Jabir Ibn Hayyan: Alchemist

by Jazmyne M. Sturgeon

Atoms. Electrons. H20. The Periodic Table. All of these are familiar terms people remember from their 10th grade chemistry classes and have all grown accustomed to. While this may be the case, it is important to keep in mind that these are relatively modern concepts. A thousand years ago, pre-teens had a much smaller Table with only four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The idea of these four elements is a very Greek concept, but one alchemist continued Aristotle’s work: Arabic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced education by deepening the understanding of alchemy and encouraging a dynamic learning system over a scholastic system.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is considered the earliest great name in Moslem alchemy. He was born circa 720 (C.E) and died in about 815 (C.E) at the astonishing age of 95 (Stalzberg 1991). It is widely believed that he lived as a physician in Baghdad under the protection of the Court of Harun-al-Raschid (Hopkins 1967). Jabir’s passion was alchemy, which, one must note, differs from modern day chemistry in the fact that ‘magic’ was used to supplement studies. Jabir could not avoid the magical influences of his day and is therefore considered an alchemist, not a chemist (Cobb 1995). Arthur John Hopkins supplements this in his book Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy, when he states, “Believing that alchemy was real, [Jabir] undertook the almost superhuman task of bringing this discredited subject up to the same honorable plane as philosophy, medicine or mathematics.” Hopkins later notes that Jabir’s literary output included at least five hundred works on alchemy alone. Others agree that this number is alarmingly high:

“The complete body of works attributed to Jabir includes more than two thousand books, and of course no one man could have written that number, even if he did live to be ninety five. Obviously, most of these books were written over a period of many years by different authors who attributed their writings to Jabir, either out of respect or as a method of remaining safely anonymous” (Stalzberg 1991).

It is not unreasonable to agree that Jabir did not write many of the works attributed to him, but that he did inspire and have influence over their content, no matter how indirectly.

His name has been linked and interchanged with the Latin name ‘Geber’ throughout history, even though Jabir ibn Hayyan is Arabic.

The name ‘Geber’ was to enjoy among the Latins a celebrity similar to that of ‘Democritus’ among the Greek alchemists and ‘Balinus’ among the Arabs, and like these worthies Geber’s real identity retains a considerable element of mystery. The works of Geber have not been found in Arabic, and he remains, despite persistent attempts to equate him to Jabir ibn Haiyan, an anonymous Latin alchemist. (Multhauf 1996).

It remains to speculation who exactly Geber was and how he became associated with Jabir. “…Popular belief [is] that the Geber works of the thirteenth century were actually translations into Latin of the Arabic of Jabir of the eight century;” although recently, that assumption has been challenged to question the true identity of Geber (Hopkins 1967). However, in order to analyze Jabir ibn Hayyan’s impact on the chemical world, the assumption must be made that ‘Geber’ was merely a pseudonym future writers used to show respect to their inspiration, Jabir, as well as having the intent to remain anonymous, as Hugh Stalzberg suggested earlier. Author Hopkins believes that “if all that has been deduced from the writings of Geber is true, he was one of the greatest single constructive influences in science, particularly in the science of the metals, that the world has ever known.” The fact that Jabir may not have written the works credited to him under the name Geber does not, however, make him any less influential. In fact, it makes him more so. It displays how many chemists were inspired and influenced by him and how they respected him enough to attribute their works to his name. As flattering as this tribute may be, Robert P. Multhauf puts it best when describing the difficulties it has caused:

Modern scholarship has laboured mightily to reconstruct Jabir’s biography with the following result: (1) the Latin writings attributed to Geber have not been found in an Arabic version, and probably originated in south Italy in the thirteenth century; (2) there is in Arabic a large body of alchemical writing attributed to Jabir, but little is known to the Latins of the Middle Ages; and (3) Jabir, who also enjoyed a great reputation among the Arabs, was not the author of all these works… (Multauf 1966)

These three statements support the assumption that ‘Geber’ was used by future alchemists to show respect towards Jabir. Although this theory is not flawless, it is among the most likely, and it is important to understand who Jabir ibn Hayyan is and who he is not before discussing his impact on society and education.

The most important collection of texts supposedly written by Jabir is known as the Jabirian Corpus. The corpus was completed by 987, but was most likely compiled over many years. Jabir ibn Hayyan died in 813 and it is unknown how much Jabir personally contributed (Hudson 1992). However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Jabir inspired the contributors, as they clearly credited their work to his name. Another source tells us that, “by the second half of the tenth century the entire Jabirian Corpus had been constituted, and was generally, if not unanimously, admitted as the authentic work of Jabir” (Multhauf 1966). Either way, Jabir’s influence on the world of alchemy (and therefore chemistry) is clearly displayed, whether the work was done by his hands or simply by inspiring others. Jabirian texts had a strong correlation with Aristotle’s theories, concepts, and discoveries. In many cases, Jabir simply took Aristotle’s existing work and expanded, added, or took away from it depending on what had been discovered. Jabir especially focused on metals and their properties which were:

“clearly based on the views of Aristotle but included a significant new idea. Aristotle had considered metals to be formed by the combination of moist and dry exhalations, and in the Jabirian works these exhalations are identified with the vapours of mercury and sulfur. The cause of the different metals was the different quality of the sulphur from which they were formed.” (Hudson1992)

In this example, Jabir takes Aristotle’s existing ideas and expands on them, deepening the general understanding of alchemy during this time. Aristotle had already established that metals were formed from combinations of moist and dry, yet Jabir took it a step further to explain what exactly those wet and dry exhalations were. “The Jabirian alchemists also believed that metals were ultimately composed of the four Aristotelian elements earth, water, air, and fire, and in consequence possessed the qualities of coldness, hotness, dryness and moisture in varying proportions” (Hudson 1992) (See Fig. 1). Another important distinction between Jabir’s work and that of Aristotle, is that Jabirian texts considered each substance to contain all four elements instead of just two (Salzberg 1991). According to Richard Morris, author of The Last Sorcerers, this theory strongly influenced much of later alchemy. Jabir’s work, and the work he inspired others to undertake, clearly had a lasting impact on the way alchemy was studied.

Jabir ibn Hayyan also was a strong advocate for a dynamic learning system over a scholastic one. A scholastic learning system is stagnant, and basically taught straight out of the book, much like a high school. On the other hand, a dynamic system involves research and learning new things, instead of accepting what one is told without question, more like a university (Jackson 2012).

The first duty of an alchemist, [Jabir] said, is to carry out experiments in order that he may acquire knowledge. He accepted the doctrine of transmutation, but did not baldy inform his contemporaries that transmutation had been accomplished. Instead he gave specific directions for experiments in transmutation, such as ‘project some of this substance upon so much copper and you will get silver,’ thus allowing them to draw their own conclusions and inducing his friends to try experiments. (Hopkins 1967)

This is the same sort of teaching that a college professor would set up for his students today. Design an experiment, give the steps of the procedure, but allow the students to actually do the experiment and discover the results for themselves. This is dynamic learning.

One example of dynamic learning is demonstrated in a distinct difference between Aristotle and Jabir ibn Hayyan. Aristotle believed that the elements (air, fire, water, and earth) were only abstract and philosophical; more hypothetical than fact. Jabirian texts, on the other hand, suggested that the quantities and elements were real and could be isolated (Salzberg 1991). With this theory, the only logical step was to prove it by setting up an experiment:

The Jabirians attempted to do this in two stages. First they subjected various organic materials to dry distillation, which often resulted in the formation of a volatile combustible substance (air), a liquid (water), and combustible tarry material (fire) and a dry residue (ash). These elements were supposed to be composed of two different qualities, and the Jabirians assumed that the predominant quality could be isolated by extended purification…Once he had obtained his pure elements, consisting of only one quality, the alchemist was supposed to mix them in the correct proportions to obtain an elixir that he could use to treat a base metal. (Hudson 1992)

Here we have a clear example of a hypothesis, procedure, and conclusion set in motion by Jabir ibn Hayyan’s theories. He was a clear initiator of experiments and therefore dynamic learning, setting in motion a chain reaction of his academic decedents to follow suit.

Whether or not Jabir ibn Hayyan actually wrote what was attributed to him means little. It is clear that his work (or the work that he influenced) had a lasting effect on alchemy, and therefore chemistry in later years. His ‘tweeks’ to Aristotle’s existing theories were widely accepted, and later generations would go on to improve and further develop Jabir’s theories. However, instead of simply allowing future alchemists to blindly accept his ideas, he encouraged the use of experiments and designed his work so that learners would have to understand procedures, set up experiments, and discover results on their own; therefore, becoming a revolutionary teacher by pressing a dynamic system upon his field of study. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced learning, thinking, and education by expanding general knowledge of alchemy through his own experiments and by leaving experiments for future alchemists, a radical idea in the world of science.

Cobb, Cathy, and Harold Goldwhite. Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age. New York: Plenum, 1995. Print.

Hellenistic Physics. Digital image. Wikipedia. Public Domain. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Hopkins, Arthur John. Alchemy, Child of Greek Philosophy. New York: AMS, 1967. Print.

Hudson, John. The History of Chemistry. New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992. Print.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Rise of Literacy.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Jan. 2012. Lecture.

Multhauf, Robert P. The Origins of Chemistry. London: Oldbourne, 1966. Print.

Salzberg, Hugh W. From Caveman to Chemist: Circumstances and Achievements. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 1991. Print.