LearningAbout and From Islamic Chemistry:


 The Western interest in, and knowledge of, Muslim chemistry was intensified by the 12th century translations from Arabic into Latin  carried out in Toledo . Amongst the translators was Robert of Chester who translated  Liber de compositione alchemise, whilst Hugh of Santalla made the earliest Latin translation of lawh azzabarjad (The Emerald Table). Alfred of Sareshel translated the part of Ibn Sina 's Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) that deals with chemistry.[1] It is, however, as usual, the Italian, Gerard of Cremona, who made the more valuable translations, such as of Al-Razi 's De aluminibus et salibus, whose Arabic original is preserved.[2] The many versions of this work had a decisive influence on chemical developments in the West, more generally on mineralogy.[3] A later translation was of Kitab al arais wa atayib al-nafais by al-Hasib, a treatise on precious metals and perfumes written in 1301. The most interesting chapter is the final one on the knowledge of the art of mosaics, including materials to employ, solutions to prepare, the manipulations used for the manufacturing of the product, all precise and accurately listed.[4] Kitab al arais wa atayib al-nafais can be found in its original, but also in a German translation.[5]

Islamic pharmacology with its chemical content received a good deal of interest on the part of European translators. A treatise by Al-Maridini of Baghdad  and Cairo  was translated as De Medicinis universalibus et particularibus, and that of Ibn al-Wafid of Spain was made into the Medicamentis simplicibus'.[6] Peter of Abano (1250-1316) translated and added a supplement to the work of al-Maridini under the title De Veneris.


The medical aspects of Muslim chemistry have recently attracted the interest of both Meyerhof[7] and Levey.[8] The main subjects of such Muslim pharmacy, according to Levey,  are:

1) Medical formularies which include many kinds of compound drugs, pills, pastilles, powders, syrups, oils, lotions, toothpastes...

2) Books on poisons.

3) Synonymatic: treatises, in which are found lists of simples usually in alphabetical order to help the reader to identify the drug in other languages.

4) Tabular, synoptic texts, whereby long texts are turned into tabular work for quick usage, and abstracts made of some treatises for the same purpose.

5) Lists of materia medica which include therapeutic considerations and opinions of various writers on the subject, preparations of the drugs and descriptions..

6) Substitute drugs in case one drug for whatever reason was not available, a substitute was provided.

7) Works on medical specialities available either as separate treatises or as sections of large encyclopaedias of medicine.[9]


Many aspects of Islamic chemistry have been dealt with by Holmyard, Kraus, and above all Ruska. Much of such material, however, is only available in German.[10] Despite such focus, there is still no comprehensive work on Islamic chemistry by any single author. Other than lack of interest amongst today’s scholarship, in particular, practical obstacles stand in the way of this task.  Western scholars, as De Vaux  points out, are hampered by the fact that many aspects of Islamic chemistry, notably industrial technology, remain too technical for the Arabist to comprehend.[11] For the chemist, it will be Arabic (the language) that will be hard to comprehend. Another problem is difficult access to manuscripts; Sherwood Taylor points to hundreds of Islamic works on chemistry, and only very few are translated into a European tongue.[12] The poor translation of  manuscripts already ‘edited or translated’ also stands in the way. Apart from Jabir, and al-Razi, the contribution of Muslim chemists has been neglected. Apart from a few extracts on al-Majriti, little is known of the Muslim-Spanish chemical tradition. Yet, as Holmyard insists, the study of Muslim chemistry in Spain is highly crucial due to the fact that it was from that country that Muslim chemistry passed to Europe.[13]

[1] See. G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2 for translations of Muslim science into Latin  and other languages.

[2] J. Ruska: Das Buch; op cit; mentioned in R. Halleux: The Reception of Arabic Alchemy in the West, in the Encyclopaedia (Rashed ed) op cit, pp 886-902, at p. 892.

[3] R. Halleux: The Reception, op cit, p. 892.

[4] A. Mieli: La Science Arabe; op cit; p.157

[5] In H. Ritter, J. Ruska, F.Sarre, R. Winderlich: Orientalische Steinbucher und persische fayence-Technik (Istanbul, 1935).

[6] M. Meyerhof: Science and medicine, in The Legacy of Islam, (T. Arnold and A. Guillaume); pp 311-55; at pp 331-2.

[7] M. Meyerhof: ‘Esquisse d'histoire de la pharmacologie et de la botanique chez les Musulmans d'Espagne,' al-Andalus 3 (1935), pp. 1-41.

[8] M. Levey: Early Arabic Pharmacology; op cit.

[9] Ibid;  pp 68-70.

 [10] See for instance:

-P. Kraus: Jabir Ibn Hayyan; Textes choisis (Paris, Cairo , 1935).

-J. Ruska: ‘Al-Rasi; op cit.

-J. Ruska: ‘Die Alchemie des Avicenna; op cit.

-J. Ruska: ‘Die Alchemie ar-Razi's'; op cit.

-J. Ruska: Das Buch der Alaune; op cit.

[11]Carra De Vaux: Les Penseurs; op cit; p. 391.

[12] F. Sherwood Taylor: A Short History; op cit; p.81.

[13] E.J. Holmyard: Maslama; op cit; p. 293.