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Islamic Alchemy

Shortly after the Prophet’s death in 632, a vast amount of scientific and philosophical texts were being translated from Greek into Arabic. The Caliphs of the empire were devoted to learning through cultural and scientific inquiry. These rulers patronized scholars and established academics throughout the empire which spread from the Pyrenees to the Indus.

Islamic alchemy had a profound impact upon European Alchemy. Beginning in the eleventh century and continuing throughout the Renaissance, many Arab Alchemists’ works were translated into European languages, such as the works of Rhazes (c. 860–925), Avicenna (980–1037), and Gerber (c. 721–815).

The concepts of the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life were both introduced to Europe through Arab alchemical texts.

[Tvrba Philosophorum; das ist, das Buch von der güldenen Kunst, neben andern Authoribus, welche mit einander 36. Bücher in sich haben. Darinn die besten vrältesten Philosophi zusammengetragen, welche tractiren alle einhellig von der Universal Medicin, in zwey Bücher abgetheilt, vnnd mit schönen Figurin gezieret. Jetzundt newlich zu Nutz vnd Dienst allen waren Kunstliebenden der Natur (so der lateinischen Sprach vnerfahren). Basel, Ludwig König, 1613].

An anonymous text based on earlier Greek sources, Turba Philosophorum (“Assembly of Alchemical Philosophers”) was originally written in Arabic circa 900. It is comprised of a series of orations by famous figures in natural philosophy such as Pythagoras. Turba was among the earliest and most popular medieval alchemical texts in Europe.


Artis Chemicae Principes, Avicenna atqve Geber, hoe volumine continentur. Qvorvm alter avnqvam hactenus in lucem prodijt: alter verò vetustis exemplaribus collatus ato, elegantioribus & pluribus figuris quàm antchae illustratus, doctrinæ huius professoribus, hae nostræ editione tum incundior, tum vtilior enasit … Basileae, per Petrvm Pernam, 1572.

Ibn Sina, better known by his Latinized name Avicenna (980–1037) was one of the most important scientists and was a prolific writer on alchemy, physics, medicine and pharmacology. He began studying medicine at thirteen and by seventeen he became the court physician for the sultan in Bukhara and later for the Prince of Hamadan. After publishing his Qanun fi–l–tibb (“Canon of Medicine”) in 1025 he was called the “Prince of Physicians.” Artis Chemicae Principes is considered the greatest Latin translation of Avicenna and Gerber’s treatises on chemistry.


Alchimy Spiegel, oder, Kurtz entworffene Practick, der gantzen chymischen Kunst: neben Anzeig, welche darzu tüglich seyen, oder nit: was für ander herzliche treffentliche Künsten daher entspringen: Wie der Alten mit seltzamen verdunckelten Reden und Wörten hievon beschriebene Bücher zuverstehen: und darinnen sonderlich der falschen alchimisten Betrug entdecket wird. Gedruckt zu Franckfurt am Mayn: In Verlegung Vincentii Steinmeyers, 1613.

Morienus was the teacher of Prince Khalid ibn Yazid (d.704). Very little is known about Morienus. He was Roman born, but wrote in Arabic. He traveled to Egypt to study with the famous Arab philosopher Adfar, from whom Morienus learned the secrets of alchemy. Morienus and Khalid’s philosophical and alchemical conversations were recorded and became important works of Hermetica.

Muhammad ibn Zakariya, Abu Bakr, al-Razi

Spurious and doubtful works. Das Buch der Alaune und Salze: ein Grundwerk der spätlateinischen Alchemie. Berlin: Verlag Chemie, 1935.

Muhammad ibn Zakariya, Abu Bakr, al–Razi, known as Rhazes (c.860–925) was a musician turned physician, who became “physician–in–charge” of Baghdad hospital. Rhazes made a great many contributions to medicine and chemistry through his classification of a number of substances and perfection of distillation and extraction processes. He invented chemical instruments that are still in use today, as well as, the method of refining petroleum to produce kerosene. Rhazes added salt to Gerbers mercury–sulfur theory of composition of metals. The theory expounded that every metal made up of different percentages of mercury and sulfur. Seen here is a German translation of an eleventh–century Spanish alchemist’s work, “The Book of Alums and Salts,” that uses Rhazes writings as a main source.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Jabir ibn Hayyan (c.721–815) is known as the “Father of Chemistry” and was the most well–known Islamic alchemist to Europeans. Jabir ibn Hayyan’s name was Latinized as “Gerber” and the word “gibberish” derives from this name. Gerber was court alchemist to Caliph of Baghdad Harun al–Rashid (764–809). An extraordinary amount of alchemical works have been attributed to Gerber; it has been theorized that many of these were actually written in the tenth century by a group who wrote under a pseudonym using his ideas.

Among Gerber’s great many contributions to chemical research are the preparation of nitric acid, arsenic, basic lead carbonate, and of various rare salts; the distillation of vinegar to concentrate acetic acid; refinement of metals; preparation of steel; dyeing of cloth and leather; varnishes to water–proof cloth and to protect iron; use of manganese dioxide in glass–making; and the use of iron pyrites for writing in gold. He also invented many chemical apparatuses that are still used in chemistry laboratories today.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Geberi philosophi ac alchimistae maximi, de alchimia libri tres. [Argentoragi [sic]: Arte et impensa solertis viri Iohannis Grieninger, 1529].

Gerber is considered one of alchemy’s greatest philosophers which is reflected in the title of this edition of his selected writings. The title page illustration depicts an apparatus with two alchemists hard at work.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Alchemiae Gebri Arabis philosophi solertissimi, Libri: cum reliquis, ut uersa pagella indicabit. Bernæ: Ioân Petreius Nurembergen denuo ... 1545.

This book is a reprint of a 1541 edition, and was printed by Mathias Apiarius (c.1495–1554) a Swiss printer, publisher, and composer who introduced the printing press in Berne, Switzerland, and became one of the most significant music printers of Switzerland. Shown here is the beautiful and elaborate, ornamental title–page engraving.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Gebri Arabis Chimia, sive, Traditio summæ perfectionis et investigatio magisterii innumeris locis emendata. Lugduni Batavorum: Apud A. Doude, 1668.

This edition of one of Gerber’s works contains a title page engraving depicting Gerber standing next to a lion.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Geberis philosophi perspicacissimi, svmma perfectionis magisterii in sua natur Ex bibliothecae Vaticanae exemplari undecunq. Venetiis: Apud Petrum Schoeffer ...; Brixiensem: Apud Dominum Ioannem Baptistam Pederz, 1542.

In this collection of selected works by Gerber and Avicenna on minerals, this page shows a woodcut of a furnace invented by Gerber.

Giovanni Braccesco

La espositione di Geber filosofo; nella qvale si dichiarano molti nobilissimi secreti della natura; con la tavola nel fine. In Vinegia: Appresso Gabriel Giolito de’ Ferrari, 1562.

Giovanni Braccesco was a sixteenth-century Italian physician and alchemist. This commentary on the work of Gerber shows two woodcuts of apparatus that Gerber invented. The illustration on the left is a vessel for the distillation of vinegar and on the right is a vessel for the sublimation of sulfur.

Jabir ibn Hayyan

Gebri, regis arabum philosophi perspicacissimi, summa perfectionis magisterii in sua natura Ex Bibliothecae Vaticanae exemplari undecunq. Gedani: Apud Brunonem Laurentium Tancken, 1682.

This collection of alchemical writings on the Philosopher’s Stone features several of Gerber’s works. The title page engraving depicts an Arabian court and a Caliph on his throne.

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