kg; anticipating Dalton by ten centuries; and defined chemical combinations as a union of the elements together, in particles too small for the naked eye to see, without loss of character.[8] Jabir pioneered in the basic chemical operations of sublimation, liquefaction, purification, oxidation, amalgamation, crystallization, distillation, evaporation, and filtration.[9] On calcination, for instance, he wrote a whole treatise, of which is this passage:

‘Souls and spirits [i.e volatile substances like sulphur and sal ammoniac] will not sustain calcinations, since the latter can be affected only with a very hot fire; now spirits will not sustain a very hot fire as they are volatile and fly away from it. Moreover, the aim of calcinations is nothing more than the removal of impurities form bodies and their complete combustion so that the bodies may be purified and remain unadulterated and unsullied; in a spirit, however, there is no necessity for the same treatment as a metallic body, and all that is needed is the first process in calcinations [i.e gentle heating], when the same effect is produced on the spirit as [complete] calcination effects on the metals, namely, full purification. Understand that clearly, therefore. As for the process which is to spirits what calcinations is to metals, I swear by my Master that thou will find it to be sublimation, and on account of that we have devoted a book to sublimation, following the present book.’[10]

Jabir classified substances into 1. Spirits, i.e substances, which completely evaporate when fired; 2. metals i.e substances, which are fusible and malleable; 3. bodies or mineral substances, i.e fusible or non fusible substances which are not malleable and can be pulverised.[11] The spirits were sulphur, arsenic, mercury, ammonia and camphor; and the metals were lead, tin, gold, silver, copper, iron and karsini, a substance which was undiscoverable, according to al-Razi, but which the geographer al-Qazwini identified as used for ‘making pots and bells in some countries.’[12] It might, therefore, have been an alloy like bronze. As for the bodies, they were complex substances containing varying degrees of ‘spirit.’[13] Jabir also offered a theory on the geological formation of metals, and made noteworthy observations on the doubtless existence of the magnetic force.[14] In his book on furnaces, Jabir gives a description of a furnace proper for smelting metals, and from the fourteenth chapter of the fourth part of the first book Sum of Perfection, it is obvious that the method of calcination or oxidising iron, copper, tin, and lead, and also mercury and arsenic were well known to him.[15] He gives a description of a furnace for distilling, and a pretty detailed account of the glass, stoneware, or metallic aludel and alembic, by means of which the process was conducted.[16] He was also in the habit of distilling by surrounding his aludel with hot ashes, to prevent it from being broken.[17] Other contributions by Jabir include recipes for making cheap, illuminating ink for manuscripts, and he mentions the use of manganese dioxide in glass making. He was also acquainted with citric acid and other organic substances.[18]  He identified alkalines, acids, salts, paints and greases, and prepared sulphuric acid, nitro-hydrochloric acid (used to dissolve metals), caustic soda and a multitude of salts such as sulphates, nitrates and potassium and sodium carbonates; his association of metals and salts promoting foundry techniques and glazing processes for tiles and other ceramics.[19] The method of distilling per descensum, as is practiced in the smelting of zinc, was also known to him, as he describes an apparatus for the purpose, and gives several examples of such distillation in his writings.[20] Jabir also describes processes for the preparation of steel, the refinement of metals, and also for dyeing, making varnishes to waterproof cloth, preparing hair-dyes, etc.[21] Thus, a much vaster repertoire of accomplishments, which completely contradicts the miserable outlines one finds in most works touching on Muslim chemistry.



Third is the necessity to deviate from the usual distortions, which associate magic, the occult and quacks with Islamic science. Nobody, in truth, did as much as the Muslims to demark science from un-scientific practices that they had inherited from their predecessors. Jabir himself is all too often accused of dabbling in alchemical practices such as transmuting gold and silver, yet, in his prologue to the ‘Book of Mercy,’ he says:

‘I have seen people giving themselves over to the search for the art of (transmuting) gold and silver, in ignorance and without consideration, and I have seen that they are of two classes, the deceivers and the deceived. I am filled with feelings of mercy and compassion (farahimtu (Arabic for I showed pity) because they waste their money which God has given them and weary their bodies in a fruitless search . . ., and for the deceived, because in addition to their toils they lose also their souls uselessly for but a slight portion of the goods of the present world.... I have therefore composed a detailed and clear account which no one of the least intelligence can examine with feelings of anger, the profit of which will be obvious, and which will at once free the reader's mind from ignorance and error and save him from losing his money.’[22]

Ibn Sina , too, in The Book of Minerals, attacks the artisans who dye metals in order to give them the outside resemblance of silver and gold. He asserts that fabrication of silver and gold from other metals is ‘practically impossible and unsustainable from a scientific and philosophical point of view.'[23]

Al-Kindi, for his part, wrote specially against so-called transmutation, where alchemists could turn ordinary stones into precious ones. Al-Kindi’s work is in fact adequately titled: Kitab at-tanbih ‘al khad al-kimiyyawiyyin (The Book for Warning Against the Alchemists.) In a bizarre twist, in fact, some have seen in this work evidence that Islamic scientists wrote against chemistry (damned if they did, damned if they did not.) The fact is that, whilst he wrote against alchemy, al-Kindi (just like Ibn Sina ) is credited with many works on chemistry, notably his Kitab al-kimiya fil-itr wat-tas’idat (The Book of Chemistry of Perfumes and Distillation), which includes 500 recipes for cosmetic products.[24]

An account of Ibn Sina ’s views on metals was given by a Al-Jildaki, according to whom:

‘Avicenna considered that each of the six metals was a distinct species of one genus, just as the plant genus included different species, and the animal genus likewise. And in the same way that it is impossible to convert a horse into a dog or a bird into a horse, or a man into a bird, so it is impossible to convert silver into gold or copper into silver or lead into iron.’[25]

Ibn Khaldun , too, denounces the frauds who apply on top of silver jewellery a thin layer of gold, and make other manipulations of metals.[26] For him, the Divine wisdom wanted gold and silver to be rare metals to guarantee profit and wealth. Their disproportionate growth would make transactions useless and would ‘run contrary to such wisdom.'[27]


This Islamic denunciation of ‘alchemy’ is interpreted by Newman as an obstacle to the advance of technology and applied science.[28] Thus, Newman says with regard to Ibn Sina ’s views:

‘It may be tempting for the modern reader to view Avicenna’s rejection of alchemy as a forward looking event that foreshadowed the weaning of chemistry from the ‘irrational’ or pseudo-scientific’ doctrines of alchemy. A closer look will reveal, however, that it was Avicenna, and not the alchemists, who held reactionary views. Avicenna begins his attack with the ‘self evident’ assertion that natural products are intrinsically superior to their artificial counterparts and that the latter cannot possibly match up to the naturally occurring exemplars of which they are copies. As two modern commentators on the De congelatione have remarked, Avicenna would have been on the side of the ‘general public [today], who usually imagine that synthetic indigo, for example, is not veritable indigo, but only very good imitation.’[29]

Newman adds:

‘Whatever the sources of his (Ibn Sina ) views, the universal proposition that art is inferior to nature, coupled to the belief that natural species are intransmutable, constituted an attack not on alchemy alone but on the totality of technology and applied science. … The effects of the De congelatione were by no means restricted to alchemy but served to crystallize an anti technological bias in many areas.’[30]   

Then, in his conclusion, Newman tells that his purpose was:

‘To show that here, in these obscure treatises of the thirteenth century, a propagandist literature of technological development was born.’[31]

Setting aside Newman’s attacks on Ibn Sina  for his denunciation of alchemy, Newman also attributes to a culture (Latin ) and a century (13th) innovative processes in the science, which in fact preceded them by centuries as has been shown already, and can also be seen in the following, early Islamic contributions without which chemistry would not have emerged into modern science the way, and at the time, it did.

Newman is not alone, however, in misattributing, to the Christian West, 13th century and subsequent chemical breakthroughs, which in fact are owed to Muslim scholars, as the following highlights through a number of instances.


[1] E.J. Holmyard: Makers of Chemistry (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1931).

[2] Edited by H.M. Leicester; University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

[3] For instance:

-Georges Anawati, Arabic alchemy, in Encyclopaedia (Rashed ed) pp. 853-85.

-C. Ronan: The Arabian Science; op cit.

And worst of the lot: Seyyed H.S.Nasr: Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge; 1987).

[4] J.M. Stillman: The Story of Alchemy; op cit; p. 177.

[5] Ibid; p. 179.

[6] The best outline on Jabir’s works is E.J. Holmyard: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; op cit.

[7] I. and L. Al-Faruqi: The Cultural Atlas; op cit; p. 328.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Most particularly from A. M. Kettani: Science and Technology ; op cit; at p. 78, and Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs de l'Islam, op cit.

[10] From Kitab al-Taklis (No 61; supra; p. 52); in E.J. Holmyard: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; op cit; p. 57.

[11] In R. Arnaldez-L.Massignon: Arabic Science; in Ancient and Medieval Science; ed by R. Taton (Thames and Hudson; London; English tr; 1963), pp. 385-421. at p. 413.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] H.K. Said: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; in Proceedings of the First International Symposium for the History of Arabic Science held in 1976 (Aleppo ; 1978), pp. 138-43; at pp. 140-1.

[15] T. Thomson: The History of Chemistry (H Colburn and R. Bentley Publishers; London; 1830), p. 121.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] E.J. Holmyard: Makers; op cit; at pp. 59-60;

[19] G.M. Wickens: The Middle East; op cit; p. 113.

[20] T. Thomson: The History of Chemistry; op cit; pp. 121-2.

[21] E.J. Holmyard: Makers, op cit; p. 59 fwd.

[22] Jabir Ibn Hayyan: Kitab-al-Rahma (Book of Mercy); prologue; in D. M. Dunlop: Arab Civilisation; op cit; p. 211.

[23] G. Anawati: Arabic Alchemy, op cit, p.877. Anawati manages to use such reflections as evidence of Islamic attacks on science. Neither Ibn Sina  nor Ibn Khaldun   attacked science, or chemistry, but the crooked versions of it as their quotations make it very clear. 

[24] A. Djebbar: Une Histoire; op cit; 346.

[25] See E.J. Holmyard and D.C. Mandeville’s translation and edition of Avicennae De Congelatione et Conglutinations Lapidum (Paris; Geuthner; 1927), p.7.

[26] For greater detail on Ibn Khaldun ’s view of alchemy, see Prof Ead of the Cairo  Science Heritage Centre at:

[27] G. Anawati: Arabic, op cit, p. 881.

[28] W. Newman: Technology  and Alchemical Debate in the Late Middle Ages; ISIS, 80; 1989; pp. 423-45. at pp. 428-9.

[29] E.J. Holmyard and Mandeville, in Avicenna De congelatione; op cit; p. 45; n.5.

[30] W. Newman: Technology ; op cit; P. 429.

[31] Ibid; P. 443.