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Arab Contribution to the World

Jabir Ibn Hayyan

The Father of Chemistry

  Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan, in Latin Geber, was one of the most notable Arab alchemists. He was born in 721 CE in Tus (present day Iran) and died around 815in Kufah, Iraq. He is credited with the discovery and description of many substances and processes — such as the hydrochloric and nitric acid, distillation, and crystallization — that have become the foundation of today's chemistry and chemical engineering.

Jabir's experimental ideas paved the way for now commonly known classification of substances as metals, nonmetals and volatile substances. He discussed three distinct types of substances based on their properties:

a) spirits, i.e., these that vaporize on heating, like camphor, arsenic and ammonium chloride.

b) metals, e.g., gold, silver, lead, copper, iron.

c) compounds that can be converted into powders.

Contributions to Chemistry

  Jabir wrote more than one hundred treatises on various subjects, of which 22 are about alchemy. Firmly grounded on experimental observation, his books systematized the knowledge about the fundamental chemical processes of the alchemists — such as crystallization, distillation, calcination, sublimation, thus making a great step in the evolution of chemistry from an occultist art to a scientific discipline. In particular, Jabir emphasized that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction, thus anticipating by almost a thousand years the principles of quantitative chemistry and the law of constant proportions.

  Jabir is also credited with the invention and development of several chemical instruments that are still used today, such as the alembic, which made distillation easy, safe, and efficient. By distilling various salts together with sulfuric acid, Jabir discovered hydrochloric acid, from salt, and nitric acid, from saltpeter.

  Besides its obvious applications to gold extraction and purification, this discovery would fuel the dreams and despair of alchemists for the next thousand years. He is also credited with the discovery of citric acid.

  Ibn Hayyan is famous for writing more than one hundred monumental treatises, of which twenty-two deal with chemistry and alchemy. He introduced experimental investigation into alchemy (derived from Arabic word al-Kimiya), creating the momentum for the modern Chemistry. Jabir emphasized experimentation and development of methods to achieve reproducibility in his work. He devoted his effort to the development of basic chemical methods and the study of various mechanisms of chemical reactions and thus helped evolve chemistry as a science from the legends of alchemy. Jabir emphasized that definite quantities of various substances are involved in a chemical reaction. Therefore, it can be said that he paved the way for the law of constant proportions.

  Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many manufacturing processes, such as the making of steel, corrosion prevention, gold lettering, cloth dyeing and waterproofing, leather tanning, and the chemical analysis of pigments and other substances. He developed the use of manganese dioxide in glassmaking, to counteract the green tinge produced by iron — a process that is still used to this day. Jabir was a pioneer in the development of a number of applied chemical processes. His contributions include preparation of various metals, varnishing of waterproof cloth, identification of paints and greases. In addition, he developed aqua regia to dissolve gold.

  He noted that boiling Alcohol released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way to Al-Razi's discovery of ethanol.

  His contribution of fundamental importance to chemistry includes perfection of scientific techniques such as crystallization, distillation, calcination, sublimation and evaporation and development of several instruments for conducting these experiments. Jabir's major practical achievement was the discovery of minerals and acids, which he prepared for the first time in his alembic (Anbique). His invention of the alembic made the distillation process easy and systematic. Among his various breakthroughs is the preparation of nitric, hydrochloric, citric and tartaric acids. Jabir's emphasis on systematic experimentation is outstanding. It is on the basis of such works that he is 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.

  In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on chemistry were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European alchemists. These include the Kitab al-Kimya (titled "Book of the Composition of Alchemy" in Europe), translated by Robert of Chester (1144) and the Kitab al-Sab'een by Gerard of Cremona (before 1187). Berthelot translated some his books known by the titles "Book of Kingdom", "Book of the Balances," "Book of Eastern Mercury," and it is obvious that he did not use correct titles for Jabir's books. It became soon obvious that this so-called translator used all means to belittle Jabir’s achievements and attribute them to others European Scientists. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have found their way into various European languages and have become part of scientific vocabulary.

  Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy, and other sciences. Unfortunately, only a few of his books have been edited and published, and fewer still are available in translation.

  To Aristotelian physics, Jabir added the four properties of hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness. Each Aristotelian element was characterized by these qualities: fire was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist, and air hot and moist. In metals two of these qualities were interior and two were exterior. For example, lead was cold and dry and gold was hot and moist. Thus, Jabir theorized, by rearranging the qualities of one metal, a different metal would result. This theory appears to have originated the search for al-iksir, the elusive elixir that would make this transformation possible — which in European alchemy became known as the philosopher's stone. 

  In his treatise on the silvering of copper and iron, and in what has become known as “The Discovery of secrets”, Jabir wrote: “You must value and not contradict what is written; remember well how to manage without diminishing or augmenting, take as much as you wish of the stone mixed with its mixture and grind it with some water, mixed with copperas and Sal ammoniac until it becomes black. Then put it very near a very slight heat until it smells like semen. When it has that smell take it away and wash it slowly with some clear water, and then roast it gently until you notice a visible vapour. In this way its water will be driven off, and the stone itself will become light, without losing its essence. Take it off and dip it again into water, powdering it under water, and roast it as before. Its blackness begins to diminish. Take off the stone when it is dry and its water absorbed. Grind it well in some clear water and roast it again. It begins to be green, and then this blackness will disappear. When you see the stone beginning to turn green, be sure you are in the right path. Move it then when it becomes quite green and has the appearance of verdigris. This will show that the process is right, and the stone has lost its Sal ammoniac which would have corrupted it. After powdering it in some water, put it into a vessel well luted with plaster, place it on a gentle fire, and distil off all its water. Be patient and do not be in a hurry to increase the fire which will corrupt it; for you will repent, and your Itallic repentance will never be of avail. When you distil off all its water, take it off, and powder it in the same distilled water. Then return it to the vessel, and renew the distillation.

  I recommend you to distil it 700 times like the rods of myrtle, and Indian cane. I have not explained this hint in any one of my books, but in this only. I have told you the opinion of philosophers without diminishing or increase, and have not concealed anything from you. When the stone becomes green we call it myrtle, and when it returns to yellow, we give it the name of Indian cane. You must know that it becomes gradually black from the first to the last. It remains quite black from five to ten roastings; then it slowly becomes green, and has the colour completely in 50 or 70 roastings. This is the end. If the stone acquires these qualities, there will be no doubt of its goodness. Its yellow colour begins bye-and-bye to disappear and the stone will completely lose its clearness in 70 roastings. Then the stone will have the same degree as the sun, and similar coloured rays. It will burn, and become ashes. They are the same ashes mentioned in the books of philosophers. If you continue the same process, the ashes will become quite white. This is the fourth sign, which is the sign of perfection. Therefore you must continue to proceed as before without diminishing or increase. Then it is necessary to augment the fire just a little, and do not fear the corruption. If you continue to distil it you must return the distilled water on it, and in every distillation the water diminishes; therefore it is necessary, every ten distillations, to add some clear water to the distilled water with which you pulverize it. If the stone begins to turn white, you must continue the same process until it turns very white. This will be from 500 distillations. If the fire diminish, and the operator be clever, knowing well the quantity of fire, from 450 distillations (the total is 900 distillations), the stone, you may be sure, will have a complete and real whiteness. In this state you may operate for giving copper and iron a coating of silver. You can also operate on melted crystal, and pearls, and many other minerals.


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