Geber, aka Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan,
was a prominent Islamic alchemist, pharmacist, philosopher,
astronomer, and physicist. He has also been referred to as "the
father of Arab chemistry" by Europeans. His ethnic background is
not clear; although most sources state he was an Arab, some
describe him as Persian.
Jabir was born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iran, which was at the time
ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate; the date of his birth is disputed,
but most sources give 721 or 722. He was the son of Hayyan al-Azdi,
a pharmacist of the Arabian Azd tribe who emigrated from Yemen to
Kufa (in present-day Iraq) during the Umayyad Caliphate.
Hayyan had supported the revolting Abbasids against the Umayyads,
and was sent by them to the province of Khorasan (in present Iran)
to gather support for their cause. He was eventually caught by the
Ummayads and executed. His family fled back to Yemen, where Jabir
grew up and studied the Koran, mathematics and other subjects
under a scholar named Harbi al-Himyari.
After the Abbasids took power, Jabir went back to Kufa, where he
spent most of his career. Jabir's father's profession may have
contributed greatly to his interest to chemistry.
In Kufa he became a student of the celebrated Islamic teacher and
sixth Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. It is said that he also studied with
the Umayyad prince Khalid Ibn Yazid. He began his career
practising medicine, under the patronage of the Barmakid Vizir of
Caliph Haroun al-Rashid.
It is known that in 776 he was engaged in alchemy in Kufa.His
connections to the Barmakid cost him dearly in the end. When that
family fell from grace in 803, Jabir was placed under house arrest
in Kufa, where he remained until his death.
The date of his death is given as c.815 by the Encyclopedia
Britannica, but as 808 by other sources.
Contributions to chemistry:
Jabir is mostly known for his contributions to chemistry. He
emphasized systematic experimentation, and did much to free
alchemy from superstition and turn it into a science. He is
credited with the invention of many types of now-basic chemical
laboratory equipment, and with the discovery and description of
many now-commonplace chemical substances and processes - such as
the hydrochloric and nitric acids, distillation, and
crystallization that have become the foundation of today's
chemistry and chemical engineering.
He also paved the way for most of the later Islamic alchemists,
including al-Razi, al-Tughrai and al-Iraqi, who lived in the 9th,
12th and 13th centuries respectively. His books strongly
influenced the medieval European alchemists and justified their
search for the philosopher's stone. In spite of his leanings
toward mysticism (he was considered a Sufi) and superstition, he
more clearly recognized and proclaimed the importance of
"The first essential in chemistry", he declared, "is that you
should perform practical work and conduct experiments, for he who
performs not practical work nor makes experiments will never
attain the least degree of mastery."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). By combining the two, he invented aqua regia, one of
the few substances that can dissolve gold. 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 (the sour component of lemons and other unripe fruits),
acetic acid (from vinegar), and tartaric acid (from wine-making
Jabir applied his chemical knowledge to the improvement of many
manufacturing processes, such as making steel and other metals,
preventing rust, engraving gold, dyeing and waterproofing cloth,
tanning leather, 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 today. He noted that boiling wine
released a flammable vapor, thus paving the way to Al-Razi's
discovery of ethanol.
The seeds of the modern classification of elements into metals and
non-metals could be seen in his chemical nomenclature. He proposed
three categories: "spirits" which vaporized on heating, like
camphor, arsenic, and ammonium chloride; "metals", like gold,
silver, lead, copper, and iron; and "stones" that can be converted
into powders. In the Middle Ages, Jabir's treatises on chemistry
were translated into Latin and became standard texts for European
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). Marcelin
Berthelot translated some of his books under the fanciful titles
Book of the Kingdom, Book of the Balances, and Book of Eastern
Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have
found their way into various European languages and have become
part of scientific vocabulary.
Contributions to alchemy:
Jabir became an alchemist at the court of Caliph Harun al-Rashid,
for whom he wrote the Kitab al-Zuhra ("The Book of Venus", on "the
noble art of alchemy").
Jabir's alchemical investigations revolved around the ultimate
goal of takwin - the artificial creation of life. Alchemy had a
long relationship with Shi'ite mysticism; according to the first
Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, "alchemy is the sister of prophecy".
Jabir's interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher
Ja'far al-Sadiq, and he was himself called "the Sufi", indicating
that he followed the ascetic form of mysticism within Islam. In
his writings, Jabir pays tribute to Egyptian and Greek alchemists
Hermes Trismegistus, Agathodaimon, Pythagoras, and Socrates.
He emphasises the long history of alchemy, "whose origin is Arius
... the first man who applied the first experiment on the
[philosopher's] stone... and he declares that man possesses the
ability to imitate the workings of Nature" (Nasr, Seyyed Hossein,
Science and Civilization of Islam).
Jabir states in his Book of Stones (4:12) that "The purpose is to
baffle and lead into error everyone except those whom God loves
and provides for". His 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 those
symbols mean), and what is to be taken literally. Because his
works rarely made overt sense, the term gibberish is believed to
have originally referred to his writings (Hauck, p. 19).
Jabir's alchemical investigations were theoretically grounded in
an elaborate numerology related to Pythagorean and Neoplatonic
systems. The nature and properties of elements was defined through
numeric values assigned the Arabic consonants present in their
name, ultimately culminating in the number 17.
To Aristotelian physics, Jabir added the four properties of
hotness, coldness, dryness, and moistness (Burkhardt, p. 29). Each
Aristotelian element was characterised by these qualities: Fire
was both hot and dry, earth cold and dry, water cold and moist,
and air hot and moist. This came from the elementary qualities
which are theoretical in nature plus substance. 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 theorised, by rearranging the qualities of one metal,
based on their sulfur/mercury content, a different metal would
result. (Burckhardt, p. 29) 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.
Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy,
and other sciences. Only a few of his books have been edited and
published, and fewer still are available in translation. The Geber
crater, located on the Moon, is named after him.
Writings by Jabir:
The writings of Jabir Ibn Hayyan can be divided into four
1. The 112 Books dedicated to the Barmakids, viziers of Caliph
Harun al-Rashid. This group includes the Arabic version of the
Emerald Tablet, an ancient work that is the foundation of the
Hermetic or "spiritual" alchemy. In the Middle Ages it was
translated into Latin (Tabula Smaragdina) and widely diffused
among European alchemists.
2. The Seventy Books, most of which were translated into Latin
during the Middle Ages. This group includes the Kitab al-Zuhra
("Book of Venus") and the Kitab Al-Ahjar ("Book of Stones").
3. The Ten Books on Rectification, containing descriptions of
"alchemists" such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
4. The Books on Balance; this group includes his most famous
'Theory of the balance in Nature'.Some scholars suspect that some
of these works were not written by Jabir himself, but are instead
commentaries and additions by his followers. In any case, they all
can be considered works of the 'Jabir' school of alchemy.
Hamza Sheth is a
co-researcher at post graduation level. Department of
Pharmacology, Luqman college of Pharmacy, Gulbarga. Karnataka
He blogs at