Chemistry

 

 Any outlines on Islamic chemistry, which can be found in modern history books are usually dire. They omit nearly all Islamic accomplishments in chemistry and, as with other sciences, suppress all the excellent old references and works on the subject accomplished by late 19th-early 20th century historians. The little they grant Muslim chemistry generally focuses on the folkloric side of the subject, such as ‘the stone of wisdom,’ ‘the elixir of life,’ etc.  They also attribute all Islamic achievements to their Greek predecessors. This chapter seeks to refute these and other misconceptions, and show the achievements of Muslim chemists.

 

Misrepresentations of Islamic Chemistry

 

 The misrepresentations of Islamic chemistry come in a variety of forms and substance. Here five dominant cases of misrepresentations are noted. The first relates to the usual claim, that Muslim science accomplished nothing, and at best is nothing but a mere reproduction of Greek science.  The second deals with misattribution of authorship; the third is common to most historians dealing with Islamic science, namely their reliance upon authorities which themselves lack authority in their subject; the fourth deals with another major weakness found in nearly all Western writing on Islamic science and civilisation, and which leaves every reader baffled: the same author praising Islamic achievements and demeaning them in the same breath; the fifth, again, brings into focus the generally condescending attitude towards Islamic sciences, in this instance, chemistry being identified with alchemy.

 

 

The first of these issues, which requires little comment here, as it is repeatedly dealt with in respect to every science, relates to the  usual assertion that Muslim science is nothing but Greek, here referring to  chemistry, Stillman, for instance, tells us that:

‘It is Arabian alchemy that preserved the traditions and literature of the Alexandrian-Greek alchemists, derived from the Syrians during the long period when the culture of Christian Europe was inhospitable to its development. From such Syrian and Arabian manuscripts as have been preserved and examined, it does not appear that during the centuries of their alchemical activity any very notable additions were made to the practical chemistry known to the ancients of the times of Pliny, Dioscorides or the writers of the Theban papyri. Nor was the development of theories of matter and its changes in the direction of a distinct advance  over the Neoplatonism of their Alexandrian masters.

The Arabian writers seemed to have no thought of challenging the authority of the traditional masters of the Art.’[1]

Stillman then concludes with Von Lippmann:

‘Arabian alchemists were numerous from the 9th to the 14th century, Von Lippmann enumerating about sixty Arabian authors who wrote or were reputed to have written on alchemy during that period. Of the contents of many of these writings very little is known. From such writings as have been accessible, Von Lippmann expressed the judgement that neither the Syrians nor the Arabians enriched the knowledge of chemistry with a single new and original thought, being dependent on the authority of the Greek alchemists and producing only increased confusion by their efforts to explain what was to themselves incomprehensible.’[2]

As it progresses, this chapter will show how inane these comments are.

 

 

The second issue relates to the personality of Jabir (Jabeer) (Ibn Hayyan) (722-815); a point of controversy summed up by Dunlop.[3] Primarily, the question is whether Jabir and the Latin  Geber are one and the same, and whether the unrealistic figure of 3000 or so works attributed to him are all his. Many factors enter this equation. First Jabir, by being one of the earliest Muslim scientists (8thcentury) causes his case to be complex. Secondly, he shares his name with another Jabir (Ibn Aflah) the astronomer, who lived in Spain, and that confused many of those who dealt with Islamic science. And the early translators or editors of Islamic science have created much confusion, attributing what belongs to Ibn Aflah to Ibn Hayyan and vice versa, besides confusing locations, centuries and so on. The two Gebers, Lorch notes,[4] have seldom been distinguished until recently. Hence Nicolas Antonio[5] attributes the Summa perfectionis etc, to ‘Geber, alias Mahomed Geber filius Aflah’’ immediately after discussing the genuine Expositio in Ptolemaei Novem Libros.[6] It was to Jabir Ibn Hayyan or a composite Geber that Doctor Johnson[7] referred in his definition of ‘Gibberish’ as…. Anciently written gebrish,…. Probably from the chymical cant, and originally implied the jargon of Geber and his tribe.’[8]

Most of those who followed fell victim to this confusion, including modern historians such as Sherwood Taylor, who says:

‘Geber was long thought to be the eighth century Arabic alchemist Jabir, but it would seem that the Latin  works which go under the name of Geber are not earlier than 1200 and it is at least doubtful if they have Arabic originals.’[9]

Stillman confuses things further:

‘Djaber was a writer of the eighth or ninth century, looked up to with reverence for his learning by the Arabian writers. His contribution to alchemy an chemistry are, however, not important. The false Gheber was a writer of the 13th or 14th centuries, whose personality is unknown, who possessed much more advanced knowledge of chemistry and who, for his greater security or in order to obtain greater prestige for his writings, chose to have them accepted as translations of Arabian works of Gheber (Djaber). As a matter of fact, they were probably written in Latin , following no Arabian original. This judgment long suspected by historians, has been finally confirmed by Berthelot.’[10]

The outline on Jabir further on will show how mistaken Sherwood Taylor, Stillman and others with similar views are.

 

 

The third and more serious problem, which deserves scrutiny here, is that Western historians of science in general, and historians of particular sciences, write on such histories, having little, or no knowledge of the particular histories of China , India , and the Muslim world, nor any understanding of the languages of these civilisations. As is well known, all these civilisations played a major, if not the major part in the evolution of all sciences, especially during the crucial ‘Dark Ages’ of Western Christendom. Yet, because the history of science, or the history of specific sciences, is dealt with by historians who have little or no knowledge of these civilisations, it means that between 70 and 90% of the original foundation of the history of such sciences is ignored or mishandled. To make matters worse, such historians of science, instead of limiting the titles of their works to Europe when writing on the history of science, or of a science, they seek to be global, calling their work, for instance ‘a history of physics,’ when only the European experience is included. This is repeated in every single science, ending up creating a history that is Eurocentric in substance, but purportedly widened to the whole world. Thus, in this particular instance, the history of European chemistry is presented as the history of chemistry. This fallacy, repeated in every science has resulted in a horrendously distorted view of the history of every single science. If one takes Chinese science in this instance, had it not been for Needham,[11] who gave the Chinese civilisation its due place, the Chinese role, absolutely decisive in the birth of most of what we have today, would, otherwise, have never been understood. Islam has not had its Needham, yet, although Sarton, Sezgin,[12] and others referred to here, have given little glimpses of its role in the history of science.

Much worse, even, is when Western historians with little grasp of those non Western civilisations, or their languages, still include a few paragraphs on such civilisations, and pass judgment on such civilisation, generally derogatory, and then come out with conclusions and theories, which completely distort the history of science. Hence, in the case of Islamic science, to fill the Islamic space, such historians rely on their inadequate knowledge, or generally rely on some previous authorities, themselves lacking in authority. Thus, many Western historians rely on the likes of Lynn White Jr and Clagett in mechanics and technology; Delambre and Duhem in relation to astronomy; Rashdall on the history of universities, etc, and so repeat and perpetuate these authors’ aberrations, fallacies and prejudices endlessly. In the specific case of chemistry, many modern historians rely on both Kopp and Berthelot, yet, both Kopp and Berthelot, as Holmyard (both an Arabist and chemist, thus very well placed to pass on judgment) notes, give either little space, or erroneous and misleading information on Islamic chemistry, due partly to Kopp’s unfavourable opinion of Islamic chemistry, and the hasty conclusions drawn by Berthelot from his superficial studies of Islamic material.[13] And neither Kopp, nor Berthelot were Arabists, which, as Holmyard notes, makes their conclusions on Muslim chemistry: ‘unable to stand the test of criticism as more information is available.’[14] Holmyard provides further light on this issue in an essay that remains probably unique in this respect.[15] Holmyard shows how Berthelot, a qualified chemist, had no understanding whatsoever of Arabic, and yet dealt with Muslim chemistry, relying on the help of an Arabist, Houdas, who understood nothing in chemistry, and was thus completely unable to convey the correct technical terminology. Holmyard gives instances of how Houdas misled Berthelot with regard to critical technical expressions and concepts, and how Berthelot himself legitimised such mistranslations by asserting that he had made a strict revision of such translations, when he himself understood not a word of Arabic.[16] In one instance, in a separate article, Holmyard shows how Berthelot alters completely even the meaning of Jabir’s works.[17] One of such titles is: Kitab Istuqus al-Uss al-Awwal.[18] Berthelot translates the title as Le Livre d’Estages, le Premier Myrte (myrtle),’ thus confessing ignorance of the meaning of istuqus and misreading as (myrtle) for uss  (base or foundation.).[19] Hence, the correct title should be: The Book of Foundation, the First Base.[20] Which differs completely from a book on Myrtle, and gives Jabir’s work an entirely different complexion. Moreover, Berthelot being knowledgeable in Greek, and medieval Latin  studies, ended up in the same quandary, and committing precisely the same errors many, or most of his colleague historians of science, did in their own subjects. Berthelot found himself on one hand not being able to throw light on the legacy of Islam, which was often transported bodily and unintelligently into the Latin world (during the Middle Ages), and on the other had, reading into the Muslim works meanings and conceptions which were, in fact, of spontaneous, and later European birth. In addition, Berthelot was unable to realise that facts and theories he believed to be definitely European are to be found in the writings of Muslim chemists.[21]

It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find huge gaps between the writings of Berthelot, Kopp and their followers (the majority of historians of the subject,) on one hand, and that of Holmyard, Levey, Ruska,[22] and Meyerhof (who were more favourable to Islamic chemistry) on the other. Where there is a greater problem, is when historians of science, rather than balancing the two sides, choose, because it suits their anti Islamic prejudices and bias, to use Berthelot or Kopp instead of Holmyard, Ruska and Levey; or when they do worse and suppress from the history of the science any reference to Holmyard, Levey, Ruska etc. The picture that, then, prevails is that of an extremely biased anti Islamic history of chemistry. Here are two instances taken at random. First, Moore’s history of chemistry, where the reference to Islamic chemistry is no more than a few paragraphs, and where we read:

‘In 640 Egypt  was overrun by Arabs. They were brave but ignorant. They found books in Egypt on how to make gold and cure ills, which they translated into Arabic, and for a century a stream of books poured into the Mohammedan world through Greece. In this way Egyptian knowledge reached Europe in the form of Latin  translations from Arabic works, and some thought that the Arabs were the originators in chemistry… Geber is the principal alchemist… and his books translated into Latin are preserved in European libraries. The latter books date from about the 13th century, and Berthelot, after comparing them with the Arabic writings of Geber, came to the conclusion that they were the work of another hand, and had been attributed to Geber in order to enhance his prestige. It is interesting to note that Berthelot found the Latin works superior from the chemical point of view. This writer is called the pseudo Geber. He was probably a cleric well versed in science….. Geber made experiments but his writings are full of unintelligible mysticism. His chief aim was to prepare the magical transmuting tincture, elixir, or powder of projection.’[23]

And, Stillman:

‘M. Berthelot in his researches has shown clearly the Greek origin of the Arabian alchemy, the connection of their practical chemical knowledge with that of Greek-Egyptian sources, and that much of the later chemical advances previously attributed to the them (the Muslims) were of later origin, and perhaps due to European chemists of the 13th  and 14th centuries. Thus, there is no known reference in Arab texts to alcohol, nor to nitric acid, aqua regia or sulphuric acid, inventions attributed to them by Berthelot himself in earlier writing.

Kopp also referring to the Arabian alchemists of the 11th to 13th centuries,[24] says that from such writings as were accessible at his time one learns no new facts, and though by preserving and transmitting chemical knowledge they contributed to the advance of the science, yet their writings are without interest in the history of the development of Chemistry.’[25] 

These views, shared by the overwhelming majority of Western historians, will be shown in this chapter to be completely wrong. It  will be, for instance, clearly shown how Muslim chemistry made numerous breakthroughs Greek chemistry was never acquainted with, and how Muslims did make those inventions denied to them by such historians (such as of acids), as the recipes for such products are found clearly written in Muslim works.

 

 

Fourth is the problem found in nearly all works by Western historians dealing with Islamic science and civilisation, that is the countless amount of contradictions found in the same work, and often on the same page, on one hand praising Islamic accomplishments, and on the other deriding them so much that the reader, rather than being enlightened, is left completely confused. Here is an instance from Artz outlining Islamic chemistry, or as he puts it, alchemy. [26] He says:

‘Modern chemistry grew, in some measure, out of Islamic alchemy. Alchemy seems to have begun in China  as early as the fourth century B.C.; the chief goal of Chinese alchemy was the prolongation of life. It is next heard of in Egypt  in the first Christian centuries. The Muslim alchemists seem to have derived their inspiration mostly from Egypt. In its beginnings, alchemy was mixed with sheer superstition and magic. The ideas and the recipes of the alchemists were drawn from religion, Greek science and philosophy, from folklore, and from industrial processes such as the making of mercury, ammonia, alum, soda, arsenic, steel, cloth, leather, and glass. It had many connections with astrology and other branches of occultism and with fraudulent deception. The basic beliefs of the alchemists were the idea of Aristotle that all matter consists of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, in various combinations, that gold is the "noblest" and "purest" of all metals, silver is next, that the transmutation of one metal into another is possible by an alteration in the admixture of the elements, and, finally, that base metals may be turned into noble ones by means of a precious substance often called the fifth element or quintessence. Along with much experimenting that followed these theories, and the belief that they could discover an "elixir of life" that would prolong life, there was a great deal of practical experimenting done in the making of glass, leather, and cloth, the working of metals, and in the preparation of drugs. The first laboratories in history, about which much is known, were those set up by the Islamic alchemists; they practiced distillation and sublimation and developed much of the chemical apparatus in use up to about I650. The alchemistic treatises usually describe clearly the apparatus employed, but they deliberately treat the substances used in an obscure fashion and it has been nearly impossible to decipher most of the recipes. The commonest excuse given for this mystification is that a plain exposition would result in political upheavals due to the inevitable fall in the price of gold, which would follow a revelation of the secret of transmutation.

The greatest name in Islamic alchemy is that of Geber (Jabir Ibn Hayyan), who may have lived in the ninth century, though many later works of alchemy were also attributed to him.  He improved methods for evaporation, filtration, sublimation, distillation, and crystallization. Geber described scientifically the two principal operations of chemistry: calcination and reduction. He knew how to prepare chemical substances like sulphide of mercury, arsenious oxide and lead carbonate. A large part of his writings were devoted to chemical theories that have since gone with the wind. But the by-products of his work have endured; and his emphasis on the value of experimentation was passed on to later scientists. "The first essential," he wrote, "is that you should conduct experiments. For he who does not conduct experiments will never attain to the least degree of mastery. It must be taken as an absolutely rigorous principle that any proposition which is not supported by proofs is nothing more than an assertion which may be true or may be false."[27] Rhazes improved on Geber's classification of substances. In place of Geber's traditional classification of mineral substances into bodies (as gold, silver), souls (as sulphur and arsenic), and "spirits" (as mercury and sal-ammoniac), Rhazes classified substances as animal, vegetable, and mineral. A concept much more basic he held, however, was the common theory that sulphur and mercury were the primary principles of things. This lasted as one alternative to the four elements of Aristotle until well into the seventeenth century. Avicenna wrote some chapters on alchemy in one of his longest works. He flatly denies the possibility of transmuting metals, but, in spite of his protests, the alchemistic theories lived on. The work of the Islamic alchemists yielded some positive results, but they never freed themselves from a lot of scientific and metaphysical preconceptions taken over from the Greeks and superstitions inherited from later periods, and, without thermometers, barometers, accurate watches, or air-pumps, their work could never really move into modern conceptions of science. It is as transmitters, rather than as innovators, that they take their place in the long history of science.’[28]

Out of this outline, one is left greatly confused. First Artz clearly states that modern chemistry grew out of Islamic contributions, that Muslims rid the science of its myths and folklore, that they innovated by introducing experimentation, the modern laboratory, the classification of substances, etc, and then, in the end, he concludes that Muslims were not innovators, but were mere transmitters. It is not just that Artz contradicts himself, but also, as the outline below will show, he contributes many fallacies. The Muslims did transform the science fundamentally from what it was before them. It was they who cleaned it of its folklore and myths, and attacked the works of alchemists seeking to transmute metals. Their writing, contrary to what Artz holds, was far from being obscure, and their recipes and experiments were clearly stated. It was also the Muslims who set the foundations of modern chemistry through experimentation, the laboratory, the technical jargon, the manufacturing and use of chemical substances, and so on and so forth. And should anyone fail to be convinced, they only have to compare pre-Islamic alchemy with Muslim chemistry and modern chemistry, and see whether, as Artz and nearly all modern historians on the subject assert, Muslims contributed little or no advances to the subject.

 

 

Fifth, as just noted, is that when dealing with Islamic chemistry, Western historians use the word Alchemy instead of chemistry, which also distorts the picture. This corruption is based initially on the misuse of Arabic. The word Alchemy, indeed, is a corrupt translation of the Arabic word Chemia (chemistry,) preceded by the article Al (which means: the), and which the Arabs always use (like the French and others for that matter) in front of their subject such as Al-Tib (medicine) al-Riyadiyat (mathematics) etc If this was applied to other subjects, it would become al-medicine; al-mathematics, al-geography and so on Only Lacroix who notes that Alchemy comes from the adjunction of the Arabic article al to chemia,[29] and Carra de Vaux, who explains the matter, albeit briefly, have had the presence of mind to point to this, however succinctly.[30] Al-Chemy should be translated literally: The Chemistry and not Alchemy in English, and La Chimie and not l'alchimie in French; just as some old expressions such as Alcoran, Alfaqih (found in pre early 20thcentury literature) have been put into their correct form: The Qur’an; The faqih etc. The fact that only Westerners translated or dealt with the subject of chemistry, followed by very inept Muslim scholars meant that this corrupt word of al-chemy has become the norm. 

Other than this linguistic mishap, the main reason why alchemy is used instead of chemistry when dealing with Islamic chemistry is more insidious. Chemistry means a modern science; alchemy means the amateur, the occult, the second or third rate. Alchemy belongs to the Muslims; chemistry, of course, does not. This notion that alchemy ended with the Muslims and chemistry began with Western Christendom has no historical base. The reason is simple: all sciences began in some part of the world, most likely China  or the Ancient Middle East, or Egypt , or India , at level: 1, the most basic, and then graduated to levels 2, 3, 4, and higher, through the centuries, until they reached us at the level they are, and will evolve in different places in the future. This is the story of every science, and of every sign of our modern world. Thus, it was not that we had alchemy at one point, and then, with Western Christendom it became chemistry. Chemistry began under one form, associated with occult and similar practices, and then evolved, gradually becoming more refined through the centuries until it took the form of the modern science we have today. Holmyard makes a note or how chemistry came to Islam via Alexandria, clothed in mysticism and infected with charlatanry and magic.[31]

The shift from alchemy to chemistry happened precisely under Islam.  It was a study despised and often considered to be unlawful.[32] Hence, Lacroix points out, in Islam, ‘men of superior intelligence’ shook themselves free of the purely theosophical views which had too long influenced, to the exclusion of all others, the eastern philosophers and sought in chemistry for something higher than the chimerical transmutation of metals.[33] Ifrah notes how by stripping it of some of its arithmology and magic, the early Muslim scholars began to prepare the way for the creation and expansion of modern chemistry.[34] And playing a central role in this shift is the faith of Islam, itself, which bans, shuns, and warns categorically against every form of magic, occult practices etc.[35]

The other reason why chemistry as a science is due to the Muslims, Durant insists, is that where the Greeks (so far as we know) were confined to industrial experience and vague hypothesis, ‘the Saracens’ introduced precise observation, controlled experiment, and careful records.[36] Al-Kindi, for instance, by a series of ingenious experiments was one of the first to discover the secrets of nature, whilst Jabir discovered and analysed red oxide and the dichloride of mercury (a corrosive sublimate), nitric acid, nitrate of silver, etc, and laying down the true principles of chemistry in his research on the fusion, the purifying, and the malleability of metals.[37]

The Muslims invented and named the alembic (al-anbiq), chemically analysed innumerable substances, composed lapidaries, distinguished alkalis and acids, investigated their affinities, studied and manufactured hundreds of drugs.[38] ‘A thousand incidental discoveries,’ Durant concludes, which turned the pre-Islamic alchemy into chemistry.[39]

 

These being roughly some of the generalised forms of distortion of the subject, the following offers an alternative approach to the history of Islamic chemistry that differs from that found in mainstream history, and that also highlights the Islamic role in the rise of modern chemistry and chemical industries.



[1] J.M. Stillman: The Story of Alchemy and Early Chemistry (Dover Publications; New York; 1960), pp. 174-5.

[2] Von Lipmann; pp. 396 ff and p. 424 in J.M. Stillman: The Story of Alchemy; p. 182.

[3] D.M. Dunlop: Arab Civilisation 800-1500 A.D (Longman Group Ltd, 1971), pp 209-11.

[4] R.P. Lorch: The Astronomy of Jabir Ibn Aflah; op cit; p. 86.

[5] Bibliotheca Hispana Vetus (1788); II; p. 404.

[6] In R.P. Lorch: The Astronomy of Jabir Ibn Aflah; op cit; p. 86.

[7] A Dictionary of the English Language; (1755).

[8] In R.P. Lorch: The Astronomy of Jabir Ibn Aflah; op cit; p. 86.

[9] F. Sherwood Taylor: A Short History of Science (William Heinemann Ltd, London, 1939), p.113.

[10] J.M. Stillman: The Story of Alchemy; op cit; p. 176.

[11] J. Needham: Science and Civilisation in China ; 7 vols (Cambridge University Press; 1954 ff.)

[12] F. Sezgin has been the nearest to Needham. His work in German, though, has remained mostly inaccessible to the general audience.

[13] E.J. Holmyard: Chemistry in Islam; in Toward Modern Science (R. M. Palter ed);  op cit; Vol 1, pp. 160-70. At pp 160-1.

[14] Ibid.

[15] E.J. Holmyard: A Critical examination of Berthelot’s work upon Arabic chemistry. ISIS, vol 6; pp. 479-99; reprinted from Chemistry and Industry Review, Published by the Society of Chemical Industry; vol 42. 958-63; 976-80 (London; 1923).

[16] Ibid; pp. 482-3.

[17] E.J. Holmyard: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine; vol 16 (1923), pp. 46-57.

[18] Lithographed. India  (1891).

[19] E.J. Holmyard: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; p. 48.

[20] Ibid.

[21] E.J. Holmyard: A Critical; op cit; pp. 483-4.

[22] Works such as:

-J. Ruska: Das Buch der Alaune and salze (Berlin, 1935).

-J. Ruska: ‘Al-Rasi (Rhases) als Chemiker', Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Chemie 35, 1912, pp 719-24.

-J. Ruska: ‘Die Alchemie des Avicenna,' ISIS 21 (1933); pp. 14-51.

-J. Ruska: ‘Die Alchemie ar-Razi's', Der Islam 22 (1935),  281-319.

[23] F.J. Moore: A History of Chemistry (Mc Graw Hill; New York; 1939), p. 23.

[24] Kopp: Geschichte der Chemie; I; p. 58. in J.M. Stillman: The Story; op cit; pp. 182-3.

[25] J.M. Stillman: The Story; op cit; pp. 182-3.

[26] F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; pp. 165-7.

[27] E.J. Holmyard: The Great Chemists (London, 1929).

[28] F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; pp. 165-7.

[29] P. Lacroix: Science and Literature in the Middle Ages (Frederick and Ungar Publishing Co; new York; 1964), p.176.

[30] Carra de Vaux: Les Penseurs, op cit; at p. 374.

[31] E.J. Homyard: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; op cit; p. 54.

[32] Ibid.

[33] P. Lacroix: Science and Literature; op cit; p.176.

[34] G. Ifrah: The Universal History of Numbers (The Harvill Press; London; 1994), p. 519.

[35] See Surah 113, for instance.

[36] W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit; p. 244.

[37] P. Lacroix: Science and Literature; op cit; p.177.

[38] W. Durant: The Age of Faith; op cit; p. 244.

[39] Ibid.




 
 

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