Abū AbdAllah/Abū Mūsa Jābir ibn Hayyān al-Sūfī al-Azdī/Al-Tūsī, fl. 2nd/8th century?
ibn Hayyān is at once the most enigmatic and one of the most important figures
of the history of Islamic science. Reigning for centuries as the supreme
alchemical authority both in mediaeval Islam and the Latin West, as a historical personage Jābir is still shrouded in mystery, and no
factual claims about him can be made with certainty. Indeed, both in the early
Islamic tradition and in modern scholarship there circulates the opinion that Jābir
never existed at all, and that all writings attributed to him are apocryphal. On
the other end, the dominant received tradition, as well as popular perception,
presupposes Jābirs historicity, considering him that great Muslim alchemist
of the 2nd/8th century who was a close disciple of the sixth Shīī Imām
Jafar al-Sādiq (d. 147/765), and accepting the authenticity of all writings
the Arabic tradition has attributed to him. This latter view is also espoused in
a learned manner by the contemporary scholar Fuat Sezgin, as well as by the
modern historian of alchemy and chemistry, E. J. Holmyard.
very large body of Arabic writings, many of them highly tantalizing, pass under
the name of Jābir ibn Hayyān. This corpus
Jābirianum, of which no less than 500 titles were restituted by Paul Kraus
(see below), is generally described as alchemicalbut this rubric is
disparaging. The corpus is more than a collection of recipes to transmute base
metals into goldin fact, gold-making (aurifiction or aurifaction, see
Needham) is really a very minor preoccupation of these writings. The scope here
is vast: from cosmology to music, from medicine to magic, from biology to
chemical technology, from geometry to grammar, from metaphysics to prosody, from
logic to artificial generation of living beings, from trickery to numerology;
and permeating throughout the corpus is a dark dust of religio-political
writings of a radical Shīī kind, expressing a characteristic chiliasm,
along with astrological predictions, and symbolic Imāmī myths.
was this enormous scope of the Jābirian corpus and its size that constituted
largely, though not exclusively, the grounds for Paul Kraus to conclude that
these texts were not the work of a single author, and that they were written no
earlier than the 3rd/9th century, and took some one hundred years to complete.
On the constructive side, Kraus identified these authors as a fraternity of Ismāīlī
sages, and declared that if a historical Jābir existed at all, he may have
written only one text, the Kitāb al-Rahma
al-Kabir (The Great Book of Mercy). This view, expressed by a scholar who
still remains the greatest modern authority on Jābir, has generally been
accepted by the bulk of contemporary historians of science in the West. The
Holmyard-Sezgin position, on the other hand, has been received with much
reservation, and often ignored altogether.
my book, Names, Natures, and Things, the first full-scale study of Jābir in
the English language, I had pointed out what I considered the problematic nature
of Krauss position, casting doubt on the specifically Ismāīlī character
of the Jābirian corpus, re-surveying the size of the corpus, re-examining the
nature of the citation of and references to Greek works in it, re-opening the
question of Jābir-Jafar relationship, inter alia. I had refrained from making a positive identification of
the authorship of these writings or making a definitive pronouncement on Jābirs
historicity. But another scholar, Pierre Lory, has made a suggestion which I now
tentatively espouse. Lory suggests that it may be safe to assume the historical
existence of a 2nd/8th century Muslim alchemist named Jābir ibn Hayyān, and
also the existence of an authentic small core of writingsbut that the corpus
Jābirianum as it was eventually constituted is an apocryphal growth around
this genuine core. The notorious Jābir-Problem, an expression coined by
Julius Ruska in the past century, now rests at this juncture.
European career has its own complications. He was widely known in the medieval
Latin West mostly as Geber, and at least three of his treatises were
translated into Latin. But Jābirs reputation was so commanding that a large
number of originally Latin alchemical
writings have been falsely attributed to him, apparently, and typically, to give
them a ring of authority. Thus, for example, the famous Geberian summa perfectionis is an apocryphal Latin work; it is not a
rendering of an Arabic work of Jābir.
is almost invariably referred to as an alchemist. But if turning base metals
into gold is the essential task of alchemy, then he is hardly an alchemist,
foras I have already indicatedmetallic transmutation was only a peripheral
concern for him. Jābir was concerned, rather, with developing an all-embracing
metaphysical and natural scientific system based upon immutable universal
principles. It is this search for universal principles that led him to the study
of language, music, and numbers. The Pythagoreans said that things are numbers;
Jābir says that things are the names (asmā)
that designate them. An analysis of the name of a thing is for Jābir an
analysis of the thing itselfthis daring ontological claim of an equivalence
between language and reality sounds more like the result of metaphysical
speculation than that of alchemical craft. One is here tempted to recall the
Qurānic discourse on Adams creationa discourse which has it that God taught humanity the names, all of them (al-asmā
kullahā, 2: 31).
the Jābirian corpus does concern itself rather extensively with chemical
processes and techniques too, and in this field it has made some highly original
and fateful scientific contributions. For example we find in these writings the
theory that all metals are composed of sulfur and mercury existing in various
proportions. It was this idea that begot the phlogiston theory of modern
chemistry, a theory which eventually led, among other things, to the isolation
and identification of oxygen. In this way the enigmatic alchemist of Islam
is connected to the grand figures of modern science, Lavoisier (d. 1794) and
Priestley (d. 1804).
reference to the Jābirian contribution in the field of chemistry, it should be
noted that to him is due the credit of introducing sal ammoniac into the
repertoire of this experimental science. Two varieties of sal ammoniac were
distinguished: natural (ammonium chloride) called al-hajar,
and derived (ammonium carbonate) called al-mustanbat.
The latter was obtained by the dry distillation of hair and other animal
substances. Again, the use of organic materials, both plant and animal, in
addition to the inorganic, is a monumental Jābirian innovation.
chemical processes are never carried out in a theoretical vacuum; we find in his
treatises both a developed theory of matter and a sophisticated cosmology. He
believed that matter was ultimately composed of four natures (tabāi)hot,
cold, moist, and dry. But unlike the familiar Aristotelian qualities, Jābirs
natures were not analytical abstractions; rather, they were real, material, and
independently existing entities; hot, cold, moist, and dry were the first
elements out of which were born the second elementsair, water,
earth, and fire. The former were simple, the latter were compound; the former
were primary, the latter were derived; the second elements can be resolved into
natures, but natures were immutable. Jābirian natures were, then, the ultimate
building blocks of the world.
cosmology is not Godless, and one of its striking aspects is its parallel idea
of the first creation (al-kaun al-awwal)
and the second creation (al-kaun al-thānī).
The former is an act of God, the latter an act of man. The difference between
the two is that God acts in a timeless fashion, whereas man effects his creation
in a temporal domain; also, the former is a precondition for the latter. Thus
man can imitate Gods work, but requires time to accomplish it. From this
emerges the Jābirian doctrine of artificial generation.
for example, are found in nature, but these creatures can also be produced over
a period of time in a laboratory; so can human babies. Through a manipulation of
natures man can generate even such living beings as are not found to exist
naturallymonsters, dwarfs, giants, freaks, and so on. Indeed, Jābirs idea
of artificial generation sometimes strikes as thoroughly modern.
If Jābir is the first alchemist of Islam, then he is the pioneer of all that is important and characteristic of Islamic alchemy: the sulfur-mercury theory, the introduction of sal ammoniac, the use of organic substances, the idea of artificial generation of life, the production (though not recognition) of mineral acids, and the conceptual distinction between heat and temperaturebut in no way is this an exhaustive list.
As for the large number of actual texts making up the Jābirian corpus, it was a monumental contribution of Paul Kraus that he carried out an exhaustive census of these writings, and ordered them chronologically. Thus, beginning sequentially with the oldest, we have the following collections:
1) Kitāb al-Rahma al-Kabīr (The Great Book of Mercy)
2) Kutub al-Mia wa al-Ithnā Ashara (One Hundred and Twelve Books)
3) Kitāb al-Sabīn (The Book of the Seventy)
4) Kutub al-Mawāzīn (Books of Balances)
5) Kitāb al-Khams Mia (Five Hundred Books)
But this is not all. There are other writings in the corpus whose relative dates Kraus could not determine with certaintythese include the 10 Kutub al-Musahhahāt (Books of Emendation), Kitāb al-Ajsād al-Saba (Book of the Seven Bodies), Kitāb al-Khamsīn (Fifty Books), Kitāb al-Bahth (Book of Research), etc.
It seems ironic that despite Jābirs importance for the history of science, only a tiny fraction of Jābirian writings have been edited by modern scholars. As for translations, there is only one treatise, the Kitāb al-Ahjār (Book of Stones), the bulk of which was rendered into English by me in my Names, Natures, and Things; there exists no English translation of any other text. A full survey of modern editions and translations appears in my book, and the reader is referred to it.
S. Nomanul. Names, Natures, and Things:
The Alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān and his Kitāb al-Ahjār (Book of Stones).
Boston/Dordrecht/London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994 (hardback), 1996
E. J. Alchemy. London: Penguin Books,
Paul. Jābir ibn Hayyān: Contributions ą lHistoire des Ideés
Scientifiques dans lIslam
II: Jābir et la Science Grecque. Mémoires
de lInstitut dÉgypte 45, 1 (1942).
Paul. Jābir ibn Hayyān: Contributions ą lHistoire des Ideés
Scientifiques dans lIslam I:
Le Corpus des Écrits Jābiriens. Mémoires
de lInstitut dÉgypte 44, 1 (1943).
Lory, P. Gabir ibn Hayyān. Leélaboration de lélixir suprźme. Damacus, 1988.
Joseph. Arabic Alchemy in Rise and Fall in idem, Science and Civilization
in China, vol. 5. pt. 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.
Julius. The History and Present Status of Jābir-Problem, Journal of Chemical Education, 6 (1929).
Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen
Schrifttums, Band IV. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971.
May 25, 2001 Syed Nomanul Haq
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