The Islamic civilisation was multi-dimensional and produced outstanding output in almost all fields of human endeavour. Islamic contributions to the Hellenistic study of chemia not only created the word alchemy but also laid the foundations for the development of chemistry.
In addition, Islamic medical discoveries and writings were highly important and proved influential in later periods. Behind all these maneuvers was a natural curiosity that was underpinned by the Islamic creed that encouraged its adherents to discover the intricacies of the cosmos. This exhortation had a tremendous impact upon Islamic men of learning that included scientists and mathematicians.
The Islamic intellectual movement was influenced by two competing natural philosophical and intellectual components of two rival groups of Muslim Arabic thinkers known as the falāsifa and the mutakallimun.
These intellectual approaches finally aimed at the similar purposes and both encouraged inquiry and questioning that became the corner stone of scientific advancement. The originality of thought exhibited by the early Islamic scholars was even delineated despite the fact that they followed the traditional polyglot format.
It is widely recognised and acknowledged that important developments in alchemy were made in the Arabic world, and indeed, chemistry can be said to be of Arabic origin.
The earlier substantial advancement is reported to be made by the Muslim scholars although the background of Arabic alchemy came from Hellenistic Egypt. The Muslim scholars looked around in the search of knowledge and Egypt was the closest contact point.
Greek chemia appeared early in the Christian era and was initially involved with the refining of metals and the making and colouring of alloys, especially to mimic gold and silver. Little survives of the early Greek texts but it is known that soon, practitioners were attempting to make real gold by transmutation.
It was quite obvious that the Islamic world took up Greek texts on alchemy during the translation movement of the ninth century mostly during the reigns of Harun al-Rashid and his son and successor Mamun al-Rashid in the Abbasid caliphate.
However it so happened that the Islamic scientists surpassed them with original contributions and carved a niche in the field. The most obvious manifestation in this respect is the term alchemy is itself Arabic as a combination of the Arabic article al plus the Greek chēmia and deals with the study, treatment, refining, and production of specific material substances.
Moreover, some Arabic contributions are still visible today in the vocabulary of chemistry: alcohol,
alkali, aluminum, and so on.
To begin with, it is known that the practical chemical processes of distillation, crystallization, sublimation—as well as the vessels for carrying them out—were greatly improved by Muslim alchemists over the more rudimentary methods. Naturally occurring substances,such as salts, stones, metals, bitumens were collected over the broad extent were classified and tested.
Moreover, methods for the isolation and synthesis of many chemical products were devised. In this respect is is known that the Persian physician al-Rāzī known as Rhazes, wrote comprehensive treatises on the classification of chemical substances and the preparation of compounds; possibly his most important work is Kitab al-Asrar (The Book of the Secrets).
Most importantly, chemical theory was also developed by Muslim thinkers and the most important theory was the Mercury-Sulphur theory of the metals formulated by Jabir ibn-Hayyan. There is a bit of controversy about the number of works (2000) authored by him though they were reported to have been written over a lengthy period listed as 850–1000.
The Mercury-Sulphur theory states that the metals are produced from various combinations of two underground exhalations. The composition of all metals from the same ingredients gives theoretical backing to the goal of transmutation.
Another important advancement achieved by Muslims was in respect of transmutation that was to be carried out by a prepared substance the Hellenistic alchemists called the Philosophers’ Stone, or xērē. The Arabic transliteration of this word, al-iksir, that is still a well-known term dubbed in history as elixir that is widely considered a panacea-like treatment.
Alchemists in the Islamic world consistently tried to produce this secret substance and though it proved elusive but entered the folklore compelling successive generations to make efforts to produce it. The most important factor is that the Islamic Mercury-Sulphur theory was the foundation of chemical theory and became a basic reference book for scientific advancement.
Another important writer on alchemy was Ibn-Sina, known as Avicenna (980–1037), a Persian philosopher and physician. He was an outstanding intellect and his ground-breaking book Kitab ash-Shifa (Book of the Remedy) adopted the Jabirian Mercury-Sulphur theory but denied the possibility of metallic transmutation, largely on Aristotelian grounds.
Many of Ibn-Sina’s writings are medical. His Qanun (The Canon) is an immense compilation of medical knowledge and techniques and after it reached Europe, it was considered authoritative there and its principles were adopted in many scientific disciplines.
This article originally appeared in The Weekender and has been reproduced with permission