Muslims have contributed a lot and patronised the Greek scientific heritage in the field of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and philosophy. Islam continued to add new scientific achievements which bear witness that Muslims were deeply and seriously interested in scientific research.
So, it produced many scholars and scientists from 7th to the end of 14th century (668 C.E. to 1359 C.E.). But the world has either neglected their great contributions to humanity or Anglicised their names in order to look like differently to nullify their contributions.
Everyone is quite aware that how the names of such Muslim scientists and scholars have been changed to the extent of their rasing their memory. Now, there is an urgent need to relook at their great contribution in every field .
In this series, now is the time for remembering the contribution of another great Muslim scientist, Jabir Ibn Haiyan (Geber) who was a Great Alchemist.
Jabir Ibn Haiyan’s full name is Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, al-Ṣūfī, al-Azdī, al-Kūfī, or al-Ṭūsī. Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, variously called al-Ṣūfī, al-Azdī, al-Kūfī, or al-Ṭūsī), has lived during 721 AD - 816 AD in Tus, Iran.
It is also spelled as Tous or Toos, is an ancient city in Razavi Khorasan Province in Iran near Mashhad.
He is the purported author of an enormous number and variety of works in Arabic, often called the Jabirian corpus. The works that survive today mainly deal with alchemy.
He is popularly known as Great Muslim Alchemist but his covers enormous number and variety of works in Arabic, often called the Jabirian corpus. The works that survive today mainly deal with alchemy and chemistry, religious (Shi’ite religious) philosophy. His Latinized name was Geber.
His works contain the oldest known systematic classification of chemical substances, and the oldest known instructions for deriving an inorganic compound (sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride) from organic substances (such as plants, blood, and hair) by chemical means.
His works also contain one of the earliest known versions of the sulfur-mercury theory of metals, a mineralogical theory that would remain dominant until the 18th century.
A significant part of his writings was by a philosophical theory known as “the science of the balance” (Arabic: ʿilm al-mīzān), which was aimed at reducing all phenomena (including material substances and their elements) to a system of measures and quantitative proportions.
His notable ideas were use of organic substances in chemistry, sulfur-mercury, theory of metals, science of the balance, science of artificial generation, etc. Some Arabic Jabirian works, e.g., The Great Book of Mercy, and The Book of Seventy were translated into Latin under the Latinized name Geber, and in 13th-century Europe, an anonymous writer, usually referred to as pseudo-Geber, started to produce alchemical and metallurgical writings under this name.
Jabir Ibn Haiyan, the Alchemist of Middle Ages, is generally known as the Father of Chemistry. He was son of the druggist (Attar). It is established that he practiced medicine and alchemy in Kufa, Iran around 776 C.E. He is reported to have studied under Imam Ja’far Sadiq and the Ummayed prince Khalid Ibn Yazid (an Alchemist during 668 – 704/709 C.E.).
His major contribution was in the field of chemistry. He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy, which rapidly changed its character into modern chemistry.
The ruins of his well-known laboratory remained after centuries, but his fame rests on over 100 monumental treaties, of which 22 relate to chemistry and alchemy.
His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystallisation, distillation, calcination, sublimation, and evaporation and development of several instruments for the same.
The fact of early development of chemistry as a distinct branch of science by the Arabs, instead of the earlier vague ideas, is well-established and the very name chemistry is derived from the Arabic word, al-Kimya, which was studied and developed extensively by the Muslim scientists.
Perhaps his major practical achievement was the discovery of mineral and other acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Ambique or Qurra Ambique).
Apart form several contributions of basic nature to alchemy, involving largely the preparation of new compounds and development of chemical methods, he also developed a number of applied chemical processes, thus becoming a pioneer in the field of applied science.
His achievements in this field include preparation of various metals, development of steel, dyeing of cloth, and tanning of leather, varnishing of water-proof cloth, use of manganese dioxide in glass-making, prevention of rusting, lettering in gold, identification of paints, greases, etc.
During the course of these practical endeavours, he also developed aqua regia to dissolve gold. The alembic is his great invention, which made easy and systematic the process of distillation. He laid great stress on experimentation and accuracy in his work.
Based on the properties, he has described three distinct types of substances. First, spirits, i.e., those which vaporise on heating, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride; secondly, metals, for example, gold, silver, lead, copper, iron, and thirdly, the category of compounds which can be converted into powders.
He thus paved the way fro such later classification as metals, non-metals and volatile substances. Although known as an alchemist, he did not seem to have seriously pursued the preparation of noble metals as an alchemist; instead, he devoted his efforts to the development of basic chemical methods and study of mechanisms of chemical reactions in themselves and thus helped evolve chemistry as a science from the legends of alchemy.
He emphasised that, in chemical reactions, definite quantities of various substances are involved and thus can be said to have paved the way for the Law of Constant Proportions.
A large number of books are included in his corpus. Apart from chemistry, he also contributed to other sciences such as medicine, and astronomy. His books on chemistry, including his Kita-al-Kimya (The Book of Chemistry) and Kita-al-Sab’een (The Book of Seventy) were translated into Latin and various European languages.
These translations were popular in Europe for several centuries and have influenced the evolution of modern chemistry.
Several technical terms devised by Jabir, such as alkali, are today found in various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.
Only a few of his books have been edited and published, while several others preserved in Arabic have yet to be annotated and published.
Doubts have been expressed as to whether all the voluminous work included in the corpus is his contribution or it contains later commentaries/additions by his followers. According to Sarton, the true worth of his work would only be known when all his books have been edited and published.
His religious views and philosophical concepts embodied in the corpus have been criticised but, apart from the question of their authenticity, it is to be emphasised that his major contribution lies in the field of chemistry and not the religion.
His various breakthroughs, e.g., preparation of acids for the first time, notably nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, citric and tartaric acids, and emphasis on systematic experimentation are outstanding and it is on the basis of such work that he can justly be regarded as the Father of Modern Chemistry.
In the words of Max Mayerhaff, the development of chemistry in Europe can be traced directly to Jabir Ibn Haiyan.
Whether or not purported, his contribution in the field of chemistry and alchemy is outstanding and needs to be explored and experimented with available latest scientific tools and experimental protocols to prove its relevance in the modern science of chemistry.
My submission to all the scientific policy makers in the field of Chemistry in the teaching institutions, to allow to take up at least one M. Phil and Ph.D. research related to the chemistry.
Prof. (Dr.) Naquibul Islam is senior Unani Medical Consultant
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.