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Muslim Scientists and Thinkers: Abu Musa Jabir bin Hayyan

Muslim Scientists and Thinkers: Abu Musa Jabir bin Hayyan
By Syed Aslam

Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in Europe as Geber was born in Tus, Iran in 721 CE during the rule of Umayyad Khalifa. His father Hayyan al Azdi was a pharmacist who supported the Abbasid revolt against the Umayyad. The Abbasid sent him to Tus, Iran to gather support for their cause. He was eventually caught by ruling Khalifa and was executed, so his family moved from Tus to Yemen, where Jabir grew up. He went back to Kufa, Iraq after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, where he lived and received his education. In Kufa he became the student of Imam Jafer al Sadiq. After completing his education he started his career as physician under the patronage of Vizier of Khalifa Harun al Rashid. His connection to the Vizier later on cost him dearly, when the Vizier fell from grace of the Khalifa. In 803 CE he was arrested and spent rest of his life under house arrest, till he died in year 815 CE.

Jabir’s interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Jafar al-Sadiq. He was a deeply religious man, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah and becoming a literal instrument of Allah on earth, since the manipulation of reality is possible only for Allah. In the Book of Stones he prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error alone in the desert before one can even consider alchemical experimentations.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is widely considered as the father of Chemistry, but he was also an astronomer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher and engineer. His works in the science of chemistry are as important as those of eighteenth century scientists like Priestly and Lavoisier. He is credited for the discovery of nineteen different substances which we call element in modern chemistry. He was the first person to introduce the experimental method in chemistry. Jabir perfected the use of various chemical processes used in the modern chemistry laboratory, such as distillation, crystallization and sublimation etc. Using some of those methods he produced concentrated acetic acid from vinegar. He synthesized hydrochloric acid by heating salt and sulfuric acid and nitric acid by heating saltpeter with sulfuric acid. By mixing hydrochloric acid with nitric acid he invented a supper acid called aqua regia which could dissolve even gold. He also isolated citric acid from lemon and tartaric acid from the residue left after wine making. The discoveries of these acids especially aqua regia helped the chemists to extract and purify gold and other metals for the next thousand years. This can be considered as a land- mark achievement in the field of chemistry more than thousand year ago.

Jabir divided the substance into three categories; first group he called Spirits substance which vaporize on heating, like sulfur, ammonium chloride, camphor and arsenic etc, second group he called Metals like copper, silver, gold, iron and lead etc the third group he called Non-malleable like rocks, charcoal . The categorizations of substance finally lead to divide the elements into the modern classification of elements into metals and non-metals.

According to “The Cultural Atlas of Islam” by Ismail al-Faruqi Jabir invented a kind of paper that resisted fire, and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to an iron surface, inhabited rust and when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent. He applied his knowledge of chemistry to improve the manufacturing processes of steel and other metals. Several instruments which he designed a thousand years ago are still being used in modern chemical laboratory such as retort, pipette and test tube. Jabir bin Hayyan defined chemical combination as union of the elements together in small particles too small for the naked eyes to see without loss of their characteristics. This idea was not very far from idea of John Dalton (d 1844) about the atoms, the English chemist and physicist who discovered it ten centuries later.

Jabir’s works seem to have been deliberately written in highly esoteric code so that only those who had been initiated into his alchemical school could understand them. It is therefore difficult at best for the modern reader to discern which aspects of Jabir’s work are to be read as symbols and what is to be taken literally. Because of his writing, which sometime became incomprehensible, the term gibberish is believed to have evolved in Europe.

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. Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy and other sciences too numerous to mention here.

The writings of Jabir Ibn Hayyan can be divided into several categories. The 112 books dedicated to vizier of Khalifa Harun al-Rashid include the Arabic version of the Emerald Tablet, an ancient work that is the foundation of the “spiritual” alchemy. In the middle Ages it was translated into Latin and widely used among European alchemists. The seventy books, most of which were translated into Latin during the Middle Ages includes the Kitab al-Zuhra (“Book of Venus”) and the Kitab al-Ahjar (“Book of Stones”). Ten books deals on rectification, containing descriptions of “alchemists” such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The books on balance describes his famous theory of the balance in nature. One of his books Chemical Composition remained the authoritative textbook in the European universities until the eighteenth century. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali has become part of scientific vocabulary.

This man was one of the greatest geniuses ever born, but we Muslims totally ignored him. On the other hand the Europeans translated his work into their languages and five hundred books and essays can be found in the national libraries of France, Germany and UK. There is no doubt that his writing and inventions strongly stimulated the development of modern chemistry in Europe. I completed my Master in Chemistry in India but knew nothing about Jabir, the father of chemistry.

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