Alchemy in Early Medieval Islam

Like all illuminist mystics, Sufis believed in the possibility of human self-development, of increasing perfectibility.  They were able to tap into a deep interior reservoir of spiritual sustenance, which enabled them to start transforming themselves.  The Brethren of Purity looked within themselves for the inner strength, which would enable them to begin climbing the ladder of perfection.  Such people might be expected to take an interest in alchemy, which aimed at the improvement of all things, through the transmutation of nature.  It is time to consider the practice of the Hermetic art of alchemy, because it shadows the development of both Neopythagorean / Neoplatonic philosophy and Sufi religious experience.

Alchemy is an awkward subject, which has only recently begun to be studied in a careful and scholarly way.  It is particularly difficult for at least four reasons. Firstly, its practitioners deliberately obscured their meanings, in order to prevent alarm among the orthodox, or experimentation among the unprepared.  Secondly, they set out to falsify the age and attribution of their works, in order to remain undetected.  Thirdly, many of the accounts of their experiments were based on what could be expected, in theory, rather than on what had actually occurred, under their observation.  A final and fundamental problem was that alchemy hoped to work by the analogy of one type of transformation with another.  It was, in Titus Burckhardt’s phrase, both a science of the cosmos and a science of the soul.[1]  It was both a practical laboratory technique and an experimental contemplative method.[2]

Most historians accept that there was a personal and mystical aspect, as well as a practical and chemical one, to the work of the Greek alchemists of late Roman Egypt.  Almost all accept that both were of concern in the Latin alchemy of the medieval and Renaissance period.  Nevertheless, many historians are wary of saying the same about the tradition that connected the two, the development of alchemy in Islam.[3]  Most recent scholarship has, quite rightly, investigated the medieval alchemical works in Arabic in order to make a detailed study of the advances made at that time in practical chemistry.[4]  Whether Islamic alchemy was all primitive chemistry, or whether some of it was also interested in personal transformation, will have to be considered here.

Sami Hamarneh, who divided the development of Islamic alchemy into three overlapping stages, believed that any religious significance was added in the second stage, but then had to bring the start of that stage forward to the 10th century C.E., to include the books falsely attributed to Jābir.  Daniel Merkur, in his 1990 article, asserted that no mystical content could be found in Islamic alchemy, but he did accept that future research into Ismā‘īlī  influence might alter that.[5]

The alchemical books ascribed to Jābir

The most famous name among the Arab alchemists is that of Jābir ibn Hayyān (Geber in Latin), who was supposedly a pupil of Ja‘far al-Sādiq (died 765 C.E.), the last imām who was recognised by all the Shī‘a.  Ja‘far al-Sādiq was a wise, religious leader, renowned for surrounding himself with knowledgeable and intelligent men.[6]  This may be why the name of Jābir, as an associate of Ja‘far, was chosen for so many alchemical texts.  Most of them were probably written in the 10th century by Ismā‘īliyya, during that efflorescence of Ismā‘īlī influence at the time of the formation of the Brethren of Purity.[7]  Whether Jābir had any historical existence or not, it is certain that the Arabic Jabirian books[8] were in circulation by the late tenth century, as they were discussed by al-Nadīm in his great catalogue of book knowledge, the Fihrist of 987 C.E.[9]  The Jabirian books definitely stress the religious importance of the Hermetic ‘great work’ of the transformation of nature.

The Book of Royalty, ascribed to Jābir, has an unusual introduction to the ‘royal work’: it is to be done without distillation, purification, dissolution or coagulation!  It will then open up a way that is so broad, it will lead straight to the truth – if God wishes.[10]  This seems to be a reference to the accompanying discipline of prayer and meditation.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the rest of this short book is devoted to the usual discussion of dissolution and coagulation (because chemistry always has to deal with the breaking down and building up of chemical compounds).

In the Little Book of Mercy, the author apologises for any obscurities in his Book of Royalty and then describes a dream he had, in which he was standing between two rivers, the one on his right flowing with milk and honey, the one on his left flowing with wine.  He heard an inner voice telling him to persuade his friends to drink from the river on the right but to prevent them from drinking from the one on the left.  When he demanded to know whose voice it was, the answer came:

“I am the light of your heart, pure and brilliant.”[11]

Here is the illuminist experience in all its simplicity.  The voice within, the illuminating inner light of the spirit, distinguishes for him what is good (the sweet river) from what is bad (the bitter river), and leads him to help others to try to perfect themselves as well.

The book goes on to describe ‘the way’, saying that it is both exterior and interior; that it is the way of fire, leading to the purgation and purification of the thing desired; and that it has to be extracted from its corporeal and material accretions, while keeping the right balance between sun and moon, hot and cold, male and female etc., as the contraries are mixed.  Then the practitioner “will see the imām”.[12]  This could refer both to impure ores that have to go through many trials, mostly involving extreme heat, before they can be purified, and to humans who have to undergo similar trials of self-discipline, before they can become fully integrated beings, at one with God and the world.

Without having alluded to any particular substances, the author ends by telling the reader that if he has followed the instructions, he now has the elixir, of which one part suffices for a million.  He is advised to distribute a portion of it to the poor and unfortunate.[13]  Does this refer to the wealth that could come from successful work with precious metals?  It is more likely that the elixir is something intangible and limitless, like the contentment or loving-kindness that might accompany the experience of the peace of God.

Alchemy and esoteric Ismā‘īlī concerns

An extreme example of an Ismā‘īlī alchemical book ascribed to Jābir, which concentrates on occult religion to the exclusion of chemistry, is the Kitāb al-mājid, which looks at different types of believer in terms of an esoteric hierarchy, based on the letters of the Arabic alphabet.  The mājid, the glorious one, is a mystic who has reached such a high level of wisdom that he is on a par with a Nātiq, a prophet.[14]  The author warns the reader that he ought to be prepared to find discussions of alchemy in the middle of a work of devotion, or vice versa, because they shed light on each other.[15]

There is a considerable amount of alphabetical numerology in some of the Jabirian works, using the magic square (of the first nine digits) and the Arabic alphabet.  The magic square arranges the numbers 1-9 in such a way that every complete line, vertical, horizontal or diagonal, adds up to 15:     

4    9    2

3    5    7

8    1    6

These Jabirian works concentrate on the bottom left-hand square within the square: 1,3,5,8 (= 17).  These become important numbers: ratios that subsist in nature are expected to be 1:3 and 5:8.[16]  The remaining numbers (4+9+2+7+6) add up to 28, the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet.  Endless calculations can also be made using the numerical values of the different letters of the alphabet.[17]

Alchemy as early chemistry

It is, of course, true that much Arabic alchemy was only interested in chemical experimentation: there are also plenty of normal chemical instructions in the Jabirian books, such as this account of the preparation of white lead from the Book of Properties:

“Take a pound of litharge,[18] powder it well and heat it gently with 4 pounds of wine vinegar until the latter is reduced to half its original volume.  Then take a pound of soda and heat it with 4 pounds of fresh water until the volume of the latter is halved.  Filter the 2 solutions until they are quite clear and then gradually add the solution of soda to that of the litharge.  A white substance is formed which settles to the bottom.  Pour off the supernatant water and leave the residue to dry.  It will become a salt as white as snow.”[19]

This is the sort of book that would have appealed to the second most famous figure in Islamic alchemy, Muhammad ibn Zakarīyyā al-Rāzī (died 925 C.E.), a great scholar who was particularly renowned in medicine.[20]  He certainly does seem to have been interested only in chemical experimentation and practical laboratory work, such as for the crystallisation of salts, the sublimation of sal ammoniac, the preparation of mercuric chloride and mercuric sulphide (described as sublimations and coagulations of mercury) and so on.[21]

It is this practical alchemy, devoid of occult, psychological or religious overtones, which was surveyed by al-Khwarizmi in his handbook to the growing number of new disciplines in his time, with their terminologies.  He wrote The Keys to the Sciences between 976 and 980 C.E.,[22] and divided the section on alchemy into three simple parts:

  1. Apparatus, including stills, self-ventilating ovens etc.;
  2. substances (i.e. chemicals), divided into bodies (e.g. metals), spirits (e.g. sulphur and arsenic) and others (e.g. borax and vitriols);
  3. operations, such as solution, coagulation, sublimation (i.e. distillation), calcination, oxidation etc.[23]

Alchemy as both material and spiritual: a) dissolution

Between the two extremes – of the highly symbolical religious tract, and the straightforward investigation of chemical reactions – stand many Arabic alchemical writings which, like their Greek predecessors and their Latin successors, seem to pursue chemical restructuring, by analogy with religious rebirth.  Working by analogy seems to be fundamental.  The magistery (the alchemical work) is described in terms of the creation of the world, the germination of the seed, the reproduction of children, the spiritual regeneration of man, the making of wine, and so on.[24]

The writers deliberately choose to be obscure, in order to guard their dangerous secret from the uninitiated.  The Arabic Book of Krates admits that the philosophers (i.e. alchemists) have always deliberately confused their accounts, dealing with operations in an incorrect order, using mystifying language, or leaving the key to the whole work unmentioned, so that the secret would be passed only to the few who were prepared for it.[25]

The first part of the work is similar to the Sufi noviciate.  The purification of alloys in the fires of the furnace can be linked to the purging of the soul in the fires of mystical experience.  The Kitāb al-Habīb is typical:

“Hermes had said: burn the bodies completely in order to extract the souls.”[26]

Mortification is necessary for the mystic to free his soul.  The ‘death’ of the mineral body in the furnace, before its transformation into a new substance, is paralleled by that of the mystic, who has to die to the self, before he can emerge resurrected as a new man.  The Arabic Book of Ostanes the Wise imagines the stone, which is not a stone, crying out:

“O band of seekers, take me, kill me and, having killed me, burn me; because I will come back to life, and I will enrich whoever killed and burned me.”[27]

Alchemy as both material and spiritual: b) regeneration

Alchemy is not just about breaking materials down; it is also about reconstituting them in a new and glorious form.  The Kitāb al-Habīb knows that the key process, at the end, is the union of the mineral being worked on (called the ‘body’) with the volatile substance that will transform it (called the ‘spirit’).  Just like the mystic, who can unite his self to the divine Self, the volatile ‘spirit’ must be embodied and the mineral ‘body’ spiritualised:

“For each operation you must know the strength of the everlasting water, whose worth is not uniform in all combinations, for its strength is that of spiritual blood.  When you pound it together with the body of which I have spoken, it combines itself with it and transforms the body into spirit, and the two become but one substance.  Body transforms spirit into body and that body transforms itself into spirit.”[28]

As Muhammad ibn Umail al-Hakīm al-Sādiq al-Tamīmī[29] wrote, in a commentary thought to date from the tenth century, on a saying of Hermes:

“Hurmus said: ‘Every subtle thing enters into every gross thing.’  He means by this statement the entry of their ‘water’ into their ‘earth.’  The spiritual resurrection takes place, and the body, after its death, revives to everlasting life.”[30]

Colour is very important in determining when a particular reaction has been achieved, and so it is not surprising that the basic sequence of the operations of the magistery is defined by colours, of which three are always mentioned, black, white and red, and always in the same order.  The Mā’ al-Waraqī wa’l-Ard al-Najmīyah (The Silvery Water and Starry Earth), attributed to Muhammad ibn Umail, will serve as an example:

“And know that in this Blackness the sought-for Gold is hidden and that it will become manifest after it has been whitened. […]  And this is the Blackness, after which comes Whiteness, and the Reddening will follow.  Understand this! […]  And when you see that that Whiteness appears, and has overcome everything in the vessel, be sure that that Redness is hidden in that Whiteness.”[31]

This threefold progression of colours easily fits into the usual mystical progression from black (mortification) to white (purity, the light of illumination) and so to red or purple (union, the accomplishment of the royal work).

The Book of Krates even manages to divide the process into 7 stages, which correspond to the 7 planets and the 7 metals,[32] and could easily parallel 7 stages on the mystic path to beatific vision.  It starts with lead (Saturn), the symbol of the heavy, sick condition in metals and the unregenerate man.  After stages of sublimation and purification, one could arrive at the white level of silver (the Moon), the accomplishment of the ‘lesser work’ and the illumination of the mystic.  Climbing through the stages of the integration of the contraries, male and female (Mars and Venus), one could eventually attain to the red level (the Sun), the accomplishment of the ‘greater work’, the perfection of gold and the creation of the new spiritual person.

Alchemy in al-Andalus

The practice of alchemy was certainly pursued in the Andalus.  An alchemical work called the Rutbat al-Hakīm (The Sage’s Step), which was attributed to Maslama al-Majrītī, was certainly written in al-Andalus,[33] as was the 12th-century alchemical work falsely attributed to Ibn Sīnā, which was later translated into Latin as the De Anima in arte alchimiae.[34]  The historian, Sami Hamarneh, saw the work of the 12th-century alchemist Abu’l-Hasan ‘Alī al-Andalusī, a teacher and preacher in Fez in the Maghrib, as his best example of the metaphorical and mystical use of alchemy in medieval Islam.  He is usually known as Ibn Arfa‘ Ras, and he wrote an alchemical poem called Shudhūr al-Dhahab (The Particles of Gold).[35] 

It is generally thought that Muhammad ibn Umail came from the Andalus.  His works, or works bearing his name, later held an important place among the translations of Arabic alchemical books in Latin.[36]  His poem, Risālat al-Shams ila’l-Hilāl, was translated into Latin as the Letter of the Sun to the Crescent Moon (Epistola Solis ad Lunam crescentem).  The poem is a celebration of the creative union of male and female, sun and moon, dry and moist etc.[37]  The polarity between agent and patient, fire and water, sulphur (fiery, active, masculine) and mercury (liquid, passive, feminine), is central to alchemical thought, because the alchemist, working by analogy from one part of creation to another, assumes that any new creation must be produced by the union of the contraries, a sexual coupling.  These are symbolised in the magistery as sulphur and mercury, although those particular elements are not necessarily being used.

In the spiritual interpretation of alchemy, sulphur – the ‘non-burning fire’- presumably figures the purging and illuminating spirit of God (or the spirit of humanity); while mercury – the ‘steadfast water’- may figure God as universal being, which is eternal, unifying peace.[38]

Alchemy seems to have been acceptable to the Brethren of Purity, and it will continue to interest many philosophers and mystics whose religious outlook could be called illuminist.  The subject of the next piece of this history, however, experimented with alchemy and found it wanting.  Although alchemical works would be falsely produced in his name, Ibn Sīnā dismissed the claims of alchemy, because they were based on an unsound attempt to mix mineral science and personal development which, in his opinion, vitiated both exercises.  He saw that the inexact and intuitive methods of psychological and religious transformation were incompatible with the exact measurements and scientific methods needed for chemical experiments.



[1] This is the subtitle of T.Burckhardt’s book on alchemy (B.101).
[2] E.J.Holmyard: Alchemy (B.101) pp.15-17; R.Alleau (B.101) p.34; T.Burckhardt (B.101) pp.17-18.
[3] The classic statement of the position is in A.Poisson (B.101) p.27.
[4] For some recent examples, see the March 2009 issue of the journal, Ambix.
[5] (S.Hamarneh (B.103) pp.74-77 and pp.80-81.  D.Merkur (B.101) p.43 and p.45 n.68.
[6] F.Daftary:  The Ismā‘īlīs… (B.85) pp.83-88.
[7] F.S.Taylor:  The Alchemists… (B.101) pp.78-79; P.Kraus: Jābir… (B.104) vol.1, pp.xlvi-lxiii;  W.Ganzenmüller: L’alchimie… (B.106) p.22;  Holmyard: The present position… (B.104) pp.420-422.
[8] A distinction must be made between these books and the Latin books of Geber, purporting to be translations, which appeared in the 13th and 14th centuries, but for which no Arabic originals have been found. See J.Ruska: History of the Jabir Problem (B.104) pp.304-6; F.Taylor: The Alchemists (B.101) p.91; E. Holmyard: The present position… (B.104) p.426.
[9] al-Nadīm: Fihrist, discourse 10 (on alchemy): sect.10-12, translated J.W.Fück (B.102) pp.95-104.
[10] Book of Royalty, Fr. tr. by O.Houdas in Berthelot & Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3, p.127.  The whole work is translated on pp.126-132.
[11] Little Book of Mercy: “Je suis la lumière de ton coeur pur et brillant” : tr. O.Houdas in Berthelot & Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3. p.135.  The whole work is translated on  pp.133-8.
[12] ibid. pp.135-7.
[13] ibid. pp.137-8.
[14] Kitāb al-mājid chap.3, from French translation by H.Corbin: Livre du Glorieux… (B.102) p.90.  The work is translated on pp.87-101.
[15] Ibid. chap.1, pp.87-88.
[16] This must have caused occasional disappointment.
[17] E.J.Holmyard: Alchemy (B.101) pp.76-77.
[18] Litharge is lead monoxide.
[19] From the Book of Properties, translated by E.J.Holmyard in Alchemy (B.101) pp.79-80.
[20] Stapleton, Azo and Husain: Chemistry in Iraq and Persia… (B.102) pp.317-321.
[21] Examples taken from R.Steele: Practical chemistry … (B.106) pp.15-19 (chaps.5, 6 + 10) and pp.24- 26 (chaps.20-23).
[22] Karin Ryding (B.102) pp.121-2.
[23] Ibid. pp.124-9.
[24] M.Aniane (B.101) pp.252-9. For the Kitāb al-rahma (Book of Mercy), for example, the work is about body and soul (in chap.6), marriage, pregnancy and child-rearing (chap.40), or death and the final judgement (chap.71): French translation in Berthelot & Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3, pp.163-190. At different places in the Kitāb al-Fusul (Book of Ostanes part 1), the philosopher’s stone is a white water in India, a fire burning in Persia, a tree growing on the mountain tops, a prince from al-Andalus, or a flash of lightning in the night sky, to quote but a small selection: French translation in Berthelot & Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3, pp.116-8.
[25] Book of Krates in Berthelot &Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3, pp.50-52.
[26] From Kitāb al-Habīb, translated by O.Houdas in ibid. vol.3, p.104: “Hermès avait dit de brûler les corps d’une manière complète, afin d’en extraire les âmes.”
[27] From Book of Ostanes the Wise, translated by O.Houdas in ibid. vol.3, p.116: “O troupe de chercheurs, prenez-moi, tuez-moi; puis après m’avoir tuée, brûlez-moi, car je revivrai après tout cela et j’enrichirai quiconque m’aura tuée et brûlée.”
[28] From Kitāb al-Habīb, tr. O.Houdas  in ibid. vol.3, p.92: “Il faut que vous connaissiez la force de l’eau éternelle, dont la valeur n’est pas uniforme pour les mélanges, dans chaque opération; car sa force est celle du sang spirituel. Quand vous la broyez avec le corps dont je vous ai parlé, elle transforme ce corps en esprit, en se mélangeant à lui, et les deux choses n’en forment plus qu’une. Le corps transforme l’esprit en corps et le corps se transforme en esprit.”
[29] When part of his work was later translated into Latin, it was called the Tabula Chemica and his name was given as Senior Zadith (from al-Sādiq) son of Hamuel (ibn Umail); see Stapleton and Husain: Arabic source… (B.105) p.926.
[30] al-Mā’ al-Waraqī… translated in Stapleton, Lewis and Taylor: The sayings of Hermes… (B.105) p.80.
[31] al-Mā’ al-Waraqī… translated in Stapleton, Husain and ‘Alī: Three Arabic Treatises… (B.105) p.131.
[32] Book of Krates in Berthelot & Houdas: la Chimie… (B.102) vol.3, pp.56-57.
[33] Holmyard: Maslama… (B.105) pp.293-9.
[34] See the article on pseudo-Avicenna by Sébastien Moureau (B.105) p.49.
[35] Holmyard: Abu’l-Qāsim… (B.105) pp.406-7;  S.Hamarneh (B.103) p.77 and p.82.
[36] Holmyard: Alchemy (B.101) p.102.
[37] Stapleton, Husain and ‘Alī: Three Arabic Treatises… (B.105) pp.148-9.
[38] For interpretations of the sulphur-mercury balance, see: W.Ganzenmuller: l’alchimie… (B.106) p.133;  A.Poisson (B.101) p.12;  T.Burckhardt: Alchemy… (B.101) p.18;  S.Nasr: An Introduction… (B.82) p.90, fig.3.

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